Sunday, October 09, 2011

Sticks and Stones

At some point, Spanish director Jaume Balagueró needs to start entering the discussion as one of the premier horror filmmakers of the last decade. Film after film finds the director expanding his own idiom and finding more and more acute pressure points with which to scare audiences. Unfortunately, all of his films have had difficulties in the American market through no fault of his own, whether it's suffering at the hands of the Weinsteins or having the misfortune of having his signature film scooped up for an American remake (and held off the American market). The guy can't catch a break. It's no surprise that his 2005 film, Fragile, has been similarly ill-starred. It was finally picked up for video distribution by Fangoria. It deserves better.

Fragile follows Amy Nichols (Calista Flockhart) an American nurse temporarily filling in at hospital on the Isle of Wight that's due to be closed in a few days. Because of a local disaster, the other hospitals in the region are packed, so the administration is unable to move it's remaining handful of patients. These patients are children, and they've been plagued by mysterious injuries. Amy's predecessor left the hospital under a cloud and Amy begins to suspect that things are far from routine, particularly once she befriends Maggie, the little girl who seems to be at the heart of the mystery. Maggie, for her part, tells her about a mysterious mechanical girl who lives on the abandoned second floor. The "mechanical girl" is part of a dark past and Amy has to convince unbelieving authorities that the children are in danger.

Of course, unraveling the past is the central concern of ghost stories, and this one understands that, doling out revelations at appropriate beats. It plays fair with the audience, too, and Fragile's ghost inflicts injuries in keeping with it's nature. Like the ghost of Belasco in The Legend of Hell House, it has an agenda with it's chosen form of harm. That it prefers to break bones provides the movie an excuse to shy away from most gore while still inflicting the same kind of blow to the audience.

This is Balagueró's second film in English, and he seems more at ease with Anglophone actors this time out than he did in Darkness, maybe because most of his cast is British. Mind you, Richard Roxburgh can over-act with the best of them, but he is admirably (and unusually) restrained in this film. The same can't be said for Calista Flockhart, who goes from glum to off the rails at about the halfway point of the movie. Fortunately, its all of a piece with the movie. Her freakout corresponds to the movie's own freakout, when the slow burn of its build-up gives way to its climactic fireworks.

The thing about ghost stories is that they're rigidly formal, and this one is no different. If you're looking for an original plot, you're looking in the wrong place. Ghost stories are all about mood and execution, and Fragile gets that more or less right. It chooses a setting that is naturally creepy and runs with it. Balagueró milks the setting for all the dread he can squeeze out of it. And in a marketplace where monsters in horror movies are becoming more and more generic, this film has a genuinely weird and genuinely frightening ghost. While the structure of the film may be staid and familiar, the ghost is defiantly not.

In the grand scheme of things, this is not the director's best film, but that's no shame. Balagueró has been building a solid body of work, and this film is very much in the mainstream of that work. Best of all, he seems to be getting better. His next film was [•REC].

Current tally: 9 films

First time viewings: 9


J Luis Rivera said...

I'll probably watch this for the challenge as well. What are your thoughts about "Darkness"?? I remember having disliked it a lot.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I'm in the small minority of people who liked Darkness a lot. I mean, it's totally derivative for most of its length, but I like to think that all of that is an elaborate ruse to distract the audience from what it's really about. I love the ending and I love the film's witches. I think the worst thing about it is that it's in English and that Balaguero wasn't fluent enough to get good performances in English. I need to re-watch it one of these days dubbed into Spanish to see if it improves any.