The box art for Lionsgate's release of 6 Films to Keep You Awake gives zero indication as to its country of origin. I assumed at first that the set was just six horror films Lionsgate had acquired that they didn't think would survive a standalone release. When I discovered the films were Spanish in origin I assumed that 6 Films to Keep You Awake was the Spanish equivalent to the After Dark Horrorfest. A little more research revealed that the collection is more comparable to Showtime's Masters of Horror television series. Given the pedigree of the participants, and the short runtime of each film, I found myself looking forward to this experience.
The Baby's Room
A couple and their newborn arrive at their new home, a beautiful old house that has been renovated to meet their every need. However, there is an entity living in the baby's room, which can be heard over the baby's monitor, and later seen on a closed circuit camera. Is it human, a ghost, or are the tenants simply going insane?
Álex de la Iglesia's name alone was enough to make me want to watch The Baby's Room first. Iglesia is one of filmdom's best kept secrets. As a director he always brings an original and humourous flair to his projects, mixing the best elements of energetic directors like Sam Raimi and the Coen Brothers, while never stooping to style over substance shortcomings. Even in the case of this rather seriously minded and relatively realistic horror film, Iglesia is sure to inject his special brand of realistic levity. The dialogue is witty, and the thickly drawn characters act like real people would in a really bad situation.
The Baby's Room is, unfortunately, not an original story by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it's really a patch quilt mix of the plots of several other films. Things start off in the Asian Horror mode as Iglesia conjures memories of Ju-On's haunted house shenanigans, then scoots into Sutter territory for a couple potent video imagery scares. This leads into several Shinning parables, along with some sci-fi-ish elements that I won't spoil. Baby's Room also shares a lot in common with the more recent The Orphanage, though Inglesia's television film was released before Juan Antonio Bayona expertly crafted ghost drama.
An elderly writer visits the small coastal village where he was born and raised. He reminisces of his childhood, and the beautiful, mysterious woman he's been unable to forget. As he walks through his old village he catches ghostly glimpses of the same woman, and recalls the dark story of their forbidden love affair.
The Specter (aka: Regreso a Moira, which I notice does not translate to The Specter) is an exceedingly classy movie, utilizing very few jump scares, very little gore, while exploiting very real human emotions. Even the use of nudity is slickly artistic, and never gratuitous. Director Mateo Gil isn't very well known for his directing work, but he co-wrote several of Alejandro Amenábar's better films ( Tesis, Abre Los Ojos and The Sea Inside), which in the absence of Amenábar is good enough for me.
The narrative's back and forth momentum is never difficult to keep track of, but up until the very, very end the story is engaging on a very emotional level. Even with the supernatural elements, and a few gory bits I don't think I'd call The Specter a horror film, it's more of a haunting drama. In fact, the whole story really works better when it isn't engaging itself in horror elements. For his part Gil utilizes unassuming music and repetitive procedural imagery to create artificial suspense, which leads to an overall uneasy feel that fulfills at least some of horror expectations. The Specter is a good film, but with just a bit of tinkering it could've been great.
A Real Friend
Ten-year-old Estrella spends a lot of time alone at home...or so it appears to everyone else. Like many children, she has imaginary friends, but hers are a bit different. Her friends are monsters. One day, Estrella makes friends with a new monster, a vampire that seems to be a little more real than the others.
A Real Friend is one of the more original and whimsical features in the set, and probably the only one with much E.C. Comics influence, meaning that it's kind of like a really good episode of Tales From the Crypt. This is a blessing and a curse, because even a really good episode of Tales From the Crypt is only a really good episode of Tales From the Crypt. A Real Friend moves like a padded short subject, much like many of the lackluster Masters of Horror episodes, and its twists are telegraphed.
I'm only familiar with one credit on writer/director Enrique Urbizu's C.V., and that's the screenplay for Roman Polanski's truly awful Ninth Gate. Urbizu isn't too flashy, but he explores dark spaces and suspense with a quiet efficiency, and has a charming sense of humour (the faux Leatherface that Angela dreams up is a constant source of adorable laughs). One of the weaker episodes in construction, but a fine shot at something a little different.
The Christmas Tale
A group of children playing in the woods find a woman dressed as Santa Claus who has fallen to the bottom of a well. After some armature detective work they discover their new friend is a thief on the run with a substantial haul. The kids make the trapped thief an offer--her freedom for the money. But some of the children aren't sure that they can trust the thief, and go back on the deal.
The Christmas Tale ( Cuento de navidad) is packed to the rafters with homage to childhood in the mid 1980s. The `gang of kids' set up is straight out of The Goonies (or if you prefer Monster Squad), as is the heroes' penchant for contraption and booby trap construction. Little Tito wears a Karate Kid headband, practices the moves from the film, and plays the Close Encounters them on his whistle. One of the kids sports the exact jacket that Elliot wears in E.T., and when code names are needed they use members of the A-Team, except Moni (played by Ivana Baquero one year before she'd win a Goya for Pan's Labyrinth), who is dubbed Princess Leia. You can even catch someone reading a [i]V: The Invasion comic book if you look really close.
But even as a love letter to nostalgia, director Paco Plaza and writer Luis Berdejo (whose other work I am entirely unfamiliar with) don't skimp on the plotting or character development. The audiences alliances are convincingly changed from scene to scene as some of the kids push the game too far, and later, as their captive's capabilities are reveled. I had a general idea as to where this story was going to end, but Plaza and Berdejo managed to keep me guessing with their character's reactions. I'd argue that the film even captures the essence of childhood shenanigans more honestly then Donner did in Goonies, displaying the children's lack of naiveté and innocents without making them into hateful little monsters.
The Christmas Tale is the most cleverly shot of all six films. Plaza uses the camera to explore point of view in all the characters. To better align the audiences point of view with the children, and to make their isolation from the adult world more palpable, every adult except for the antagonistic thief has his or her face obscured, like something out of a Peanuts cartoon. The visual style also assists in selling the many homage driven jokes. Despite its obvious dark side, The Christmas Tale is also the most genuinely funny of the six films, and its whimsy will surely win over even the harshest of critics.
Ana, a respected gynecologist, invites a nurse and friend from the hospital (and her daughter) to live with her, and act as an assistant. The house, a section of which is used as a private clinic, is light, cheerful and peaceful. However, something sinister lies beneath the veneer of contentment. Once her new `family' has moved in, Ana reveals that her private practice is in fact an abortion clinic. Soon after strange events begin to transpire.
The Blame ( La Culpa) is directed by one Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, the man behind Who Can Kill a Child, a little known B-thriller that thoroughly shocked me with it's brilliant filmmaking. To Blame is not exactly brilliantly crafted, but it is very eloquently filmed, and expertly acted. I have to admit that I was a little uncomfortable with what could be construed as the film's `messages'. Dr. Ana is a fully developed character, not a thinly layered stereotype, but at her base she's still a lecherous lesbian that basically talks women into having unnecessary abortions. My socially liberal tendencies made this a little difficult to accept, but in the end my anti-politically correct tendencies won out, and I respected the filmmakers for making any kind of stand on the issue.
If Six Films to Keep You Awake is the Spanish answer to Masters of Horror, then The Blame must be the Spanish answer to John Carpenter's Pro-Life. I gave Pro-Life a decent review, but have since sort of changed my mind, as in a second viewing the joy of Carpenter's schlock kind of wore off. The Blame has the audacity of a point of view (or so I think, perhaps I'm reading too much into it), and classiness of a serious drama. The plot twists can be seen from miles away, but Serrador tosses out enough red herring to keep us on our toes.
Carolina and Tony have looked at dozens of potential apartments, and none of them have worked. When their realtor assures them that a newly refurbished and renovated apartment will be a perfect fit, they decide to check it out. Upon arrival, they find an abandoned and decrepit building without any residents in sight. They go up to the 3rd floor and enter the apartment, and find their own belongs already on the shelves.
To Let ( Para Entrar a Vivir) director Jaume Balagueró is a pretty big name in Spanish thrillers. Three of his films have even found nominal success Stateside ( The Nameless, Darkness, and Fragile), and he apparently co-directed the critically acclaimed REC with Christmas Story director Paco Plaza. I actually haven't seen any of these films, but I recognize every one of their names. To Let is one of the bloodier entries in the series, but despite some gory thrills and gritty suspense, I also found it to be one of the blandest.
The acting is sharp, especially Nuria González as the malevolent building super, the atmosphere is thick, and the suspense is taut, but Balagueró's storyline boils down to just another survival horror movie, and I'm pretty bored with survival horror. I've seen Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Hills Have Eyes, and I've seen their remakes, I really didn't need to see another crazy family tale, even if it's quite well made.
All six films are comparably presented in good but not great anamorphic video, though the actual framing differs slightly from 1.78 to 1.85 in a few cases. Compression artefacts and print damage is minimal, but general sharpness is lacking. Many details are obscured by a fuzzy lack of definition (especially in A Real Friend, which often utilizes softer focus). The problem is minimal enough to ignore. Black levels are pretty weak, and the overall contrast doesn't help matters, especially in the case of Specter, which is a little more monochromatic in its presentation. The candy colours of Christmas Tale suffer a bit of muting, but are generally the most impressive of all six films.
Again, all six films are comparable in their presentation. The 5.1 Dolby Digital Spanish track are all relatively average, if not even a little disappointing. It's often hard to swear that these aren't actually television friendly 2.0 mixes. All six filmmakers have their share of clever and creepy surround effects, but the aggressive stuff is few and far between. The dialogue tracks are all perfectly clean, clear, and centered, and they feature very little bleeding or volume inconsistency. Each musical score is different enough to impress, though the recordings are a bit flat, revealing a little more of the limited budget then likely intended.
Each disc features a brief behind the scenes featurette and a trailer for Brian Yuzna's Beneath Still Waters (I guess because it was filmed in Spain?). The featurettes are similar to those that adorn the Anchor Bay Masters of Horror season two releases, though with a little less structure and a little more raw behind the scenes footage. Overall I'd call them informative but fluffy.
I assumed I'd enjoy 6 Films to Keep You Awake, but found my expectations surpassed rather admirably. I wouldn't go so far as to call the collection a `must see', but it thoroughly blows our Masters of Horror series out of the water with the class of its acting, direction, cinematography, and all around production value. If offered singly I'd recommend Christmas Tale and Baby's Room above the others, but for twenty bucks or less, I'd say this one's worth owning.
Baby's Room: 7/10
The Specter: 6/10
A Real Friend: 6/10
Christmas Tale: 7/10
The Blame: 6/10
To Let: 6/10