Spanish short filmmaker Nacho Cerdà made a minor splash with this low-budget Spanish/Bulgarian/UK production when it was shown as part of a group of nine films under the heading of Horrorfest last fall—a sufficient enough splash to warrant a separate release. It’s easy to see why Cerdà‘s film was singled out, because when it’s at its best, it’s an effective shocker with an unhealthy atmosphere that seeps into your very bones. The problem is that it’s not always at its best, and when it isn’t, it very much isn’t.
In common with all too many horror pictures, The Abandoned mistakes slowness for atmosphere—something made worse here by telling us too much in its funereal-paced opening reel. Some setup is necessary for purposes of the plot, but Cerdà errs badly by taking about 20 minutes to get to his first truly important scene. Ironically, the scene in question is a variation on the classic opening of Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931)—the scene where “superstitious” peasants warn Renfield that going to Castle Dracula is perhaps not the best idea he ever had—a scene that the hardly action-packed Browning got to in less than five minutes. Would that Cerdà had this kind of expository economy. Yes, we need to know that Marie (TV actress Anastasia Hill) is headed to her ancestral home in Russia in order to better understand her past, having been adopted in infancy. And to play fair, some of the information we’re fed is necessary, but we’re given too much too slowly with too much time to reflect on it. (Compare all this exposition with the brilliance of the one shot of the finally very important snow-globe in Michelle Soavi’s Cemetery Man (1994).)
However, once The Abandoned gets past its lengthy setup, it not only gets its bearings, it does so with some degree of in-joke humor (when’s the last time you saw a movie indulge in the scared peasant routine?) before letting the story get its creepiness cred going. As soon as the film makes it to the farm, it becomes literally bathed in dread.
In terms of plot, there’s not much. In essence, she arrives; she finds the house in a state of decay; weird things happen; and sinister figures flit through the rooms (moving like the dead father in Michael Winner’s The Sentinel (1977))—until Marie nearly drowns and is rescued by a man, Nicolai (Karel Roden, Running Scared), who claims to be her twin brother. The post-rescuing scene could’ve been better handled. I don’t know about others, but personally, after being stranded in a clearly malevolent house complete with one’s own dripping-wet, dead-eyed doppelganger, I’d be mighty glad to meet up with just about any other human agency. I certainly wouldn’t hit him upside the head with half a tree, as Marie does before she gets things straightened out! From here, it’s not so much what happens as it is how it happens and what is suggested.
Cerdà makes a grave mistake in revealing Marie’s doppelganger early on, and compounds this with an admittedly horrific encounter between Marie and Nicolai, with both of their grisly, zombified doubles in the barn. The problem is that he telegraphs his twist/surprise ending over and over. The pity is that there’s a point in the narrative where he could have twisted the twist, but he doesn’t. Instead, he takes the film exactly where he’s made you think it’s going all along, making its grim conclusion a groaner of a letdown.
Unlike a lot of other reviewers, I don’t in the least object to the gory business with the presumably possessed pigs (we haven’t had any good demonic porkers since Eric Weston’s Stilton-encrusted Evilspeak back in 1981). I don’t insist that horror be subtle, nor do I think subtlety is an automatic plus. My qualms with the last section of The Abandoned rest entirely on the ho-hum predictability of its plot twist. Even at that, I won’t soon forget the implied horrors down the watery corridor in the house’s cellar. That’s the kind of atmosphere that makes me want to see what Cerdà does next. Rated R for violence/gore, some disturbing images, nudity and language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke