End of the Year Spotlight on... Argentine Horror
Is 2020 the year that Argentine genre cinema arrives?
Written by Anton Bitel
Way back in 1997, Pablo Parés and Hernán Sáez directed and starred in Argentina's first ever zombie film, the microbudget horror comedy Plaga Zombie. It would spawn two sequels, Plaga Zombie: Zona Mutante (2001) and Plaga Zombie: Revolución Tóxico (2012), forming Latin America's only zombie trilogy - and it would also, unusually, acquire global distribution through Fangoria Films International. This ushered in the era of modern Argentine horror cinema. Spin-off Plaga Zombie: American Invasion from US director Garry Medeiros (with help from Parés and Sáez) is scheduled to come out of post-production this year, bringing, as its title implies, this all-Argentine series stateside. It seems that 2020 is the year when Plaga Zombie comes full circle, arriving in America.
This is not to suggest that Plaga Zombie: American Invasion will somehow be the last word in Argentine horror or even that the 'arrival' of a national cinema somehow depends upon international acknowledgement or appropriation. Rather, the point of this (true) story is that modern Argentine horror, far from springing up suddenly out of nowhere, has been a long time coming. It has emerged both from a place with its own cultural and sociopoliitical specificities, and from an evolving, often incestuous community of like-minded filmmakers, all united in their love of genre. It just so happens that several varied but consistently inventive and impressive films from this extended group have appeared at UK festivals or on home release in 2020.
"As Argentines we are a little used to living in horror," says filmmaker Laura Casabe. "In my almost 40 years I remember few periods that have not been mired in a strong economic crisis. I think we have a story that even has its origin in a horror story if we recall that the country was born after the genocide of the original inhabitants. Maybe we needed an ancestral catharsis and working with the genre of terror allows us to." Certainly in Casabe's latest film The Returned, which has been wowing UK horror festivals this year, the horrors of Argentina's colonial past come home to roost. For after a landowner's wife dabbles in a forbidden native rite to revive her stillborn child, the indigenous dead also return to address the injustices done them. It is a moody, deeply political period zombie film with a very strong sense of place.
"Argentine cinema is growing a lot," suggests writer/director Mauro Iván Ojeda. "The topics addressed make it interesting." His debut The Funeral Home also from 2020, might seem to be exploring territories similar to Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (1982) or James Wan's Insidious (2010), only here the dysfunctional home of an undertaker, his wife and stepdaughter has long since been invaded by strange 'presences', and the tautly crafted film - all unnerving tracking shots and oppressive mood - shows the very different ways in which these living family members accommodate the dead. Meanwhile the presence of a shaman ensures that the film's pandemonium, however derivative, comes very much assimilated to local setting and lore.
"The government's policies tend to directly affect the horror films of each time (and each term)," says writer/director Cristian Ponce, "and in that sense, Argentina is always going through a convulsed political moment. The way we relate to that political intensity defines the way we face terror in our fiction." Ponce's characterisation of what gives Argentine cinema its special flavour certainly plays out in his feature debut, this year's Historia de lo Oculto. For it shows an Argentina bewitched by the malign influences of its own political history, as the diabolical deals of a powerful élite have stuck Buenos Aires in an oppressive, alternative monochrome 1987 where 'the future is over'. With a small crew of TV researchers struggling (in 'real time') to expose the truth on the last night of a long-running investigative programme, Ponce's ingeniously structured, unnervingly hallucinatory film reimagines John Carpenter's They Live (1987) - with 2020 vision - for an arrested Argentina's omnipresent slump.
Of the arrival of Argentine horror, writer/director Alejandro Fadel says: "As in all those countries that do not have a solid industry, the Argentine tradition with horror films and with fantastic films in general is very small, almost non-existent. In recent years spaces have been opened for films that are closer to the genre (either directly or laterally) and that have had support for their production. More projects have emerged, some exhibition possibilities (which are still extremely poor, perhaps our biggest problem) but above all an awareness that these films exist beyond the beauty of guerrilla punk cinema."
Perhaps the most mysterious and transgressive of the 2020 films is Fadel's Murder Me, Monster (made in 2018, but only just getting released in the UK this year). In it, rural police officer Cruz (Victor Lopez) investigates a spate of local rapes and murders where the victims - all women, including Cruz's lover - have been decapitated. Yet far from being a conventional police procedural, the irrational trail of clues here leads somewhere closer to Twin Peaks. As Cruz, his lover's husband, and the police captain all show a monstrous side to their masculinity, another monster prowls the pampas, whether real or a psychosexual projection of errant desire and perverted power.
If Argentine genre cinema is arriving, 2020 is just a station with particularly good amenities, rather than the terminus. For the future, Mauro Iván Ojeda has high expectations for Daniel de la Vega's On The Third Day and Demian Rugna's Terrified 2. Laura Casabe is waiting for "horror films made by women and dissidents", while Cristian Ponce looks forward to Casabe's own rumoured adaptation of a short story by Mariana Enriquez ("I think they are a perfect match," he says), and to Natalia Meta's The Intruder (which in fact screened at the London Film Festival this year, where it was well received). Alejandro Fadel speaks more generally of "how the new generations will narrate the terror, the mystery, the ungraspable [with] a playful spirit, an idea of adventure, bewilderment and mystery. I think that horror cinema today is going through a time where it is not the shock of image and sound that makes films interesting. Rather, it is those films that question our perception, make us uncomfortable as viewers and force us to reposition our point of view, where I think the genre is at its most interesting." This, currently, is what Argentine horror is delivering.