In today’s edition of BOO-nited Nations, we’re going below the equator to first enjoy a cup of Colombian hot chocolate con queso (it's a thing, look it up). Whoops, I meant we’re here to talk about Demián Rugna’s 2017 film Terrified (released locally as Aterrados). 

So What Is This Movie About?

Just to be really upfront about this, this film doesn’t really follow the modern blockbuster convention of having a main character, so this synopsis might feel a little disjointed. There’s no singular person whom we follow for the whole film who must learn to overcome some failure or trauma in their past to triumph over adversity. The film bounces around in time, and while in the last third or so of the film we mostly stick with one dude, Terrified for the most part is less concerned with the Hero’s Journey than most modern American studio films.

If anything, it reminds me most of the American horror films of the 70s where it’s a bunch of disparate people hanging out and the fundamental dramatic question isn’t What if your trauma was personified as a monster? but rather What if a house had the capacity to hate? Wouldn’t that be crazy?, which is a big part of why this movie absolutely goddamn rules. 

The very first shot of the very first scene very prominently features the ass of Clara, a woman in extremely tight jeans, because this is South America, the Promised Land. She’s standing at her sink, from which she can hear strange emanations with the cadence of human speech. When her husband Juan gets home she tries to tell him about the weird voices and loud banging sounds she’s been hearing, which Juan dismisses as their neighbor Walter doing a little light Late Nite Remodeling, as one does.

The very first shot of the second scene is a gratuitous ass boob shot of the same woman. Unfortunately, Terrified gets its horny quotient out of the way early. When Juan wakes up at night, he finds Clara floating in the air being battered to death against the wall. We jump backwards in time here to Juan’s neighbor, Walter, who’s dealing with a problem of his own – namely, there’s a big wet naked man under his bed?

What Manner of Monster Is This?

Terrified pulls a lot of disparate threads into a whole new sweater of spookiness. Is it a ghost movie? A haunted house movie? Possibly even a zombie movie? Maybe a bit of all of those! But I’d argue that the film is structured as a possession movie, a la The Exorcist. A cursory bit of research shows that Argentina is about 92% Roman Catholic, with Catholicism also being the official state religion.

This probably means that Argentina has an amount of punishment fetishes per capita to rival Germany – and it also means that the idea of exorcism is prevalent in the cultural consciousness. I grew up Catholic and had to take catechism, during which the priest told us – a group of literal first graders – that demons were real, they can and will possess you, and that he personally had performed exorcisms so horrifying he refused to speak of them. This was right around when we were learning how to spell “transubstantiation.”

This is also why I have no patience for adults on the internet who talk about how scarred they are from seeing something like Return to Oz too young. Oh, I’m sorry, did you get freaked out by the Wheelers?

Well, I had an adult authority figure tell me that demons can invade my body, in a school, taught as a lesson. That’s easily the 9,343,390th worst thing Catholic priests do. Terrifying children with stories of supernatural evil is like 4% of a priest’s job – google “4% of Catholic priests” for more information! Anyway, assuming that Argentinians are exposed to the same level of Catholic-ness that I was in Indiana, it would make sense that something like Terrified carries with it the baggage of exorcism, even if it isn’t “about” exorcism per se. 

But Is It Scary?

Does a bear shit in the woods? Do people who purchase products from Supreme have extensive brain damage from too much Four Loko in 2009? Yes, this movie is scary. In fact, it’ll leave you…Terrified

No wait, come back! No more New York Times-caliber film review puns, I swear, I’ll be good! This movie is very, very scary. For my personal tastes, the pervasive sense of dread and intrusion of Noroi is more frightening over all, but Terrified probably has better individual scares, including one jump scare which made me yelp out loud. But, like, in a very dignified and manly way – a real panty-dampener of a fearsqueal. 

A smaller aspect of Terrified that I appreciated and felt added to its overall effectiveness as a horror film was how our characters are just people. These aren’t priests who have trained their whole lives to deal with exorcisms, nor are they badass demon slayers who are part of a clandestine brotherhood of monster hunters. Most of them are aging academics with a morbid fascination with the supernatural, and Funes, the closest thing the film has to a singular protagonist, is a gigantic coward.

According to film theorist Linda Williams’ work, certain film genres can be understood as something we watch because we wish our bodies to have the same sensations we see on screen. We watch melodrama because we want to cry. We watch comedy because we want to laugh. We watch in-character Wario JOI hypno-porno for personal reasons. And we watch horror to scream.

Terrified, however, bucks this trend: there’s not much screaming at all. The academic investigators seem to have a sick fascination with the violence happening around them, which to me is all the more chilling because it feels more real. Funes, codified as a tough guy grizzled cop, struggles to keep his shit together and to stop his grizzled persona from cracking – but eventually becomes so frightened he has what is either a panic attack or a full-on cardiac event. The weirdness of these characters ultimately makes them feel more normal. The disparate characters don’t have the plot armor of a protagonist, and so, like with Game of Thrones, we as an audience can’t take comfort in the metaknowledge that at least one of these people will make it to the end credits. 

I’ve mentioned before I grew up in Gary, Indiana, and a thing a lot of films and TV gets wrong about acts of violence is that there’s often not dramatic screaming and people sprinting to get away as fast as they can. The self-preservation instinct sometimes manifests in a scream, an attempt to get help, but it also often manifests in a desire to draw as little attention to oneself as possible, like the kids in my middle school who were in an after-school Dungeons and Dragons Club (i.e. me). The way these characters interact with the ghosts – the grim comfort of the mother, the doctoral interest of the academics, or even Juan’s attempt to just shoot the absolute crap out of the monster – add up to something which, to me, has a deeply unsettling verisimilitude. 

And if all that didn’t sell you on how scary this movie is, how’s this: like the sage that I am I made the excellent decision to watch this right before bed. As soon as the credits rolled around 3:00 AM I knew I wasn’t going to be able to sleep with that rattling around in my brain, so I had to watch Cutthroat Kitchen until the sun came up.

That show is great if you need to calm down after watching a horror movie. I rate Terrified four out of four episodes of Cutthroat Kitchen.

William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter, a Nicholl Top 50 Finalist, and an award-winning filmmaker. He’s currently looking to be a writer’s assistant, a showrunner’s assistant, or even to be staffed on a television show: tell your friends, and if you don’t have any friends, tell your enemies! You can also view his mind-diarrhea on Twitter.

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