First published by EyeforFilm
When it comes to genre, film criticism tends to favour aberration. As often as not, the default response to genre cinema is either a withering sort of contempt, or else out-and-out disregard, while the genre films that usually receive approval are those that somehow ‘transcend’ their prescribed confines, either by forming unexpected mergers of different genres or by allowing a bit of genre-averse reality to intrude. By existing on the edge of genre, such films expose genre’s boundaries, and so end up having ‘meta-generic’ qualities: they are films not just of genre, but also about it.
In a sense, Nacho Cerdà’s The Abandoned (Los Abandonados) represents the very opposite of this type – for far from diverging in any way from the expectations of its genre, it conforms to them fully and unapologetically. It is the kind of film that reviewers love to hate, and its (generally) poor critical reception in the US is part of the reason that it has gone straight to DVD on these shores. Still, it is precisely the film’s generic purity that in fact makes it a rarity to be treasured. For while The Abandoned unmistakably adheres, without deviation or digression, to all the conventions of a haunted house movie, it presents these genre-bound tropes and clichés in such a highly refined form that it approaches something like the Platonic ideal of its genre.
Born in Russia in 1966 but adopted soon after and now living in America, single mother Marie Milla Jones (Anastasia Hille) is contacted by notary Andrei Misharin (Valentin Garev), who has, after much searching, identified her as the heir to her biological parents’ property. Drawn back to the motherland by a desire to find out more about herself and her history, Marie heads for the huge, isolated family farmhouse, in a deep forest surrounded on all sides by a river. Arriving at night, she discovers that she is not alone. Strange human sounds fill the house, a blind, zombie-like woman emerges from the darkness, and a man named Nicolai (Karel Roden) appears, claiming to be her long-lost twin brother. With the hour of her 42nd birthday approaching, and the full horror of her past making an irrational return, Marie finds herself in over her head and struggling to escape.
The Abandoned is a haunted house movie par excellence. Yes, there are secrets that will not remain buried. Yes, the provinces of the living and the dead become horribly confused. Yes, there is the disturbing encroachment of the past upon the present. Yes, there is a claustrophobic sense of inescapable entrapment. Yes, there are uncanny duplications (and twins, too). And, oh yes, things most certainly do bump, creak and squeal in the night. The Abandoned even contains more specific references to past films of its genre, not least among which is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), whose naked female beauties and time-confounding photos all find their way into the fabric of this film. Yet from such profoundly unoriginal ingredients, Cerdà and his crew have crafted the very apotheosis of a haunting.
Cerdà, already notorious amongst horror connoisseurs for his shocking shorts Aftermath (1994) and Genesis (1998), is a master manipulator of mood, and The Abandoned is pervaded from start to finish with eerie atmosphere and an ambience of desperate panic. Assisted by production designer Balter Gallart and sound designer Glenn Freemantle, Cerdà has conjured up a hermetic world, where every flake of wallpaper or grain of timber, every drip of water or groaning of trees, forms an essential part of the spooky whole, while never quite seeming worldly. Looking as though it might have been shot by Tarkovsky, this is horror elevated to the arthouse, and played with an unfashionable but welcome gravity. Here you will find none of the postmodern irony of Scream, none of the laughs of Black Sheep, none of the sentiment of The Orphanage – just a self-contained universe of bleak disorientation.
Amidst this superabundance of style, there is also substance. The plot is not only diabolically paradoxical, so that by the end the viewer feels as lost as Marie, but it is also tightly constructed, so that even those elements that at first seem gratuitous turn out to be integral. And while it may be ‘just’ a haunted house movie, nonetheless with its protagonist determined to learn her own identity, unable to elude her destiny, afflicted with blindness and forced to realise that sometimes it is “better not to know”, The Abandoned boasts a story as ancient, as compelling, and as human, as the myth of Oedipus.
“It’s all gonna happen again, just like before,” Marie says. So even if, while watching The Abandoned, you cannot shake the suspicion of having seen it all before, that is part of the point. The past, far from being an unknown, forgotten country, is always with us, in an eternal return. Here genre is defined precisely by the history of what it has been – but amidst all these re-echoing shadows of recycled genre motifs, Cerdà brings an artful visual and auditory intensity that, in a genre known for often being clunky, contrived and cheesy, really is something new. All haunted house movies feature labyrinthine corridors and darkened rooms, but few achieve the tangible depth and texture of The Abandoned. After so many inferior generic excursions and aberrations, Cerdà’s film feels like a homecoming.
© Anton Bitel