Home Video Hovel: Memory of the Dead, by Matt Warren
Horror movies can be judged by a pretty ruthless metric. Was that shit scary? If so, pass; if not, fail. Forget Rotten Tomatoes—horror is only certified fresh if the inside of your Joe Boxers are 51% coated in feces from terror-induced pants-pooping (fun fact: this system also works for evaluating roller coasters and state funerals.) That’s why a movie like the new Argentinean import Memory of the Dead ultimately falls flat despite boasting a clever script, decent acting, and stylish visuals. It just isn’t that scary. So despite palpable energy and wit, director Valentín Javier Diment’s gore-splattered melodrama reluctantly gets tossed into the “Nice Try” bin to desperately await the affections of a hypothetical cult audience that, frankly, is unlikely to materialize.
Equal part Evil Dead and The Big Chill, Memory of the Dead sets up an intriguingly claustrophobic scenario: at a large, isolated house somewhere in the Argentinean countryside a group of friends gather to mourn the untimely death of enigmatic occult enthusiast Jorge—who recently (and mysteriously) bled out in his sleep while devoted wife Alicia (Lola Berthet) slept next to him unawares. As darkness falls, Alicia reveals to the surly gaggle of dumpy, 30-something Goths—the scent of clove cigarettes and Neil Gaiman trade paperbacks practically wafting off the screen—the true purpose of the gathering: to use their combined Wiccan juju to conjure Jorge back from the land of the muerto.
As there typically are with any sort of occult ritual in the movies, this resurrection involves a lot of arbitrary rules and plenty of dire consequences should those rules be violated. Predictably everything goes to hell, pretty much literally, from the word go. Almost immediately, the seemingly tight-knit group is undone by petty squabbles and festering jealousies. The discord opens the door for the ghosts of the past to surface, and each member of the group is tormented by malevolent manifestations of their own individual personal traumas. So we get a lot of icky stuff involving child molestation, gender confusion, sexual assault, abusive parenting, abortion, and various other heinous shit. Bodies pile up, leading to a genuinely surprising series of reversals and plot twists in the final 15 minutes that almost make the whole lurid 89 minutes worth it.
From its script, to its production design, to the acting, Memory feels extremely stage-bound. The proscenium arch peeks through its ripped black fishnets in practically every scene. Press materials frame Memory of the Dead as homage to the highly theatrical Dario Argento giallos of the 1960s and ‘70s. But that feels more like a justification for the film’s overt cheapness than any legitimate artistic intent. And more often than not, Diment steers Memory in the direction of arch drag-queen-camp, as if hedging against criticisms of the film’s inescapable artificiality.
Basically, there are two ways to make a low budget work for you when you’re making a horror movie. The first is to mimic the verisimilitude of pornography; to make your product feel as grimy and transgressive as possible—even borderline illegal. The second is to fully embrace the theatricality and outrageousness of the set-up and knowingly give the camp-hounds in the audience something to cluck over. The former approach gets you Last House on the Left; the latter gets you The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Neither strategy is wrong or right, but they do serve different audiences. And I may not be the audience for this precise treatment of this material, no matter how much I may have respected its cleverness or Grand Guignol panache. I like horror that makes me feel like a small, terrified animal, not horror that lets me feel superior to it. Memory of the Dead leaves too much room to feel superior. And it left my Joe Boxers way, way too clean.