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John’s Horror Corner: The Damned (2013), a solid premise and great atmosphere that fails to deliver an effective possession movie about an Evil Dead witch.

March 29, 2015

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MY CALL:  A solid premise and great atmosphere that fails to deliver an effective possession movie.  Despite some good performances and a decent ending, we are not completely reimbursed for the disappointing shift from an engaging, tense film to a nigh-dull, predictable experience.  MORE MOVIES LIKE The Damned:  Stronger Spanish-language films whose atmosphere’s actually deliver on their promises include The Orphanage (2007), [REC] (2007), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The House at the End of Time (2013).

Also released under the title Gallow’s Hill and Encerrada, this Colombian film boasts a humble $5 million budget and uses it wisely.  It is also Colombia’s highest grossing film with 395,380 tickets sold (in Colombia) of the year…not horror film, but “film.”  Having seen this, I’ll say it doesn’t live up to that statement.  I mean, sure.  I guess I’m not surprised it was Colombia’s highest grossing horror film, but I’m a bit surprised it was their highest grossing film in general for the year.  Then again, this is perhaps the first Colombian movie I’ve ever reviewed.  So what do I know about their country’s film industry?

Reporter Gina (Carolina Guerra; Da Vinci’s Demons), her cameraman, a young girl, her father (Peter Facinelli; the Twilight Saga, Hollow Man 2) and soon-to-be stepmother (Sophia Myles; Outlander, Underworld: Evolution) find themselves stranded in the flash flooding mountains of Colombia and seek refuge in an old man’s house in the middle of nowhere.

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This premise already screams cookie-cutter plot, right?  Lost, car breaks down, people are stranded, they find an old house with a creepy host who offers them help but has no telephone and he doesn’t speak much…yeah, it does.  But you know what?  For what it is, it works.  After we meet the characters, find them stranded and see them to their creepy remote locale, this film captures a creepy atmosphere from the get-go.

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“Hey, that old guy asked us not to leave this room. What should we do while he gets us a glass of water?”

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“Where did they go?  Um….to look for a bathroom.”

Their remote location host is an old man who isn’t so happy to have guests.  He lets them in to take cover from the rain but explains that he has no means of communicating with the outside world and he doesn’t even want them to leave the living room.  Of course, the old man’s guests find an excuse to explore the house at the earliest opportunity and they stumble across a locked cell in the basement incarcerating a young girl.  They release her and, in doing so, release “the damned” upon the house.  From here, this becomes a possession movie which declares a witch’s curse to be the problem, but it feels a lot more like Evil Dead (1981, 1987, 2013) revisited using the Fallen (1998) playbook.

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What worked?  Carolina Guerra gives the best, twisted performance as a possessed deadite and, until the possession premise was obvious, the atmosphere was powerful and eerie. Spanish director Víctor García (Mirrors 2, Return to the House on Haunted Hill) knows what creeps us out.  The special effects were limited and practical, but one scene involving a neck break and its aftermath (and the actor’s performance around it) was REALLY IMPRESSIVE.  Also, although predictable, I liked the (hardly-a-twist) ending.  It shined with a “horrific” sort of poetic justice.

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 The evil spirit of the witch exploits our secrets and sins much as the devil would.

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 Then she contorts and spasms and goes all Evil Dead.

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What didn’t work?  Once you know the premise, things become overly predictable and the atmosphere loses its luster.  I essentially found myself waiting for the witch’s spirit to finish her game of musical chairs as she possesses her way through the cast of protagonists.  It simply degenerated from engaging and tense, to almost dull.

I’m not alone in my opinion of this film—i.e., not being terribly impressed.  Out of almost 3000 ratings it averages only 5.2/10 on IMDB, the NY Daily News gave 2/5 stars and explained “strong performance doesn’t scare off moviegoers in this serviceable, but gruesome, horror flick,” and Rotten Tomatoes reveals an unprovocative rating of 11% (20% audience).  Of all places, Amazon has the highest ratings at 3.3/5 stars.

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The ambience, Carolina Guerra, and the ending might make this film worth a watch for the horror fan who likes to see as much as they can.  Just don’t expect anything original or to be wowed.

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