Screens Friday, April 5 at 10:00 p.m. at the Ocean Beach Playhouse as part of the first Frequency Film Festival.
By Brian Lafferty
March 22, 2013 (San Diego) – Two weeks ago, Sam Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful was released. Memory of the Dead - which screens on Friday, April 5 as part of the new Frequency Film Festival - is a film that owes much to Raimi's not so family-friendly work. It balances both camp and fright with scattered, but effective, jump scares and lots of blood.
Memory of the Dead certainly invites comparisons to Raimi’s The Evil Dead and Drag Me to Hell with its B-movie tendencies toward blood, camp, and grossness. However, director and writer Valentín Javier Diment and his co-screenwriters apply their own uniquely twisted variation on the haunted house subgenre. It has a bizarre style all its own, a combination of nightmarish surrealism, camp, and gruesome violence.
Recently widowed Alicia is plagued by nightmares of her husband Jorge's tragic death. She invites some close friends to her house on the pretense of reading a loving letter written by Jorge to them. This scene of intentionally phony sentimentality (with help from a deliberately syrupy score) is followed by a long night filled with evil, terror, and death. Alicia's friends encounter angry ghosts of family members and lovers who torment, torture, and dispatch them.
The first shot effectively foreshadows the gruesome and unsettling events with a profoundly red pool of bubbling blood, set to a little child’s innocent and foreboding singing. This horror film music staple is perhaps a little overused, but it’s reliably creepy and in Memory of the Dead, is potently chilling. But there’s still less than 90 minutes to go.
In one scene of twisted symbolism, a young woman is nearly sexually assaulted by what is later to be revealed as the ghost of her predator father. Her mother’s ghost, fully aware, haphazardly sews her eyes and mouth shut with a needle and thread. Director Diment shoots in close-ups as she drags the threads across her eyelids slowly and sloppily, as if to make a point. A few shots later she does the same to her mouth.
That's one side of Memory of the Dead. It' blood-soaked tendencies emerge in another scene as one of the victims has painful and unsexy sex with the spirit of his ex-lover. Later, she approaches him, pregnant with his baby. Her belly expands, with little hands and arms pushing up. These series of shots, plus the performances and atmosphere, allow the set-up to build so intensely that the tension extends from the psychological to the physiological; my stomach clenched at the thought of the inevitability of seeing what I knew I was going to see. Then splat! His face is leveled with blood and guts.
Sometimes Diment employs surrealism to give a malevolently ethereal atmosphere to accompany the physical torture. As these characters are tormented, the question always remains in their minds, and mine as well: is this real? Diment uses ambiguity to blur the line between the real and hallucinatory. No scene does it better than that in which a literally faceless little girl pulls out another young man’s teeth and eyes, and appropriates them for herself into a makeshift face. Like the belly-bursting scene, it's unpredictable and ghastly. This scene, like every macabre one in it, is stuff straight out of nightmares.
Claudio Beiza's color palette evokes that latter quality. These hideous, surreal shades of pale purple, green, blue, and red are colors I've seen in my worst nightmares. Beiza, in conjunction with the production designers and art directors, uses wide lenses and lightly surreal sets to create a house composed of the stuff bad dreams are made of. If the opening scenes establish this world and its themes of nightmares, then this suitably ungainly color palette perpetuates it with a consistent flair for the wicked.
Some films I can just see the words "cult film" plastered all over it. This one had two more: "midnight movie." This is a film just screaming to be unleashed on the midnight movie circuit. If this were made and released in the 1970s at the height of the midnight movie craze, it would have certainly fit in. With the right marketing and distribution, it's still possible. Hopefully the distributor knows that they have a potential niche hit on their hands.