Friday, April 18, 2014

Ahì Va El Diablo: The Meaning Of Possession

Sometimes you think that everything that’s been done with a theme or a premise has been done. Sure, some people might tackle it with more wit or energy than others, but certain stories are going to evoke certain images, certain themes will inevitably emerge, and even if the details vary, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you’re going to experience. But sometimes, just sometimes, someone takes those ideas, those images, those themes, and puts a little bit of a spin on them, or approaches them in a way that acknowledges them while still taking them to a conclusion other people wouldn’t.

Ahì Va El Diablo (Here Comes The Devil) is very much a story of demonic possession, but it handles the idea of “possession” in a way that confronts its traditional meaning without a lot of squeamishness or pulling away, and the end result is haunting and profoundly unsettling.

We open on two women having sex to what sounds like sort of a grindhouse porno soundtrack. It’s not exactly what you’d expect as the opening of a horror film, though it is what you might expect for a certain flavor of exploitation film, but the point isn’t cheap titillation. The sex, for at least one of the women, ends with some serious guilt and ambivalence that yanks us right out of the cheap-thrill reverie this sort of thing is typically meant to provide. There are real implications for human desire with which people have to grapple. The conversation between the two women is interrupted by someone knocking on the door downstairs, and what was a difficult conversation about the nature of desire and society’s expectations turns into a violent assault that leaves one of them near death. The assailant manages to escape, collapsing with his box of grisly trophies at the mouth of a cave.

Normally, I’d read this as one of those barely-related scenes that serves to give the game away before the movie has even gotten started (still looking at you, Offspring), but here it ends up serving as sort of a compact thesis for the rest of the film: Desire comes in many forms, gender complicates its understanding, and ultimately ends in terrible violence.

The story proper begins with Felix and his wife Sol, and their children Adolfo and Sara. They’re on a family outing in the country, and the day is winding down. Sol is concerned about the kids because she can’t see what they’re doing, Felix isn’t worried and is glad to have some time free of them, and Sol retorts that he’s hardly ever around because he’s always at work. They’re a couple strained by the demands of parenthood, being at that place in their life where it’s really settled in that they aren’t the crazy young lovers they used to be. There are bills and field trips and responsibilities now and the cracks are showing.

The trip is somewhat rudely interrupted when Adolfo comes back to report that Sara’s hurt - she just sort of started...bleeding. Felix and Sol twig to what’s going on pretty quickly (their Sara just became a woman), and they head to a gas station to pick up some tampons. Felix does his best (and is actually pretty sensitive and thoughtful) to explain what’s going on to Adolfo and Sol gives Sara the menstruation talk. Awkward moment addressed, the kids ask if they can explore a nearby hill. Sol puts her foot down that they shouldn’t be gone more than an hour and gives Sara her watch to make sure. The kids head off and Felix and Sol take the time to talk and actually get in some all-too-rare fooling around.

The next thing they know, it’s dark and the kids haven’t come back.

Felix and Sol spend a tense night in a nearby motel, waiting for news. The next day, the kids turn up, all is forgiven, and the kids relate their trip into a cave at the top of the hill. (No prize for guessing whether it’s the same hill from the opening or not, because of course it is.) They seem okay, they aren’t hurt, but they seem more distant, changed by the experience.

They came back...different.

From here, we’re hip-deep in the story of what exactly happened to them in that cave, and Felix and Sol’s attempts to make sense of it. As their children become stranger and stranger to their parents, their parents push further and further to find an explanation for what they’re experiencing, and the trip takes them (and us) in some pretty dark and unexpected directions. Saying more than that does the film a disservice, but it negotiates the natural and supernatural deftly, and there’s plenty of horror to be found in both here.

There's a strong link between sex and the supernatural in this film. It's certainly not the only film to make this connection, but as in the introduction, it doesn't feel like it's being used as a source of titillation or a cheap way to heighten the sense of threat. Possession is possession, be it natural or supernatural, and blood attends both. Desire is saying "I want you", and there is more than one way to want someone. Often in movies dealing with demonic possession, the possessed will offer themselves sexually to the people trying to exorcise the demon, sure, but it’s typically done to embody the idea of the devil as a creature of base lust and temptation, playing on the frailty inherent in the flesh. Here, it’s not nearly so simple. Sex and desire are agency here, decisions made by mortals for mortal reason. The devil doesn’t use sex as a weapon here, and it’s not quite something as simplistic as a vector either. It’s more of a condition, a state of the world that co-occurs with the devil. Earthquakes punctuate important events in the film, suggesting everything that’s happening is some expression of an ancient, primal force instead of a simplistic sin/temptation setup.

As I alluded to above, there’s a strong gender component to the events of this film as well - Felix and Sol deal with what's happened to their children in very different ways, and their ability to communicate effectively breaks down pretty quickly. Felix finds comfort in a rational explanation, while Sol puts more and more pieces of the puzzle together and comes to an increasingly less rational explanation for what happened and is continuing to happen. This isn't the first Mexican film I've seen that puts gender roles front and center for its story, either, but unlike Somos Lo Que Hay, there's actual tension and unease here to complement the way masculine and feminine roles limit available choices in a bad situation. It’s not window dressing or plot mechanics either - just as desire is inextricably intertwined with possession, the burdens of gender roles suffuse the dynamic between characters and shape the directions in which each of them travel through the story, even to its devastating conclusion.

On top of that, it's got a great visual style. The film is shot in a style reminiscent of Tobe Hooper's in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - a lot of sun and heat ends up on the screen, bright colors, fast, sharp zooms, sudden bursts of violence, lots of blood when there’s blood to be had. It's more polished and trades Hooper's gonzo energy for a slower, more measured pace that intersects the rational and irrational, wide shots suggesting tiny beings struggling against vast primal forces, tight shots communicating isolation and paranoia, stacking one bad thing on another until we find ourselves in an old-school hallucinatory sequence that confirms what we've known for the better part of the film, and does so in fine Ken Russell psychedelic fashion.

The rest, then, is about how the situation - as horrible as it is - gets dealt with. It's resolved in a way you probably won't see coming, but fits very, very neatly with everything that's come before. It's not a matter of plot pieces fitting into place, but rather a natural, logical extension of the character's psychology taken to its worst possible place. Felix and Sol's efforts to understand what happened to their children lead them - together and separately - to make horrifying, irrevocable choices, ones that suggest the power and privilege wielded by men, as well as the way that privilege allows evil to continue to live in the world. The devil is everywhere, it suggests, and the implications linger long after the film is done.

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1 comment:

  1. I saw the movie last night--gripping, fascinating, moving, scary. Thanks for your thoughtful review.

    Can you say more about the ideas in your second-to-last sentence? I'm fairly aware about issues of male privilege, but I'm not cluing in to what you're referring to, and I'd like to understand better--it's a compelling and mysterious movie. Am I missing something about how privilege is involved, or am I mistaking what happened in the cave? It's hard to discuss this any further without spoilers, unfortunately...
    - Chris