Adrift at spirit-filled homecoming
They always say self-discovery can be emotionally difficult, but what happens when it becomes a hazard to your health? In "The Abandoned," a dewy, ambitious screamfest from Spanish director Nacho Cerdá, a woman born and orphaned in Russia then raised by adoptive parents in America, is called back to her native soil to claim family land she's never seen.
Though her lawyer tells her she is the only surviving next of kin, Marie Jones (Anastasia Hille ) soon discovers that there are more than just family secrets hidden in the crevices of her mother's decrepit woodland farmhouse. Trapped in a nightmarish revolving door of flashbacks and faced with a past best left unknown, she finds herself eyeball-to-eyeball with a grisly vision of what seems to be her threatened and dismal future.
With a "Lost"-meets-"The Haunting" plot and a handful of convoluted thematic twists involving family, history, murder, and death, "The Abandoned" limps into a nebulous kind of horror netherworld, peppered with painfully long tension-building sequences and unimaginative dialogue. Cerdá has artistic sights but grind-house tastes; atmospheric landscape shots and ingenious time-warp sequences are cheapened by unbelievable set design -- the deserted farmhouse is in as much meticulous disrepair as Disney World's Haunted Mansion ride -- and unimpressive special-effects makeup.
While some of the subtler spookiness is mildly spine tingling, the big shocks are embarrassingly predictable ("Don't open that door!"), and the film falls victim to the cheesiest of scare-fare traps: every character suddenly turns into a MacGyver -style survivalist in the face of extreme danger, and/or the undead.
Perhaps the worst offense of "The Abandoned," however, is that so little effort is made by the screenwriters to make any "sense" of it all. Family relationships, motives for murder, historical context, and the identities of apparitions are left ambiguous or, worse, nonsensical. Simply setting a film in Russia isn't allowance enough to leave questions unanswered, and doing so makes the film more of an exercise in audience torture than titillation.
"There's no way out of the circle," one of the farmhouse's ghostly residents taunts, but the collective groan in the auditorium implies that just a way out of the theater will do.
Erin Meister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.