Color, 1993, 101 mins. 4 secs.
Directed by Juanma Bajo Ulloa
Starring Karra Elejalde, Ana Álvarez, Lio, Silvia Marsó
Radiance Films (Blu-ray) (US/UK R0 HD), Cameo (DVD) (Spain R0 PAL) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
Though Japanese horror suddenly overtook the genre internationally at the end of the '90s, another country that was already established as a shining light through the previous half-decade or so during that relative drought was definitely Spain. Twisting the definition of horror and thrillers to the breaking point, directors like Álex de la Iglesia, Alejandro Amenábar and later Paco Plaza and Jaume Balagueró were delivering one surprise after another with multiple modern classics coming out each year. Also firmly in that company is Juanma Bajo Ulloa, best known for his twisted smash hit comedy Airbag in 1997. However, he was already familiar on the film festival circuit and among artier horror fans for his second feature film, The Dead Mother (La madre muerte), which served as a major calling card for a talent to watch.
Late one night, Ismael López de Matako (Julio Medem regular Elejalde) breaks into the home of a woman known for her meticulous restorations of religious artwork. In the process a confrontation erupts, and he shoots the owner while also wounding and deeply traumatizing her little girl, Leire. Ismael decides to let the child live, but years later he's working a bar and now recognizes the now grown-up Lerie (Álvarez) who is mentally handicapped and being treated at a nearby institution. Afraid that he could get ID'd by the witness even years later, Ismael enlists his girlfriend, Maite (Lio), into helping him abduct the girl and hold her for ransom -- threatening to throw her in front of a train unless the treatment facility pays up. Needless to say, many twists and turns follow as the plan quickly begins to fall apart.
Equal parts spooky atmosphere and darkly humorous, this is a tough film to classify as it seems to operate within the rules of the abduction thriller but goes in some quirky directions all the way to the deeply ironic coda. The three leads are all extremely strong, but it's Ulloa's visual style that really qualifies as the main star here with some gorgeous scope compositions supporting the storyline that wants to confound your expectations as much as possible. It's fairly disturbing material at times despite the slick veneer, something Ulloa would continue to explore in his later films (including the easiest of the bunch to see right now, Baby).
Despite getting considerable play at festivals and in one-off specialty screenings in the U.S., this one didn't get an official distributor and was very difficult to see for years unless you managed to hunt down the limited 2008 DVD release from Spain (which had English subtitles, a second DVD of bonus features, and a soundtrack CD for Bingen Mendizábal's impressive, very lush music score. Fortunately you don't have to worry about that now thanks to the 2023 Blu-ray edition from Radiance Films, which also comes with a soundtrack CD in its limited edition. The new 4K restoration of the film overseen by the director looks gorgeous, delivering a far more impressive viewing experience than the DVD or VHS editions and making for a great way to experience this for the first time (which will be the case for many). The LPCM 2.0 Spanish stereo audio is also excellent and features optional English subtitles, while Ulloa's audio commentary from the DVD has been carried over here with English subtitles as he charts out the production process, location scouting, lessons learned from his previous debut film Butterfly Wings, and the direction of his actors who had wildly varying levels of experience. Also from the DVD are The Story of La Madre Muerta (38m19s), an in-depth featurette with lots of production footage and various soundbites from the cast and crew, and Ulloa's Goya Award-winning 1989 short film, Victor’s Kingdom (El reino de Victor) (38m5s), also restored in 4K and looking excellent. This one is well worth watching as it starts off focused on a little boy whose sister reads him a bedtime story that has an unexpected effect on someone else hiding in the house, with a twisted fairy tale approach not unlike the main feature. Also included are an SD trailer and a gallery of production photos and promotional material, including some defacing of its public posters by folks who thought the film was blasphemous. (It isn't.) The limited edition also comes with an insert booklet featuring new essays by Xavier Aldana Reyes (author of Spanish Gothic: National Identity, Collaboration and Cultural Adaptation) and newly translated archival material by Ulloa, co-writer Eduardo Bajo Ulloa, and Nacho Vigalondo.
Reviewed on December 6, 2023.