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Friday, November 19, 2010

THE ABANDONED -- movie review by porfle

I have to go to the bathroom real bad, damn it.  But the bathroom is at the end of a dark hallway which is behind a closed door, and it's late, and I'm by myself. 

Watching scary movies by myself at night isn't the same as it was when I was a kid; rarely do I see one that cuts right through my adult sensibilities and makes me afraid to go down a dark hallway because there might be something creeping up behind me or because when I turn on the bathroom light that same something will be standing in there ready to lunge at me.  THE ABANDONED (2006), however, is one of those movies.

The story begins as Marie (Anastasia Hille) arrives in Moscow to track down her origins, having been adopted as an infant after her Russian mother was found brutally murdered.  She discovers that she has inherited the old home place, a sprawling, dilapidated farmhouse in the middle of the deep, dark woods between nothing and nowhere, and hires a farmer to take her there in his truck.  Before they leave, an old Russian woman pleads with her not to go, while other bystanders regard her with fear and sorrow.  It's very similar to the scene at the beginning of DRACULA in which the villagers beseech Renfield not to travel to the evil Count's castle, and we all know what happened to him.

After what seems like hours of travel, the driver leaves Marie alone in the woods at night, within walking distance of the house.  Out of the corner of her eye, Marie thinks she sees a ghostly figure glide across the path up ahead.  She reaches the really, really spooky old house and goes inside, peering into the deep darkness with her flashlight and making her way slowly through shadowy, cobwebbed rooms and corridors.  She hears noises.  And maybe a voice or two.  I'm thinking, "Would I be in that house at that time?  No, I would not."  I'm also thinking that there's gonna be a "jump" shock any second now, and I'm right--there is.  But expecting it doesn't help.  In fact, it just makes it worse.

A lot of horror flicks these days depend on jump shocks, which can startle the crap out of you for a few seconds but are soon forgotten.  This film is filled with them, but they're often only the beginning of a long sequence of sustained fear that doesn't subside after you've been soundly goosed.  The interplay of the various cinematic elements is masterful in these scenes--direction, photography, special effects, and acting are all outstanding--creating the sort of sustained terror that usually comes along only in your worst nightmares.  This movie, in fact, is like one long nightmare that you don't even fully wake up from when the end credits start rolling.

But back to Marie.  After the first really scary stuff happens, she discovers that there's someone else in the house with her.  That is, another living, flesh-and-blood someone.  He turns out to be her twin brother, Nicolai (Karel Roden of BLADE II and HELLBOY), who has also been drawn to the house trying to find out what awful thing happened to their mother there, forty years ago.  After suffering through one hellishly terrifying ordeal after another, they finally find out.  I'm not going to tell you any more of what happens, but when Nicolai has a sudden realization and says ominously to Marie, "We're haunting ourselves...", you just might be thinking: "No sh*t!"  One thing's for sure--the old "blank white eyeballs" thing has rarely looked scarier.

The last haunted house movie that tried to scare me was THE MARSH.  But it tried to do this with a bunch of obvious CGI and noisy, flashy effects.  THE ABANDONED has some CGI, too, but it's the best kind--the kind that tries not to look like CGI.  Both of these films contain a similar scene in which a decrepit old room goes backward in time to its original state, but the difference is stunning.  One scene seems to say "Look at this cool CGI!", while the other is more interested in maintaining your level of involvement in the scene itself.

THE ABANDONED looks great, with beautiful photography and imaginative editing worthy of an art film, always establishing and maintaining the right mood without being merely for show.  The sound design and haunting score also contribute substantially to the ominous atmosphere, making even the scenes of Marie arriving in Moscow seem forboding and pulsing with bad tidings for what's to come.

The house itself is a marvel of production design, a labyrinth of dingy rooms, spooky corridors, and ominous passageways that constantly had me muttering "Don't go in there!"  And with it, the stage is set for Spanish director Nacho Cerd√† to do his stuff.  To paraphrase a line from POLTERGEIST, he knows what scares you.  His handling of this type of material is masterful compared to the ham-fisted direction often seen in similar films.  And the two leads, Anastasia Hille and Karel Roden, are so good that they put the whole thing across with utter conviction.  It didn't even bother me that the last few minutes didn't really seem to make total sense, because the worst nightmares rarely do. 

I've seen a lot of horror films, especially of the haunted house variety, that tried their best to be scary but just didn't know how to do it, or how to sustain it all the way through to the end.  But THE ABANDONED knows how.  Boy, does it ever.  It left me feeling drained, stunned, entertained yet uncomfortably uneasy and disturbed; and most of all, really, really creeped out.  And I still have to go to the bathroom real bad, damn it.

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