Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Past Outruns the Present in The Abandoned (2006)



I first saw The Abandoned when it was making its rounds at movie theaters in 2006 during the annual, limited-run "8 Films to Die For" After Dark Horrorfest. I saw it after a showing of The Gravedancers, another film that was included during that year's selection of horror titles. Both films were good but while Gravedancers was fun to watch, The Abandoned left me speechless. Few films affect me like that, so I thought that I would return to this gem to review why it's one of the best overlooked horror films from the last decade. Read on ...

The Abandoned tells the story of Marie Jones (Anastasia Hille), a woman who was orphaned as an infant and is returning to her birth home of Russia on the eve of her 41st birthday. She's returning to claim--and quickly dispose of and forget about--a piece of property that she inherited from her birth parents, an abandoned farm that's located on a lake island deep inside the rural Russian landscape. Shortly after her arrival on the farm, ghostly visions appear that give her clues about her mysterious past ... and possibly her future.

I can see why The Abandoned is not a favorite of many horror fans: It is an extremely gloomy, mournful movie, even by horror movie standards. Co-scriptwriter and director Nacho Cerdà permeates his film with an overwhelming sense of dread, even during the opening credits; doing so makes The Abandoned less of a ghost story and more of a meditation of how the past shapes us as individuals throughout the course of lifetime--even events that we don't fully remember or don't remember at all--and that we can never escape the past in a genuine, decisive way. Such a depiction stands in sharp contrast against the prevailing American attitude of self-determination, so I can understand why many American horror fans would prefer to avoid something as unrelentingly bleak as Cerdà's film. Depending on how you look at it, The Abandoned is a more mature, fatalist version of Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on movies; it's also the thematic equal and polar opposite of Meet the Robinsons. (Yes, really. Go watch The Abandoned and Disney's 2007 CG animated family film back to back and you'll be surprised at how they are similar and yet are still so different, other than being in separate genres with separate target audiences.)


In terms of plot, the structure of The Abandoned puts it in the horror subgenre I have dubbed as the "Lost Souls" subgenre. As I first described it in my review of Wii's Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, "Lost Soul movies usually revolve around a protagonist who has experienced some kind of forgotten trauma. The trauma is forgotten either because it happened so long ago or that it was so intense and violent that it caused the protagonist to experience memory loss. The protagonist is also haunted as the result of the trauma. The hauntings may be the result of hallucinations induced by the trauma, or they may be caused by a supernatural presence; depending on the movie, the difference between the hallucinatory and the supernatural is never made clear and they remain indistinguishable. The hauntings prompt the protagonist to try to understand the trauma, which results in the revelation of an existential truth so shocking that the protagonist is never the same again. The Lost Soul narratives are apt metaphors for what trauma survivors experience in the real world, which is why they make for effectively chilling horror stories."

The Lost Soul subgenre consists of movies such as Carnival of Souls, Jacob's Ladder, Head Trauma, and The Broken. The Abandoned fits this subgenre as well, but what sets it apart is that the forgotten trauma in it is inseparable from the protagonist's identity. Thus, Marie's exploration into her infant past evokes moods of tragedy and inevitability. Throughout the movie, Marie is conflicted: She would prefer to forget her past but at the same time she also wants and needs to understand it because it is so much a part of her as a person, even if attaining such an understanding puts her in jeopardy when the past and present begin overlapping each other in delirious arrangements. As the narrative progresses, we learn more about Marie's adult life, as well as the life of someone she meets along the way, and realize that both characters are very broken people with very broken lives; thus, there's a painful symmetry between Marie's forgotten infancy and turbulent adult life that is both sorrowful and appropriate.

At its core, The Abandoned portrays an example of when a traumatic past is best left forgotten--especially a past that threatens to destroy the survivors of such a trauma, no matter how much the survivors feel the need to understand what they experienced and how it made them who they are as individuals. This is weighty subject matter for a horror movie, and The Abandoned handles it in a way that is creepy, thoughtful and anguished in equal measures.





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