It’s been a whopping eight years since director, Nacho Cerda has graced us with his work. After provocative shorts such as The Awakening (90), Genesis (98) and the notorious, Aftermath (94), it’s hard to believe that The Abandoned is his feature-length debut. To say that expectations are running a bit high is an understatement. Thankfully, Cerda is up to the task. The Abandoned is undoubtedly a work of a master craftsman. So far, the trailer campaign has made the film appear to be a pedestrian, commercial effort but a few minutes in; all reservations are out the window. The Abandoned is Nacho Cerda’s vision through and through.
The film is about an American film producer named Marie, who returns to her homeland of Russia, where she has inherited an isolated farm that belonged to her natural parents. On arrival, Marie discovers Boris, who claims to have been lured in the same manner. Thus begins the journey to uncover the truth behind a mysterious past. Marie and Boris begin to be haunted by two ghosts who happen to be their own. The deeper they dig, the more revealing and horrifying the truth gets.
The Abandoned has all the signature trademarks from the “haunted house” sub-genre but what makes it standout from the lot, is its keen attention to storytelling and character development. The screenwriters clearly understand that in order for all of the pre-requisite scares and suspense set-pieces to effectively work, the viewer must be personally invested in the mystery of the plot and the personal journey in which the main characters must take. The story brilliantly draws on our knowledge of the classic genre clichés but just when the viewer thinks he or she knows where it’s going based on past films, a new element twists the story in a fresh and unpredictable direction. Naturally, it seems pretty obvious that these are the requirements of any genre film but sadly, this is rarely seen in modern horror. Trash fare such as Stay Alive, as well as, the Pulse and When A Stranger Calls remakes are ineffective because they completely elude the basic needs a viewer requires in order to personally invest themselves into a film. Filmmakers are asking the audience for approximately 90 minutes of their attention. The least they could do is justify why this particular story needs to be told and why the film should exist in the first place.
The Abandoned earns its existence in spades. It’s a refreshingly adult-oriented piece with two strong performances from Anastasia Hille and Karel Roden. The protagonists are middle-aged. Their children have grown up and have gone on with their own lives. The main characters, Marie and Boris are facing personal issues. In Marie’s case, her unknown past has greatly affected her ability to function as a parent. Her relationship with her daughter has been tainted. There is a genuine motivation going on in this film. This is not the same old story in which a group of one-dimensional characters unintentionally wander into a ghastly situation or decide to stay at an old, abandoned cottage to frolic. By using this tired device, the filmmaker is basically telling the audience that the characters are merely cattle to the slaughter. This is not a knock at these types of horror films at all. There will always be a warm place in a genre fans heart for greats such as Friday The 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes. But for every hit like Saw, comes a barrage of copycat rip-offs who completely mistake why we like the original in the first place. The studios believe that success comes from excess like more gore, a higher body count and elaborate death scenes. Those elements aren’t the reason why the original film that started the trend was good in the first place.
The Abandoned doesn’t jump on the bandwagon. Nacho Cerda is far more interested in creating an unsettling atmosphere than cheap, easy thrills. All of the scares are earned with Nacho’s masterful handling of suspense. The seamless blend of score and sound design is quite haunting. It enhances the tension without ever drawing attention to itself. The cinematography is simply stunning. It’s both beautifully stylish but with an underlining look of grittiness to it which enhances the film’s edge. The filmmakers have successfully made the forest and haunted house menacing again. Cerda treats the environment as another complex character. Its intense personality is felt within every moment. Like his early work, Cerda concentrates on a deliberate style of pacing. The film is not crammed with action beats at every turn. He lets the story build slowly but without ever easing up on the constant menace of the atmosphere. Scares come suddenly and without warning. There is never a moment where the viewer trusts the tone of the piece. These devices make the film that much more unsettling. Once the third act kicks in, Cerda turns up the intensity to the max. The special effects are especially eye-popping towards the film’s unrelenting finale. Also, considering how gory and disturbing Aftermath was, many might expect it to follow that route but it doesn’t. Don’t worry; whenever the blood flows, it is memorable and will no doubt satisfy hardcore fans. The zombie-like ghosts’ appearance and creepy trance-like performances feature elements reminiscent of Lucio Fulci’s ghouls. There is something creepy yet poignant about them which is unique.
The Abandoned is the most genuinely scary and intelligent horror film since Session 9. It contains that rare perfect mixture of substance and style. Cerda’s thematic exploration of death is further touched upon here but with a different perspective. One might be inclined to argue that this film is an optimistic view on this subject matter. The film’s haunting conclusion will linger not only on the basis of its visuals but the viewer’s perspective on the thought-provoking themes that were explored. How many modern horror films can claim to give a viewer more than just entertainment value? Sadly, there aren’t many. The Abandoned easily catapults Nacho Cerda as a force to be reckoned with. Hopefully, for his next creation, the wait won’t be nearly as long.