Hollywood presently seems to be suffering a fad for Americanising foreign thrillers to no useful end. Recently Elizabeth Olsen ineffectually reprised Silent House, a Uruguayan horror that by all accounts was pretty ineffectual in the first place. The studio moguls may well try to do the same with La Cara Oculta, a recently released Colombian thriller which masterfully twists the conventional motifs of its genre. I hope they don’t though because, while La Cara Oculta deserves a wider release, it is perfectly good how it is.
Adrián, a brooding, hirsute young Spanish orchestra conductor, has accepted a year-long placement with the Bogota Symphony Orchestra. As we open he comes home to a video left by his pretty girlfriend, Belén, tearfully announcing her departure. We are not let in on why, though we suspect the animal spirits of a handsome young Iberian abroad – his or hers – might have something to do with it. Adrián is bereft and drinks himself into a tearful stupor at a local bar, where pretty waitress Fabiana rescues him from a fight, picks him off the floor and confiscates his car keys before he can do anything more self-destructive with them. Before long a relationship kindles.
The opening is beautifully executed: excellently lit; smartly framed. Great thought has gone into production design. Adrián is repeatedly reflected in and framed by windows and mirrors: in his bedroom; in the restaurant; in a water-filled basin: his existence is described through rectangular panels. This is a witty visual clue about which I’ll say no more, but it is unmistakably there.
Fabiana eventually makes her way to Adrián’s house: a grand country estate. She comes across Belén’s detritus: a toothbrush; cosmetics; some unfinished fashion designs at a desk. In a moment of light relief, some local cops arrive and prod around suspiciously. Belén has vanished. If she has left the country, she did so without attracting the attention of the authorities.
Fabiana’s anxiety grows: she hears screams down the plughole; Adrián is suspiciously unfazed. Unexplained ripples move across the bath. Without warning, the shower turns scalding hot. Adrian seems to be getting on rather too famously with a lady violinist in his orchestra.
Then, one afternoon, while Adrian is out, Fabiana discovers a mysterious key on a chain, dropped down a vent.
As he skilfully builds tension, director Andrés Baiz tips his hat at many horror tropes, notably Bluebeard and Psycho. He deftly directs his cameraman. He instructs many playful touches.
Just when you think you know where all this is going, La Cara Oculta magically changes gear. I can’t say too much without giving away spoilers, except to remark that the transition shot between the first and second acts is the one genuinely false move in the picture: it is only a split second, but it is wrong. I would change it if I were Baiz.
We find, in any case, that we have been led up the garden path. Everything has been carefully — well, framed.
The second act rewinds to Adrián and Belén’s arrival in Bogota. We are let in on the period leading up to Belén’s disappearance. By necessity, it deflates some of the tension of the first hour, as it reveals how all was not what Baiz had led us to believe.
The fun really begins in the third act, which owes as much to Edgar Allen Poe as it does Charles Perrault. The subject matter could have been emotionally gruelling indeed, but Baiz retains a light touch, and has a lot of corny fun sequencing lightning storms and power-cuts to add to the drama. The film is thus never genuinely scary, but it is certainly chilling in concept, and a different director might have made more of a meal of the psychological horror. I’m quite pleased Baiz didn’t, however.
La Cara Oculta sets out to entertain rather than horrify, and it achieves that magnificently. Unless David Fincher can be persuaded to remake it in English it is not likely to smash any box office records, but that’s never stopped a film getting an unqualified recommendation from me.
DIRECTOR: ANDRÉS BAIZ
STARS: MARTINA GARCÍA, QUIM GUTIÉRREZ, CLARA LAGO
RUNNING TIME: 96 MINUTES