Friday, November 30, 2018

Beating the Devil

Errementary (2017)

Errementari: The Blacksmith and the Devil (2017, directed by Paul Urkijo Alijo) is based on a fairy tale with deep Indo-European roots, one known in one form or another across most of Western Asia and Europe. This film interprets the story in Basque, one of the only European languages that doesn't have Indo-European roots. Given that this film was produced by Spanish enfant terrible Alex de Iglesias, I can only assume that this is one of the ways in which the film is trolling the audience. This film is both a rich Gothic and a droll comedy. It's one of the year's best horror movies, and this year has not been short on good horror movies.

Note: this contains spoilers.

The story opens on a group of soldiers near the end of the Carlist wars who have ambushed a shipment of gold and lined up the shipment's guards to be executed. The last man standing among them, however, refuses to die and somehow massacres his assailants. The lone survivor among them spies something in the smoke and fog, something demonic. Eight years later, Ortiz, a government official, comes to the region in pursuit of the Carlist gold. The man he really wants to talk to is the blacksmith who lives in a fortified compound around his ruined forge. The area round it is heavily booby-trapped with jaw traps. The locals tell him that pursuing the blacksmith is a fools errand. He is evil, they all avow, and should be left to his own devices. Ortiz presses on anyway and finds that the forge is indeed barred to him, its gate secured with a heavy chain and decorated with an animal skull. A sign instructs visitors to go away. Ortiz obliges for the nonce. He arrives back in town just in time for mass. The story then shifts to Usue, who is the ward of the local priest, Mateo, and his wife, Santi. The priest's household is a stern one, and Usue is a bit of a wild child, who bristles under their discipline. Picnicking in the forest with her dolls, she's accosted by Mateo and Santi's son and another boy who taunt her because her mother committed suicide, insisting that she's in hell for that sin. One gets the feeling that she gets a lot of this kind of abuse. Usue punches Benito, who takes her doll, rips its head off, and throws it over the wall into the blacksmith's property. The boys come across the blacksmith himself shortly afterwards, and in spite of tales of him kidnapping and eating children, they throw rocks at him. While making their escape Benito, is struck by a stone himself. When he comes to, the smith gives him a good scare and chases him off. Back at the village, the villagers have gotten wind of Ortiz's mission and have deduced that the blacksmith might have the Carlist gold. A group of them venture out to investigate, only to be met by the smith himself, wearing a metal mask and bearing a shield to frighten them off. One of them falls face first into a bear trap. The smith, gathers up his body and disposes of it. Usue spies him in the act and follows him back to the forge, sneaking behind him. There, she finds a boy in a cage, who begs her to let him out. She does so, only to discover that the boy is actually a devil, intent on taking the smith's soul to hell at the end of a bargain. The smith has other ideas. With Usue's help, they recapture the devil, but another problem awaits: Ortiz has roused the villagers and they storm the forge. But Ortiz is not all that he seems...

Errementari (2017)

The entire time I was watching Errementari, I had a sense of déjà vu. I didn't know the story, per se, but I recognized elements of it. It specifically reminded me of the episode from Jim Henson's old Storyteller series that conflated the Grimms' "Godfather Death" and "Brother Lustig," in which a man who has a magic sack traps death inside it. A little poking around revealed that "Brother Lustig" in particular is a variant of "The Blacksmith and the Devil," which the Grimm's published in their first edition of Children's and Household Tales, and then deleted the story in favor of "Brother Lustig" for later editions. There are a lot of similarities between fairy tales, and I guess they liked "Brother Lustig" better. The story itself is old, and not native to the Basque region though it may exist there, too for all I know. Versions of it can be found from India to Ireland, after all. In any case, watching it on screen in Errementari, I was aware of the fact that I was inside some kind of archetype.

This is obviously a product of contemporary production design. The costumes and sets and special effects make-up and grime (pioneered, I think, by Monty Python in the 1970s) all read as "authentic," though who really knows? Like many films organized around production design, this is a handsome production, though it's one that might have benefited from the grain of film rather than the crystal clarity of digital. But that's a small nit to pick. Otherwise, it's gorgeous. The film is set in the 1800s, as testified by the film's setting during the Carlist wars (which ran from 1833 to 1876 or thereabouts), but there's a timelessness to the film that's a product of mixing and matching history and folklore and Hammer Films and 21st century design sensibilities and an appetite for horror tableaux that seem like they're derived from silent movies like Murnau's Faust or Christensen's Häxan (one can even imagine some of this film's characters lining up to kiss the devil's ass). This is especially true when the film decamps to literal Hell in its last act. I've described a cinematic otherwhere I call Horror Movie Land in the past, and I think this film's bleak wintery landscapes and infernal vistas exist somewhere within its borders.

Errementari (2017)

The film's grim visual sensibility belies an antic sense of humor. The bickering between the priest, Mateo, and his wife seems like a medieval version of a sitcom, while the confrontation between Ortiz, revealed to be a greater demon in disguise, and Sartael, the smith's captive demon, plays like a an encounter with a put-upon low-level account manager who has been cruising on bullshit for a while freaking out when the boss comes around to check his work. The implications of a real live demon in the world get a good work-out, too. Mateo wants to take him to the Vatican to prove that the supernatural actually exists and that God must therefore be real. Sartael's reaction to holy objects is reminiscent of someone in the throes of a migraine. This last is a clever set-up for the film's endgame. The structure of the film weaves in unexpected directions, too. Throughout, the hints of backstory seed the idea that the smith is actually Usue's father, but when the time comes to reveal all to the audience, the filmmakers ambush the audience's expectations. The key character in all of this is Sartael, who could very well have been nothing more than a Maguffin, or perhaps just a monster, but the film grants him his own agency as a character. His motivations seem comprehensible even if he is a demon. The film helps this by providing a visual design of his character that is both familiar to anyone who has been tormented with visions of hell and damnation in their Christian religious instruction, but unfamiliar enough to movie audiences who haven't really been served a character design this convincing before. That he's relatable as a fellow worker is gravy. The smith himself is a bit of a cipher even after we know his motivations. Usue reminds me a bit of Sarah Polley's character in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen. A lot of this film bear's the stamp of Gilliam's influence, come to think of it. There's certainly a kinship between Gilliam's evil bureaucrats and the demons in this film, a point emphasized by one of its more obscure bits of arcana: demons have a compulsion to count things. The climax of the film depends on demons being literal bean counters. It's a sly commentary.

Errementari (2017)

In any event, this is all great fun to watch. The film's coup de grace finds the smith hauling a huge blessed bell into Hell itself to torment Satan and all his minions, and when this unfolded, I was laughing my ass off. This is a movie that's unafraid to chase its (literal) imp of the perverse all the way down the rabbit hole.

Errementari is a Netflix original. I originally watched it as part of this year's October Horror Movie Challenge.

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