Tuesday, February 21, 2017

El Habitante Incierto: This Is Not My Beautiful House, This Is Not My Beautiful Wife

(This one’s kind of spoilery, so if you think you’re going to watch it, fair warning)

The term “psychological horror” has always struck me as kind of a non-description. I mean, isn’t all horror psychological? Emotion is a psychological phenomenon. It’s not like your skin can be frightened on its own. We see and hear and feel, we perceive, we appraise, and from this emotion emerges. Of course horror is psychological.

But, you know what? This is me being a dick about terms. Psychological horror isn’t so much horror that is, like all horror, a psychological phenomenon, it is horror that emerges from our mental processes, from what is perceived or experienced or thought. In that, it stands in opposition to, say, body horror, which is horror that emerges from our physicality, our biology. Body horror states that what we are is uncertain or possibly threatening. Psychological horror states that what we think or perceive is uncertain or possibly threatening. The old mind/body distinction, or as William Shakespeare put it in The Merchant of Venice: “Tell me, where is fancy bred? In the heart, or in the head?”

I’m thinking about this, because I think in order for psychological horror to work - to make the protagonist and by extension the viewer feel upended, as if they cannot trust anything they see or think, you have to establish a baseline, a sense of how the world is, if revealing how it really is is going to have the effect you want. There have to be rules to violate.

And this is my problem with El Habitante Incierto (The Uninvited Guest) - it’s an odd stab at a psychological thriller that doesn’t take the time to make its twists plausible or even in places coherent, given the world in which they occur. We don’t feel upended because very little makes sense in the first place. 

We begin with poor, lovelorn Felix. He’s an architect, with an immaculate home he’s designed himself, and not much else, given that his girlfriend Vera left him some time before. Her stuff is still cluttering up the place, though - boxes of it stashed in the attic, in the front hall, all over the place. Felix wants her to come get it, because it’s cluttering up his clean, minimal space and making him a little nuts, but he also likes it being there as a pretext for her to come visit. He misses her, but he also doesn’t see how his obsession with order and space might be a little alienating from an intimacy standpoint. But this isn’t a recipe for a horror movie, this is a recipe for a romantic comedy about an uptight architect who learns to let love (and the clutter it brings) into his overly-orderly heart. 

No, what brings it to us is the strange sounds Felix keeps hearing at night - like someone’s walking around in his own house and then disappearing. Things are moved from their carefully chosen places.

Figures are glimpsed in the shadows.

Basically, the film starts off ostensibly as what could be a supernatural occurrence or one person’s descent into total paranoia, depending on how you read the events. Either someone (or something) is actually lurking around Felix’s home, or Felix is starting to crack under the pressure of his life and need for order. That’s the crux of one type of psychological horror - is this really happening or not? Am I really threatened or just imagining it? Can I trust my own senses? And if it stuck to that, tightening the screws slowly, using space and the way we navigate it to make even the smallest things threatening, we’d be onto something. But, it really doesn’t. It starts off with this fairly straightforward premise, and then starts chucking all kinds of stuff into a blender. There’s some almost-slapstick comedy mixed in as Felix investigates some potentially suspicious neighbors, slapstick that turns into Hitchcockian conspiracy, paranoia, and double-identity stuff (the same actress plays both Vera and Claudia, Felix’s wheelchair-bound neighbor in whom he develops an increasingly unhealthy interest for...reasons?), and then the original psychological-disintegration storyline briefly reasserts itself before the whole thing goes totally sideways about halfway through, discarding the original idea to explore a tangent for entirely too long, before piling a shitload of twists on at the end, as if someone reminded the film that it was supposed to be psychological horror and that it needed to pay off a bunch of shit from the first act. The result is a film that feels like a ghost story being told by someone easily distractable, who is also making it up as they go along. 

And it’s a bummer because there’s some really interesting stuff in the mix here. It starts by playing with the idea of personal space, or more accurately, interpersonal distance - Felix wants lots of it, Vera wants to be closer, and this is why they split up. Claudia talks about her absent husband Martin, and how he became emotionally abusive after the accident that paralyzed her. He could just walk away from Claudia as a way of silencing her, he could go places in their house she could not because of the wheelchair. The conflation of emotional with physical closeness could be, in the right hands, made really creepy, but it’s just sort of on the periphery here.

On top of that, houses represent personal space in a different sense - it’s where we are (or should be) safest and most comfortable, and when there’s an intruder, it feels like a violation of that. Felix’s coldness and need for order is pretty much embodied in his house (with Vera’s clutter signifying how others complicate the designs we envision for ourselves), and even though he knows his own house inside and out, there’s still someone moving about inside of it without his knowledge or consent, and that’s disturbing. And the idea of a physical space as a proxy for our mental state is by no means a new one, but that’s worth exploring too - Felix knows his own house inside and out, as he purports to know himself, but if there are hidden spaces, rooms left locked and unexamined, that could mirror Felix’s denial of his own darkness, of his own impulses and shameful secrets. It could, but it...only sort of does, again, fitfully, at the periphery of the film.

The film does begin on a solid note establishing the importance of space and distance, but it ends up squandering that early work with the bizarre detour at the halfway point, in which everything from the first half is sort of put on hold while Felix begins, bizarrely, to himself become an intruder into Claudia’s life for no real apparent reason. And this brings in some ideas about duality or similarity and parallel lives (the house he “haunts" is not so different from his own, as Claudia is very similar to Vera), but although that works okay on its own, and could be seen as an expression of Felix’s obsessive nature, the way it plays out in terms of tone seems very much at odds with the beginning of the film and its initial thesis. It’s all very abrupt and feels less like a story of mounting obsession than some kind of bizarre buddy comedy. 

This plays out for a bit before the film takes a tack in an entirely different direction, one which ends the film with a series of non sequiturs drawn pretty much out of thin air. We’ve had no preparation for them, and they mostly just seem designed to end the film on a pointless, contextless down note. The borderline-slapstick humor seems out of place, there’s no one narrative or thematic through-line to carry the film, and the whole thing feels like the filmmakers changed their mind about what kind of film they were making two or three times before they decide to end it in a manner so nihilistic as to border on goofy. It’s hard to upend a viewer’s expectations when they aren’t given much of a chance to find solid ground in the first place, and it’s hard to find the horror in our expectations being violated when we aren’t given much of an opportunity to develop expectations in the first place. We’re never given the chance to feel at home.

Unavailable on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix