A horror movie is at its best when it can transfer the feeling of entrapment from screen to its viewers.
Movies with too many jump scares are actually liberating, for they can release your tension by making you part of an actual event: either a ghost or a malevolent spirit does something to you. The moment you are confronting a ghost that has manifested itself, you’re in the familiar plane of good and evil, face-to-face. The narrative momentarily closes for everyone.
Horrors that don’t conform to such formulaic standards of scare must’ve to be evaluated using what they stand for. I often judge horrors by their commitment to the notion of entrapment. This notion has been properly dealt with by Frantz Kafka, our modern-day Dante. Entrapped characters are always self-destructive, and it is interesting to see the mythology they build around themselves to justify their horrifying actions. Among many other movies, Osorio Márquez’s El Paramo (2011) is exactly that. Released in Colombia in October, 2011 and screened at the Sitges Film Festival, El Paramo fuses military horror with witch horror.
Good military horrors spend considerable narrative time dramatizing intense hierarchical rivalry. If you’ve watched Hangul (R-Point, 2004), a Korean military horror, set in Vietnam, you’ll sense the unease in hierarchical tensions throughout the movie. El Paramo is at its best when it portrays tensions within the team. The character of Indian, an indigenous guide shouldering the burden of colonial stereotype, is constantly discriminated against because of his race. He is part of the team, and yet not part of the team. He is a Kristevian abjection the white soldiers in the squad wish to do away with, and yet they can’t because he is needed to guide them through this guerilla infested territory. He is assigned the worst of chores and duties. When the movie ends, a paranoid Indian develops an imaginary skin disease and digs through his skin with a knife.
Military horrors use flashback as a technique to build visual metaphors of personal ill-feeling. Often, guilt is manifested as evil. For an army man, guilt is the legitimacy of killing innocents during military operations.
El Paramo begins with a dream sequence where army men are killing villagers in Colombia. Ponce, a squad member, dreams about his participation in the massacre. Narrative-wise, the indigenous witch could be a manifestation of collective guilt of the soldiers destroying villages in the name of anti-terrorist operations. The ending especially drives home the importance of looking at the witch as just a trigger for paranoia. For all she does in the end is to stare and scream.
Marquez builds atmosphere through a bleak colour grading that tones down shades, increases saturation and makes the movie experience heavy, as if we are waiting for a storm to blow over.
When the storm does blow, I mean the climax, it does not come as a shock but as a well anticipated descent into evil. What contributes more to the sense of unease and foreboding is the hand held, jittery camera work.
Close-ups are never close-ups but more extreme close-ups of eyes. Marquez has his focus on the correct facial feature – the eye – which good actors always use while acting in films. Watch the sequence towards the opening when the squad members are storming into the facility. Camera moves eye to eye. It is what they see and react that will build various shades of horror for the viewers.
I love the pace of this movie. Its pace suddenly slackens only to be picked up at times when the characters are made to panic. I also love the way the camera uses defocused zones around the characters. Latin American horrors have lately made great headway in stylizing dark spots around characters. Take for example, the brilliant La Casa Muda (2010), where bokeh around the protagonist develops atmospheric halos.
I must also praise Marquez’s control over gore sequences and his use of guns as props for developing dramatic tensions (quite a few military horrors have achieved this feat). While assigning actions to characters in a movie, a director has to look for various methods of allowing bodily movements in front of the camera. If you are using a regular prop such as eyeglasses, then your movements are very restricted. Whereas, if you’ve a heavy gun to take care of then you can add various layers to your movements, and then there is the added advantage of reminding your viewers of the dangers that surround a character constantly.
One of the greatest achievements of horror movies (post The Blair-Witch Project (1999) phenomenon) is the innovative use of the 180 degree rule. It is incredible how grammatically correct some of these movies are. The POV shots follow the characters to the other side of the 180 degree line, but rarely jump over to the other end where, presumably, horror lurks.
I am surprised that horror fans don’t talk about this extremely well made military horror. It deserves to be treated as a high achievement.