For as much as I keep saying "oh, you don't need characterization and tightly plotted stories to make good horror films," those bloody well seem to be the ones I keep going on and on about. I'm sure this is one of my biases - I like cerebral horror films, mostly because some of the scariest nightmares I've ever had revolved around sudden discoveries or a dawning awareness that something is wrong, or realizing the horrifying implications behind otherwise innocuous images (in this sense, the director that most consistently captures the feel of my nightmares is David Lynch). Still, there are plenty of other elements to film which have to come together to make an effectively scary movie. You've also got to have tension (it's possible to be so cerebral as to verge on inert), you've got to have threat, and you've got to have atmosphere.
The Abandoned is probably one of the most effective uses of atmosphere in horror film I've seen in the last 5 or 10 years. Seriously, every frame of this movie looks like a series of paintings made by someone who has never known happiness. There's not much cast, there's not much story, but the atmosphere alone gets this movie over and then some.
The movie starts in rain and mud and the odd half-light of especially stormy days. A rural couple discover a truck in their front yard, with a dead woman in the front seat and two crying infants next to her. The whole sequence is drained of color, like the rain has washed everything away.
We leap forward in time forty years later, to find Marie Jones headed into the office of a Russian notary, having flown overseas from the U.S. at his request. Marie has apparently inherited the estate of her biological parents - a farmhouse in rural Russia - upon the discovery of her long-dead (and long-disappeared) mothers' body. As there are no other living heirs, the property is now hers. The Russian city is gray and cold, filled with mist, hanging separate in time somehow, the old world and new coexisting. Marie gets directions, gets a car and sets out for the Russian countryside.
Marie first arrives at the farmhouse we saw in the prologue. The couple living there, now very old, tell Marie that she shouldn't go to the property, that it is wrong and damned somehow. This is one of those instances where, were Marie aware she were in a horror film, she would turn right around and go back to the States. But Marie isn't in a horror film because nobody is in a horror film, and dismisses the couple's objections as superstition. Here she also meets a man who says he can guide her to the property at night (it is apparently hard to find and access, and the locals' fears don't bother him). The drive to the property is every night drive through an unfamiliar forest you've ever had - dirt road, fog, trees leaping out in the headlights, deeper shadows behind - and after awhile, there's yet another feeling of dislocation - they could have been driving for minutes or hours, it's hard to tell. The guide tells Marie that the farmhouse sits on an island in the middle of a large lake, the only way on and off is by bridge, and they need to check the bridge for animals before crossing. Marie sits and waits in the truck until she sees the guide in the headlights, and she gets out.
The guide is no longer there. She is alone in the forest, with only her flashlight and the truck's lights to show the way. Then the truck dies. Marie is out here on her own, adrift, with no sense of location, no way to go except forward. She reaches the house, and enters. The house itself is every decaying farmhouse ever - cobwebs and dry splintered wood and beautiful craftsmanship gone to rot and dust. There is a sense of interruption - the house is still mostly intact, but it seems as if it were left in a hurry and never returned to. These plates and chairs and books have been sitting here for decades, exactly where they were when the clock stopped.
Somewhere in the house, an infant screams.
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