George Clooney

Spanish director Nacho Cerda's English-language horror film "The Abandoned" has been rather unceremoniously dumped into U.S. theaters sans previews by Lionsgate. A pity, since this is just the kind of offbeat genre piece that might have benefited from stroking buzz among serious genre aficionados.

Spanish director Nacho Cerda’s English-language horror film “The Abandoned” has been rather unceremoniously dumped into U.S. theaters sans previews by Lionsgate. A pity, since this is just the kind of offbeat genre piece that might have benefited from stroking buzz among serious genre aficionados. Those looking for formula slasher fare may be less appreciative, since the pic’s brand of arty, surreal Euro-horror is more beloved by cultists than teenage mallrats. Minimally plotted but beautifully atmospheric nightmare will just pit-stop in Stateside hardtops before moving on to ancillary formats.

After a prologue (“Somewhere in Russia, 1966″) that shows a bloodied woman in a truck living just long enough to deliver twin infants to rural neighbors, the pic jumps ahead 40 years. Marie (Anastasia Hille) is an American movie producer with a look of perpetual stress. Raised as an adoptee, she knows she was born Russian, but has never been able to discover anything about her biological parents. Until now, that is, since a notary (Valentin Ganev) has called her to Russia with surprising news of inherited property.

Uninterested in owning a derelict farm, yet curious to find any clues about her family (particularly since her mother was apparently murdered not long after giving birth), she hires a surly driver (Carlos Reig-Plaza) to take her to the remote area. It turns out to be a virtual island, one bridge linking it to a mainland otherwise cut off by river and flood waters.

Once they arrive in the middle of the night, the driver promptly disappears. Marie finds a main house in sufficiently poor repair to suggest no one has been near it for decades. Yet there are disturbing noises and elusive human cries before a terrifying apparition sends her fleeing into the forest, where she trips, plunges into the river and nearly drowns.

When she awakens, she discovers she was saved by Nicolai (Karel Roden), who has been here a couple days. He, too, was summoned by the notary, and evidence suggests these two wary strangers might be long-lost siblings. Breaking up this uneasy reunion are dual apparitions who look all too much like the battered, dead-eyed (yet ambulatory) corpses of the living visitors.

“We are haunting ourselves — the house wants us back,” Nicolai muses. He eventually deduces that destiny intended the twins to die with their mother in 1966, at the hands of a brutish father. Now time is turning back on itself, re-creating that night’s hellish events to belatedly claim the lives of the children who survived.

Weakest point here is not that the script’s logic is flimsy, but that the characters (especially Nicolai) have flat-footed moments trying to “explain” it. Like the best works of Mario Bava, Dario Argento or their young U.S. inheritor Dante Tomaselli, “The Abandoned” works best as a macabre fever dream whose sheer potency of highly worked image and sound overcome half-hearted attempts at narrative coherence.

Despite a couple gory interludes and discreet f/x (one notable reverse-motion sequence shows the trashed house pulling itself back into its habitable 1966 condition), eerie frights here are more a matter of sheer dread-soaked atmosphere. Cinematographer Xavi Gimenez’s (“The Machinist,” “Intacto”) often layered widescreen images, Jorge Macaya’s tense editing (which mostly avoids typical jump-cut tricks), Balter Gallart’s clammy production design and Glenn Freemantle’s elaborate soundscape all make artful contributions well above the genre norm.

Bulgarian locations handsomely stand in for the Russian countryside.

The Abandoned

Spain-U.K.-Bulgaria

Production

A Lionsgate release presented in association with After Dark Films of a Filmax Entertainment (Spain) presentation of a Castelao (Spain) production in co-production with Future Films (U.K.) and Radiovision (Bulgaria). Produced by Julio and Carlos Fernandez. Co-producer, Kwesi Dickson. Directed by Nacho Cerda. Screenplay, Cerda, Karim Hussani, Richard Stanley.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Xavi Gimenez; editor, Jorge Macaya; music, Alfons Conde; production designer, Balter Gallart; art director, Rossitsa Bakeva; set decorator, Tzvetana Yankova; costume designer, Sandra Klincheva; sound (Dolby Digital), Glenn Freemantle; special makeup effects, Creature Effects; digital visual effects, Infinia; assistant director, Guillermo Escribano; casting, Steve Daly, Luci Lenox. Reviewed at AMC Loews Metreon 16, San Francisco, Feb. 23, 2007. (In Toronto Film Festival.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Marie - Anastasia Hille Nicolai - Karel Roden Misharin - Valentin Ganev Anatoliy - Carlos Reig-Plaza (English dialogue)
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