I saw your death a couple of days ago.
—Nicolai (Karel Roden)
“We are haunting ourselves.” This assessment—by a very harried looking Nicolai (Karel Roden)—seems as indisputable as it is bizarre. By the time he says it, nearly an hour into The Abandoned, the point seems obvious: he and his long-lost twin sister Marie (Anastasia Hille) cannot catch a break from these ghosts who look just like them. Everywhere they turn in the house that once belonged to their dead mother, they see themselves, with the distracting difference that the ghosts’ eyes are shock-white. It’s a cheap, unoriginal effect, but doesn’t distract too much from the basic concept, that the ghosts are themselves, even though they are not.
For Nicolai and Marie, this is a fundamental dilemma. Both have arrived at this house believing they have been bequeathed property, that is, a link to a past they didn’t quite know they had. Though the house is a pretty regular horror movie house (creaky floorboards, banging doors, perfectly formed spider webs in every corner), it does raise daunting questions concerning identity and identifications. Following a few hours of running around trying to elude her own ghost, Marie asserts, “I know who I am.” Nicolai shakes his head: “Oh no,” he says, “You have no idea who you really are.”
To be fair, Marie begins the film under some duress. She arrives in Russia and checks into her hotel, but a brief phone call to her daughter back in California is jarring: Emily (who remains unseen) says her boyfriend is staying over. When Marie reveals her upset, Emily hangs up. Alone in a strange country, Marie smokes a few cigarettes and downs some prescription pills. She’s losing her daughter, she reasons, and so she presses on, hoping to discover something about her mother (murdered when Marie and Nicolai were infants) and so, perhaps, herself.
Her first surprise is the existence of her brother. As you’ve seen in the film’s opening sequence, set in 1966, their mother suffered a gruesome, bloody death, driving her truck into a neighbor’s yard before she died of stab wounds inflicted by her husband, her two tiny babies wailing in the passenger seat even as she stopped breathing.
The cut to “40 years later” doesn’t explain how Marie ended up in the U.S. or Nicolai remained in Russia, but that’s probably the least of what’s left out of their story. Marie learns of the house through the exceptionally sinister notary Andrei (Valentin Ganev), then hires a local truck driver, Anatoliy (Carlos Reig-Plaza), to take her on a day-long journey to the long abandoned house; it’s located in an area the driver calls “the island,” in deep woods and surrounded by a turning-back-on-itself river, so it’s only accessible by a single bridge. This, of course, is a bad sign.
Arriving at the site at last, Anatoliy promptly abandons Marie, leaving her fearful in the truck cab and promising to check that the house is “safe.” He never comes back, and eventually, Marie is knocking around the house on her own, her flashlight creating just enough light that you know she’s not seeing everything she needs to see. Handheld camera shots indicate her shakiness as she explores, and her panic when she first stumbles on the white-eyed ghost.
While her ghost is wet and bedraggled, an apparent drowning victim, Nicolai’s is bloody and missing chunks of himself. In fact, Nicolai first finds Marie half-drowned in the river where she has fallen, following her first effort to escape the house. At least this is what he says. He adds that he brought her back to the house and changed her clothes, but it’s okay “because we’re brother and sister.” So… that’s a little disturbing, but the movie doesn’t pause to consider it. Marie has other concerns.
The film’s thematic interest in twins becomes more visible with the doubling ghosts, but their different states of decay are unnerving. They eventually discover that Nicolai’s very bloody ghost is the result of being fed to pigs (this occurs in several flashbacks as well as a scene that seems to be the present; suffice it to say that Marie vomits on seeing this particular yuckiness). Nicolai asserts, “The house wants us back.” This has something to do with their evil father wanting his “family” back together, but his villainy—not to mention his fondness for the twins’ birthday cake—is more generic than chilling.
On one level, the house’s intent is derived from Haunted House 101: like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, this bad place exacts revenge on ignorant interlopers. On another level, the “us” in “The house wants us back” remains in flux. At one point, as she tries desperately to elude her ghost, Marie passes a dresser where, as the lingering camera ensures you notice, there sit a couple of Russian nesting dolls. The image most obviously alludes to the usual layers of façades and deceits that structure horror movies; it also suggests this movie’s central conceit, that no identity is fixed, or better, that all identities are nestled into others.
Within the next minute, this idea is made intensely concrete: Marie’s ghost presses her up against the wall and kisses her, not a little voraciously, on the mouth. This moment is weird in any number of ways, not least because the immediate effect of the “suckage” is Marie’s own resemblance to the ghost: her eyes roll back in her head and her face turns extra pale. Whether or not this means the buss is expressing some other, nested self inside the divorcee, or whether it’s a sign of repressed desire remains unknown. Again, the film doesn’t pause to sort out the ramifications. Still, the kiss apparently demonstrates that the ghost is very, very bad. Haunting yourself is one thing. Kissing yourself, that’s a whole other set of problems.