Tuesday, 1 November 2011

SHIVER (2008)

This intriguing Spanish chiller seems to have taken a bit longer than usual to make it onto DVD in the UK. You’ll probably have guessed the general kind of thing you might expect from it though, thanks to the by now very well-established house style, seemingly followed by all modern Iberian horror films, which consists of stylish, bleached-out colour photography; big orchestral Danny Elfmanesque underscoring; and a middle-aged Spanish actress in one of the lead roles, who perfectly fits the criteria defined by the term ‘MILF’. The generically titled Shiver fits this bill almost perfectly. But although it takes a bit of time getting there, it does also eventually deliver some strikingly compelling scare sequences wrapped around a suggestive premise delineated with enough conviction to keep the mind from dwelling too long on its more fundamentally absurd qualities.

Director Isidro Ortiz seems to have spent the intervening seven years since the release of his co-directed debut feature Fausto 5.0 (2001) making little-seen Spanish TV movies. Shiver -- his first internationally recognised work since then -- is certainly a typical Spanish language genre piece, looking exactly the way you’d expect something that was produced by the backers of The Orphanage (2007) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) to look. It can often be very difficult to discern any directorially distinctive qualities amongst the new breed of Spanish-made flicks to mark out the work of one director in the genre from that of any of the others. But the formula keeps pumping out worthwhile movies and, after a slow start and an unnecessary diversion into the visual clichés of the ‘found footage’ genre at one point in the narrative, this definitely develops into a worthy addition to the group of films that exemplify that characteristic and popular Spanish horror style we all know.
Santi (Junio Valverde) is an introverted teenage student who suffers from severe photophobia, which means sunlight causes him great physical pain and distress, and might even result in disfigurement if he’s caught out in bright daylight for too long. The condition is also responsible for producing certain odd physical traits as he gets older, such as enlarged canine teeth. The obvious vampire analogy, here, is central to the film’s definition of the adolescent’s status as a group outsider among his peers: Santi has nightmares about being caught outside in the daytime, chasing the retreating shadows but haemorrhaging and burning up in the glare before he can reach the safety of home. At the special evening school lessons he’s forced to attend because of his condition, Santi is thought of as the ‘freak’ and the ‘weirdo’ of the college – the equivalent of the misunderstood movie monster, in other words: a label he’s happy to apply to himself, since he and his equally ‘different’ friend Leo (Jimmy Barnatán) are typical, popular culture-imbibing video game & movie geeks.
Santi’s condition is apparently worsening though, and medical experts tell his mother, Julia (Mar Sodupe) - a language translator, who has raised Santi alone since his waster of a gambling father took off and left them both – that she should consider moving to a region that’s doesn't expose him so directly to harsh sunlight. With that in mind, Julia rents a picturesque old cottage from a local storekeeper in an remote village nestled deep in the shadow of a valley in Northern Spain, and she and her son leave city life behind for the breath-taking beautify of the Spanish countryside below a towering, rocky ravine.
Santi is more than happy to escape the bullying atmosphere of his old college in Barcelona, but things turn out little better for him in his new home -- because pretty quickly things start going radically wrong after a series of strange events causes the villagers to look upon this new arrival with great suspicion. The locals seem a pretty unfriendly lot to start with, and react to newcomers with a frosty hostility that’s indicative of the inveterate torch-wielding mob. Santi finds himself once again the outsider and, once again, he ends up making friends with the kids who don’t quite fit in with the generally parochial atmosphere of the place; in this case, pretty loner Angelia (Blanca Suárez) and a bullied local kid called Tito (Pau Poch).
The first uncanny incident involves a local Shepard called Fabián (Andrés Herrera), a dubious-looking figure with a scarred face who is angry and distraught after one of his sheep is discovered savaged by what appears to have been a wolf-like creature. Then Santi wakes one night in the old stone cottage that’s now his home, to hear what sound like the padding, scuffling paws of an animal moving about in the loft!  Investigation reveals only the strange African tribal possessions of the former occupants – a German anthropologist couple who had a small daughter called Erica Hassel, whose framed photograph still remains on the sideboard in Santi’s room. When one of Santi’s schoolmates is viciously killed and mutilated in a similar attack, the new boy is implicated by hostile locals and by other students since he, Tito and the dead boy had all previously ventured into the forest surrounding the school on a dare, after Tito claimed to have seen some sort of creature there. Then Fabián is also murdered while in Santi’s presence, and the local police detective (Roberto Enríquez) investigating the two killings, can’t help but ponder the connection -- even though there is no DNA evidence linking Santi to the crimes.
The first half of the film plays much like any number of the standard Spanish horror-mysteries of recent years and relies too much on playing a frankly rather tedious cat-and-mouse game centred on hinting at the identity of the beast in the forest. Naturally, we’re meant to assume ‘werewolf’, just as we probably assumed Santi was a vampire when the film opened with what turned out to be one of his nightmares, playing on his fear of being caught in the daylight; the viewer is positively encouraged to contemplate, during this time, which of the central characters will actually in the end turn out to be the creature.
The reality (and look away for the rest of this lenghty paragraph if you don’t want any spoilers) goes right back to what many people see as one of the main origins of the werewolf myth -- namely the phenomenon of ‘feral children’ or children raised by animals in the wild. In one of the most extraordinarily terrifying sequences of recent years (one of two in the film that, alone, make it well worth seeing regardless of anything else that might be said about it) whose vivid nightmare imagery really captures the experience of night terrors or visitations, Santi wakes from sleep in his bedroom at night to see movement outside the room, visible in the crack beneath his bedroom door. The door slowly opens and a strange figure stands in the shadows, then edges agonisingly slowly into view, until its panting, twisted face is pressed up against the terrified adolescent, who’s transfixed with fear! It’s one of the most genuinely unnerving and effective moments I’ve seen in modern horror films, up there with Sadako crawling from the TV screen or the final reveal at the end of The Descent. But as we will learn later, this terrifying vision is in fact just a little girl, once lost in the jungles of Africa (or perhaps extracted from a primitive tribe by western parents – the rushed exposition is a bit unclear on the matter) and raised by the former occupants of the house in which Santi and his mother now live. As Santi, Angelia and his old pal Leo from Barcelona investigate what happened to little Erica Hassel, they uncover the existence of a creepy asylum for abandoned mentally deficient children run by nuns, and unearth a dreadful secret that’s being harboured by one of Santi’s villager neighbours, relating to the fate of those previous occupants of the cottage.
The use of digitally-graded colouring aids greatly in the development of the movie's particular aesthetically stylish pallor, and a truly atmospheric use of the mountainous, bucolic setting certainly  helps keep it looking visually dynamic and interesting; but Shiver works best when underlining the thematic connection between Santi and the ‘creature’ in the woods. The fact that the boy repeatedly encounters this apparition in a series of apparently semi-dream states on the edge of sleep emphasises his implicit subconscious identification with its ultimate outsider status; the feral creature is obviously drawn to him as well, because it similarly senses a kindred spirit in his profound separation from the rest of the community. The potential for interesting emotional content to emerge from such an unlikely relationship forming at the core of the film, provokes the thought that Ortiz is exploring areas that are obviously reminiscent of the portrayal of the central bond that was developed in Let the Right One In between Oskar and Eli (the original Swedish version was released the same year as this - 2008). Unfortunately the promise inherent in this intriguing area isn’t really expanded upon or brought out to its full potential, and many of the themes and narrative parallels between Erika and Santi, such as the asylum school in the Spanish countryside where Erika was at one time abandoned, which obviously recalls the night college Santi attended in Barcelona that helped nurse his feelings of apartness from most other students his own age, aren’t robust enough or fleshed out fully enough to connect as profoundly as they could have. Nevertheless, such sequences provide the film with even more instances of striking and strange-looking imagery.
Other than that, there are a few too many concessions to trendy visual gimmicks that have since dated rather more heavily than the central ideas that should have been left to propel the film’s storyline in the first place: When Santi, Angelia and Leo venture into the woods at night armed with a camcorder to try and find the ‘creature’s’ woodland lair, we have to endure a lengthy, green-tinged night-vision sequence made up of shaky camcorder imagery, during which the trio find the graves of the missing Hassel couple, which look like the mysterious stick-built objects discovered by the protagonists of The Blair Witch Project (1999) – the film which the whole visual style of this section appears to be modelled on.
Ultimately, the plot development that leads into the final act and which, in the end, brings a rapprochement between Santi and the ‘creature’, is fairly predictable, and results in a generic bad guy getting his gory and violent comeuppance by the creature’s hand. Elsewhere, Santi’s father really only enters the mix to provide more potential meat to feed the monster at a key moment in the narrative. But these few missteps, some rushed exposition and some fairly prosaic plot beats here and there can’t dilute the efficacy of what actually does work  – there are some great moments along the way that are as memorable as any in recent years, and serve as a compelling master-class in how to manifest spine-chilling imagery on the screen that lingers long in the imagination.
Second Sight bring Shiver to DVD in a bare bones release that features a fairly strong transfer and a decent stereo audio track in the film’s original Spanish language, with removable English subtitles.
TITLE: Shiver/MOVIE RELEASE DATE: 2008/DVD RELEASE DATE: 17 October 2011/GENRE: Spanish Horror/REGION: 2 PAL/ASPECT RATIO: 1.85:1/DIRECTOR: Isidro Ortiz/CAST: Junio Valverde, Mar Sodupe, Francesc Orella, Jimmy Barnatán, Blanca Suárez. RATING: 3/5
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