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Terrified (2017)
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by Jay Seaver

"More than just "how about THREE haunted houses"?"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Give "Terrified" a lot of credit for not screwing around on the way to the good stuff. A lot of haunted house movies will do a slow build, hint at things that could have a rational explanation, or otherwise play things coy. Writer/director Demián Rugna says to hell with that, going all in on the paranormal barely ten minutes into the movie, and rather than having nowhere to go from there, he builds a contained but still grand mythology, finding ways to make things bigger while still placing them within the corners of our world.

The first haunted house belongs to Clara Blumotti (Natalia Señorales) and her husband Juan (Agustin Rittano); and his not believing her "hysteria" goes roughly about as well as can be expected in the opening of the movie. It soon turns out that their house is not the only one in the neighborhood which has had things going bump in the night - neighbors Walter (Demián Salomón) and Alicia (Julieta Vallina) have encountered strange activity - and that eventually attracts the attention of local comisario Funes (Maxi Ghione). He convinces a trio of experts on the paranormal - Jano Mario (Norberto Gonzalo), Mora Albreck (Elvira Onetto), and Dr. Rosenstock (George L. Lewis) - to come to Buenos Aires to investigate. They each take a house for the night, maybe a bit too excited to see actual evidence of the supernatural.

Paranormal experts like these three show up in a lot of movies about the paranormal; the viewer often needs someone authoritative to both argue that there is such a thing as ghosts and to set rules that can either be obeyed or ignored, and three seems like overkill. The neat trick that Rugna pulls here is that there's a sense that the trio is not quite crackpots, but are folks who believe their own press and know where their bread is buttered - they know each other by reputation, and are practically winking at each other during their first meeting. Rugna spends an enjoyable amount of time playing with how, though these people may be right about there being monsters, that doesn't mean that they are not themselves crazy or cynical. Elvira Onetto, Norberto Gonzalo, and George Lewis give the group a collective vibe on first meeting and their own distinct personalities as they split up, ranging from surprise that they're seeing something so concrete to utter mania. Rugna makes the experts into the potential targets, and in doing so gives himself room for unexpected reactions and ways to defy the pressure on sensible people to get the heck out of there.

That less-visible bit of creativity is valuable, because it gives the film a sense of originality that it might not have otherwise. The basic design and effects can seem a bit familiar or low-budget, like Rugna has decided that there's not really a new way to make a walking corpse be gaunt and ashen, at least not without a lot of CGI that this film's production can't afford, so he and his crew should concentrate on what lighting sharpens the effect or how many frames it takes to bury it into the viewer's psyche before they can identify the flaws. It's not a bad choice if you've got the skills to back it up, and Rugna appears to have them: There's something weirdly effective about how the first big scare moment plays out - it looks crude, like something anybody could do, but it's staged in a shockingly vicious way and never gets near the uncanny valley. The film leans harder on the jump scares later, but they're good jump scares, by and large. The execution works. There's a sort of credibility to how the film goes about its business that a lot of other ones doing the same thing lack, but without the tendency to undercut just how unknowable and rule-less these things can seem.

On top of that, there's Maxi Ghione's Comisario Funes, who is crucial in grounding the whole affair. Haunted people tend to have done something that triggers their own torment, and one can argue that the ghost-chasers are due for a comeuppance, but Funes is basically a good cop trying to protect his neighborhood from danger any way he can, even if it's unconventional, and that runs smack up against the innate sensibility that has him not wanting any part of what's going on when the ghosts start showing up. Ghione is physically solid and makes Funes emotionally sturdy enough to give his uncertainties and eventual fears weight. He's fundamentally human in the middle of monsters, corpses, and maniacs.

That's a simple enough element that it's easy to look at it as just another haunted house movie on a streaming menu that contains many, and "Terrified" is that; it doesn't break a lot of new ground globally (though this kind of film is somewhat rare in its native Argentina). The execution is as excellent as it needs to be to make a good impression, getting a lot of whoops from a festival audience that has seen this sort of thing before.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32460&reviewer=371
originally posted: 03/11/19 05:03:20
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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