On paper, and by current horror-movie standards, Aftershock, now on DVD and Blu-ray, does a lot of things right. It gives plenty of screentime to its characters while holding back its horrors, and when those horrors come, it doesn’t pull punches. The movie even has a novel horror-movie hook: the inciting moment comes not from mutated hillbillies spying a broken-down car or a hapless family moving into a haunted house, but a natural disaster: an earthquake strikes Chile, stranding an American tourist and his new friends. Recasting a disaster scenario as horror makes a lot of sense; disaster movies often wrap horrific carnage into bloodless All-American packages, where stories involving mass death refocus on a noble everyman hero.
On screen, though, Aftershock does not follow any kind of blueprint for success; beyond its good ideas, it barely seems planned out at all. A good horror movie will build its characters before the bad stuff happens. Aftershock spends time with them, which turns out not to be the same thing. The American tourist is played by horror director Eli Roth, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Guillermo Amoedo and director Nicolas Lopez, and the set-up feels like a less hostile variation on Roth’s Hostel; Roth’s American is more clueless than ugly, striking out with girls while his buddy Ariel (Ariel Levy) moons over an ex and Ariel’s buddy Pollo (Nicolás Martínez) flaunts his father’s wealth.
The boys meet up with a trio of loosely affiliated girls; they see the sights by day, hit the clubs by night, and generally dither around while failing to become more interesting. Lopez shoots all of this with what has become the standard in low-budget digital sheen, which assumes that if the colors are bright and high-def enough, the cinematography won’t look like a prosumer-made music video – an imitation, in other words, of what a slickly shot movie looks like.
But maybe Aftershock‘s cheapness would be better disguised if the character-driven section of the movie wasn’t a mélange of clunky reaction shots, bad acting, and stilted dialogue; even the shortcut montages used to bond the characters look posed. When the horror kicks in around the 40-minute mark, just shy of halfway through the movie, it takes the form of “surprise” gorings, dismemberments, and full-on kills. A little of it—very little—has grindhouse-y splatter charm, but most of the violence feels cheap.
Aftershock wrings a little horror juice from this situation: the earthquake has toppled a prison, and the streets fill with looters. Don’t look beyond the premise, though, for any sort of sociological twists. The streets of Aftershock‘s Chile fill and empty at random, and after a certain point, the frenzy stops making much sense; it only takes about seven minutes for the streets to turn evil and desolate. The threat mutates from a natural disaster and its ability to bring out the worst in humanity to roaming gangs who immediately and inexplicably begin stalking our heroes. Even the man-made violence takes its inspiration from the earthquake, which the filmmakers use an excuse to make all of the carnage as fluky and disconnected as possible – an unending series of gory dei ex machina, like The Impossible gone blood simple.
The movie destroys its characters so relentlessly that its 89 minutes start to stretch out from sheer pointlessness. The movie grows uglier—it could be accurately retitled Wounds & Rapes—but not really scary. Roth and Lopez seem convinced that this vision means something: On the Blu-ray’s commentary track, Roth invokes Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, movies that have more subtext and perspective than the “world with no rules” the filmmakers apparently though they were daring to present. Over the credits, the movie displays photos of the characters in happier times, as if they’ve been developed as human beings and not just gore fodder.
I’d like to think that Roth knows better than this. His own movies as a writer-director, the two Hostel pictures and Cabin Fever, have extreme gore and a nasty sense of humor, but also a twisted humanity. Aftershock, though, manages to squander humanity that should be built-in—its real-world origins (it’s based on the actual 2010 earthquake in Chile and the ensuing chaos) actually make it more tasteless than a run-of-the-mill slasher movie. It’s very possible stuff as horrible as the events of this movie went down in Chile in 2010, but I’m not sure Roth and Lopez are doing those horrors a service by reimagining them as an inept, junky exploitation movie.
Because the movie isn’t scary, its lack of purpose casts a pall over everything. One of the disc’s only features, “Shaking Up the Casting Process”, is a quick demo of a prank apparently played on real auditioners: when they enter a changing room, the filmmakers simulate an earthquake that sends the would-be actors running or huddling in a panic (and often in their underwear). It’s sort of amusing, but like the movie, there’s an unpleasant undercurrent: pointless sadism without a payoff.