Those who have ever had the pleasure of viewing a Spanish Soap Opera, or Telenovela, know the irresistibility of their execution – twisting character arcs and wild, bombastic storylines are serviced by acting that’s more histrionic than the gargantuan bellows of Brian Blessed.
This erratically compelling horror from writer/director Guillem Morales takes a tip or two from their recipe and piles on the cheese for delectable yet flatulent effect. Because, while the melodrama of TV serials is provided in carefully portioned, mouth watering chunks, here we are forced to chew on seemingly endless dishes heaped with bilious, ill-matched and bloating delights. When the meal is over and the bill finally arrives it is hard to know whether to feel comfortably full or grossly overfed.
It’s an auspicious beginning: after the apparent suicide of her blind twin sister, the titular protagonist (played with unwavering credibility by Belén Rueda) collapses from a violent cognitive spasm. Sensing the cause of this episode relates to their inter-sibling telepathy, Julia rushes to her twin’s home only to discover her lifeless body. However, she is suspicious of the situation and seeks to ascertain a true cause of death but must do so before the same degenerative disease that induced her sister’s blindness robs her of her sight also.
Ramping levels of expectation to precarious new heights is the involvement of many of the same faction that worked on 2007s instant classic, The Orphanage. Sporting the same head producer (Guillermo del Toro), composer (Fernando Velazquez), cinematographer (the always brilliant Oscar Faura) and, of course, lead actress, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was going to be, at the least, a highly polished and thoroughly watchable horror jaunt. And while there are some finely tuned sequences displaying the kind of edge-of-your-seat-tension that we expect from a crew of this calibre, there is a seriously muddled tone throughout. Inevitably, it is the new kid that lets everyone down.
Morales has talent, that’s hard to deny. He directs even the trickiest display with incredible flare and fearlessness. One later scene, in particular, sees Julia in a horrifying game of cat and mouse as a psychopathic assailant hunts her in a pitch black room – using flash bulbs to track her terrified movements. It is both genuinely chilling and utterly compelling. But, undercutting his own excellence, Morales can’t keep from displaying his full range of abilities, however ungodly they may seem together, and potentially entertaining moments lose relevance when sandwiched between instances of drippy romance and eyebrow raising plot twists.
The script, co-penned with TV writer Oriol Paulo (there’s that Soap influence again), is an unseemly mess. It doesn’t suffer from a lack of vision but rather too much of it. Genuine scares and character investment gives way to staggeringly convoluted plotting and genre switching mayhem. One minute we are watching a blackly comic tale of love and murder, the next a trite drama complacently shooting for Oscar glory. What results is something that, unsurprisingly, more resembles the director’s showreel than a releasable product.
While the problems are many, there is much to enjoy here and perhaps not enough merits have been highlighted. It’s a visually stunning film and never suffers from a lack of aesthetic beauty. Great time and care has obviously been given to the production design and every set feels gratifyingly lived-in. Likewise the score, although occasionally intrusive, is sufficiently evocative and menacing in all the right places.
To reiterate, this is not a bad film but it will ask of you more than you may be willing to give; and at nearly two hours long, that’s a lot of giving.