Nacho Cerdá made his name on the underground horror circuit with Aftermath, a short feature that made everyone’s worst surmises about autopsy tables look hopeless optimistic. The question that looms around his feature debut, The Abandoned, just out on DVD, is how on earth he might top Aftermath’s taboo-busting calling card. Wisely, he attempts no such thing. Though there is one notable moment of “yeeeurrrrgggh” in the film, it otherwise marks a very different approach to horror, as well as making clear that Cerdá is the kind of talent that horror desperately needs at this juncture. It’s a criminal shame that the film received to theatrical distribution to speak of, but here’s hoping it will find the audience it deserves on DVD.
The ominous prologue is set in Russia (played by Bulgaria) in 1966. A mortally wounded woman drives a truck to a farm, where the inhabitants discover a pair of newborn twins in the seat beside her. In the present, one of those twins, Marie (Anastasia Hille), determined to learn more about her birth parents, has arrived in Russia from Los Angeles. She is given directions to her ancestral farm. Once she gets there, a malevolent supernatural trap slams shut. She meets her twin, Nicolai (Karel Roden), who is just as caught in the web as she is, a web spun by patient and merciless past.
In its review, Fangoria compared Marie’s arrival at the farm to Jonathan Harker’s arrival at Castle Dracula. I was reminded of this as well, what with the distressed locals ineffectually trying to stop her journey and the deeply menacing atmosphere, but I was more particularly reminded of Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula, where it is not Harker but Renfield that makes the journey. As uneven as Browning’s film is (it does become very stagebound after the first act), the switch in characters makes for a more pronounced sense of doom. Harker, after all, escapes from the castle. He must, narratively speaking, not just because he is the hero, but because of his connection with Mina, and the way the story’s thrust is outward, to England. But in 1931, Renfield’s story is far more circumscribed. He is doomed the moment he sets foot in that castle. Spiritually at least, he will never leave. There is no hope for him at all. And that is precisely the sense of dread that Cerdá is conjuring. Relatively early on, Nicolai comes to the conclusion that he and Maria are helpless to avoid their inevitable fate, and here Cerdá (along with co-scripters Karim Hussasin and Richard Stanley, who is the man who gave us Hardware and Dust Devil) makes one of cinema’s rare traditional uses of the doppelgänger – one’s ghostly double, whose presence means one’s imminent death. Despite what he believes, Nicolai will struggle just as hard as Marie to escape, but from the get-go a nightmarish sense of futility suffuses these efforts.
Visually, the film is a treat, harkening back to the Eurogothics of the late 60s and early 70s. The production design is nothing short of sublime. The decrepit mess of the house is simultaneously creepy as hell as well as a thematically sharp reminder of the past. The clutter is a physical memory, just as much as any corpse. The dead remains of humans and inanimate objects are one and the same here.
The idea of the past as a trap that dooms the present (an idea with painful geopolitical relevance) is reinforced by the multiplicity of doubles. The characters are twins, they have their terrifying doubles, events repeat, time loops back on itself, and so on. This is a perfect example of a film where a strictly linear logic would be completely out of place, interfering with the non-logic that is the logic of nightmare, and that is also the necessary way of conveying the ideas and the fears that are so expertly conjured here.
True horror fans, here are your marching orders. Forget the latest redundant remake. See this. Watch it again. Shudder. Think. Then shudder again.