The Best Film prize-winner at the Sitges Film Festival was Cuando acecha la maldad (When Evil Lurks). Here are my slightly spoilery notes:
Writer-director Demian Rugna (Aterrados/Terrified) comes up with a unique variant on the exorcism/possession genre in this dynamic, shocking, affecting horror film – here, there are epidemic outbreaks of possession, with complicated rules, and the situation has been going on so long that churches have fallen into disuse and coping with the crisis requires adherence to Gremlins-like rules (‘never use firearms’) and an obscure scientific/mystic procedure that we never see actually work (it evolves an alchemical-looking device which has to be assembled and used by a skilled operator).
A demon initially possesses one person, who undergoes a physical transformation into a bloated hulk – just killing the victim sets the demon free to wreak general havoc, while leaving it alone just slows down the infection as malice spreads throughout a community, especially targeting the very young. All this we have to pick up on the fly since the story is actually about Pedro (Ezequiel Rodriguez), an angry divorced Dad who lives with his mellower brother Jimmy (Demian Salomon) and works for a local landowner in the Argentine boondocks. When the brothers learn that there’s a ‘rotten’ in one of the tenant farms, their boss Ruiz (Luis Ziembrowski) orders them to drag the huge, sluglike victim Uriel – the demon mocks them from out of his mouth – into a pickup truck and drive him hundreds of KM off to be dumped so he’s someone else’s problem … which, of course, leads to more disasters, especially after they lose Uriel on the road. Pedro is concerned for his children – a very autistic boy (Emilio Vodanovich) and his younger brother – but his wife has moved on and remarried, and is visibly living a better life with a new daughter and a big dog, plus a nice house and car. Pedro turns up to insist his family flee – and, of course, brings the infection on his clothes, which spreads first to the dog – who attacks the little girl in a shock moment to equal, say, the moving bag in Audition.
Pedro is the film’s protagonist, but does everything wrong and seems likely to get everyone killed – though we see others, like the landowner and his wife, suffer similarly and in the end it was Uriel’s whispering in the head of his own younger brother that escalated the crisis. It’s one of several recent films which play horror/disaster as road movie, as other characters – the brothers’ mother, Jimmy’s older ex-girlfriend – are roped in to Pedro’s futile escape attempt, and the climax takes place in a school where quiet, co-operative kids have become Uriel’s followers in a slight echo of Would You Kill a Child? and Pedro struggles again to end the possession but does all the wrong things and brings about more catastrophe.
It’s full of good, original ideas – the possessee being heavy and slimy and a major hassle to shift makes for suspenseful, comic-horrific sequences … the lead’s focus on his own worries and slight delight that he has an excuse to trash his ex-wife’s new life means he doesn’t notice other stories which we get a sense of (Jimmy’s reunion with his former lover is odd and sweet, forcing us to intuit backstory) … the idea that when a demon possesses an autistic mind, it gets tangled in knots (as do its host’s fingers) because of the atypical neural pathways (though we also get a quiet chill as the boy seems ‘normal’ and we realise he’s not him but others are weirdly grateful he’s less of a pain) … the cult kids trying to be helpful in misdirecting ways, with contradictory stories and advice designed to split up the normals so they can be pounced on and killed … the possessed goat shoving its head against a shotgun, daring a farmer to kill it so more havoc can be wreaked.