Friday, August 22, 2014

The House at the End of Time--Alejandro Hidalgo (2013)

Dulce (Ruddy Rodriguez) struggles to survive her home in The House at the End of Time (2013)
Alejandro Hidalgo's The House at the End of Time, touted as on of the first Venezuelan horror films, masquerades as a Haunted House film.  The film opens with the above image as Dulce (Ruddy Rodriguez) tries to save her son, Leo, and her husband, Juan Jose, from what appears to be a mysterious force possessing her home.  The most vivid image in this opening is of Leo seemingly sucked into a doorway in the house's dank basement.  Fast forward to 30 years later, and Dulce, now an old woman, has returned to her home, albeit now under house arrest after serving time in prison for murdering her family.  She is undeniably a woman haunted--by her past, and the events that continue to confuse her.  This film's narrative mysteries and oppressive atmosphere nod to a couple of my favorite Spanish language horror films: Alejandro Amenabar's The Others (2001) and J.A. Bayona's The Orphanage (2007).  Still, there is more to this film than one might expect.

This cliched image of a woman, in her nightgown, on a staircase, with a knife, belies the film's true power
Unfolding primarily through flashbacks, The House at the End of Time uses many of the haunted house tropes with which we are familiar.  Strange noises repeatedly occur, from footsteps, to the frantic turning of doorknobs, to fevered pounding on the doors.  The layout of the house is utterly disorienting, with hallways leading to nowhere, bedrooms far away from each other, and a basement that stretches in all sorts of mysterious directions.  The secrets of the house are symbolized by the numerous locked doors always in danger of being breached (which also produces numerous scenes of Dulce fumbling with keys).

We share Leopoldo's terror
Much of the film focuses on Dulce's family--her two sons, Leopoldo (Rosmel Bustamante) and Rodrigo (Hector Mercado), and Juan Jose (Gonzalo Cubero), the kids' father and Dulce's no-good, alcoholic husband.  The chief conflicts occur as Leo and Rodrigo fight for the affections of a neighborhood girl, and Juan Jose learns that he is actually not Leo's biological father (something the audience learns relatively early in the flashbacks).  These revelations spur jealousy and even violent rage amongst the male characters, and unsurprisingly, Dulce's sacrificing, protective mother is the one who suffers for it.  The tensions in the film are pushed by showing children in frequent peril.

Dulce is determined to uncover what really happened to her family 30 year ago
Something is wrong with the house, and The House at the End of Time dabbles in the spiritual in order to explain things--but even those scenes are a bit of a ruse that adds to the film's layered confusion.  In one of the film's most creepy-fun scenes, a younger Dulce visits with a fortune teller/psychic in order to get in touch with the spirit world and figure out what's going on.  The spiritualist, Victoria, seems straight out of Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits (1965).  

Later, Dulce is visited by a Priest (Guillermo Garcia) who both believes in her innocence and was a childhood friend of her sons.  Since she cannot move freely, tied to her home, he agrees to do the detective work for her, looking through numerous documents in order to determine the house's sordid history--one filled with violence, mysterious events, vanishing family members, and all manner of "hauntings."  In delving into the house's past, the priest concludes that something seems to happen to it every 30 years.  And its almost another 30 years passed....

The horrors are back for Dulce some 30 years later
While much of what I've described so far might seem derivative of quite a few other haunted house films, one thing truly sets this film apart from the rest:  Time Travel.  I know.  This theme has been a near constant at this Fantasia Fantasia Film Festival, and I'm really trying to puzzle out why it's so in vogue at the moment.  Is it because technology has created some kind of gap between our experience of history and its representation so that the world seems infinitely manipulable?  Are these films trying to grapple with the notion that one never seems to learn from the past, so that fate and time paradoxes are intertwined and inevitable?  One thing that is consistent over all the films that I've seen exploring these ideas--someone always, always gets hurt. Casualties of time manipulated.  Yet in this film, there's also a degree of hope that lingers.

I'm not going to explain how time travel works in The House at the End of Time.  The title of the film is its own spoiler, but that little shift in narrative knowledge really changes the tempo and the perspective of the film.  This revelation gives the film quite a few "wow" moments, and takes what might seem like a somewhat typical horror film into a whole new dimension (pun intended).  The film is also surprisingly affecting in an emotionally poignant and moving manner.  While the film has relatively few characters, their nuanced performances, especially in scenes that highlight either pathos or humor, elevate the film in unique ways.  Some of the film's more religious overtones I found a bit heavy-handed, but as a whole, I was impressed by its unique mix of elements and themes.  Definitely worth seeing.