Tag Archives: supernatural

The Untamed

The Untamed

Seen at L’Étrange Festival, Paris (France)

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Distributor: Arrow Academy

Release date: 22 May 2017

Director: Amat Escalante

Writers: Amat Escalante, Gibrán Portela

Cast: Kenny Johnston, Simone Bucio

Original title: La región salvaje

Mexico, Denmark, France 2016

100 mins

Amat Escalante’s SF exploration of Mexican society’s attitudes to sexuality is compelling despite its overuse of the supernatural.

Two Mexican films shown this year at the Etrange Festival – The Darkness and The Untamed – happen to focus on a small house in a forest clearing where strange things happen. But this is as far as the comparison extends. Awarded the Silver Lion for Best Director at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Amat Escalante’s The Untamed borrows its premise from Pasolini’s Theorem: a family is disrupted by the arrival of a very attractive stranger who seduces all of its members and turns theirs lives upside down. Where Pasolini was lashing out at the Italian bourgeoisie of the 1960s, Escalante similarly confronts a contemporary Mexican society still hopelessly bogged down in machismo, misogyny and homophobia.

The opening sequence, which contrasts two visions of female sexuality, gives a good insight into what Escalante is driving at. After a shot of a meteorite in outer space, the camera zooms on a naked Veronica (Simone Bucio) slowly reaching a climax in a dark room, eventually revealing a glimpse of the receding long tentacle that has just given her pleasure. She then leaves the wood cabin wounded and bleeding. In the next scene we witness a couple – Angel (Jesús Meza) and Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) – waking up in a sunlit bedroom. Without any preliminaries or even a kiss, Angel takes Ale from behind while the camera zooms in on her face, still and expressionless on the pillow as she waits for him to come. She then wipes herself, gets up and masturbates under the shower until she is interrupted by their kids… After meeting Ale’s gay brother Fabian (Eden Villavicencio), who works as a nurse in the local hospital, Veronica intrudes into the lives of those three characters, changing them for ever.

She is the visitor here, and Escalante plays on the name given to Terence Stamp’s character in Theorem, as the Visitor in this story is also an alien creature from outer space. The director justifies his recourse to the supernatural by the fact that reality has already gone beyond fiction, but by including a long explicit sex scene between Ale and the alien (and why not one of the men?) – which was greeted by laughter among the audience of the L’Étrange Festival – he undermines more than he enhances the film’s social criticism. In Possession (1981), Andrzej Żuławski (whose influence is acknowledged in the final credits) explicitly opted for the realm of madness, altogether forsaking realism. But Escalante wants to have it both ways and fails to solve the conflict between the genres. Showing the demon in Possession made sense in order to blur the boundaries between fantasy and reality. But since Escalante’s alien is established as real from the outset, it is hard to see the point of a sex scene that, far from producing the disturbing effect it had in Żuławski, seems to be revisiting Hideki Takayama’s manga and animés with an Overfiend redesigned by H. R. Giger. Escalante would have been better advised to follow the example of his Mexican compatriot Daniel Castro Zimbrén in The Darkness and retain more mystery, so that the otherworldly presence might serve more efficiently as a metaphor for the Mexican social atavisms he has been so brilliantly exposing in his films since his 2005 feature debut Sangre. The Untamed tones down the violence that shocked in Heli (2013) or Los Bastardos (2008) in favour of a more diffuse atmosphere of sadness and despair that still succeeds to convey Escalante’s powerful social message – despite, rather than thanks to, the alien’s presence.

Pierre Kapitaniak

The untamed screens at the London Film Festival on 8, 10, 16 October 2016.



Format: Cinema

Seen at TIFF 2015

Director: Marcin Wrona

Writers: Marcin Wrona, Pawel Maslona

Cast: Itay Tiran, Agnieszka Żulewska

Poland, Israel 2015

94 mins

Polish filmmaker Marcin Wrona delivers one of the scariest, most sickeningly creepy horror films of the year.

**** out of *****

The dybbuk has always been one of the most bloodcurdling supernatural creatures, yet its presence in contemporary horror films has, for the most part, been surprisingly absent. Rooted in Jewish mythology, it is the spirit of someone who has suffered a great indignity just before death and seeks to adhere itself to the soul of a living person in order to end its own purgatorial suffering. Alas, it causes as much nerve-shredding pain to the spirit as it does to the body of the one who is possessed. Invading the physical vessel in which a fully formed spirit already resides is no easy task and can result in a battle of wills, which not only implodes within, but tends to explode into the material world with a vengeance.

Demon successfully and chillingly brings this nasty, unholy terror to the silver screen, where it belongs. The late Polish filmmaker Marcin Wrona (who died suddenly and mysteriously at age 42, just one week after the film’s world premiere at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival) hooks us immediately and reels us in with an almost sadistically gleeful use of cinema’s power to assail us with suspense of the highest order.

On the eve of his wedding to the beautiful Zaneta (Agnieszka Żulewska), the handsome young groom Peter (Itay Tiran) discovers the remains of a long-dead corpse in an open grave on the grounds of his father-in-law’s sprawling country estate. He becomes obsessed with this ghoulish treasure lying within the unconsecrated earth of a property bestowed upon the couple as a wedding gift. Not only will the nuptials be performed and celebrated here, but the happy twosome have been blessed with this gorgeous old house and lands as their future home.

Much of the film’s stylishly creepy events take place over the course of the wedding day. Wrona juggles a sardonic perspective with outright shuddersome horror during the mounting drunken celebrations at this extremely traditional Polish wedding. As the band plays, the guests dance between healthy guzzles of vodka, whilst the dybbuk clings to the poor groom, his body and soul wracked with pain. When Peter begins to convulse violently, the lone Jewish guest at the Roman Catholic wedding, an elderly academic, is the one person who correctly identifies the problem.

Wrona’s camera dips, twirls and swirls with abandon as the celebratory affair becomes increasingly fraught with a strange desperation. Are the guests merely addled with booze, or is the estate a huge graveyard of Jews murdered during the Holocaust? Is it possible that an army of dybbuks is seeking an end to their lonely, painful purgatory?

Demon raises many questions, but supplies no easy answers. What it delivers, however, is one of the scariest, most sickeningly creepy horror films of the year. If anything, the dybbuk has finally found a home in the movies, and we’re the beneficiaries of Wrona’s natural gifts as a filmmaker, as well as the largesse of this ancient supernatural entity, which so happily enters our own collective consciousness as we experience its nail-biting havoc over a not-so-holy matrimonial union.

Greg Klymkiw

Watch the trailer:

Dead of Night (1945)

Dead of Night 1945
Dead of Night (1945)

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 24 February 2014

Distributor: Studiocanal

Directors: Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer

Writers: John Baines, Angus MacPhail, T.E.B. Clarke

Based on stories by: H.G. Wells, E.F. Benson, John Baines, Angus MacPhail

Cast: Mervyn Johns, Michael Redgrave, Roland Culver

UK 1945

103 mins

The history of horror has often been written up by people who don’t have a sense of humour. In some ways the commentary on this special edition DVD and Blu-ray release of Dead of Night (1945) strives to remedy this fact, but also falls into the same earnest, po-faced reverence. The inclusion of John Landis’s talking head notwithstanding, a familiar coterie of limey Brit pundits do tend to harp on about the film as though it’s the second coming, even though it has been canonised as a cult home-grown classic for well over a decade now, and even makes it to number 11 on Scorsese’s top 10 list of horror favourites.

Long before Ealing created their 1950s comedie humaine, studio top cheese Michael Balcon had intended to diversify the studio’s genre output. Though there are laughs here, some intentional, others not, what’s really horrific and terrifying is the British stiff upper lip, a patriotic condition suspicious of the occult and in denial of subtext and ambiguity – the mind is merely a puzzle that can be satisfactorily decoded. Mervyn Johns plays the slaphead everyman, an architect invited down to an isolated cottage, a pilgrim’s farmhouse in Kent, for the weekend with assembled guests to swap stories about their brushes with death. There’s even a Viennese psychologist at hand, to accommodate the then new and voguish fad for The Interpretation of Dreams, a little bit Freud, a little bit Jung… ‘Mother what did you do with that bottle of schnapps we got for Dr Van Stratten?’ This bridging device umbrellas a quintet of ghost stories – a child death, a haunted mirror, a grim reaper bus conductor – which, while now familiar and even clichéd, originated here.

Ealing Studios had apparently rejected the hierarchical structure of the cottage British Film Industry – over several pints in the Red Lion pub, leftist ideologies favoured a more communal and socialist environment, though the notion of the Auteur was far too suspect and continental. Ironically, Cavalcanti’s name looms largest, as the helmer of two of the five episodes – the English eccentricities have always been more acutely observed by European refugees. The most imitated story is the final one, with Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist possessed by his demonic dummy, prone to misanthropic Tourrete-style public outbursts, slowly taking control of his master’s voice, a device that recurs in everything from The Twilight Zone to Bride of Chucky.

Stanley Pavey’s lighting is noir-ish, and visual consistency is provided by cameraman Douglas Slocombe. Overall, it’s a cyclical narrative that ends where it begins, and the dreams-within-a-dream portmanteau suggests that it’s all the imagination of our hapless protagonist, an architect of his own mind. The scariest element of the film might be that there’s no mention of the war, though the claustrophobia of the English countryside is fully realised. In his intro to the golfing story, the comedic stop gap, Roland Culver observes ‘…Jolly unpleasant when you come slap up against the supernatural’. For the bulk of the stories, the emotional levelness of the national character unsettles the most – ‘Do you take milk and sugar’ rarely sounded so unnerving, as if a quick snifter or ‘one for the road’ can keep the silly, wretched ghosts in their place.

Robert Chilcott