Spinning something cinematically new out of lycanthropy is always a challenge, but director Paco Plaza intermittently achieves it with his sophomore feature, historical horror yarn “Romasanta.” Based on a true story from the 19th century, offbeat pic is cleverly ambiguous where it counts; however, it lacks dramatic focus, and subtlety in plot and characterization takes second place to well-turned visual and sonic effects. Along with other titles out of Filmax’s prolific Fantastic Factory, “Romasanta” has been picked up by Lions Gate for North America. Sales to other territories have been healthy.
Traveling salesman Manuel (Julian Sands) turns up in a village in northern Spain in 1851 to stay at the house of his lover, Maria (Maru Valdivielso), and her sisters, Barbara (Elsa Pataky) and Teresa (Luna Mcgill). Barbara is also in love with Manuel.
Dead bodies keep turning up in the area, strangely having been both violently savaged and surgically incised. Soon, both Maria and Teresa are among the victims.
Left on her own in their remote farmhouse, Barbara is warned by apparent madman Antonio (John Sharian) that it’s not wolves she should fear, and pretty quickly it becomes clear that her problem is Manuel, who’s now turned up again.
Prof. Philips (David Gant) is brought in by police inspector Luciano (Gary Piquer) to aid the investigation, bringing with him some cutting-edge ideas on psychology — his sections help to make pic something more than standard horror fare.
Manuel again goes on the run. And when Barbara, encouraged by Antonio, realizes Manuel is occasionally given to turning into a wolf, she determines to hunt him down in revenge for the deaths of her sisters.
The story on which pic is based is richly suggestive, but the script’s desire to try to follow up all its strands leaves the project looking unfocused — a mixture of straight-up gothic horror, a study of science vs. superstition, and an under-realized romance between Manuel and Barbara. Packing too much in also leads to several improbable coincidences, though there are some sharply executed individual scenes, such as the Manuel-Barbara showdown in a golden cornfield.
Sands’ wolfish visage provides an appropriately sexy combination of attraction and threat, and script is clever enough to coax out some sympathy for him during the final 20 minutes. As Barbara, Pataky turns in a career-best perf in a role in which she runs the implausible gamut from insipid lover to knife-wielding instrument of revenge. Sharian, looking like an echo of Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now,” is watchable but feels surplus to dramatic requirements.
Technical standards are pro. Excess is the byword for d.p. Javier Salmones’ richly textured visuals, whether showing lurid close-ups of Manuel’s pullulating skin transformations or of globby liquids, a runaway coach and horses in flames, or simply taking in the stunning rural landscapes of Galicia. Soundwork also deserves mention, though the accompanying score by Mikel Salas is merely efficient.