Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Abandoned: Location Is Everything

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.

The setup for this movie is simple enough that talking any more about it would give away entirely too much. Suffice it to say that it is a movie about unfinished business, the sometimes loose relationship that time and space and causality have with each other, and what exactly happens when you go home again. Where it shines is in its visual detail. It isn't stylized, but there are very definite palettes for different parts of the movie - muddy browns, cold grays, sickly yellow-greens. The lighting is very natural, which somehow makes everything even worse - this is what it looks like when flashlights throw shadows, when the only light is a yellow lantern, when the sun strains to shine through clouds, or is only a hazy white ball in the mist. It is artful without being stagy, naturalistic in the midst of unnatural things. It is every unfamiliar city and forest and abandoned farmhouse we've ever seen in pictures or our own curious exploration, and in this movie, all of the horrible secrets we imagine these places hold (and tell ourselves don't, really) are laid out for us. Yes, something terrible happened in that abandoned farmhouse. Yes, if you get lost in the forest you won't find your way out. Yes, this movies says, some things are better left alone, and here's why. I've walked through the hallways of this house in my nightmares and woken up with a scream still caught in my throat, left there by the things Marie sees before it's all over.

IMDB entry
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Available on Netflix


  1. I love this movie - definitely an underappreciated, unseen-by-most gem that may have gotten lost partially due to the incorrect (in this case) assumptions people may make when they see the "Horrorfest" branding attached to it.
    The sense of unease I had during her first walk-through of the house on my initial viewing was incredibly powerful. There I sat, jaded horror film junkie, but I was in that house, I was alone, and I was half-way to freaking out. As you said more eloquently, this is great horror film craftsmanship.

  2. One thing I think you neglect to mention is the impact the (terrific IMO)sound design had on creating atmosphere and tension. Seeing this in the cinema with a nice big sound system that really hit home.

  3. @zombivish - that's because I saw it on DVD on my little stereo home setup. I bet that seeing it with really good theater surround would have made me pee my pants like an infant.

  4. fair enough, I've not seen the film since seeing it at the cinema.
    I'd love to see your thoughts on decent sound design in horror though.

  5. Maybe you want to take a look at Nacho Cerda's (The Abandoned's director) shorts: Genesis, The Awakening and The Aftermath (Death Trilogy, as he called them). Visually stunning and unsettling.

  6. @zombivish - I talked a little about sound design in my post on Rovdyr a few months back because it had GREAT sound design. Otherwise, I haven't found anyone yet who tops David Lunch.

    @anon - I was spoiled for his shorts before watching this, and knowing what they were at least about had me a little on edge for this. Say what you want, dude knows how to shoot a movie for mood.

  7. Lynch. David LYNCH.

    Man, fuck autocorrect.

  8. I'm interested in this one but have so far stayed away because I saw Aftermath (in the theatre even, double-billed with Necromantic) and was so disturbed by it that I'm not sure I want to see another film by Cerda. Aftermath stuck with me though, which is more than I can say about most movies...

  9. This isn't as disturbing as I understand Aftermath to be - it's pretty much a straight-up haunted house movie (with some interesting touches), but based on Cerda's direction and use of atmosphere here, I think I can safely avoid his short films and keep my sanity.

  10. Graeme I can say Aftermath is a fantastic, if grueling piece of film, but very different than Abandoned.
    Check out Abandoned to see what Cedra does without the extreme gore he used so well in Aftermath.
    @CDE if the extreme gore is a turn off for you I'd still recommend checking out Cedra's other short Genesis -it's less a horror story than a haunting little story about loss and love and kinda. (I wasn't such a fan of Awakening, it felt a bit like a student film to me)