Saturday, June 27, 2009

Los Sin Nombre (1999)

aka The Nameless

Claudia's (Emma Vilarasau) little daughter Angela has been kidnapped by a person or persons unknown. The girl must have been gone for quite some time already when the film starts, so the responsible police inspector Massera (Karra Elejalde) does not seem to hold out much hope for her survival. The parents' worst fears are confirmed when the police find the mutilated corpse of a child at about Angela's age. It's difficult to identify her precisely, though, because her killers have made some efforts to destroy anything that would make her easily identifiable by crushing the child's teeth and dissolving her body in acid. Still, what is left of the girl has the same shortened leg as Angela did, and there is a bracelet that belongs to her found close by, so Massera is reasonably sure that it is in fact the poor child he was looking for in the first place.

Five years later, Claudia still hasn't recovered from the loss. Her husband has left her long since and she is mostly keeping a sane face by popping copious amounts of pills. Around the fifth anniversary of her daughter's when her depression is at its worst, Claudia gets a strange phone call - a girl pretending to be Angela tells her that she is in fact still alive, held all this time by the people who kidnapped her. Angela wants Claudia to come and get her. She is at an old beach sanatorium her mother should remember well.

Claudia does in fact remember the sanatorium as a place close to a beach she and her husband took Angela to quite often. This, and her desperate wish for her daughter to be alive, is enough to make her believe the voice on the phone.

When Claudia arrives at the deserted sanatorium, she finds nothing except for a few mattresses, and books and brochures about pain. This is enough for her to go to Massera for help.

The inspector has just quit his job at the police after a prolonged leave of absence caused by (I suppose) the depressive meltdown he had when his wife and newborn child died in childbed. Massera is in his own way just as broken as Claudia is and agrees to look into the old case again out of a mixture of guilt and identification with the woman's grief.

He starts his investigation doing what he should have done five years ago and looks for other children besides Angela with a slight deformity of the leg who could have been the dead child the police found. He quickly finds a fitting candidate, and from there, it is not a long way until he uncovers the tracks of the Nameless, a hidden cult set on "synthesizing pure evil" through pain and suffering.

Jaume Balaguero is a hit and miss director for me, with a body of work that reaches from terribly flawed films like Darkness to minor masterpieces like [Rec], yet even his bad films are at least interesting and don't fail through incompetence or cowardice but because their director is willing to experiment a little. And by nature, experiments do sometimes turn out wrong.

Los Sin Nombre is definitely one of his good films. Or it is one of his good films for me, I should say. It is hardly easy to stay objective when talking about a film for which one is something like the ideal viewer. It's really quite surprising how many of my personal fictional obsessions are in the film.

Let's see, the film is based on a book by one of my favorite horror authors, Liverpool's Ramsey Campbell. It's about an occult conspiracy reaching back into World War II, busy with a goal that does make a certain amount of sense in light of real occult theories (and foreshadows elements of Martyrs), yet also have a wonderful pulp energy. It is rather slow and ponderous and has as many scenes of people doing research as a Call of Cthulhu scenario. It is a bleak and pessimistic film, with damaged middle-aged protagonists dragging themselves forward towards some inevitable and terrible truth. So it is pretty much the kind of horror film (or occult conspiracy thriller) I myself would want to make. Under these circumstances, Balaguero would have to have done something really stupid to not end up with a film I find completely brilliant.

It helps of course that the film is excellently directed, with a sparseness and a - surprising when you look at the parts of the story that concern torture and dead children - reluctance to get all that explicit some people will probably find boring or off-putting, but Los Sin Nombre really needs its deliberate rhythm to be effective. You probably could tell a story like this as a fast action adventure, but you would lose most of the film's emotional resonance if you did and at best end up at the sentimental tosh level of Spielberg.

Balaguero's use of colour is also quite interesting. The picture is filmed in the cold greys and browns too many films like to use, and I'd usually be the first to protest about them as being monochrome, bleak and rather boring, but in this case browns and greys are exactly the colours the story needs to mirror the internal life of its protagonists; the bleakness is what defines the film.

Said protagonists are the kind of persons you usually won't find in horror films. They are middle-aged, unglamorous and beaten by life and so excellently played by their actors that any doubt I could have had about the construction of the plot just dissolved.

So, for once, I don't have anything negative to say about a film. I just hope it doesn't take too long until another director uses his telepathic powers to make exactly the film I would like to see.


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