Shiver posterAKA Eskalofrío. Directed by Isidro Ortiz, 2008. Starring Junio Valverde, Francesc Orella, Mar Sodupe, Jimmy Barnatán, Blanca Suárez, Paul Berrondo. 91 minutes. In Spanish, with English subtitles.

Premise

A teenage boy moves to a small, rural town, where he immediately comes the prime suspect for a series of ghastly murders.

Critique

My understanding was that Shiver suffered from a painfully protracted development stage: it was in the works for years, with four separate screenwriters attached to the project.

It shows. Story and script-wise, Shiver is a complete mess. It feels like director Isidro Ortiz and his scriptwriters four came up with two, maybe three distinct stories, and then decided to combine elements from these various stories to come up with their single screenplay. Not a bad thing in and of itself. Happens all the time. However, these various elements were combined without much regard to whether or not they belonged together and they were stitched together very crudely.

Shiver starts out looking like it’s about a kid who has a fear of bright sunlight and believes he’s turning into a vampire. (In addition to his “photophobia”—he seems to believe that direct sunlight will literally set him on fire—he’s obsessed with the size of his incisors and refers to himself as a “monster” in dialogue early on.) He and his mother move from a big city to a rural country town that’s situated at the bottom of a deep mountain-bordered valley. The sunlight is weaker and therefore the kid, whose name is Santi, can walk around during the day without catching on fire. Are you with me so far?

Good. However, his adopted hometown is being terrorized by some sort of monster, maybe a werewolf, that’s recently graduated from killing sheep to killing people. He immediately falls under suspicion, even though the sheep deaths seem to have started well before he ever moved in. Then he suddenly stops believing the whole vampire thing, and it turns out the monster isn’t really a monster at all but a girl who was raised by wolves. Well, maybe she wasn’t raised by wolves exactly, but you get the point. (Considering her image appears in the DVD case art, and one of the Spanish posters features her even more prominently, I don’t consider this much of a spoiler.)

Now, it’s not necessarily a sin for a movie to start out looking like it’s going to be about one thing but turn out being about something else. But that’s not how Shiver feels. To show you what I’m talking about, let’s pick apart Santi’s vampire delusion in graphic detail.

From my point of view, there are five reasons for this particular character facet/subplot/whatever you want to call it to exist in this film. They are:

  1. To justify a pre-title sequence in which Santi dreams he is running across a sunlit courtyard, only to burst into flame at the end. (I have to admit, the sequence is pretty impressive—easily the best thing Shiver has to offer.)
  2. To justify why Santi and his mother decide to move from a large city to a small village.
  3. To supply supporting characters a taunt (“vampire”) to hurl at Santi.
  4. As a sort of expansion of the previous point, to strengthen Santi’s status as an outsider.
  5. To supply tension during a scene in which, in an echo of the pre-title sequence, Santi has to conquer his fear and run across a sunlit clearing in order to save his own life.

Now, let’s ask ourselves, does Santi really need to believe he’s a vampire or have a fear of the sun? Well, people move from the city to the country all the time, so point 2 is moot. Point 3 is moot because kids will latch onto anything if they really want to tease someone; it’s just as easy to mock Santi for being a floppy-haired, hoodie-wearing emo boi as it is for being a “vampire.” In fact, since he completely does not fit the popular conception of a vampire (unless the stereotype of the emo boi is associated with vampirism in Spain; I guess in this post-Twilight environment, anything can happen), the kids would only know to call him “vampire” if they know about his photophobia and obsession with his incisors, and the only way they’d know is if he told them. This is never seen to happen, and at any rate, if he does tell them, he’s stupid for doing so. (Even his former classmates in the city regard him as a freak, and any unpopular 17-year-old should know better than to give his peers ammo to use against him.)

Point 4 is moot because being the new kid in town, he doesn’t need to have some sort of weird phobia to come under suspicion; the residents of a small, insular town where everyone knows everyone else will, as a matter of course, look at him askance. And point 5 is moot because when that scene comes, actor Junio Valverde plays the scene as if he has completely forgotten his character is afraid that he will burst into flame if direct sunlight touches his skin.

On top of that, after the clearing scene, the photophobia is only referenced one more time in the film—predictably, by someone who taunts him by calling him “vampire.” It can be argued that it doesn’t need to be referenced again because he’s realized he doesn’t need to be afraid of the sun. But that doesn’t seem to be how the script is written, and it’s certainly not how Valverde plays the character. Instead, it feels like the screenwriters forgot to write the realization scene. Or maybe they did and Ortiz cut it.

No matter. I’m willing to bet that in an earlier draft of the screenplay, Santi actually was a vampire, and the photophobia is a remnant of that particular facet of what used to be Santi’s character. It was probably only kept in to justify the awesome! dream sequence. And once the photophobia—one of Santi’s major driving motivations—is no longer useful in any way to the creative team, it’s crudely thrown away.

I understand we’re in the realm of genre storytelling here, in which it’s a perfectly common practice to enter things into the narrative not because they’re necessary to the plot flow, or to character development, or even thematically, but simply because they’re awesome! But for Christ’s sake, people, try not to be so nakedly obvious about it, yeah?

Anyway, that’s a thousand words on the vampire issue. The rest of the storyline is just as slapdash. Characters exhibit eccentric personality traits that are never referred to again. People know things they shouldn’t. (A great example of this comes when a police inspector tells Santi’s mother that the killer drank the blood of one of the victims. If the inspector doesn’t know who the killer is, how does he know the blood was drunk? How does he know it wasn’t drained in some other fashion? And why, for God’s sake, is he divulging this information to the prime suspect’s mother?) Characters are dragged in from various characters’ backstories, only to be killed or incapacitated after five or ten minutes’ screen time. And when the revelation about the killer’s nature does come, the story abruptly switches gears into a bog-standard stalker/slasher revenge plot that looks like a baldly obvious attempt to do Ringu without the videotape and in Spanish.

In the end, Shiver is a movie of “at leasts.” At least there are some fairly effective jump scares. At least the gore and makeup are nice to look at. At least the cast is reasonably attractive. At least Ortiz isn’t completely incompetent and knows what he should be pointing the camera at. At least we’re not stuck with some vampires-versus-werewolves plot that’s more awesome! than good.

I don’t think that Shiver is an entirely bad movie, and there are definitely people who are going to get something out of the elements that do work. But it could have been a much, much better movie if the story were more cohesive. Ortiz seems to be a fairly talented, if not always particularly inspired, filmmaker. It’s just a shame that he’s constantly hindered by a substandard screenplay.

Moment of Zen

The opening sequence.

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