"Jump Scare Factory" movies get a bad rap. Yes, it’s a cheap trick. Yes, it’s relatively easy to pull off. And wow, has it been overdone! There are even YouTube channels which literally contain nothing but individually-made jump scare videos. While this trope has been overdone every which way, I’m a sucker for it and being naturally a bit anxious already, I’m pretty much the target audience for these kinds of films. While American cinema can feel derivative when they use this trope due to their familiarity, a foreign film immediately gains a certain mystique by simply being in another language. Argentinian writer/director Demian Rugna peppers his gloomy and very tense supernatural horror film Terrified (2017) with enough jump scares to choke a walrus. The phenomena, spreading like a virus, affects all those around it with ruthless efficiency. It’s surprising considering how innocuously the film begins.
Rugna cut his teeth penning horror films like Death Knows Your Name and The Sinister. His directorial efforts have been limited to two previous features (the sci-fi/horror The Last Gateway and action-comedy You Don’t Know Who You’re Talking To) and a handful of shorts, but Terrified represents his breakthrough. Accompanied by Rugna’s own slithery, electric guitar-laced score, his conception of malevolent forces which can only be seen from a certain point-of-view is indeed, terrifying. In the cold open, Clara (Natalia Senorales) can hear voices. Now, this is par for the course in these types of films, arguably most famously in The Amityville Horror or possibly the first Treehouse of Horror, “Hey, listen lady!” This time, however, the “human voices” are coming out of her drain and happen to mention the “oh so slightly” important detail about wanting to murder her. Next thing you know, her husband Juan (Agustin Rittano, The Intruder) hears a loud banging which he believes is coming from his neighbor's house, but then he walks in on his wife, floating and covered in blood while being slammed back and forth against the wall in a creepy, sped-up motion. It’s a viscerally upsetting scene since Juan desperately tries to pull her down, but whatever it is that’s killing her won’t let go.
While Juan goes to a psychiatric facility for the murder of his wife, neighbor Walter (Demian Salomon) is severely stressed out. Told in flashback by Juan, Walter’s a little unprofessional as he uses his work hours to speak “to many specialists and they agreed on giving me this number.” Said number is for Mora Albreck (Elvira Onetto, Russian Roulette), a paranormal specialist and investigator whose secretary is really rough with Walter when it comes to call screening. Things have been going bump in the night in his house as well, but without evidence, he’s shit out of luck. At one point, he’s reduced to a 5-year-old and hides under the covers, where the silhouette of long fingers hover just above his blanket. Could it be Radu from the Subspecies series? Now THAT would be one helluva crossover!
In the best tradition of Paranormal Activity, he snags a digital camcorder and films himself sleeping, prompting a walking, sinewy grey corpse to come trudging out, whacking down his camera in the process. Guess he’s a GoPro guy. The thing hides inside the closet and although he checks inside, it emerges while Walter stupidly turns his back to review his footage. Later, a young boy wanders into his yard and is creeped out when he hears someone (presumably Walter, but who knows) telling him to go away. The kid slowly backs into the street, where he’s suddenly slammed into by a bus. Very unexpected.
The boy’s mother, Alicia (Julieta Vallina, La Flor) is emotionally devastated and it’s particularly grim to watch a worker hosing the blood off the street. It gets weirder though, as the boy’s extremely decrepit corpse (don’t they embalm in Argentina?) shows up and has a seat at her kitchen table. Her mind being snapped, she simply serves him his favorite snack. Her ex-boyfriend and policeman Comisario Funes (TV actor Maximiliano Ghione) and Jano, another paranormal investigator, examine the boy, who sits up stock still but continues to baffle the men as they can’t help but think he keeps moving ever so slightly. They carry him into the freezer where he absolutely tries to get out. I just feel bad for all of that frozen meat they had to haul out to make room! The boy is creepy-incarnate, with Jano commenting that his hands are “torn up. He scratched at the dirt for a few days.” The makeup and special effects by Yamila Repalli and Marcos Berta are top-notch, with just enough gruesome reality to make the child’s presence somewhat plausible, if unnerving.
Along with yet another paranormal expert (do they all live in Argentina?!) named Rosenstock, Mora, Jano, and Funes decide to dive right into their investigation, Conjuring-style. Stylistically, this film shares the most with that franchise, although Rugna goes for a more subdued, muted-quality rather than the ferocity of James Wan’s camera work. Fuenes is given the chance to leave, with Rosenstock commenting that “fear is contagious,” but he rather foolishly sticks around. Things go from not-so-good to really bad quick. They probably wish they’d taken Zelda Rubinstein with them on this one.
Cutlery is hanging from the bottom of a cupboard under its own power, as if a magnet is pulling it up. Rosenstock amuses himself by running his hand along them like a harp, but he soon regrets that as a knife pins him to the cabinet and the creepy sound of sucking makes it clear that whatever these things are, they feed on blood. In an intriguing detail, Fuenes is told to clean up all of the blood Rosenstock bled on the floor, lest they essentially attract these animalistic creatures. Jano is inside Alicia’s house and in one of the most unexpected but visually excellent jump scares, Jano begins weaving back and forth, claiming that each time he moves, Fuenes disappears from view. Moving left to right, one of the creatures suddenly pops up on the screen, scaring the hell out of Jano and the audience.
Mora is busy with her contraptions and examining the hole in Juan’s wall where the thumping had been taking place every 5 a.m. earlier in the film. The concept of “light and darkness. Two realities sharing the same place and time” is introduced and begins to explain why these things can only be seen through a certain point-of-view. In many ways, it’s a simple ghost story idea, but one in which a person could conceivably see an otherworldly being if they looked in a very specific way. Mora describes these beings as having the capability to “gather, nest, and reproduce. They can use our bodies.”
Unfortunately, they decide to use her body a little later. A spidery hand reaches out from inside the hole and cracks her neck. To make things worse, Fuenes rushes to his car and in the distance, something appears to be approaching. We can’t quite tell what until it slams into the window. Turns out, her head’s been twisted around and it’s hanging backwards like Meryl Streep’s in Death Becomes Her. Worse, Jano gets trapped inside a piece of furniture and glass gets embedded into his eyes while Rosenstock appears to get it as well, his presumably lifeless body lying in the corner.
Alicia accuses Fuenes of trying to hide her son and hangs herself. He says fuck it and starts tossing gasoline all over the place and lights up as the possessed Jano shows up in all his bloody, glass-in-the-eyes glory. The houses are set aflame and we’re back to Juan, a year later. He’s being interviewed by some officials who are now trying to put the pieces together of what the three investigators were up to and why Officer Fuenes would torch the houses, with people inside, no less. Juan asks whether the man behind the trio is with them. They see no one, but he describes a burnt-man resembling Rosenstock. Before they can answer, a metal chair is flung at the screen, leading to the possibility of a sequel.
The film teases several intriguing ideas and if a sequel does materialize, there’s a reasonably solid foundation to build on, although most of the major players have been killed off. The camera work by Mariano Suarez (Still Life) is quietly menacing and editor Lionel Cornistein assembles the footage in just such a way that things remain intriguing in between the big scares. It’s a mood piece that’s light on logic but heavy on atmosphere. Most importantly, it’s scary, and that’s what counts.