19 August 2007

The Abandoned

Directed by: Nacho Cerdà
Written by: Nacho Cerdà, Karim Hussain & Richard Stanley

Grade: B+

The Russian-born, English-raised, American-living movie producer protagonist of The Abandoned, Anastasia Hille, says at the beginning, in voice-over, "the past was another country now, best forgotten." But, unable to leave well-enough alone, she returns to the country of her birth two days shy of the forty second anniversary of her mother's vicious murder—and her own birthday—to visit the country estate (aka "the scene of the crime") that she's just inherited. Talk about your unremarkable horror movie set-ups; for its first act, The Abandoned adheres to the established horror conventions, from an ominous pre-arrival dream to a thick portentous fog. Most offensively, when asked what she hopes to find in the ruins to which she's traveling, she responds, "some clue perhaps, something to make sense of my life." Excuse me while I roll my eyes.

But, to pleasant surprise, once such banalities are out of the way, The Abandoned comes to life, as do the ghosts of the haunted island estate. While essentially a mere haunted house movie, The Abandoned is at least a fresh take on the genre, which is more than could be said for most of its contemporaries: it features hardly any violence, especially by torture-porn standards, establishing genuine unpredictability and, as a result, a few wonderfully earned moments of high tension; also, it eschews ordinary cast-attrition thriller patterns by featuring a central cast of only two; and by making that duo long-lost brother and sister twins (and ignoring any possible incestuous inclination), it, like Jeepers Creepers, avoids any tired sexual undercurrents.

The Abandoned, unlike most of the slashers whose visual style and tropes it apes, is not a morality play, but a complex and impressionistic exploration of family and its relationship to identity. Hille is not so much afraid that she'll be killed on the island, though that's there too, as she is that she'll have to face the repressed inner demons of her parents' deaths; the "ghosts" that stalk brother and sister throughout the island are actually their doppelgängers, and as such they literally spend the film running away from themselves, desperately avoiding autoconfrontation.

But of course, no matter how fast you can run through a dilapidated manor, you can't escape from your own past; those who try, like our protagonists, are doomed to become increasingly trapped deeper and deeper within it, as though struggling against a Chinese finger trap of the subconscious. Unable to deal with the frustration of being powerless to affect or alter that which has already transpired—to accept that she had a cruel, hateful, bridicidal and infanticidal father—Hille finds herself imprisoned in a repetitive spatiotemporal loop, cursed to become conjoined, both figuratively and literally in some sense, to the ghosts of her forbearers. "I'm finally going crazy after all these years," she exclaims in exasperation, adding, as she collapses to the floor, "fucking Russia!"

I assume the Russian setting bears some significance, what with the fact that it is a story about two adults trying to deal with homicidal "ghosts of the past". Moreso, though, the film functions as an examination of family ties. Early on, Hille is seen arguing with her daughter on the telephone, shortly before revealing that she is a divorcee; with every character's familial relationships strained, at the very least, The Abandoned possesses a terribly negative outlook on family, on par with The Shining in its positioning of the institution as deadly and something best left abandoned. In the Reagan years, there were subversive critiques of disingenuous "family values" moral posturing in films like 1987's The Stepfather; today, in the George W. Bush era, we have The Abandoned.

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