“Whatever happens to them happens to us ... welcome to the family.”
I've already hailed classic modern horror as being the prize held in the treasure galleons of the Spanish Main, with Guillermo Del Toro riding high as its Captain, The Orphanage's J. A. Bayona strutting the decks with cavalier style and new-blood enthusiasm, the likes of the grisly zombie-cam offering [Rec.] and Escalofrio (Shiver) surging ahead as men-of-war and now, bringing in the big guns, comes Nacho Cerda and his Russian-set, UK-backed shocker The Abandoned. Infamous for his deeply unsettling short horror film, Aftermath - and strangely once suspected of having filmed the notorious Alien Autopsy footage (!) - Cerda is yet another southern European with a taste for the ghostly, a penchant for traumatic, hidden pasts and a sheer unearthly talent for crafting a bone-chilling atmosphere, a sense of pure dread and a slow-seeping and all-pervasive mood of the harrowing and the inescapable. Whilst Hollywood seems unable to accomplish anything within the horror genre these days that isn't regurgitated and bowdlerised from infinitely better films pilfered from other shores, Spain just seems to go from strength to strength. Now, I would hesitate to place the English-speaking The Abandoned in the anywhere near the same league as The Orphanage, The Others (from another Spaniard, the now strangely quiet Alejandro Amenabar) or any of Del Toro's fear-laced fantasies, but this is still a furiously delectable slice of the creepy and the otherworldly. Cerda wears his influences proudly on his sleeve - which include any number of haunted-dwelling-type sagas - but there is a continually stabbing sense of his own personal style in the manner with which he stages and drives his offering, and an almost Italian glee in his willingness to exhibit sadism.
With a screenplay that Cerda co-wrote with Richard (Hardware/Dust Devil) Stanley based upon Karim Hussain's original story “The Bleeding Compass”, The Abandoned centres directly upon two veritable strangers who have wound up deep in the heart of the Russian wilderness in the dilapidated rural mansion that transpires to have been their birthplace. Having lived in America for most of her life, Marie Jones (Anastasia Hille) is seeking closure on the past that she has no recollection of, a past that saw her, along with her twin brother, Nicolai, abandoned as mere babes after a barbaric atrocity claimed the life of their mother. Having trekked across the world to this densely wooded but virtually deserted island enclave against the time-honoured advice of those in the know, she finds herself confronted with the sibling that she never knew she had, who seems to be there for the very same reasons. The older Nicolai, played Karel Roden ( who looks and acts like a cross between Skellen Skaarsgaard and Robert Carlyle) and his long-lost sister then make a series of gruesome discoveries in the secretive shadows of the vast tumbledown, secrets that reveal clues to the tragic past that flung them both far apart. But the house, in equally time-honoured fashion, has been deeply troubled by the events that took place there over forty years before and, almost immediately upon her arrival, Marie is plagued by spectres and apparitions and then the pair is seemingly confronted by their own undead selves, both appearing in states of decay and exhibiting evidence of how they met their untimely deaths. Not quite the welcome home they had expected.
Events then swiftly snowball without rhyme or reason. Escape attempts are thwarted, the bridge that can take them to safety off the island is down (a la The Evil dead, which The Abandoned quite closely resembles in theme and visual shock tactics) and, in a marvellously executed, though all-too-obvious set-piece, even crossing the river in a boat somehow returns you right back where you started from. Taking its cue from Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone in that people cut off from reality are set adrift in a surreal dimension of remorseless, self-repeating nightmare, Cerda's film actually plays out like an extended episode from the cult fantasy show.
And that's no bad thing.
We see killings, witness harrowing echoes from the past and, like Marie and Nicolai, are left struggling to piece the mystery together before events seemingly turn full circle and history reaches out to reclaim those that it missed first time around. The setting of the remote mansion is simply wonderful. The location - actually rural Bulgaria - looks and feels alien. Somehow, when Ash runs through the woods in his Evil Dead misadventures, we know that we are on familiar turf. Town may be supernaturally unreachable, but it is just over the next hill. When the innocent folks in The Hills Have Eyes (the original or the remake) wander through the savage desert, we still know that this remains American soil, even if it is cold comfort when a cannibal clan are all that inhabit that same several hundred square miles of dust. Yet here in The Abandoned, the sense of physical dislocation is overtly captured simply because these woods, hills and lakes don't look so reassuring even if our protagonists do manage to make a break for it.
Although we've established that Spanish horror now unavoidably conjures up images of Del Toro's “personal” ghost stories and the exquisite El Orfanato (The Orphanage), The Abandoned strikes out into further flung territory and tone, despite its initial premise fittingly in almost perfectly with the other films' haunted past visitations. The movie successfully makes you think that anything could happen, even if the requisite “stingers” have all been done to death. And this is down to the elaborately illogical scenario that Marie and Nicolai find themselves in.
We are in a land of fractured reality, a limbo trapped between worlds. Think Nic Roeg's Don't Look Now and Alain Resnais' 1961 surrealist fantasy Last Year At Marienbad by way of Richard Matheson's many short stories and screenplays (especially A Stir Of Echoes) and you're in the right realm of existential justice and redemption. Time plays tricks and events blink in and out of the present with mischievous abandon, if you'll pardon the pun. Some of this works - like the broken window beginning to fix itself, or the upturned objects suddenly righting themselves, or the truck that Marie's guide brought her to the house in being revealed as a clapped-out old wreck lying junked and covered in rust and weeds. But other moments fall apart because too much attention is shone upon them, such as the initially intriguing instance when Nicolai falls through the floor and vanishes into the darkness below, and the hole then gone as if nothing had happened the very next time we look. Cerda fumbles this time-slipping element by having Nicolai returning with reams of quite unbelievable exposition and an ever-strengthening, until it becomes cloying, theme of the inescapable circle closing in. But this can also be put down to his being too ambitious to see the metaphorical wood for the trees, and too enthusiastic to throw in as many cinematic supernatural quotes as he can to distract us from what it is, ultimately, a rather transparent and simple plot. Sapphire And Steele, this is not. Thus, when he fudges things, I think it is forgivable in the context that, on the style he shows here and the demented mood he exudes, he can only get better and sharpen his narrative skills further. The Abandoned is a horror movie, first and foremost, and on the level of galvanising shocks, Cerdi certainly comes up with the goods. A vicious stabbing is craftily depicted in ghostly vapour, the doppelgangers have hideously boiled-egg-white eyes, a bullet fired into a ghost actually winds up in the body of the one who fired it in the first place - and we are subsequently treated to a gory scene of self-repair that No Country For Old Men's demonic hitman Chigurgh would be proud of. But, be warned, there are scenes of babies in severe jeopardy that will shock.
The acting is actually very good which, again, given the formula for haunted house movies, is something of a rare treat. Anastasia Hille's relentlessly miserable-looking Marie gives a lot of oomph to the role. Her anger, fear and confusion is credibly realised, as is her sudden resilience and aggression - favourite tactic being to smash those she deems as a threat hard in the face with a blunt object. I'm not so sure about her impromptu foul-mouthed outbursts, though - they just don't sound particularly convincing for her character, although this may just be me. Her grumpy cohort is just as well depicted by Roden though, as I mentioned earlier, he gets saddled with the thankless task of spelling out the plot developments as they occur, having first sussed them out with something virtually akin to telepathy! But he exudes a gruff, matter-of-fact sense of all-round weary embuggerance to his situation that is a sure-fire tonic to the usual quips and smart-ass attitude of the conventional jock-in-a-dilemma that the ten-a-penny Yankee variant would no doubt have supplied.
A good while before I had even seen the movie, I had heard Alfons Conde's nerve-jangling score and it had certainly fired me up for a tour de force of bone-jolting atmospherics and frightening intensity. Whilst the film does rely equally on sound effects to convey a pervading sense of menace, the unsettling music still supplies an electrifying frisson. Conde has also scored the forthcoming The Dark Hour with equally blood-freezing aplomb, so this is proving to be a fear-film composer of some standing. But even Xavi Giménez's cinematography works an eerie spell of its own. Tracking shots through the tall trees, sweeping glimpses of things in the dark, immaculately framed compositions of subjects moving through rooms and corridors whilst our own eyes can't help but rove about the walls and the gloom all around them and evocative wide shots of the forests and hills in the distance juxtaposed with cowering glides up towards the ramshackle old mansion all conspire to make The Abandoned visually rich and complex. Cerda knows that the house must become a physical and almost emotional character in its own right, but although his cameras capture its mood and nuance, the house still lingers just the wrong side of tangible. This is where his debut loses out to its estimable forebears of The Haunting, The Evil Dead, The Innocents and The Legend Of Hell House etc. When his screenplay becomes jumbled, we look to his cast for explanations when really, in this sub-genre, we should merely be bounced around within the uncanny atmosphere conjured up by the central location and the myriad phenomena that it hurls at us. Cerda shouldn't necessarily feel the need to explain everything to us so neatly given the wealth of literary and filmic foundation stones he has drawn upon.
Some people have problems with tales such as this because the narrative is often merely a series of moody set-pieces that can happily defy logic or convention. But this abstract merry-go-round of illogicality is entirely the point. These are nightmare movies that don't have to make complete sense, just like all those startling short stories by Matheson, or M. R. James or Ramsey Campbell - the premise and ending may well have been thought out well in advance and the middle sections seemingly hurtled into a protracted stretch of poignancy and mystery, but atmosphere and deeper emotional understanding are the keys to their success, not necessarily neatness and circle completion. So, if you like your horror films to have convenient resolutions, slow build-ups and precise plotting and characterisation then you would probably be best to avoid this.
As it stands, The Abandoned is a full-on dose of spine-tingling escapism that does have one or two images that will linger in your mind's eye and a helter-skelter vibe of dark depravity. Recommended for mind-bending paradox-lovers everywhere.
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