Carlota Pereda’s Cerdida/Piggy was an unusual slasher movie/character study – her follow-up film is a Spanish sentimental ghost story with serious, melancholy undertones in the mode of The Orphanage or Pan’s Labyrinth but with its own distinctive female focus, here split between two bereaved daughters – Emma (Maia Zaitegi), a little girl who wants to learn how to talk to ghosts because her dying mother will soon be one, and Carol (Belen Rueda), a fake medium with literal scars from a childhood when her perhaps-real medium mother seemed to be more interested in a local little girl ghost than her own daughter.
It opens with an apparent historical prologue involving the plague, a chapel where the infirm were penned up and a regiment of beaky bird-men (plague doctors have been a horror film staple since well before the pandemic – Perada uses them well, but perhaps the trope should be rested now), but this turns out to be a pageant recreation as part of a small town’s annual festival, when the chapel thought to be haunted by little Usoa is opened for a brief spell – it’s possible this is unwise, since people who die during those days risk being trapped inside when the entrance is bricked up again. Carol, whose spiritualism business isn’t going well, picks up her voicemail and learns from a nice guy cop (Josean Bengoetxea) that her mother (aka ‘the witch’) has died … in a nice frisson, never addressed, a voicemail from her mother comes after that message on her phone. Returning to the village she quit after being burned ‘like a witch’ in an incident it takes a while to explain, Carol is drawn into the orbit of determined little Emma, who had asked the witch for help becoming a medium but now latches on to Carol – a cynic who of course sympathises with the lost child and her mother issues.
It’s slightly conventional that we get hospital visits with the mother, whose last days are troubled by concern that Emma not be taken into the care system – sadly, I know how people die of cancer and it’s not like this, with a deathbed conversation moments before expiry rather than weeks or days in medicated near-coma. There’s menace in that Emma sees or believes she sees spectres of death – a skeleton bird – and the original Usoa, being drawn to that tragic, flammable chapel for a climax with larger-scale manifestations … but Carol could be right and all the spiritual stuff is a distraction from living life now and the most important thing you can say to a ghost is ‘goodbye’. Peralta has a great eye for the gothic, relishing the trappings of Spanish horror while not really making a horror film – and Rueda (The Orphanage, Julia’s Eyes, The Body, The Pact), the nearest thing Spain has to a horror heroine, is well matched with the extraordinary Zaitegi (who evokes young Ana Torrent in Cria Cuervos or Spirit of the Beehive) as complicated, challenging, not always sympathetic, deeply human and relatable protagonists. Co-written by Alberto Betran Bas and Carmelo Viera.