I see Doppelgangers!
Andrei Tarkovsky does Mario Bava in the feature film debut of notorious short film maestro Nacho Cerda. Cerda made his name with two controversial short films, Aftermath and Genesis. Aftermath in particular, garnered attention due to it’s shocking content. It depicts in great detail the work of a coroner who spends virtually the entire 30-minute running time performing a very realistic autopsy and acts of necrophilia on the corpse of a young woman. Both films demonstrated a strong sense of visual craftsmanship, but did not necessarily display any skill or even interest in classical narrative. The Abandoned is clearly the work of a master visualist trying to walk the line between narrative and visual spectacle. The story is there, but it just sits on the side of the visual experience, which is amazing.
The film tells the seemingly simple story of an American film producer, Marie (Anastasia Hille), who returns to Russia to find out about her long lost parents. All she learns is that they are dead and that she has inherited a strange house on an island surrounded by water. She is driven out there at night by a mysterious and sinister driver, and left at the house alone.
Roaming about, she comes into almost immediate contact with the creepy, soaking wet ghost of a woman who looks much like herself, and moves oh-so-slowly with dead, white eyes. Marie is saved by Nicolai (Karel Roden), who claims to be her twin brother. The film settles into a classic horror film structure as they learn more about each other while dodging their zombie doppelgangers. But it’s less Night of the Living Dead than a kind of X-files-like mystery as they encounter all kinds of anomalies in the spaces around them. Neither of them can get off the island, and we slowly get the sense that they are in some kind of Solaris type of environment, where sentient beings control all that is seen and heard.
The events unfold in a mind bending manner that seems to fuse more complex, enigmatic ideas with a pulp adventure from Star Trek. In the end, we learn that everything is tied to the twins’ birthday and as it nears, Cerda achieves some of the most exciting scenes in contemporary fantastique, as the old house begins to return to its former self, throwing the protagonists about the room as the walls uncrack, tables are recovered and places set, paintings and photos go up, and shredded wallpaper comes together.
The Abandoned was easily the best of After Dark Films’ “Horrorfest” last year. This eight-film package was more or less a marketing scheme to build an audience for a group of films that were abandoned themselves and headed straight for the direct-to-DVD orphanage. Individually, the films were pretty disappointing, with the exception of The Abandoned and Takashi Shimizu’s Reincarnation. These were the two foreign imports, with The Abandoned having quite a complex foreign background itself, being a Spanish production shot in Bulgaria but set in Russia and produced in English.
It’s also hard to describe in words of any language and really needs to be seen, which is about the biggest compliment one could give to a filmmaker. Indeed, it’s a film that sounds like a bad Twilight Zone episode when described and this is a liability of a filmmaker devoted to more pure cinematics. Much of the movie can be boiled down to a real time tour of a dark and creepy old house which Cerda exploits for every shadow and creaking door. There are long stretches where Marie and Nicolai are seen merely exploring a series of rooms while the story and characters are left behind. This is both good and bad.
Cerda depends on the rather trite, old fashioned narrative to do the heavy lifting while he focuses on elaborating something more metaphysical between the lines. This is something that Tarkovsky was brilliant at, using the science fiction narrative of Solaris, for example, to convey not just narrative mystery but an existential one that could never really be answered. Cerda also wants us to look beyond the confines of his film’s penny dreadful plotting to some greater mystery of identity and existence. But since ghost stories require a certain level of clarity in order to work, Cerda shoots himself in the foot trying to create ambiguity to challenge the story’s triteness. Instead of a great cerebral work like 2001, Cerda manages to just confuse and complicate what might as well be a remake of Carnival of Souls. At the end of the film, we do not feel the pleasure of an enigmatic story but the suspicion that what we just watched was a visual spectacle which was much less than meets the eye.
This is a shame since the film is so very ambitious. Cerda deserves credit for creating an unusual cinematic experience and getting such strong performances from his leads, Anastasia Hille and Karel Roden. Both actors are convincing in roles that barely exist on paper.
The DVD is the last of the “8 Films to Die For” series to be released. Like the others, it’s slim in the extras department. There are theatrical trailers for the other seven films to die for and a short “Behind the Scenes” featurette that runs about five minutes and is nothing more than the standard promotional piece studios produce all the time. Nacho Cerda is an interesting and very promising filmmaker so it would’ve been nice to have included a full length interview with him, as well. At the very least they could’ve presented his two hard to find short films as extras on the disc.
The Abandoned has everything you would want from a spooky ghost story except the ghost story itself. Cerda comes very close to creating an abstract horror masterpiece, but the narrative is just too specific to allow for the broad strokes he wants to use to tell it. It’s hard to convey existential mystery when you have to maneuver through flesh-eating pigs, long lost twins, infanticide, gothic secrets, and notions of time displacement. There’s simply too much to swallow. Nevertheless, this is still one of the best horror films in some time; not sacrificing itself to irony or parody but committed to the dark corners of human nature and the complex labyrinths that exist in the mind.