Nacho Cerda's THE ABANDONED was among the first batch of films released as part of After Dark's Horrorfest in 2006, and was the only one of those initial eight to garner a theatrical release. At first glance it makes sense; Cerda probably had the largest cult reputation, thanks to his notorious short film AFTERMATH, but THE ABANDONED is not exactly the kind of movie that does well at the local multiplex.
Written by Cerda and SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY director Karim Hussain, THE ABANDONED stars Anastasia Hille as an adoptee traveling to Russia in order to learn about her birth parents. She visits a rustic cabin she's inherited deep within the forest, beginning a journey into life and death, the past and the present, and the secrets that lie in the hearts of families. A journey that includes a mysterious man named Nicolai (Karel Roden) who knows more about her past than he should, and a pair of strange, zombie-like doppelgangers.
This movie should've been a modern masterpiece, and if judging solely on technical savvy Cerda still succeeds. He creates an unbearably lush atmosphere, worthy of the likes of Mario Bava, establishing and maintaining such a foreboding mood that just know something ominous will happen. Cinematographer Xavi Gimenez's excellent photography uses nature to not only heighten the ambiance, but to underscore the film's thematic elements as well (note the significance of the river in the scenes bookending the story's core). The screenplay also suggests some novel concepts, such as the ability to haunt a location before your arrival, or to feel the same pain as your ghost.
Yet, almost tragically, despite Cerda's best efforts to be genuinely scary, THE ABANDONED doesn't quite hit its mark. Blame can be pointed at Hille, whose stiff and cold demeanor may be necessary thematically, but is hard for an audience to connect to (Cerda reportedly refused to consider name actresses such as Holly Hunter or Nastassja Kinski, insisting upon an unknown; I understand his reasoning, but he could've chosen better), but the script shoulders most of the burden. Its tempo is much to slow truly be effective, trying to convey too much of the story through dialogue and creating a tedium that destroys much of what Cerda has achieved. The mystery aspect is not enough of a hook, raising more questions than they answer (surely the point, but still) and the origins of the doppelgangers is never made clear, nor mined for true suspense beyond their original reveal. It also grows needlessly obtuse as it reaches the finale, fumbling the tension when it should be cranking it.
Still, regardless of its considerable flaws, THE ABANDONED remains one of the most notable films of the decade. A cerebral, spiritual movie, sure to please fans of David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky, it possesses an ambition little seen in this era of rampant remakes and graphic-novel adaptations. I'd much rather see an artist falter trying to accomplish something unique than the usual prefabricated, audience-friendly schlock.