'Tigers Are Not Afraid' Is A Horror Movie That Won't Ruin Your Night
Welcome home, weary travelers to the final installment of BOO-Nited Nations. We’ve been all around the world, making our way to North America, home of the United States and (drumroll) Uncle Sam's very own horror classic Troll 2.
Just kidding, Trolls 2 isn’t an American film, it’s an Italian-American co-production! Today we’ll be talking about Mexican director Issa López’s 2017 breakout hit Tigers Are Not Afraid (released locally as Vuelven, “They Return”). There’s a good chance you’ve heard of this film, since it’s won basically every award under the sun. López, the writer/director, is also about to take Hollywood by storm: she’s attached to the new season of True Detective.
So What is This Movie About?
The film begins with our heroine, Estrella, sitting in class doing a writing assignment. Let’s say late-elementary or early-middle school age. Anyway, she’s writing a fairy tale for class when gunfire breaks out in her school – this is where I had to pause the movie and make sure I wasn’t accidentally watching an American remake. But it turns out this is a drug-related gang shooting, and while Estrella is curled up on the ground fearing for her life her teacher hands her three pieces of chalk, which she says will grant her three wishes. The only thing my middle school teachers ever gave me was a crippling need to prove myself after my gym teacher, Mrs. Glass, told me I was getting a zero in her class because I was a zero and I’d never amount to anything – but the joke’s on her, because I get paid to write about movies and my balls on the internet for an audience of strangers!
Next we meet Shine, a street orphan roughly Estrella’s age doing graffiti of a tiger. Tigers are something of his personal emblem, because to him they represent strength and, as you may have guessed by the title, fearlessness. I’m pretty sure there’s another predatory large cat that’s known as semiotic shorthand for bravery, but I’m not one to disparage a young man’s ambitions.
As Shine is painting some tigers, he happens to notice a young gangster stumbling out of a bar. This is Caco, a member of the infamous Huascas gang. Drugrunners, traffickers of both women and children, and unafraid to kill anyone who even looks at them askance, these scofflaws are nogoodniks of the lowest sort. While Caco leans against a wall and pulls his pants down to his ankles to, shall we say, recycle some cervezas, Shine takes the opportunity to pick his pocket, reliving the cartel member of his incredibly tacky iPhone in a custom dragon-shaped case and his equally tacky gold-plated pistol (which has both a 666 inscription and a sick custom snake sculpture on the handle, in case you were wondering if this is a bad guy). Shine has Caco dead to rights, but can’t bring himself to pull the trigger. He runs away, ashamed. But, hey, iPhone and a free gun? Here in the US we only get those on Black Friday!
Estrella walks home from school to find her mother isn’t home. Hours pass, and it begins to seem like Mom went out for a pack of smokes and isn’t coming back. Estrella uses the first of her wish-chalks to wish that her mother would return. It would seem that even though her teacher was doing a unit on fairy tales she wasn’t particularly thorough, because of course this wish immediately backfires.
And that’s all I’m going to tell you! Do yourself a favor and watch these movies, for real! Don’t just read about them, you lunatics!
What Manner of Monster Is This?
That’s a good question! While there is a temptingly simple answer of “ghosts,” I think that’s a little reductive and does a disservice to what the film is exploring, and also, I have an article to fill and your boy needs to get paid. Jetpack racing lessons ain’t cheap.
So, yes, the majority of the supernatural goings-on are ghost-related. Mexico has a rich history of stories of the dead communing with the living, which puts it in roughly the same position as “basically every other culture to have ever existed on the face of the earth.” Are stories of the dead interfering with the matters of the living so globally ubiquitous out of a fear of the unknowable nature of the aftermath of death, or out of a desire to commune with the departed we dearly miss? Or are dead things just intrinsically hella spooky?
But Is It Scary?
Is Tigers good? Absolutely, yes. No question. Is it scary? Well, like I said, it’s good. There are a few scares, and they’re exquisitely well-crafted, but it’s not as relentless as Terrified or Noroi – some might say that makes the scares more effective.
One thing I will say about the supernatural elements of the film: I really appreciate that we’re never explicitly told 100% what’s going on. That’s kind of a big thing with me. The Yin and Yang of horror are the immediate fear of bodily harm and the much more tantalizing fear of the Unknown. Once we have character in a horror movie (usually in the archetype of My Friend, The Scientist) tell us plainly what’s going on, the monsters become quantifiable and therefore hobbled in their ability to terrify. They should remain inexplicable, like how there’s way more mattress stores than there should be. Who is buying all these mattresses?
The “escape hatch” that Tigers gives us is Estrella’s imagination. Are the things we’re seeing ‘real’? Or are they projections from the imagination of a child? The answer is left intentionally vague, and I for one salute Ms. López for it. I’m reminded of that one article about the eerie religion a bunch of orphaned kids in Florida made.
When I was Estrella’s age my imagination was less focused on the horrors of the dead and more focused on things like, “Could Goku take a shit so hard it could penetrate a Gundam’s armor?”, but nevertheless, Tigers treats its child characters much more respectfully than many horror movies about children or childhood. There are plenty of horror movies about children, although they’re usually more in the vein of “a Creepy Child does Creepy Things,” which in some ways feels cheap because, yes, kids can be creepy as hell. But importantly, I feel Tigers centers a child’s imagination that isn’t simply used for titillation (“What if familiar childhood symbolism … but really messed up?” - every hack director in Hollywood has asked since the 1980s).
Instead, all of the terror is laced with a bit of wonder: the dragon on Caco’s phone flutters about, and a stuffed tiger mewls and purrs to guide Estrella. The unknown needn’t always be horrifying: that is, to my mind, a very adult view of the world. We’ve been burnt to a hardened, jaded shell by a world that is, let’s face, a tortuous unending death march to the sea whose only novelty is the introduction of hitherto-unimagined agonies, forever. But kids don’t know that. To children, bless their little hearts, there is yet the possibility that there might be good things out there you haven’t found yet. Which, of course, is what makes this a fantasy film.
Speaking of the fantastical, Tigers stands apart from the stark beauty of something like Goodnight Mommy for its little flourishes. They may not have any relation to the story or symbolic meaning, but they look cool as hell. And that, to me, is Cinema. Why did they have that conversation around a piano that was on fire? The film bravely answers: idk, lol.
I am in no way being sarcastic when I say I appreciate that. In the world of film there are those who believe in the supremacy of structural formalism over vibes, and I am an avowed Vibes Appreciator. I appreciate that shit just happens in this movie. Call it a callback to the Latin American literature tradition of Magical Realism or call it a hallmark of the cinematic form, I’m just appreciative of the vibes. Let me put it to you this way: I’ve never left a movie thinking I don’t remember anything about the way this movie made me feel, but MAN, what a perfectly-paced plot!, but I’ve left plenty of movies incapable of remembering a single thing about the structure or characters but feeling absolutely overwhelmed with feelings because The Vibes.
And that’s it! We’re done! Around the world in five films. I hope I’ve inspired you to get over any very American aversion you might have to subtitles, or, "Ew, somebody got book in my movie!" All art is made by peeping through the keyhole of our experiences at the World at Large, and there can be something revelatory in seeing how other people see the world when they come from an entirely different set of experiential circumstances.
Also: there’s all kinds of other scary ghosts, and that rules.
Check out the rest of the essays here:
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.