My notes on Ataud Blanco El Juego Diabolico (White Coffin)
This stripped-to-a-taut-70-minutes Argentine film from director Daniel de la Vega (Chronicle of the Raven) and writers Ramiro and Adrian Garcia Bogliano (Penumbra, Here Comes the Devil, Scherzo Diabolico) starts out like an entry in the disappearance-on-a-trip sub-genre epitomised by The Vanishing (cf: And Soon the Darkness, Dying Room Only, Breakdown, Flightplan) then takes a sinister turn off the road into evil cult/deadly game/metaphysical thriller territory.
On a back road, Virginia (Julieta Cardinali) is driving intently – playing a word association game with her young daughter Rebeca (Fiorela Duranda) which seems to turn on there being no obvious associations between words. Distracted, she drives onto a dirt track that leads to an old, neglected cemetery and is detained by a punctured tire – which she fixes with the help of handsome yet sinister stranger Mason (Rafael Ferro), who wears a monklike hoodie and advises her to get out of this dangerous territory just as a clanking,oily, sinister breakdown truck of the sort associated with movie serial killers cruises by. Rebeca puts down her mother’s car maintenance skills and Virginia modestly says she wouldn’t have got by without Mason’s help, but he pointedly contradicts her. Then, in a busy service station, Rebeca disappears – as does a boy from a school party – and Virginia instinctively takes off after the truck of evil, glimpsing a panicked Rebeca in the cabin. Screws are tightened by phone calls to Virginia’s estranged husband which reveal that she’s already snatched Rebeca from him and he’s not only called the cops on her but may have arranged this snatch-back … meaning she can’t rely on the authorities for help.
In theory, things can’t get any worse – but a speeding ambulance joins in the chase and smashes into the back of her car, killing her. She is buried hastily in that graveyard, attended by a priest (Damian Dreizuk) who has some agonised connection with a rash of child disappearances (and sacrifices by fire) that have taken place in this region. Then she is pulled out of the grave by Mason, who seems to be an angel of some sort (risen or fallen), and given a further day on Earth to rescue Rebeca, who is one of three children snatched by the cult – the ritual requires a contest between Virginia, another mother (Eleonora Wexler) and a teacher (Veronica Intile) as to which moppet will be saved and which ritually burned in a white coffin. It’s as well that the pace is so fast the heroine hasn’t time to think it through, and is furthermore disoriented by not yet understanding her dead-alive status, because it’s plain that this whole ritual is an inescapable, cruel trap.
Nevertheless, there are still many turns on the road to Moriah,where a cult of hatchet-faced witch women and serial killer-look warlocks wait for the final battle between their desperate contestants. The film is so ruthless that a map tattooed on a severed head is a key prop and so single-minded that virtually every detail – from the unconcern of a garage attendant at multiple child abductions to the use of carpentry incidents in coffin-making (and –filling) – is telling. Like many a road movie, it starts with the trappings of modernity – the car is another white coffin – but throws them away – a cellphone is tossed and driven over – before getting to a climax in the sort of gothic setting familiar from both cult movies like The Blood on Satan’s Claw and spaghetti westerns like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Performances are archetypal, of course, but Ferro is nicely sinister-reassuring and Cardinali goes beyond the call of any duty in suffering (and sinning) on the road to a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t climax.