Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre.
So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now… one at a time.
Dir. Nacho Cerdà
Spain / Bulgaria / UK
The most obvious parable in the horror genre is one’s fear of their mortality. Though not all, most horror flicks off at least one character – sometimes dozens – and these victims fall at the hands of every kind of antagonist imaginable: masked madmen, ghosts, the insane, the resurrected, monstrous animals, supernatural and mythical figures, and even Death itself. They die quietly, loudly, upsettingly, peacefully—but they die, alright, and into the ground they go. What you don’t see terribly often is what’s presented in The Abandoned, a little-known, little-celebrated supernatural creeper. Our two doomed characters, once trapped in a creepy house in the middle of the Russian wilderness, find themselves fleeing in terror…not from any of the aforementioned threats above, but from their fates, which wear their own faces, and whose bodies sport garish wounds and mutilations that dictate the manner in which they will die. For as our two characters attempt to hide from the bloody ends that await them, it’s not random ghosts or murderers that haunt them, but it’s themselves—walking dead twins with white eyes and destroyed humanity. And there’s no fighting or resisting them: to inflict any kind of trauma upon these unnatural beings is to inflict that same trauma upon the body that those walking nightmares represent. So how do you fight the very thing out to kill you when that thing is yourself?
Let’s back up a bit.
Marie (Anastasia Hille, Snow White and the Huntsman) has received word from the Russian government that after years of having its files and affairs in disarray as a result of the Cold War, the most recent campaign to become organized has unearthed evidence that property in the Russian wilds has been bequeathed to her by her natural parents. Marie, herself a film producer working in Hollywood, has no desire whatsoever to do anything with the property other than sell it and be done with it, as the hazy memories she does have of her childhood in Russia are not that great. And so she sets out to mother Russia and meets with a man named Misharin (Valentin Ganev, Undisputed II & III), who provides her with the necessary paperwork, as well as instructions on how to get to the very remote property.
Marie, following Misharin’s instructions, makes the trek out to the last property that could be considered part of civilization. The man who owns the property seems to be waiting for her, as it’s his responsibility to drive her out to her inheritance. On the way there, some creepy circumstances cause Marie to become separated from her driver, so she completes the remainder of the journey to the house on foot, in the dark, all by her lonesome.
Once there, and after a round of exploring her old homestead, she comes across a very unexpected guest: a man named Nicolai (Karel Roden, who has played the token Russian in numerous films, including Orphan, Wayne Kramer's Running Scared, and The Bourne Supremacy). Stumbling across another human being in the middle of her old, definitely abandoned childhood home is shocking enough—but he takes it one step further as he introduces himself…as her long-lost twin brother. He goes on to explain that he received a similar call from Misharin, hence his presence there. She remains suspicious until he brings her to one of the upstairs bedrooms and shows her two ancient cribs, which sport each of their names.
Marie barely has time to process this revelation when two more uninvited guests show up: while they appear to be exact copies of Marie and Nicolai, it soon becomes quite obvious that something really wrong is taking place in that house. The brother and sister flee after learning the hard way that these monstrous figures cannot be harmed without inflicting that same harm upon the person the thing represents. It is Nicolai who soon deduces what is going on: that they are being stalked by what are commonly called doppelgängers.
Doppelgängers? What the—
Let’s Wiki this bitch.
And so the chase begins, and it’s much more than a case of a killer stalking its prey. It’s not just a random threat, but it’s Marie and Nicolai’s own fates. It is their reckoning, in a way—and to defy these identical creatures coming for them in the dark is to deny the “natural” order of the world. What can they do? Is there a way to escape the apparently inescapable? Will they go down fighting, or simply give in?In fiction and folklore, a doppelgänger is a paranormal double of a living person, typically representing evil or misfortune. In modern vernacular, it is simply any double or look-alike of a person. It also describes the sensation of having glimpsed oneself in peripheral vision, in a position where there is no chance that it could have been a reflection. Doppelgängers often are perceived as a sinister form of bilocation and are regarded by some to be harbingers of bad luck. In some traditions, a doppelgänger seen by a person's friends or relatives portends illness or danger, while seeing one's own doppelgänger is an omen of death.
The Abandoned, first and foremost, is absolutely beautiful. For a film featuring tons of blood, grime, and muddy pig mutilation, that’s saying a lot. But director Nacho Cerdà has a masterful eye, and The Abandoned is not his first foray into beautiful horror. He first broke out on the scene years ago with three short films: The Awakening, in which a boy begins to slowly realize that he's dead; Genesis, in which a sculptor mourning his dead wife creates a bust in her image...which begins to slowly come to life; and Aftermath, his absolutely unflinching look at the autopsy process...as well as what happens when a mortician likes to get a little too close to his specimens. Each segment is more horrific than the next, but each also contains an inherent beauty that you ordinarily would not find in such subject matter.
Every scene in The Abandoned is purposely constructed to trigger an emotional response, and it works like a charm. If Cerdà’s intention is to scare you, he’ll scare you; if he wants you to feel sadness, or longing, or desperation, you will. Above all, even more than scaring you, Cerdà wants you to feel uneasy. He doesn’t want there to be a single moment where you can settle comfortably back in your seat and fall into the film’s groove. Even in a rather uneventful scene in which Marie argues with her daughter over the phone, the harshness of their dialogue matched with seeming random close-ups of Marie’s belongings scattered throughout her hotel room have the power to set you at unease…even for a little.
The Abandoned's screenplay, by co-writers Cerdà, Karim Hussein, and the infamous Richard Stanley (a director himself, having made Dust Devil and Hardware), while not a typical slow burn (considering the very jarring sequence that opens the film), does certainly take its time. As usual, that leaves it open to cries of “it’s boring!” and “nothing happens!” by those who think a sequel to The Collector was a good idea. Those with patience will be rewarded, as the events become increasingly creepy until there is literally no way out.
Horror, in its nature, is very good at manipulating its audience into thinking it's interactive. No one shouts "don't trust him!" in the theater during romantic comedies; no one criticizes the hero during action films for running into the bulk of the danger instead of the fuck away from it. But when horror is involved, we become very invested, to the point we think the 2D image on the screen can hear us and consider our advice. And in such films, we like to mentally develop escape plans. We like to make it known what WE would do. "See, if this were me, I would be OUT of there!" Jada Pinkett says in the opening sequence of Scream 2. And for me, personally, I was so enamored by zombie cinema when I was young that I would always keep an eye out for houses I felt were perfect for withstanding a zombie outbreak: something with minimal windows, steel doors, more than one floor, and a fucking basement. But when it comes to The Abandoned, there is literally no escape plan. There is no tactic that Marie and Nicolai are failing to concoct. There isn't a single thing that can be done to salvage them. All we can do is wait for them to accept that there is no way out. And boy oh boy, some audiences do not like that one bit.
Hille as Marie and Roden as Nicolai are, for the most part, our sole characters on the screen. Nearly everything we see will be experienced through their eyes. Hille carries the first third of the film solo before meeting her brother, and so we journey with her, and see the things she sees, and we feel the desolateness and the angst that she feels. Performance wise, she stumbles at times, but never to the point where her role feels contrived or unnatural; likewise, Roden, as far as I'm concerned, put himself on the map with this film. Since seeing him as the haunted, terrified, but accepting Nicolai, I've noticed him each and every time he's popped up in something. He's not afraid to become immersed in a role and completely lose himself. In the aforementioned Running Scared, in which he plays a Russian henchman for the New Jersey mafia, he really cuts his teeth and lets loose for what may have been the first time in an American film. (In America's post-Cold War culture, it's not often that a character of Russian descent will be prominently featured in a film without the men playing a Bond villain or a mafia member, and the women either a prostitute or a total slut. If America's relationship with Russia had to be determined by only how they are portrayed in our films and television shows, one would think that we would happily shake hands with them and smile at the camera, but later, when no one is looking, douse ourselves with hand sanitizer and pray to God for protection. Our iterations of Russians are named Nicolai (hey, look at that!) or Natasha; they love to drink vodka; the women love to wear tight-fitting animal print dresses with pearls and fuck around on their husbands. And the men, well... apparently they're all insane. My god, Mitt Romney was right! Run!)
Cerdà fills The Abandoned with heaps of well-executed scares. Sightings of the doppelgängers are at first filmed from far off, or made to feel like brief glimpses in our characters' peripherals, in keeping with the myth. But soon the beings grow closer until they're in our face, forcing us to recognize their own. Each sighting of these beings maintains a steady creep factor, even until we've reached the point where we, as viewers, should by now have grown used to their appearance and the shock value has worn off. But it doesn't wear off, not until the very last frame.
The biggest selling point of The Abandoned – and the biggest reason to seek it out – is the atmosphere that Cerdà establishes. Nearly all the critics agree – even those who would go on to slam the film itself – that Cerdà created a more than effective atmosphere filled with dread.
And speaking of, there has always been a measurable disconnect between critics and audiences. Audiences tend to think that critics lose themselves a bit too easily in “artsy-fartsy” stuff and are unwilling to recognize a more harmless and basic movie whose only intention is to entertain (and rightfully so), while critics tend to notice that there is a big difference in an audience genuinely liking/loving a film and said film actually executing expert construction in front of and behind the camera (and rightfully so); they recognize that film-making is an art, and is therefore open to deconstruction and discussion. As long as film critics remain a part of the medium (and with the boom of Internet journalism, it seems they are here to stay), this disconnect will always remain. Because of this, the widest chasm of this disconnect – that between critics and the horror genre – will also remain. It’s no secret there’s a common belief that most critics are unwilling to recognize a legitimately good horror film simply because of the company it keeps. As Bruce Campbell famously once said, horror sits on the second rung from the bottom of the film genre ladder, just above pornography. And he’s right. While there have been obvious horror films released over the years who broke the critical barricade and demanded they be recognized for the masterful works they were, they were also relabeled in an almost spiteful tactic, as if critics were unwilling to praise one of them there “horror” films: Roger Ebert, in his glowing review of Halloween, called it a thriller; Alien was, of course, referred to as science-fiction; Jaws a high-seas adventure; Psycho a psychological thriller; and The Silence of the Lambs a drama! A movie about a serial killer ripping flesh off fat women, all the while another cannibalistic serial killer tears men’s faces off! A drama, for fuck’s sake!
There’s a purpose to my rant, I swear: and here it is. In all these negative reviews – even the ones that praise Cerdà’s talent for creating dense atmosphere – they call the story itself inept, nonsensical, confusing, and purposely vague. Which, I’m sorry, makes me call bullshit, for two reasons: First, look me in the eye and tell me that Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining makes one goddamned lick of sense by the end, and when all is said and done. Does it make the film any less frightening, effective, or legendary? Fuck no, nerds. And two: why is it that films need to be tied up neatly by their conclusions for them to pass the critic’s test? Why aren’t films allowed to exercise a little bit of mystery and introduce a vague detail here and there in an effort to keep their audiences guessing? Why is it the audience is allowed to know every beat and every piece of reasoning introduced in the film, but meanwhile our characters are stumbling around in the dark trying to figure this all out? Is it not reasonable to suggest that the audience should be just as confused and unsatisfied as our characters, if the filmmaker’s intent was to unify them and make the audience feel what our characters were feeling?
Full disclosure: I have my own questions about the film. I can’t tell you 100% from beginning to end what exactly happens, and why. But that’s the beauty of it. The Abandoned wants you to accept its story at face value. If you examine every nook, cranny, aspect, hidden meaning, trick, etc., of anything you love, it becomes less special. It’s unmasking the mascot that you’ve seen capering around at sporting events for years. It’s watching Robert Englund or Doug Bradley peel off Freddy Krueger’s or Pinhead’s make-up. The magic is gone. And who wants that?
At the core of The Abandoned is the nagging theme of the past, present, and future. Even if you can wade through all the clues and put together what you think transpired throughout the film, regardless if the director wanted it to be clear, or remain abstract, one thing remains: every film has a "point" or a "lesson" that it wants to bestow upon its audience. Or, if the filmmaker has at least half a brain, there should be. So what's the "theme" of The Abandoned? Perhaps it's that we shouldn't let our pasts define who we are in the present, nor should we ever let it have any of our time and space, as Johnny Cash used to say, in our futures. And a theme like that has a far reach. We all come from different backgrounds and different walks of life. For some of us, that journey has been a little tougher. And while it may have shaped the type of people we have become, we shouldn't ever let it get the best of us. Sometimes the past is exactly that – the past – and, like sleeping dogs, sometimes we should just let it lie.