foreign film

Nightstream Capsule Review: The Queen of Black Magic

Indonesian horror fans will not want to miss The Queen of Black Magic at Nightstream Fest. Many of those fans will no doubt recognize the name of this film’s screenwriter, Joko Anwar (Impetigore, Satan’s Slave). Directed by Kimo Stamboel (Killers, Headshot), the film introduces the audience to three friends reuniting at the orphanage where they grew up to pay their respects to the dying owner. With their families in tow, they start to realize this isn’t the happy reunion they thought it would be.

The Queen of Black Magic is an intense watch. It wastes no time in setting up the tension, which quickly spirals into terror. It seems like there is a new shocking twist at every turn, but not to the point the plot becomes convoluted. The main cast is huge, and they are all wonderful to watch. Some of the standouts are Ario Bayu (Impetigore, Java Heat), Hannah Al Rashid (V/H/S 2, Gundala), and Putri Ayudya (Gundala, Homecoming).

In addition to the strong performances and intricate yet frightening plot, there are also plenty of disturbing scenes. Using both CGI and practical effects, the filmmakers create images that are sure to haunt some viewer’s nightmares. Each scene is beautifully done, even when dripping with blood and gore. The Queen of Black Magic is a terrifying film that will keep you guessing until the bitter, violent end.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Nightstream Capsule Review: 32 Malasaña Street

Spanish direct Albert Pintó (RIP, Killing God) brings 32 Malasaña Street to Nightstream Fest audiences. This eerie supernatural film is written by Ramón Campos (High Seas, Cocaine Coast), Gema R. Neira (High Seas, Cocaine Coast), David Orea (Kaan Kun, 45 rpm), and Salvador S. Molin (45 rpm, Domingo). The film follows a family risking it all to move from the country to the big city in 1976 Spain. Their dreams are quickly dashed when they realize something else lives in their new home.

For the first 2/3 of this film, I was in love. It wastes no time in creating well-earned, bone-chilling scares that had me watching from behind my hands. The entire cast is also fantastic, especially Begoña Vargas (High Seas, A Different View) as teenage Amparo. Horror fans will also immediately recognize Javier Botet (Mama, The Conjuring 2) both in and out of his frightening creature makeup. The makeup for Botet’s creature is as gorgeous as it is terrifying.

It’s impossible for me to say what I didn’t like about the last 1/3 of 32 Malasaña Street without being too spoilery and revealing the climax of the film. However, I will say there are two aspects of that climax that I take issue with. It’s truly unfortunate because, up until that point, I thought the film delivered the kind of thrills and story that could allow it to stand next to other recent favorites like The Conjuring and Insidious. 32 Malasaña Street has a promising and terrifying beginning, but falls apart when it matters most.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10

Fantasia Review: Detention

Taiwan in 1962 was experiencing the White Terror martial law period. Two high school students awake to find themselves trapped in the abandoned high school. As they try to stay alive, the duo must also figure out how they got there while also trying to escape before it’s too late.

Fantasia International Film Festival continues its run of fantastic foreign films with Taiwan’s Detention. The film is the feature-film debut of director John Hsu and is co-written by Hsu, Shih-Keng Chien (On Children, The Victim), and Lyra Fu (A-Tsuí & Kok-Siông, Close Your Eyes Before It’s Dark). Detention is my favorite kind of foreign horror film because it not only tells a frightening story, but it also reveals a piece of Taiwan’s history that I wasn’t familiar with. The filmmakers waste no time in setting up the tense situation the characters are in. At first, we see the students in their military-like high school, but then the two students wake up alone in the darkened school. They see a number of bizarre and terrifying things as they walk the halls, trying to remember what lead to them being trapped in this situation. Between the gradual reveal of clues and the haunting things these students encounter, the film becomes a suspenseful supernatural thriller that also acts as a metaphor for the horrors of living under martial law.

The mostly young cast of Detention is incredibly talented. Gingle Wang (On Children, The Outsiders) plays the young Fang. We quickly learn that Fang is a quiet, shy girl who mostly follows the rules. Unfortunately, she lets a crush consume her so she can’t see the consequences of her actions. Wang does a fantastic job of showing the duality of Fang’s innocence and how vindictive she can truly be, while still making Fang an overall sympathetic character. Chin-Hua Tseng (The Name Engraved in Your Heart, Workers) plays Wei. Like Fang, Wei also allows a crush to cloud his better judgement, but he cares much more about others and the state of the country he lives in. Wei works with a small group of students who copy banned books, knowing if he is caught, he could be killed. Tseng strikes a perfect balance between Wei’s desire to do good and his young male infatuations.

From start to finish, the team behind Detention took great care to create something with visual interest. At first, the set and the costumes help to tell the story of the time period. The audience quickly picks up on the strict, government-controlled life the students live. It also helps to establish the danger the students are in from real-world factors. When the students wake up in the abandoned school, it is almost like an alternate reality. The school is derelict and contains clues to what happened to the kids in real life. Between the creepy set design and a combination of disturbing practical and CGI effects, Detention transports audiences to another world that mirrors what’s happening in the real world.

Detention creates a stunning metaphor to express the real-life horrors of Taiwan in the 60’s. Hsu, Chien, and Fu weave together a tale that is as frightening as it is heartbreaking. It feels somewhat reminiscent of Sucker Punch, albeit slightly more competent and with more historical relevance. The film boasts great performances from the entire cast, gorgeous visuals, and also teaches audiences a bit of Taiwanese history they likely weren’t aware of. It’s a sad, beautiful film that delivers as many chills as it does heart.

OVERALL RATING: 8.5/10

Fantasia Review: The Undertaker’s Home

An undertaker, his wife, and his stepdaughter live in the home behind his business. This dysfunctional family is plagued by spirits of the dead who have come through the mortuary. They seek out spiritual guidance to protect themselves and soon learn the horrifying truth behind their ghostly inhabitants.

All the way from Argentina, Fantasia International Film Festival brings audiences a twisted supernatural ride. The Undertaker’s Home is the film debut of writer and director Mauro Iván Ojeda. When we are first introduced to the undertaker and his family, they already have precautions in place so they can live side-by-side with the spirits in their home. Each of them reacts differently to the ghosts and it is these differences that gradually reveal the cracks dividing this family unit. Things eventually get worse and they are forced to seek further help to coexist with the spirits, but they learn there is something far more sinister lurking in the dark. What is interesting about the film is how we are thrown in the middle of the haunting. They have clearly lived here for a long time and already sought help.

From there we dive into the undertaker, his wife, and his stepdaughter individually. They all have different reasons for staying in the home and react very differently to the ghosts. While it is fascinating and I wish it was the primary focus of the film, it instead detracts from the film as a whole because there is no clear single plot driving the film forward. It isn’t until the last act of the film that some semblance of that driving force is introduced, but it feels far too late for it to really add weight to what the audience just watched. The final moments also add a sentimentality that is absent from the rest of the film, making it come across as forced and awkward.

All of the performances in The Undertaker’s Home are well done, but they don’t incite the intended emotional reaction. This is likely more to do with how the characters were written rather than the performances of the individual actors. Luis Machín (Necrophobia 3D, Cain y Abel) plays the undertaker, Bernardo. His character has the most interesting relationship with the spirits, seeming to use them for his own personal fulfillment. Machín plays Bernardo quite well and makes the character both sympathetic and pathetic all at once. Celeste Gerez (Historias de diván, La venganza de Ambar) plays the wife, Estela. Estela clearly has had a difficult life. Gerez’s performance shows how detached she has become to her loved ones, even her daughter, because of that past. Finally we have Camila Vaccarini (Paisaje) as Estela’s daughter, Irina. Right away it is clear that Irina doesn’t want to live with her mother and stepfather, but she stays in the house in hopes of seeing one specific spirit in the home. Vaccarini’s performance is definitely a standout, especially in the final act of the film as the family attempts to rid themselves of the evil.

The filmmakers make an interesting choice to not show much of the spirits within the home. Instead, The Undertaker’s Home relies on different visuals to imply the presence of ghosts. Most immediately obvious is a red line that seems to divide the spaces meant for the family vs meant for the ghosts. The family’s side is clean and tidy, while the ghost side is left to collect dust and trash. It’s a surprisingly strong visual aid that allows the audience to constantly feel as though something is waiting just on the other side of the line. We only see the strongest of ghosts in a physical form, but even then they are primarily in shadow and never completely visible, maintaining their mystery.

The Undertaker’s Home creates an interesting premise, but it fails to follow through with a cohesive plot. For a feature-film debut, this is still quite a strong start for Ojeda as it shows quite a bit of potential that could benefit from just a bit more finesse. The idea there and the performances are strong even if the characters aren’t fully realized. While I don’t love the film, I enjoyed elements of it enough that I am quite interested to see what Ojeda does in the future.

OVERALL RATING: 5/10

Fantasia Review: Free Country

A couple of years after German reunification, two detectives, one from the West side and one from the East side, are forced to work together on a case. Two teenage girls have gone missing in a small community. The detectives must work through their differences while uncovering the many secrets the remote town has to hide.

Fantasia International Film Festival brings audiences yet another fascinating film from Germany. Free Country is directed by Christian Alvart (Pandorum, Antibodies), who also co-wrote the film with Siegfried Kamml, who makes his feature-film screenwriting debut. The film was adapted from the screenplay, Marshland, by Spanish screenwriters Alberto Rodríguez and Rafael Cobos. Free Country follows two detectives who meet for the first time when they arrive at a remote town to investigate the disappearance of two teenage girls. One detective lived and worked on the West side before the Berlin Wall came down, the other on the East. They have very different methods and moral compasses when it comes to their jobs. As they work through the mystery around the young girls, they also have to navigate how to work with each other. It creates an interesting dynamic because at times their methods are at odds with each other, but at times one detective’s strength brings about at least a small break in the case. It creates a slow-burn, neo-noir thriller fraught with tension from the moment the two men meet all the way to the suspenseful end.

Both leads in Free Country do a fantastic job as the detectives. Trystan Pütter (Toni Ernmann, Anonymous) plays Patrick Stein. Patrick is from the West side and was sent to this remote town as a sort of punishment. He is the more honest, straight-laced of the two detectives, and Pütter does a great job of making Patrick seem capable, but also a bit soft. Felix Kramer (Dark, Anatomy 2) plays the more hardened East side detective, Markus Bach. Markus is used to making his own rules when it comes to investigating crime. Kramer shines as this gruff man who is having difficulty adjusting to the new order now that there is no divide between East and West. These two men play off of one another quite well as they go back and forth between being at odds with each other and looking out for each other’s backs.

The film expertly transports the audience into the past. Free Country is set in Germany during the early 90’s. Great care was put into many visual aspects to maintain that time period. Everything from the clothes, to the cars, to the technology (or lack thereof) maintain that early 90’s feel. Free Country also has a griminess to it that is often a signature of neo-noir films. The film is tinged with yellow, making it appear old, dirty, and weathered. This look goes hand-in-hand with the desolate town on the East side where life was harder than it was for those in the West. The buildings are more run down and the people don’t have the nicest clothes. Every visual is an indicator of the hard life these townspeople lead and why many are so desperate to head West.

Free Country is a German time capsule wrapped around a neo-noir thriller. Alvart and Kamml do a fantastic job of adapting a Spanish screenplay to fit into German history, while also maintaining the suspenseful investigation into the teen girls’ disappearances. The visually appealing film greatly benefits from stunning performances from the two stars, Pütter and Kramer. They both deliver powerhouse performances on their own and as a duo. The final moment might leave a bit to be desired, but Free Country will still be a hit to crime-thriller enthusiasts around the world (including my mom).

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Fantasia Review: Fried Barry

Barry is a piece of shit. He’s a drug addict, he’s violent, and he’s a horrible husband and father. After a bender, he’s abducted by aliens. They return his body back to Earth, but it’s being controlled by an alien who explores human life through human eyes.

When you think of strange films you might discover at Fantasia International Film Festival, Fried Barry perfectly fits the bill. While he has created dozens of short films, this is the feature film debut for South African writer and director Ryan Kruger. Inspired by his short film of the same name, Fried Barry is a strange sci-fi/horror/comedy mash-up. Kruger makes sure the audience immediately dislikes Barry, which makes his eventual abduction and probing (yes, I said probing) simultaneously disturbing and humorous. It’s when the alien goes back down to Earth using Barry’s body that things really get strange. The alien gets a front row seat to the underbelly of human civilization as Barry goes from one misadventure to the next, often resulting in violence, sex, and psychedelic drug-induced insanity.

Fried Barry is the kind of film that will likely be polarizing. Audiences will either love it or hate it. The one main plot is simply the alien navigating through South Africa and learning about humans. Yet again and again alien Barry finds himself in increasingly strange and dangerous predicaments. It results in multiple subplots that make the film, at times, seem like an anthology with Barry as the connecting thread. Many of these misadventures show the seedy underbelly of South Africa. Part of me wishes there had been a bit more to the plot, such as a clearer motivation for the alien controlling Barry or something else driving the film forward, but it is still a film that sticks with you.

While Fried Barry has a rather sizable cast, there is one performance that takes over the film. Gary Green (Escape Room, Three Suspects) plays the titular character, Barry. As Barry, Green does a great job of making the character unlikeable. It’s when Barry is controlled by the alien that Green’s performances truly shines. Green already kind of has an alien appearance to him. He’s quite gaunt and skeletal, has penetrating eyes, and has an intensity about him. Alien Barry doesn’t talk much, so Green has to rely on his physicality to convey what the character is thinking and feeling at any given moment. It’s really a phenomenal performance and a large part of why I enjoy the film.

From start to finish, this film assaults the senses. Fried Barry has a general griminess to it. Each scene feels dirty enough to make your skin crawl, which fits the overall tone of the plot. Yet this griminess is broken up by scenes of vibrant, hallucinatory colors and images to convey Barry’s more drug-fueled moments and the abduction itself. Then there is the musical score by Haezer (The Experimental Witch, Nobody Dies). Much like the visuals, the music is gritty and vibrantly synth in turn, fitting perfectly with each image on the screen.

Fried Berry takes audiences on a strange journey that will make you laugh while also making you feel like you need a shower. This film is an incredibly strong feature film debut from Kruger that truly shows his filmmaking prowess. Green’s portrayal of Berry definitely helps to make the film a standout at Fantasia International Film Festival. While it won’t appeal to every viewer, it is guaranteed to be a memorable viewing experience that makes audiences laugh and cringe in turn.

OVERALL RATING: 7/10

Impetigore

After a deadly encounter with a stranger, Maya decides to learn more about the parents she never knew. With her best friend Dini in tow, they travel to a small village where Maya might be from. They soon regret ever trying to uncover the secrets of Maya’s past.

Beloved Indonesian writer and director, Joko Anwar (Satan’s Slaves, Folklore) brings audiences around the world new terror. Impetigore wastes no time in bringing suspense to the screen. The protagonist, Maya, has a frightening encounter at work that leaves her shaken and questions her past. She was raised by her aunt and knows almost nothing about her parents or where she comes from. From there, the tension continues to build as the two friends arrive at the remote village and get a chilly reception from the locals. Anwar takes his time with the plot, allowing the audience to connect with the two female leads. He also takes his time in revealing shocking revelation after shocking revelation leading to the explosive finale. There are so many secrets to unpack throughout the film and each one manages to be more surprising than the last. This focus on building suspense and minor scares over bigger jump scares and horror leads to an edge-of-your-seat viewing experience. It also results in a film that stands apart from others like it and an ending you won’t see coming.

One of the things I love about watching foreign horror films, and Impetigore specifically, is learning about different cultures. Every culture has its own legends, customs, and ghosts. Impetigore offers a fascinating glimpse into the customs of a rural Indonesian village and their unique view of curses. While the legends are incredibly interesting, the integration of traditional Indonesian puppetry is not only stunning, but it adds another captivating cultural aspect. As an anthropology major, I greatly appreciate when a horror film can be eerie as well as a learning experience.

Impetigore has a wonderful cast who all deliver haunting performances. Tara Basro (A Copy of My Mind, Gundala) stars as Maya. Basro gives off an air of innocence, which works well for her character. She is unaware of her past and deals with new information as best she can throughout her hellish journey. Marissa Anita (Gundala, Folklore) plays Maya’s best friend, Dini. Dini is a much more outspoken character and Anita perfectly shows how she is Maya’s protector and does what she can to be a supportive friend. Ario Bayu (Java Heat, Soekarno) plays the village elder, Ki Saptadi. Bayu’s portrayal of this character is memorable because he comes across as a very calm, stately man, but he also manages to convey a sinister nature in his eyes. Honorable mention goes to Christine Hakim (Eat Pray Love, The Golden Cane Warrior) and Asmara Abigail (Gundala, Satan’s Slaves). Together these two women offer two differing points of view of the superstitions of the small village.

Every scene in Impetigore is gorgeous and atmospheric. The film opens in the big city, but as soon as Maya and Dini travel to the village it’s as if they have been transported to another time. The set and production design are truly stunning to behold from the smaller huts to the grand house Maya’s parents once owned. The puppetry scenes are also quite beautiful. It is a traditional Indonesian form of puppetry that utilizes light to project the shadows of the puppets onto a screen. The use of light and dark, like with the puppets, is a common theme throughout Impetigore. In the village there is no electricity, so many of the night scenes are lit by candlelight. It creates an unsettling ambiance while also making each scene captivating. On top of that, there is even a surprising amount of disturbing and realistic practical effects that result in rather shocking scenes.

Impetigore is a bewitching Indonesian horror film that drips with atmosphere and spins an intricate web of magic and deception. Joko Anwar proves yet again that he is a talented storyteller. His handle on Indonesian folklore allows the rest of the world to be exposed to his frightening tales. The performances from the entire cast are delightful, especially Basro’s portrayal of Maya. Through the slow unravelling of the mystery of Maya’s family, audiences will not be able to look away at the truly fantastic visuals. And, because I unfortunately still have to do this for some people, I will warn audiences that the film is subtitled. Yet I hope that won’t deter anyone from feasting upon all Impetigore has to offer.

OVERALL RATING: 9/10

Metamorphosis

After a failed exorcism, a Korean priest is questioning his faith and if he should remain in the priesthood. Shortly after, his brother’s family begins to experience strange happenings that become increasingly violent. It soon becomes clear that the vengeful demon is back to destroy the ones the priest loves.

Director Hong-seon Kim (Traffickers, The Chase) brings horror fans a frightening new possession film with Metamorphosis. The Korean horror film opens on the priest conducting an exorcism. It does not end well, and the demon makes it clear it wants to destroy his family. The focus then shifts to the brother’s family. Kim does a beautiful job of building the tension within the family unit, planting various seeds of doubt. There is a sense of paranoia for the viewer as we have to try and determine which family member is possessed and if what we are seeing is real or an illusion created by the demon. It conveys how easy it is for the devil and demons to play with the human mind and eventually take control. Many of the themes and images will be familiar to horror fans who have seen a fair amount of demonic possession films, but Metamorphosis still manages to pack a few surprises in there as well.

For the most part, the storytelling in Metamorphosis flows beautifully. The audience is given just enough information to understand what’s going on, but then shocking revelations are made to keep things interesting. That being said, there are some tangents, superfluous scenes, and extraneous characters. These scenes don’t necessarily take away from the plot, but they don’t really add anything to the film and could easily be cut. The tangents could be a hallmark difference between Korean and American films, as this is something I have noticed in other great Korean horror films. There is also a sequence of events that takes place in which audiences might wonder why the parents aren’t more concerned about the whereabouts of one of their children. Despite the distractions taking place to keep the parents occupied, it still seems a bit odd.

I was blown away by the performances in this film. Sung-Woo Bae (The King, The Swinders) plays the young exorcist, Joong-soo. Not only is Bae the driving force of this film, but he perfectly conveys how tortured Joong-soo is and his lack of confidence in his ability to save his family. Dong-il Sung (Take Off, The Cursed) plays Joong-soo’s brother, Gang-goo. Not only does Sung play Gang-goo, the loving father and husband, but he also plays a demonic version of himself. The moments where he plays his sinister doppelgänger are absolutely chilling to watch. Then there are the rest of the family members who all give equally fantastic performances. This includes Young-nam Jang (A Werewolf Boy) as Myung-joo, Hye-Jun Kim (Kingdom) as Sun-woo, Yi-Hyun Cho (Hospital Playlist) as Hyun-joo, and Kang-Hoon Kim (Lucid Dream) as Woo-jong.

There is a surprising amount of great practical effects throughout Metamorphosis. The most obvious is the transformation of individuals who are possessed. They all have prosthetics added to their face to give them a subtle, demonic look that is consistent with each individual. What is most shocking is the practical effects for all the horrific injuries. They are gory and realistic in a way I don’t typically expect from a possession film. There is a bit of CGI throughout the film as well, but for the most part it is minimal. The only exception is an excessive amount of crows throughout the film that act as a symbol for the demon, but they aren’t quite as well done as the rest of the effects. Between the practical effects, the cinematography, and the atmosphere created, there are a few different scenes that manage to make me jump out of my seat.

Metamorphosis is an achievement in atmospheric terror that results in one of the best possession films I’ve seen in years. It’s a perfect blend of the Catholic traditions we know from possession horror films and more uniquely Korean horror. Despite some of the scenes that seem unnecessary for the plot, Kim still proves he can tell a masterful tale dripping with suspense. Enhanced by the dynamic performances and gruesome practical effects, this is one film even those who hate subtitles won’t want to miss.

OVERALL RATING: 8/10

Yummy

In a secluded Eastern European hospital, a woman goes to get breast reduction surgery while her mother is getting more work done to look younger. While they are prepped for surgery, the woman’s boyfriend accidentally stumbles upon something he shouldn’t have, unleashing a nightmarish zombie outbreak inside the hospital walls.

This zombie gore-fest hails all the way from Belgium. Lars Damoiseaux (10 jaar leuven kort, Undercover) directed and co-wrote the film along with Eveline Hagenbeek (Undercover, Rokjesdag). Yummy takes humorous jabs at plastic surgery and the lengths people will go to feel young and beautiful, while also delivering copious amounts of blood and guts. When we are introduced to the young woman, her mother, and her boyfriend, it creates an interesting dynamic. This is especially evident with mother and daughter. The daughter has the “God given gift” of very large natural breasts, but she hates the attention they bring her so she wants breast reduction. The mother, on the other hand, has already had multiple procedures to look younger and comes to the hospital wanting more. While both sides represent being unhappy with who you are and the way you look, the mother is the more traditional view of plastic surgery most viewers will think of. The film creates a kind of “be careful what you wish for” scenario as the doctors accidentally created the zombie virus in their quest to unlock the secrets of eternal youth. It sends a strong message, but it also allows the filmmakers to inject quite a few laugh-out-loud moments.

While for the most part Yummy delivers lots of fun along with the carnage, there are some drawbacks. There are one or two scenes that lean a bit too far into the realm of distasteful humor. It’s clear they want to push the envelope, especially with some of the effects, but it ends up bordering on offensive. That being said, most of the practical effects throughout Yummy are very well done. There are a lot of terrifying and gruesome zombies in this film and each one looks fantastic. In a few scenes there are practical effects to replicate cosmetic surgery or other aspects of the human body and those are also quite realistic. The film even has a great score, although during one scene it sounds very similar to the score from 28 Days Later.

There are many great performances in Yummy, but three stand out. The first is Maaike Neuville (De Dag, Clan) as Alison. What really stands out about Neuville’s performance is how she conveys being uncomfortable with her own body. Alison doesn’t want the attention her breasts give her, and the attention most women at the clinic desire, and Neuville excels at showing us that. Bart Hollander (Salamander, Callboys) plays Alison’s boyfriend, Michael. Michael is like a big, maybe slightly pathetic puppy dog; he’s goofy and hates the sight of blood, but he clearly adores Alison. Hollander plays this role well, especially when his many attempts to be the hero don’t quite work out. Then there is Benjamin Ramon (Carnival, Toxic Anyway) as hospital employee Daniel. Ramon does a fantastic job of being incredibly sleazy in one moment, then completely sweet in the next, depending on who he’s interacting with. These three actors also play off of each other very well.

Yummy is a zombie cautionary tale about the consequences of trying to look young forever. Damoiseaux and Hagenbeek definitely create a film that is as funny as it is grotesque. Gore hounds will be delighted with how drenched in blood and guts Yummy is from start to finish. There may be a couple of distasteful moments and a mildly lackluster ending, but it is sure to entertain viewers. The performances and cosmetic surgery hospital backdrop help to make this zombie film stand alongside others of its kind, even if it doesn’t stand above them. And because in this day and age some people still refuse to watch a film with subtitles, I will let potential viewers know that it’s about 50/50 English vs subtitles. If you’re looking for mindless fun, then this is definitely a great choice.

OVERALL RATING: 6/10

Tigers Are Not Afraid

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Drug wars have turned cities into ghost towns. They have also left children without parents or homes, forced to fend for themselves on the streets. After Estrella’s mother doesn’t come home, she is left to seek shelter and help from a group of orphaned boys. Their fight for survival on those unkind streets takes the children down a twisted fairy tale complete with wishes, zombies, and tigers.

Written and directed by Issa López (Casi Divas, Ladies’ Night), this film is one of the most talked about indie horror films of the year. Much of the talk about Tigers Are Not Afraid is thanks to legendary director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water) singing its praises. Much like traditional fairy tales, the film opens by introducing us to the lovely “princess” in the form of Estrella. Everything that happens in the film is either shown from her point of view or the leader of the orphaned boys, Shine. They are all doing their best to survive on the streets while avoiding the cartels. At the same time, Estrella is haunted by the memory of her mother and the weight of three chalk pieces that may or may not be able to grant her wishes. She bears this weight all on her own since the other orphans don’t see the things Estrella sees. This childlike point of view allows for the reality of the brutal crimes happening all around the kids to seamlessly blend together with the fantastical elements. The result is an incredibly unique story that is as unsettling as it is beautiful.

All of the main characters in Tigers Are Not Afraid are children, and each of them is a joy to watch on the screen. Young leading lady, Paola Lara, makes her feature film debut as Estrella. When Estrella joins the group of boys, she immediately takes on a maternal role, yet her longing for her mother keeps her trapped in the twisted fairy tale. Lara manages to show a certain amount of vulnerability, while also showing how Estrella is able to adapt in order to survive. Also making his feature film debut is Juan Ramón López as Shine. His performance, for me, is the stand-out of the film. Poor Shine is both emotionally and physically scarred from losing his mother to the cartels. Shine takes care of the other boys and takes on a tough-guy persona, but López shows the ocean of emotional depth hidden just beneath the surface of that persona. Both Lara and López are great on screen together, naturally taking on the roles of mother and father to the other boys despite being kids themselves. The other children in their small band of orphans are also a joy to watch, including Hanssel Casillas (Sitiados: México) as Tucsi, Rodrigo Cortés as Pop, and Nery Arredondo as the adorable Morrito.

The film is a feast for both your eyes and ears. As the film begins, the sets are slightly run down apartments and makeshift rooftop shelters. Then the fairy tale element is played up more throughout the film when the kids discover what appears to be an abandoned old mansion. What might be the most surprising artistic element of Tigers Are Not Afraid is the superb use of CGI. For the most part, the effects themselves are subtle, but because they all relate to the fantasy in the plot the effects still stand out. There are dragons, sentient blood trails, tigers, and more all done with gorgeous CGI. Then of course the plot is emphasized by the melancholy and captivating score by composer Vince Pope (Misfits, Black Mirror). The film is stunning on how well it combines the horrors of life and nightmares with the hope of children and their fairy tales.

Tigers Are Not Afraid is a uniquely dark fairy tale rooted in the real life horrors experienced by children. López has shown the world she can not only write a compelling film, but she can also direct and bring it to life in a way that is simultaneously haunting and heartbreaking. It is the kind of film that can make the audience feel the full gamut of emotions through effective storytelling and fantastical visuals, not to mention the amazing performances from the entire cast of young actors. One thing I will warn people of is that this Mexican film is in Spanish and is subtitled. While this should never deter a viewer from watching a film, I know in this day and age many people shy away from subtitled films. Tigers Are Not Afraid is the kind of film that will be noticed by a wide range of audiences, not just horror fans. I can’t wait to see what López does next.

OVERALL RATING: 9.5/10