The best laid plans of mice and men . . . I was hoping to get a chance to see Knives Out last week, but that did not happen. So, instead we again revisit a film review I wrote for the dearly missed Alamo Cinema Massacre column that appeared on the Cinema Knife Fight site from 2016-2018.
As I have mentioned before, the programmer for horror flicks at our local Alamo Drafthouse chain has pretty good, if quirky tastes. Case in point, The Untamed, an unusual Spanish language picture from 2016 that (at that time, anyway) had not really seen a home media release here in the States. This has changed in the intervening years, however. The programmer (a gent by the name of Robert Saucedo) caught the film at one of the festivals he attended and wanted to share it with his fellow quirky horror movie aficionados, and I for one am glad he did. The film turned out to be a gem of mood, a thoughtful bit of scary sf about a tentacle monster in the woods, but it’s also about the machismo culture perpetuated throughout Mexican cities. The Untamed is not an easy flick to watch, it has some triggery moments about physical, sexual and emotional abuse, it is candid in its sexual imagery, and yet it is also a gorgeous feature. I am not surprised it has not quite penetrated our market, since Americans are typically more puritanical about sex than other nations often are. So be it.
I caught the flick in October or November of 2017, while T was home with the kiddo. It’s a movie that struck me as incredible while I was watching it, and it is a feature I would love to see again. I expect folks who enjoy Lynchian weirdness and Cronenbergian cleverness would find much to enjoy in The Untamed, providing they could move past the shock. Mexican genre fare is a fascinating topic, one I find myself intrigued to visit. This film as well as other bits I have seen such as Mexico Barbaro and We Are the Flesh have quite a bit to say, no fear about being sexually frank, and style to spare in their executions. Sure, they might not have the slickness of big budget Hollywood features, but when has that been to the horror genre’s detriment? Let’s take a second look at this one, shall we?
Alamo Cinema Massacre Presents: The Untamed
By: Daniel R. Robichaud
The scene: A small city and a nearby forest in Mexico. In the urban environment, a family drama is playing out, spiraling down from dysfunction to outright despair. In the rural locale, a strange presence waits for deliveries of new flesh. These two disparate locations and their seemingly isolated storylines are soon connected by a single person, a beautiful but broken woman called Vero or Veronica (played by Simone Bucio).
Apart from a pre-credits shot of a rock hanging against a black background that might be outer space or an artistic representation of such, Veronica is in the first thing we see. Her presence lingers throughout the piece to the last shot whether or not she is physically present. That first shot of her is a doozy, as well. She sits with back against a wall, manipulating something that looks suspiciously like a living tentacle between her naked thighs. We are not privy to whatever release she finds in this macabre scene reminiscent of Hokusai’s infamous erotic woodcut “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife”. Instead, after a brief WTF moment, the audience catches up to her later, leaving a house in the woods owned by an older couple (the Vegas played by Oscar Escalante and Bernarda Trueba), bleeding from her side. When she tries to start her motorbike, she collapses. However, she is on a mission so she gets back up to try again.
From there, the action cuts to the city, where we are introduced to Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) and discover a woman whose life is coming slowly but surely apart. When we first see her, she is waking up to find her amorous husband Angel (Jesus Meza) eager to penetrate her from behind. The act is not completely devoid of passion, but what passion is there is certainly on life support. From this morning moment, she receives setback after setback, discovering her youngest son found a secret stash of chocolate and is suffering an allergic reaction, dealing with her oldest son being a handful, and maneuvering emotional isolation when her husband refuses to take the allergic kid to the doctor because he has to get to his construction job. Ale is a working parent as well, and she must skip out on a day paid for her labors in a family owned sweet factory, to take her sons to see her brother Fabian (Eden Villavicencio), a doctor at the nearby clinic.
At the construction worksite, the employees goof off, wrestling with each other while playfully tapping each other on the crotch or competing to be the biggest and loudest macho homophobe of the lot. Angel splits his time fitting in with the others and secretly sexting with Fabian.
Through these opening sequences we learn about the major players in Director/Co-Writer Amat Escalante’s art house horror film The Untamed (2016). Over the one hour and thirty eight minute running time these lives will come together, fly apart, rise above their circumstances, plummet into despair, and ultimately participate in each other’s devastation.
This devastation is realized when Vero’s journey intersects with Ale, Fabian, and Angel, and she lures them to the woods to the strange Presence waiting there.
The Untamed is another exciting and bizarre addition to a string of imaginative Mexican horror films making their way to the states. Like We Are the Flesh (2016), which I reviewed earlier this year, The Untamed delivers sometimes shocking, sometimes titillating material that confounds the real and surreal in some of the more intriguing ways this side of David Lynch. Unlike We Are the Flesh, The Untamed has a firm grounding in reality and gives the audience an intimate view of the mundane world its characters take for granted. The screenplay by auteur Escalante and cowriter Gibran Portela take pains to present real world hurts and woe in the city set pieces, while delivering an otherworldly quality to the forest sequences. The impression is one of two very different worlds sitting side by side. One is a place where manly hombres try to outdo one another in machismo while their wives and lovers tolerate their childish behavior. It is also a world where a mother maintains tight control on her sons, even until they are married and no longer living at home. It is a world where a woman is expected to provide explanations for dancing with some other man at a dance club, after being practically dragged off the floor and out the door by a jealous spouse.
Once the city limits are crossed, however, all these rules vanish.
The Untamed ‘s Spanish language title is La Region Salvage, which is closer in translation to The Wilderness. All of these titles give clues about this moody film’s content, but clues are all they offer. This is because the film is a layered one, operating on both textual and subtextual levels.
I call this an arthouse film because of those layers but also because of the execution. The images are intriguing, whether or not they include alien creatures. The sense of dread is less about stingers or jump scares than witnessing very human disintegration. This film is psychological horror with a domestic bent.
Manuel Alberto Claro’s cinematography is lovely. Shots are framed and lighted with the masterful touch of a James Wong Howe. The effects shots are interwoven with the real world stuff beautifully. This is a sexually explicit film, at once erotic and upsetting, and yet it managed the feat of never feeling truly pornographic.
I love a movie where the supernatural or otherworldly presence has more weight than as a simple shock to the status quo. The Untamed uses its creature in much the way Eraserhead (1977) uses its weird, monstrous infant. The creature is a character all its own, of course, with unexplained but undeniable motivations and impact on the story. However, it is also a metaphor for the anxieties running underneath the psychological meat in all the films’ characters.
We are never quite certain what that presence is. The thing is an otherworldly creature, and it is somehow attuned to human emotion. It provides the purest sexual thrills anyone could ever hope to achieve, and those thrills are nothing short of addictive. Over the course of the movie, it touches most of the cast of adult characters, and its presence affects every single relationship in the movie. Some people will find more than pleasure at its touch. Some will find pain and some will even find death. However, these dangers do not lighten or stop the yearning.
Sometimes explanations are not necessary as is the case in this film. The impact the creature has and its legacy are enough. “Sometimes it will tire of you,” one character warns another, already in withdrawals and disappointed that nothing can last forever, “and then you will have to find someone else to bring to it.”
This only amplifies the inevitability and universality of the situation. The story is an emotionally apocalyptic one, which is a pleasant surprise because it does not rely on the overly familiar to bring us say one more gaudy or aesthetically vapid cookie cutter zombie outbreak end-of-the-world scenario. Instead, The Untamed gives us a disquieting view of a world populated by lonely souls who can easily be driven to their own destruction as to the destruction of those around them through simple desire. Just as Blair’s computer declared the inevitability of world destruction should the titular beastie escape in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), there seems to be a slowly approaching apocalyptic scenario here. A sexually transmitted programmed cell death that creeps inevitably across the humanity exposed to the initial vector, speeding the species’ already evident self-destructive agenda.
David Cronenberg has come quite a way from the ideas and imagery that motivated his earlier films. This is natural, of course. Artists need to grow and change. The Canadian auteur’s influence is all over this picture. However, this is not to say The Untamed is mere pastiche. Amat Escalante has managed to create a wholly original picture with different but similar obsessions about mortality, flesh, and addiction. Escalante’s picture takes the audience a few places not even Cronenberg ever considered going.
Ultimately, The Untamed is a meaty film, rich in disturbing themes, fascinating ideas, and conversation points. Not bad for a film that essentially pits weak-willed human beings as sexual and emotional playthings for a tentacle monster in the woods. I wish there were more movies of this caliber.
The Untamed has since seen release in DVD, Blu-ray and streaming editions. If you have the chance to catch it in theaters, however, I hope the above article will convince you to give it a shot. Not an easy watch, perhaps, but a good one.
Next week, we will examine the new film Knives Out (2019). It is in theaters at present, so grab a viewing if you can.
“Movie Mondays: The Untamed” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. This piece contains material that first appeared as “The Alamo Cinema Massacre Presents: The Untamed”, published on the Cinema Knife Fight website in November 2017.
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