Tuesday, September 12, 2006


(Midnight Madness)
(Spain, 2006, 96 m)
Written by: Karim Hussain, Richard Stanley, Nacho Cerda
Directed by: Nacho Cerda
Cast: Anastasia Hille, Karl Roden

Filmax’s Barcelona-based operations consistently offer the most ambitious and varied fantasy-themed productions produced today, from its Fantastic Factory Project offshoot, which has given us Brian Yuzna’s loopy franchise entries (“Beyond Re-Animator”, “The Dentist” series), Stuart Gordon’s long-waited Lovecraft adaptation “Dagon”, Brad Anderson’s pallid character study “The Machinist”, to Jaume Balagueró's very fine Ramsey Campbell adaptation “The Nameless” (their chance at mainstream success, the upcoming co-production “Perfume” directed by Tom Twyker, is due by year’s end). Now, they’ve backed award-winning filmmaker Nacho Cerda’s much-anticipated debut feature, and for fans of his “Awakening”, "Aftermath" and "Genesis" (the “death trilogy”), the result might surprise.

The film opens in the mid-60s. An ominous truck, its passengers unseen, thunders out-of-control near a small Russian village, until it smashes into a post. Locals come to the rescue and find a woman and two crying infants inside. She’s dead—from an apparent stabbing, but the children are alive.

Present day: on the eve of her 40th birthday, American film producer Marie (Hille from the intriguing UK thriller “The Hole”) returns to her Russian homeland where her mother has died of strange circumstances. She’s inherited the dilapidated family farm—that of her natural parents, whom she never knew, having been adopted and brought to the U.S. as a baby. The locals on the sparsely-populated countryside have deemed the remote property “damned”, but that doesn’t deter her from trying to learn something of her heritage. Her spooked driver leaves her behind, so she has no choice but to explore the rotting confines of her inheritance. Set within what Shirley Jackson would call “the unhappy coincidence of line and place”, the farmhouse is definitely a conduit for something angry and unresolved.

Alone and tormented by her impending middle-age and her strained relationship with her daughter, Marie endures escalating sonic assaults and unseen presences that could be real or simply imagined, until she encounters her own spectral doppelganger, damp and blank-eyed. Upon trying to flee, she encounters another strange visitor: Nicolai (Roden of “Hellboy” and “15 Minutes”), who claims to be her twin brother, summoned to the house under similar pretenses. Soon, his phantom twin materializes, too, blood-soaked and blind. “We are haunted by ourselves”, Nicolai has determined—but how? And after 40 years--why?

Cowritten with Montreal "Fantasia" cofounder Karim Hussain and the talented—and woefully underemployed-- filmmaker Richard Stanley ("Hardware", "Dust Devil"), "The Abandoned" takes its key cues from Herk Harvey's "Carnival Of Souls" and Lucio Fulci's "The Beyond" but to dismiss it as just another homage does a great disservice to the considerable skill of its director, who displays a mastery of his tools that betrays his lean filmography (not to mention commitment: he nursed his debut through eight years of development).

Not that he and his collaborators aren’t well-versed in horror traditions, nor above pushing the Percepto button from time to time (Cerda’s favorite film is “Jaws”): Marie’s journey through the Russian countryside (actually, Bulgaria) and her encounters with superstitious locals is reminiscent of Jonathon Harker’s trip to Castle Dracula in any number of adaptations, the farmhouse owes its creaking nooks and crannies to those famous houses “Hill” and “Hell”, and the ghoulish ciphers seem to have shambled right off the set of any of Fulci’s 80s shockers.

Fun stuff to be sure, but thankfully Cerda is more interested in using the longer form to craft a sensory assault of ratcheting intensity, as opposed to the Syd Field model with its safety net of trailer moments. Not that this is a twee exercise in showy art-house noodling: “The Abandoned” features one of the most punishing sound designs outside of David Lynch’s “Eraserhead”—imagine Maya Deren’s “Meshes Of The Afternoon” turned up to “11” and you may be reaching for the earplugs if you can pull your fingertips from the armrest (when it eventually hits DVD, this one will be my ultimate Dolby 5.1 demo disk, neighbours be damned!). So even if you can’t relate to the characters, Cerda makes damn sure you feel their pain.

Teamed with his longtime DOP Xavi Gimenez (who’s also shot the features “Intacto” and “Darkness”), Cerda once again demonstrates that he’s the cinema’s Francis Bacon: few others could capture these rotting walls, jaundiced landscapes, sallow complexions, and liquefied flesh with such perverse beauty.

With enigmatic leads caught up in an enigmatic supernatural puzzle while exploring their enigmatic family history, the film will be a tough slog for the impatient, and for all of its handsome imagery and auditory invention, “The Abandoned”s most outstanding virtue is its lead: Hille’s performance as Marie is uniquely raw and unglamorous for any genre—definitely not your average horror heroine, neither a go-girl Ripley nor a naïve ingénue. Haunted by her own perceived failure as a mother, Marie’s empty past has affected her ability to forge an identity for herself or her daughter, with whom she has an estranged relationship--she’s as much a vaporous figure in her own world as her mysterious double. She anchors this often unnerving spook show in a rare adult sensibility and helps it to reach a coda that’s oddly poignant, even if you see the twist coming that’s as inevitable as death itself.

Robert J. Lewis
TIFF 2006