Home Video Hovel: The Condemned, by Aaron Pinkston
Roberto Busó-García’s The Condemned has many of the important touchstones of a great haunted house spooker — there is mysterious and troubling backstory, characters who seem to know more than what they are telling, a big, creaky house/museum/medical facility, and a town full of creepy old people. And yet, it doesn’t quite come together. The film is obviously inspired by the recent trend of Spanish-language supernatural horror films, most passing through the hands of Guillermo del Toro, but that is probably setting the bar a bit too high. Like the best of the genre, it takes its time to build the story up, resorting more on a macabre mood and the gothic style to deliver. The Condemned is quite obviously missing the energy in the quiet moments, which makes the film far less tense and scary than it should have been.
Set in a small Puerto Rican town, the film involves Ana and her dying father, a once-important medical researcher. As he is at the end of his life, Ana comes to Rosales to establish a museum of his accomplishments and try to cement his legacy in the fields of radiation and cancer research — perhaps for selfish reasons, as she seems to bask in his glory. Everything starts to come unseamed when she invites the locals to a Christmas party/museum opening, when many of the old and strangely creepy townsfolk don’t seem to be quite as happy with the doctor’s achievements. After this point, Ana explores her father’s past, which perhaps has supernatural side effects.
Without a doubt, the major problem of The Condemned is it simply isn’t scary. To its credit, the film doesn’t rely on jump scares or cheap tactics, but the slow pace and mystery don’t help. Overall, the film takes a little too long to get going — the first big, dramatic scene (the Christmas party) happens about 25 minutes in and is really the first time when you realize that this is a horror film. Instead of slowly providing exposition at the opening, this could have been a really intense opening that could have filled in all the necessary plot and backstory. The film also has a problem conveying its mystery. As the viewer you know something is going on, but the film tries its best for you not to get the whole picture. Characters seem to be holding on to important information only to provide it conveniently at the climax. This gives the film a slight and drawn out feel, especially in the first two acts.
Honestly, while there aren’t any truly scary moments, the film often packs a shocking punch and isn’t afraid to show you some pretty gruesome images. Like the best ghost stories, the narrative, look and feel are steeped in pain and trauma. Once the whole backstory is laid out for the audience, it registers more sadness than horror, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, depending on your expectations. The Condemned has some ideas and images that really deserve a horror film, but it overall can’t figure out a way to use them all satisfactorily.
Unfortunately, the film won’t have a lasting impact on most audiences — partly in due to the film’s lack of thrills, but also because it includes a horrifically bad ending/non-ending that throws in something of a plot twist that makes no sense with any of the themes or narrative. Usually I would try to avoid telling you that there is any sort of twist that you might not expect, but the ending of The Condemned is so contrived and confusing that you should be warned. This twist takes an otherwise mediocre horror film with a few (emphasis on few) interesting elements and becomes completely trashed.