For a few months there, you couldn't escape the ads. They were everywhere - on websites, on television, even in the very theaters where the promised marathon was taking place. It was the good old fashioned hard sell - and it worked. There was lots of buzz surrounding the movie macabre event. But when the massively overhyped 8 Films to Die For Horrorfest from AfterDark (a b-movie distributor) finally arrived in November of 2006, it was clear that there was more ballyhoo than bite to this particular octet of titles. Many were merely routine rejects, productions left languishing after their ineffectual terrors were tried out by several of the standard scare factories. During the initial run, fans were allowed to vote for their favorite, and when all was said and done, The Abandoned won the distinction of best scary movie - and a full blown solo theatrical release. Making a minor splash this past spring, Lionsgate finally unleashes this last installment in the series to DVD. The question, of course, remains if it was worth the special attention. With its motion picture pedigree, the answer is a solid "Yes".
Hoping to bring some closure to her family history, American film producer Marie Jones travels to Russia. There, she meets a bureaucrat who informs her of her mother's horrifying murder, and the unseemly circumstances surrounding her adoption. As the last remaining relative, the estate must be settled, and Marie heads out into the countryside to visit the home. When she arrives, she discovers an isolated manor left virtually untouched since her parent's heinous death. She also meets up with Nicolai, a man about her age that claims to be her twin brother. He too has been summoned to the house, and both now fear something sinister is afoot. Sure enough, they begin to see images of themselves - their doppelgangers - each suggesting the manner in which they will die. As they look for a way out of their paranormal predicament, the events of that fateful night 40 years ago constantly repeat. Apparently, the ghost of their mother's murderer - their father - doesn't want his adult children to leave. They were The Abandoned once, but now it's time for the family to be reunited - in Hell!
Clearly one of the best works featured as part of the 8 Films to Die For After Dark Horrorfest from last November (slightly better than The Hamiltons and The Gravedancers, if not quite as good as Reincarnation) The Abandoned represents Spanish dread director Nacho Cerdà's full length feature film debut. Beginning life as Bloodline, this exceptional 2006 effort follows a career in controversial short subjects for the 38 year old. Previously, he was responsible for the necrophilia gross out Aftermath (actually, a rather refined meditation on death and playing God) and the surreal sculpture creepfest Genesis. This time around, the filmmaker avoids the graphic and the gruesome to concentrate on atmosphere and suspense, and just like he did with dead bodies and biologically viable artworks, he succeeds admirably. Cerdà is much more than a mere moviemaker. He's the very definition of an auteur, an artisan whose visionary style is present in every frame of his films. From their dulled color palettes and set design detail, to the determined use of his camera, Cerdà is in complete control of his imagery. It helps salvage the storyline when it gets too convoluted, and maintains the dread when his characters occasionally fall over into formula.
Reminiscent of a Russian countryside take on The Shining (complete with Stanley Kubrick's patented static lens logistics), The Abandoned will flummox those fright fans looking for something gratuitous and gory. There is blood here, but it is used for emphasis and effect, not as the movie's entire reason for being. Similarly, the scares are saved to punctuate the aura of inevitability in the narrative. We know our hero and heroine are doomed, but the sudden shock of a spectral ghoul or a graphic flashback helps sever the suspense - at least, temporarily. Film students should study Cerdà for examples of how to milk sequences for their maximum macabre impact. In essence, it's all a matter of information management- what we know, what the characters know, and how that dichotomy plays out. By slowly unveiling its plot points in carefully considered bits, The Abandoned builds quite a head of sinister steam. That it doesn't manage to turn the release valve all the way to 'open' is one of the movie's minor flaws. The ending is good, and in perfect sync with the rest of the story, but it doesn't really deliver on the mountain of morbidity already in place. We want more of an impression than the one that's made.
Indeed, if Cerdà has a stylistic foible, it's the unending desire to implicate instead of clearly spell out. Many of The Abandoned's most effect moments come when the characters stop inferring and just let out with their fears. Nobility and stoicism tends to dampen the danger in a horror film. It can turn our lead into something of a reluctant action hero. Instead, helplessness is good for fear. Just ask the individuals populating Silent Hill, or any of the Saw films. Cerdà is definitely a director in love with the way cinema works. He appreciates the mind games and the ability of sound to be as horrifying as visible atrocities. But there will be those who believe that it all boils down to an exercise in implication and, as a result, dismiss everything that came before. Granted, The Abandoned does end on a grandiose whimper rather than a simple scream, and Cerdà sort of directs himself into a circle that's hard to escape from, but when you compare it to the slasher slop of something like Dark Ride, or the grade Z zombie stumble of Wicked Little Things, it's a masterpiece. About the only undeniable element of this above average fright flick is Nacho Cerdà's future as a filmmaker. While this effort is not without its problems, the outlook ahead seems very bright for this director's dark visions.
A confirmed student of the post-millennial school of green gray onscreen shivers, Cerdà's compositions for The Abandoned look gloomy - and gorgeous - on this DVD release. Maintaining the film's original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the color correction and balance between light and dark on this anamorphic widescreen transfer is terrific. The Bulgarian landscapes (substituting for the film's Russian backdrop) are simply stunning, and the image here captures it all in unbelievable optical power.
Even more important to Cerdà's strategy as a director, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is magnificent. There are several moments of ambient terror in The Abandoned, and the speakers respond with all manner of directional and spatial scares. The dialogue is easily discernible, and the balance between whispers and wails it flawlessly modulated. This is a very effective aural offering.
Sadly, the only bonus feature offered, aside from the standard collection of AfterDark/Lionsgate trailers, is a five minute Making-Of that is entertaining, but rather superficial. It gives us a few details (how the actors were chosen, Cerdà's mannerisms during production) but we never get enough insight to be truly satisfied. Instead, this is your basic EPK extra - and that's a shame. Almost every other DVD released from this festival is overloaded with added content. It seems surprising that the film voted 'fan favorite' would get the least aficionado friendly digital package.
Highly Recommended for those who enjoy a more subtle, sly sense of horror, The Abandoned announces that the talent and tenacity Nacho Cerdà showed in his short films easily translates onto the broader, bigger canvas of the full length feature. Devotees hoping that he maintains his high level of visceral violence will be greatly disappointed by this movie's minor amount of arterial spray. But in a realm becoming more and more reliant on blood to spell out its fear factors, it's nice to see a well intentioned, expertly mounted experiment in tone. Even if it doesn't conclude with a believable bang, there is still a great deal to appreciate about this movie.
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