The last film in Lionsgate's After Dark / 8 Films to Die For series, The Abandoned is definitely one of the best-looking films in the octet, with co-writer/director Nacho Cerda getting tremendous atmosphere from the isolated Bulgarian locations that double for rustic Russia.
Filmed in ‘scope, the green and grey hued photography conveys a sense of damp rotting wood, fitting perfectly with the isolated estate that Marie travels to, and is later trapped within, after her mysterious driver bolts and abandons her on what's an isolated chunk of land surrounded by rushing water, and one functional bridge.
Cerda, whose best-known work is the grisly and disturbing Aftermath, shows he can craft eerie horror without using graphic viscera, and the film's early scenes where Marie arrives in Russia and meets a bureaucrat in his sterile office are chilling for the emotions actors are forced to withhold. Equally potent is a short scene with Marie channel-flipping in her hotel room, followed by the ominous drive to the home she now owns.
The verdant forest that smothers the moldy, massive house and its crumbling shack is pretty unnerving, as are the finely detailed interior sets which hold clues to Marie's past, and her connection to a stranger she discovers is her alleged twin brother.
Alfons Conde's score evokes a superior blend of sympathy for the characters with its orchestral sound, well-balanced with some effective sound design… but amid all the glorious production minutia, Cerda's story is a mess that doesn't offer much of a payoff.
Of the various isolated dangerous woods-themed films that have popped up of late, Abandoned begins as the most promising, yet it's ultimately done in by Cerda's decision to stay cryptic far longer than viewers can tolerate, and have his two leading characters creep/tumble/walk/run through every facet of a physically disintegrating house with cupboards miraculously holding edible food and preserves.
Much like Session 9, there's an unending series of character wandering that goes on, as though the director felt his cool location would create an effective, slow-build to a shock finale. As self-contained sequences, the wanderings in Abandoned are sometimes quite chilling (particularly one set in a long, half-submerged, electrical tunnel), but they often feel like improvised sequences shot in really cool locations by the director who probably felt they'd collectively disrupt our perception of the house's physical makeup. It may well have been Cerda's intention to create a home that acts as the tip of a vast root system of weirdness, but most of these sequences neither further the plot, nor offer any relevant information.
There's a parallel of sorts between Abandoned and a little-seen B-movie called The Caller (1987). Both films involve woman with murky identities who travel to isolated forest homes, and strangers who seems to know more about their lives but prefer to play games and see what fun arises, extracting truths in jagged chunks.
The keys to these cryptic mysteries lie in memories, perceptions, and specific objects, and like the island location for Abandoned, the two characters in The Caller are restricted to a log house due to feared and real physical boundaries that ultimately can't be breached. Both films have fairly tight running times, but unlike Cerda, director Arthur Allan Seidelman knew his location was smaller and less intriguing, so he relied on dialogue to create a cat-and-mouse game, and establish ongoing suspense, a regulated tempo, and fractured revelations that effectively lead up to a twist finale.
Cerda's interest isn't in dialogue, and while a strong visualist, he over-compensates and over-indulges in montages which fail to flow towards the big twist, and more than The Caller, The Abandoned becomes a film bereft of characters, and memorable impact.
Most studio productions throw CGI effects, loud sound design, fast cutting and music to masquerade a crap screenplay that should've been buried in the Rejection pile (just try sitting through John Fawcett godawful The Dark); Cerda tries to maintain a sense of extended classicism, and in a short film, he would've succeeded quite honorably, but in Abandoned, it becomes gratingly dull.
Maple's DVD offers an excellent (and very wide) transfer of the film, a dynamic sound mix, and alongside several trailers in the series is a short making-of featurette, with Cerda interviewed in Spanish, and on set addressing actors Anastasia Hille (Tripping Over) and Karel Roden (Hellboy) in English.
This title is part of an 8-film After Dark Horrorfest series from Lions Gate/Maple, which includes Unrest, Wicked Little Things, Penny Dreadful, The Hamiltons, The Gravedancers, Dark Ride, Reincarnation, and The Abandoned (2006).
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan