The Appeared imbues a family horror plot with the political terror of Argentina’s “dirty war”. Malena and her younger brother Pablo return from Spain to Argentina, to see to the remains of their father and attend a reading of his will. After Pablo is moved by a family photo he finds in his father’s Buenos Aires hospital room, the siblings decide to travel 2,000 miles south to the Patagonia farm where the family lived in the ’80s.
Along the way, Pablo discovers a diary hidden in the father’s Ford Falcon, which the pair have taken on their trip. The book, filled with manuscript pages and Polaroid prints, tells a grisly tale of torture carried out by the keeper of the journal. Pablo becomes obsessed with the diary, and soon the two are visited by the spirits of three of the man’s victims—a couple and child. The trio manifest first in the hotel where brother and sister are staying, but appear to them again and again over the next few days. Each time the spirits reenact the horror of their final hours, despite Pablo and Malena’s increasingly desperate attempts to break the cycle.
Past and present finally join when sister and brother reach their destination, and confront the spirit of the torturer.
As the film progresses, we learn that the diarist was a participant in Argentina’s “Dirty War”, the period from the mid-’70s to mid-’80s when the nation’s rightwing dictatorship kidnapped, tortured, and murdered leftist dissidents, as well as apolitical citizens caught up in the violence. The film’s Spanish title Aparecidos reverses the term used to refer to the victims—desaparecidos (the disappeared)—just as the plot is concerned with exposing the abuses of that dark time in Argentina’s history.
The siblings, in fact, rehearse the various means by which the nation has attempted to come to terms with its past. A woman in Patagonia who has set up a “records room” to document dirty war abuses recounts her time in custody to Malena. Pablo interviews an investigative journalist about the discovery of the body of one of the victims mentioned in the diary. Both pore over old newspapers and photos. This research, like Pablo’s consultation of the diary, also stands in for the traditional immersion in occult lore that characterizes the middle sections of many horror films.
The Appeared was written and directed by Spaniard Paco Cabezas, who like other foreigners who have filmed road movies in expansive countries (e.g., Wim Wenders, Paris, Texas, and Alfred Hitchcock, North by Northwest, in the US), makes the landscape central to the story. As Malena and Pablo approach the family farm and come closer to solving the mystery of the diary and the spirits, the camera lingers on the stark, cool beauty of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. It’s a land of extremes, and it’s fitting that here the two recover their past, both personal and cultural: a discovery that is both liberating and damning.
The icy palette of the landscape spills into interior shots of the family farmhouse, along with the wind that whispers on the sound track as Malena enters, in search of Pablo, who has disappeared. The chill matches the frisson Malena feels when a cache of Polaroids provides a key revelation.
Cabezas’ choice to base the film on Argentina’s troubled history, the most talked about aspect of The Appeared in reviews and interviews with the cast and crew, carried some risks. The pairing of supernatural horror and political terror, which could easily have become exploitative in lesser hands, deepens the horror and offers insights into Argentina’s recent past. Despite some plot twists that don’t quite make sense, the political context gives heft and logic to the supernatural elements of the film, as if acts so inhuman must conjure up forces beyond the human realm. At the same time there’s a psychological aptness to the condemnation of the spirits of the victims to relive their deaths; it captures the insistent presentness that victims of trauma ascribe to their memories.
Appeared has the mise-en-scène of Japanese horror, with ghosts rendered by traditional moviemaking craft instead of CGI: spirits appear reflected in mirrors, and the effect of levitating bodies held aloft by unseen hands was created by having blue clad extras hold cast members, then editing the extras out in post-production.
The events of the film end on 10 September 2001, and The Appeared, through an ironically hopeful speech by Pablo, suggests that the attacks of the following day have ushered in a new form of terror, where (the film implies) there aren’t even bodies or artifacts or evidence to enable the cathartic remembering documented in the film. The personalized torture of the dirty war has been replaced by impersonal, mechanized killing on a grander scale. The point is well taken, but this preachy moment is out of place in the film, and the attempt at placing the dirty war in the context of the international history of terrorism carries a whiff of colonialist condescension.
DVD extras include the Appeared trailer and a lively making-of featurette that reveals the challenges and rewards of location shooting, and shows how the crew created the film’s most memorable special effects.