Saturday, July 25, 2009

To Let

To Let
Original Title: Para entrar a vivir
Directed by: Jaume Balagueró
Horror / Thriller, 68min
Spain, 2006
Distributed by: Noble Entertainment

A young couple comes to an almost derelict house to look at an apartment they have been told about. A strange landlady greets them and gives them a tour of the building, which is in a terrible state; although she assures them that they are rebuilding it. Scrambling up the stairs, past masses of mannequins they finally reach the apartment. Once inside the flat strange things start happening. Items that shouldn’t be there are there, unexplained noises from the neighboring apartments, and an eerie feeling crawls up the spines of the young couple as the landlady says things she shouldn’t know about the couple. But strangest of all is that the landlady talks to them as if they already have moved in and that it’s their apartment…

Jaume Balagueró. That’s one guy who holds a special place in my black cineaste heart. Just over a decade ago I met him at a Film Festival where Brian Yuzna introduced me to him. (Both where part of the Filmax delegation attending the festival) Balagueró was pre-producing his second feature Darkness (although it took him another three years to finally get it made). I had already seen the impressive promo as I had used it on a movie show I was editing at the time. So we spent some time talking about the promo, movies we liked and stuff like that that movie geeks like to talk about, and he spent so much time shooting the shit with me that I became a fan for real there and then. Because someone so sympathetic can’t really go wrong in my book. And I’m happy for that, as he just keeps the great movies rolling and his career is growing more and more impressive each and every year.

Originally part of “Tales to keep you awake” (Películas para no dormir!), the 2005-2006 Spanish equivalent to Mick Garris' Masters of Horror TV series, To Let is available separately from Noble Entertainment in Scandinavia probably to cash in on the success of their previous smash hit with Balaugeró’s REC. Although the US box set with the other five movies of the series is probably worth picking up too, because directors like Álex de la Iglesia, Narciso Ibáñez Serrador and Paco Plaza, to name a few contributed to the series.

To Let starts off with a spooky little montage setting up the apartment and showing a woman bloodied and battered carrying her crying child through the apartment. She is in her nightwear so we understand that it’s her apartment. Her photographs hang on the walls as she moves into a hallway before a blue light floods the small space leaving both her and the child screaming. Cut to the stairwell and fade to black. Fade up to an interior of a hospital, where a young woman walks out, climbs into a car and is greeted by a man who has been waiting. Here starts the tale of Mario [Adrià Collado who also played the lead in Rigoberto Casteñada’s confusing KM31: Kilometro 31] and Clara, [Macarena Gomez, who you may have seen in Stuart Gordon’s Dagon or Paco Plaza’s Rosamanta] a young couple desperately in need of their own place.

A fast introduction later (this is made for TV so it moves fast), we understand that Clara works at a hospital (She walks out of the aptly named St. Jaume’s hospital), she’s pregnant, they have no where to live and are spending time living with his parents, so off house hunting they go, Clara falls asleep and when she awakes Mario lets on that they are lost in the rain. Finally they arrive at their destination the house that has an apartment to let, yes the same one from the start we realize from the interior shots of the gigantic stairwell. The creepy landlady [Nuria González] guides them through the building and more or less talks to them as if they had already agreed to take the flat, which has Clara feeling at unease. The house is being renovated, the flat has been empty for a year, and it’s still furnished with the last tenants’ belongings. “It has everything a young couple would ever need!” the landlady explains just to be interrupted by a strange sound in the house. Only the child on the first floor the landlady explains and Clara has a dizzy spell. Mario and Clara take to one of the bedrooms so that Clara can lie down and rest, “You should rest in your condition.” The uncanny landlady says without ever being told Clara is with child. And this is just the start of the strange shit about to happen. Mario sees a pair of sneakers under a cabinet, sneakers just like the ones he bought last week, and in the bedroom, Clara finds a framed photograph of her and Mario which could not possibly have been in the flat…

This is the set up for this short movie, just over an hour, but still a very effective movie and it doesn’t loose any pace at all, quite the opposite as it rushes over the viewer with a great force leaving a stern uncomfortable impression after completed viewing. This honestly surprised me, because TV shows don’t usually have that effect, and I haven’t been this affected by an hours worth of TV horror since watching Roan Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected as a young lad. (Yeah the Georgy Porgy episode with Joan Collins which aired in the early 80's. There's a realy sinister aura to that episode that stuck with me for years.)

After the setup, Balagueró builds up to that sudden shock moment which kicks the movie into its next phase, the escape and survive phase. A sudden twist and rush of insight starts the phase off and then keeps plummeting Carla and Mario into this harrowing nightmare which is almost a mixture of Hitchcock-ian suspense meets SAW meets the Texas Chain Saw family. After a fantastic hide and seek sequence Balagueró uses some great eclectic, non linear editing to add to the confusion of where we are in time, jumping back and forth in the narrative before slamming us back in to the nightmare of the house.

The movie moves fast and in only those brief moments of establishment Balagueró manages to create empathy for the young couple and we really want to see them pull through. The above mentioned hide and seek sequence adds to that and miraculously there’s a cell phone scene that plays an important part here, but I’ll return to that later on.

There’s a few amazing scenes that I didn’t expect to see in a TV show, especially when considering that the Masters of Horror show isn’t really as scary as it could have been. It’s probably not fair to compare the MoH and Tales to Keep You Awake, buy honestly there’s not much else to compare it too, and the most of the MoH episodes do have you laughing, or at least sniggering, more than anything else. But To Let really rocks, it’s violent, its gory, it’s fast moving without any tedious sequences, it’s disturbing, innovative and utilizes the best use of shaky-cam that I’ve seen since Evil Dead 2 back in 1987. Cinematographer Pablo Rosso who also shot both of Balaugeró’s REC movies definitely knows what he’s doing and his compositions are visually very similar in tone and colors to the REC movies too. The gore is distressing too, and there’s an amazing kitchen sink disposal grinder sequence that has the characters slipping and sliding around in blood like Bambi on ice.

In more than one way I feel that this movie is brought to life first and foremost by Nuria González, who portrays the Landlady. González has mostly played in comedies and done long runs on TV serials, but she really dominates this movie, is absolutely amazing and definitely someone I want to see more of, because honestly she is one of the most disturbing characters I have seen in ages. Some one should cast her in a leading lady antagonist role as soon as possible.

There are some themes and items that keep reoccurring in a lot of the Spanish Horror flicks that have been turning up on the market these last few years, themes and items that are used in a very effective way considered how contemporary movies in the US use them in ridiculous ways.

Cell phones: As mentioned before there is a cell phone line in the early parts of the movie, and I hate it when cell phones don’t work in horror movies. Because in real life cell phones work almost everywhere, even as I write this from my house deep in the woods where there shouldn’t be any coverage, but there is. So it annoys the crap out of me when ever some lame protagonist pulls up a phone just to show that there is no coverage. Keep the sodding phone off screen and we won’t be insulted over and over again. But, Balagueró and co-writer Alberto Marini do the right thing and use the cell phone in an original way, and not just as a stupid one off scene. Clara has coverage and uses her phone on three occasions. First when Clara calls the cops after the initial attack. She calls them, but to no use as she was asleep when they drove to the address, she has no idea where she is and can’t tell the cops where to come. The second time she tries to find out where she is and calls her mate who we presume lives in the same house as Clara and Mario, as Clara tells her mate Nicky to look through her mail for a flyer announcing a flat to let, because if she gets the address, she can tell the cops where to come save her. Clara hangs up as she once again tries to escape the Landlady. The final time is during the hide and seek scene. Clara just by the inch of a hair manages to evade the sinister Landlady only to have her silly little cell phone signal give her hiding place away. Now that is how to use a cell phone in a horror flick set in an urban milieu.

Children; most of these Spanish horror flicks rely heavily on children as protagonists in either main roles or as secondary parts in subplots. It’s a fairly decent plot device, as children evoke empathy and this trick has been used for ever in the horror genre, but of lately almost every Spanish genre piece features children in either protagonist or antagonist roles. Balagueró uses them all the time (Los Sin Nombre, Darkness, Fragile, REC etc), Guillermo Del Toro likes using them (Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth) Juan Antonio Bayona uses them in The Ophanage… See there is definitely something going on here. I don’t know why, but my theory is that it has something to do with all those children who spent time in Franco’s orphanages after the war and suffered up until his death in 1975. This could be why so many of the movies also have hauntings' taking place in orphanages; Fragile, Devil’s Backbone, The Orphanage etc.

I’d like to say something about the ending of the movie, but I really don’t want to spoil this brilliant little short, so all I’ll say is that Balagueró sticks to one of his traditional traits during the final scene and leaves the viewer with a disorder in their gut.

The worst thing about To Let is the terribly silly soundtrack which at times works fine but then it pops over to a sort of 50’s sci-fi warble at times which really hurls me out of the atmosphere that has been crafted so delicately. It’s a pity because that whoohooweeeeewhooohwww sound is only effective if you are watching Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Out Of Space or paying homage it, like Burton’s Mars Attacks. Otherwise keep the hell away from it.

But apart from unexplainable little slipup with Roque Baños score, Jaume Balagueró’s entry to the six episode serial, Tales to Keep You Awake, is a must see for fans of the later wave of Euro horror and a very entertaining movie indeed.

Widescreen 1.78:1 [Anamorphic]

Spanish dialogue, Dolby Digital 5.1. Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish subtitles are optional.

That great All the Boys Love Mandy Lane trailer that suckered me into watching that piece of crap, and the trailer for the diabolical film The Mist.

Be aware, this promo does contain spoilers...

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