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The Wasteland (15)
Director: David Casademunt
Screenplay: David Casademunt, Marti Lucas, Fran Menchon
Starring: Inma Cuesta, Roberto Alamo, Asier Flores
Review: RJ Bland
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that the pandemic ordeal that most of the world has endured these last two years (and is still continuing to deal with) is going to have some sort of impact on the types of genre films that are produced in the next few years. Not just from a purely from a practical perspective either (although that's obviously had a big influence), but in terms of subject matter. There are three central themes that will probably hit a bit of a nerve because of our collective experience of COVID-19. The first is perhaps the most direct; our fear of viruses and any infectious disease. Many sought some sense of catharsis in early 2020 by tracking down Contagion (2011). For the record, we weren't one of them. Secondly, trust in government and the integrity of society itself has been tested rigorously and it feels as if that one could rumble on and on. Lastly, and perhaps the one that may feel the most personal, is the sense of isolation that the last 24 months have thrust upon us. Very few of us have experienced anything like it before and there's no denying that it has caused something approaching a mental health disaster. It's this last trauma that David Casademunt's period horror The Wasteland touches upon.
Set in late 19th century Spain – a place that's been ravaged by war and conflict, ten year old Diego (Asier Flores) lives with his doting mother Lucia (Inma Cuesta) and emotionally detached father Salvador (Robert Alamo) in their dilapidated homestead that's about as far from civilisation as you can get. They eek out an existence in their scrubland environment but it's not exactly happy families. Salvador is eager for his son to grow up fast and is haunted by past tragedies and all this means that he's a cold, harsh influence on his son. Especially difficult when Diego is the sensitive type who would rather cuddle their rabbits than help his dad kill them for supper. Then there's the constant threat that someone might stumble upon their abode. It's why poor Diego has to have his father accompany him to the latrine in the middle of the night armed with a gun. Just in case. As if poor Diego didn't have enough to worry about, one night his father tells him a story about an evil beast that has been part of legend for many years. This creature preys on those that fear it, appearing to them as a distant speck on the horizon at first, before getting nearer and nearer every day. There is no escape and when it catches up with you, you are done for. Salvador then drops the bombshell that his own sister saw this creature when they were children and that it eventually led to her death. Within a few days, Diego's dad has left for a long arduous and uncertain trek to get supplies, leaving his wife and son on their own. Turns out that wasn't the best idea...
The Wasteland doesn't break any new ground when it comes to sparse, psychological horror. In many ways it feels like a sister movie to Emma Tammi's The Wind (2019) – a film where environmental wilderness and interior isolation combine with deadly results. If we're referencing other films then it would be amiss not to mention that it all feels very Babadooky too. Not that that's a criticism per se. But The Wasteland at least lays its cards on the table quite early on and leaves you in no doubt that there are two possibilities at play. What we are watching is either literal or metaphorical, but it's sort of up to you to decide by the time the credits roll.
Director David Casademunt does a grand job in creating a suitable sense of unease from the get-go too. The wide epic desolate vistas remind us how alone our characters are. A long way away from human conflict, sure. But they're also miles away from anyone that can offer any help too. Inside and things feel palpably oppressive too, with cinematographer Isaac Vila using both candle and moonlight to great effect. After a while, it all feels grimly familiar and with the family becoming more and more wary of venturing outside, it soon turns into the quarantine from hell. The script lets us dwell on the threat of the creature, rather than revealing too much too early on and it's this sense of paranoia and dread that propel the film forwards for much of its running time. Sure, it does sag a little in places and feel a tad repetitive but this only heightens those lockdown anxieties most of us still have buried deep inside. The Wasteland is not a film that ever really goes for the jugular though and it's content to circle us repeatedly until we feel suitably worn down and broken.
The limited amount of characters also adds another layer of intentional banality to proceedings. Thankfully, the central trio are all quite excellent. Inma Cuesta delivers a dynamic performance as Lucia, a woman struggling to keep her son safe – and her own sanity. But special praise has to be reserved for Asier Flores who plays the fragile Diego with such sensitivity that it's impossible not to feel protective of him.
There will be some who finish The Wasteland who feel a sense of frustration at the film's ambiguity and perceived lack of pay off. But for those looking for something a bit chilly on these cold winter nights, this might be a bit of a treat.
The Wasteland is an intimate and character driven chiller that although light on big scares, will satisfy those looking for some ponderous, slow burn horror.
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