Chile. 91 minutes. Directed by Nicolás López, 2012. Starring Eli Roth, Andrea Osvárt, Ariel Levy, Natasha Yarovenko, Nicolás Martínez, Lorenza Izzo.
Two groups of tourists in Chile–the first consisting of an American and two natives, the other of a pair of Hungarian sisters and their Russian galpal–meet up during the last days of their Latin American vacations for a last few days of sightseeing and partying. But disaster strikes in the form of earthquake that causes unthinkable damage and loss of life. But it’s not just Mother Nature the travelers have to contend with if they want to make it out alive–a group of convicts have escaped from prison, and are more than happy to use the resulting chaos and breakdown of society to indulge their sociopathic urges…
Look, I get it. People want entertainment, and in the horror genre they get it from endless iterations of killer monster and unstoppable slasher formulae, gorefests and gross-out comedies that aim more to disgust than frighten, and jump-scare-laden psychological and supernatural thrillers. And I’m not immune to the charm of such films, if they’re done right. They’re fun.
And yet…they aren’t what I’m really looking for when it comes to horror movies. I’m not just looking for an adrenaline rush. I’m looking for an intense emotional experience. I want to be made to feel for a group of characters and then join them as the rug gets yanked from under my feet. I want to find myself in a strange, terrifying world where nothing and no one are safe and survival isn’t guaranteed. I want to know what it’s like to fight for my life and stare death itself in the face. I dunno. Maybe I’m weird.
So when I have to pause a film several times over the course of its running time because I can’t deal with what I’m seeing and am too upset to watch, that’s a good thing. And that’s something that director/co-writer Nicolás López and star/producer/co-writer Eli Roth have achieved with Aftershock.
And they do it the old-fashioned way: with stellar characterization and acting. Don’t get me wrong, López is a fantastic visual director–the location work and action sequences are nothing short of astonishing, and while he doesn’t use quite as much blood and guts as one might expect from a Roth production, there’s still a mind-numbing amount of violence, and López deploys the red stuff liberally.
But as always, it’s the audience’s ability to engage with the characters as people instead of wind-up toys custom-built for running a rat’s maze of pain and suffering on a predetermined track. With co-writer Guillermo Amoedo, Roth and López populate their fictional world with well-defined personalities. It would have been deceptively easy to stock the film with the usual gang of unlikeable assholes, and indeed some of the characters are based on the expected clichés (as is required for horror-movie sisters, the younger is hedonistic and out of control, while the elder resents having to keep her in line). But a few reversals of expectation and tantalizing bits of backstory help the characters avoid the trap of feeling like they came into being the moment the film started.
Of course, none of that would be worth a damn if the ensemble couldn’t sell it. I’m not sure that any of the cast qualify as phenomenal actors, but they all put in fantastic performances. The standouts are Nicolás Martinez as the genial yet soulful Pollo, and Andrea Osvárt and Lorena Izzo as the sisters Monica and Kylie. Even Roth manages to buck expectations (I wouldn’t blame you for approaching the idea of Roth in a starring role with some trepidation–I know I sure did).
This combination of characterization and performance is ultimately the deciding factor in bringing the story to life. The screenplay emphasizes the twin horrors of being trapped in a strange, alien place and the practicalities of survival in an environment where the usual societal rules no longer apply. The plotting largely keeps the viewer off-balance and no single character feels more “safe” or unkillable than the others. The set-pieces are powerful, packing the emotional wallop of a hammer to the back of the skull. While there are a few pulpy developments (the subplot involving the escaped convicts) and predictable plot points, when placed in context, the film is engrossing enough to make up for them.
The bottom line is this: Aftershock is one of the most frightening movies of recent years, if not the most. A week after seeing it, it still feels like a bomb was set off in my soul–it’s that effective. If you want to be scared shitless, you owe it to yourself to see it.