Marketed as the first Argentinian paranormal horror film, Terrified (Aterrados) isn’t exactly a genre novelty, borrowing heavily from Wan, del Toro, Ju-On and other similar films, but it does what it does very effectively and offers fresh spins on old standards. The ways in which it absorbs its influences and cleverly turns them on their head give the film an edge and constant sense of dread as it expands haunted house traditions to an entire haunted neighborhood. The film unnerved and surprised this longtime horror fan more than once.
While not hiding his influences, writer/director Demián Rugna showcases creative storytelling methods and plays with structure to sustain the tension. There’s no laborious backstory meted out between repetitive “boo!” moments. Instead, we’re thrown right into well-crafted spooky scenarios and constantly left off-balance. The story revels itself gradually, unfolding as the haunting intensifies, and even when we get a moment or two of pure exposition it’s left vague enough to keep the mystery engaging and terrifying. Not everything needs to explained because we’re invested in the moment and in the characters.
An amazing first set piece sets the unsettling tone. A Buenos Aries woman believes voices are coming from her sink, threatening to kill her. When her husband investigates bumps in the night he believes to be their neighbor doing after-hours construction, the payoff is unexpected and mortifying. Less effective, and much more familiar, is flashback involving the neighbor being stalked by a ghostly presence. When the story catches back up to itself and ensnares another neighbor and her young son, the film lives up to its title.
When we get the requisite team of paranormal investigators, they’re an aged, skilled trio, each of them with what feels like genuine, character-shaping experience. All are eventually placed in one of three spectrally-besieged homes, each with its own… challenges.
Performances are all solid, with Maxi Ghione standing out as a weary detective who’s befuddled and frightened by the supernatural case. The character is a collection of clichés – cop near retirement, with a medical condition that will certainly be exacerbated by being scared, who has a romantic history with one of the women involved, but Ghione uses that to create a unique, colorful character that’s our guide through the madness. As he struggles to remain composed around the serious and scientifically-inclined researchers, he offers natural reactions that convey fear and occasionally provide comic relief.
The transcending of tropes persists in Terrified’s eerie ambiance, the malevolent force manifesting in various forms that also tie into the emotional wringer the characters are being put through. The comingling of atmosphere and emotion are emphasized over plot, pulling us in as the director lingers on shots of water swirling down the drain, cracks in the wall, or framed open spaces behind characters in the foreground. The anticipation is gut-wrenching. Sometimes there’s a release and sometimes there’s not, which only piles on more anxiety. One scene at a dinner table involving severa, unflinching looks at a stationary figure is especially tense.
Runga’s handle on pacing and the construction of both confined and long-game scares make him a horror director to watch. Thematic and theatric, Terrified’s blend of twisted imagery, used judiciously, with an efficient script and ever-engaging milieu makes the skin crawl in satisfying ways.