After several shorts, Mexico City writer-director Isaac Ezban made fantasy fans sit up and take notice with his arresting 2014 feature debut, “The Incident.” “The Similars” likewise hinges on a “Twilight Zone”-like suspense conceit of characters trapped by some sort of tear in everyday reality’s fabric — this time leaving them stuck in a remote 1968 bus station under increasingly desperate (and ridiculous) circumstances. A more conspicuously retro-stylized, absurdist exercise than “The Incident,” this sophomore effort will also stir considerable enthusiasm from adventurous genre fans in its extensive fantasy-fest tour, with limited theatrical and niche home-format release to follow. But some may find the premise wears thinner sooner here, and worry that Ezban might be typing himself as over-reliant on narrative gimmickry, like a hipper Mexican cousin to M. Night Shyamalan.
A massive thunderstorm has paralyzed all transit, stranding a handful of travelers and staff at a regional depot. At first the somnambulant stationmaster, Martin (Fernando Becerril), has just one impatient customer, bearded thirtysomething mining employee Ulises (Gustavo Sanchez Parra), who’s frantic at not being able to reach the capital where his wife is about to give birth. They’re soon joined by the heavily pregnant Irene (Cassandra Ciangherotti), who’s fled an abusive husband. The two strangers prove sympathetic to each other’s plight, and their distress at being stuck here is compounded not just by Martin’s indifference, but also by the exceedingly weird vibes given off by an elderly, non-Spanish speaking native woman (Maria Elena Olivares) and a restroom attendant (Catalina Salas).
Both the latter two seem bizarrely convinced that Ulises constitutes some kind of threat, an accusation that proves infectious as more storm refugees arrive. Newcomers include paranoid taxi driver/university student Alvaro (Humberto Busto), police detective Reyes (Alberto Estrella), and curt upper-crust housewife Gertrudis (Carmen Beato), whose young son, Ignacio (Santiago Torres), appears to be very frail. But just what is the mysterious condition his mother keeps giving him injections for?
As characters collapse in seizures one by one, then manifest signs of supposed “genetic mutation,” collective suspicion escalates further toward the hapless Ulises as some sort of Patient Zero. But soon we realize that there’s no conventional “virus” at work here: Illogically, the station is now physically impossible to leave, and the physical changes wrought on each figure in turn take the form of a surreal running gag. Clearly there’s some grand scheme at work that’s beyond (nearly) everyone’s control, its puppetmaster masquerading as the most harmless participant here.
That big reveal may come as a disappointingly familiar one to those already acquainted with the 1961 “Twilight Zone” episode “It’s a Good Life” (which Rod Serling adapted from a story by Jerome Bixby) or its equally memorable reimagining in the Joe Dante-directed third segment of 1983’s “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” “The Incident” also stretched out a somewhat limited fantasy premise, but put it through more variations, with greater ambiguity remaining at the end; “The Similars,” by contrast, feels more ingenious in presentation than content. However, it may be a different experience for Mexican viewers, many of whom will fully appreciate the historical subtext: Set in 1968, with radio reports of “chaos in the streets” heard throughout, Ezban’s script references that era’s strife between government forces and activist opponents — particularly the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City — in ways that will likely go right over most offshore audiences’ heads. Still, even they will likely catch the whiff of political metaphor a la “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” if without quite understanding the point.
In stylistic terms, however, “The Similars” is fully realized as a semi-camp yet canny homage to vintage suspense templates. The black-and-white visuals that gradually make room for color, d.p. Isi Sarfati’s elaborately choreographed tracking shots across an impressive depot-interior set, the very Bernard Herrmann-esque textures of Edy Lan’s score, and other clever packaging contributions add up to a kind of lavish Hitchcockian in-joke. Performers are in tune with the tricky demands of this cartooned “No Exit.”