This time out, it’s some military flavored chills here at the ol’ Litterbox from South America with a look at 2011′s Columbian horror film “El Páramo” aka “The Squad” recently released on UK Region 2 DVD and just recently deposited in your Favorite creepy movie lovin’ Catgirl’s mailbox.
Our synopsis goes like this: “When all contact is suddenly lost with an isolated military observation base atop one of the desolate mountains of Colombia deep inside rebel held territory, a special high mountain commando unit is sent to check the situation out.
On arrival they find no trace of the soldiers stationed there and only one living female civilian prisoner, walled away and left to die under eerie circumstances. Gradually the isolation and inability to communicate with their superiors takes its toll on their sanity. Becoming prisoners of fear, paranoia and a dark secret; they start to distrust each other and become fully prepared to turn on one another in order to survive. One by one they begin to die, and unless they can work out the true nature of their enemy and unite to defeat it, soon there will be no survivors at all.”
Military themed horror is nothing new…. and this wee Catgirl’s gone there many times before from such old favorites like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Predator” and James Cameron’s “Aliens” to more modern efforts like Korea’s “R-Point” and the killer Nazi Zombie/ Ghosts of “The Outpost”, all the way to the low budget “commandos versus werewolves” of the UK indie effort “Dog Soldiers”. Yep…. nothing proves just how scary a situation can be than to see a bunch of rough, tough, capable guys with enough firepower to wipe out an army get themselves into a situation where no amount of testosterone, guns, or guts will get you out of alive.
But…. boy can it be fun seeing them try…..
Wanna see if maybe this time the army guys will actually win? (Psssst…. they don’t, but somehow I’m thinking you already kinda expected that… right? ) Well then…. you know what you gotta do!! “Read On!!”
Yeah…. somehow you just know that a film like this is gonna end badly for our camo clad heroes. It just always does in these films. So…. what’s the attraction? Why it’s like getting a war movie and a horror film… both at the same time. Not only that…. but where most horror protagonists have to fight off the hordes of evil with only kitchen implements, or lawn care equipment, or maybe… just maybe… the odd hunting rifle or handgun, our heroes in these sorts of movies have it all. Big deadly weapons and lots of them…. explosives…. maybe even armored vehicles to play with when things get scary. Oh yeah…. now that’s the ticket. Problem is, those things usually are about as worthless for ghost-busting as throwing water balloons. Yep… sad but true. Still… they do make for a much noisier battle with lots and lots of gratuitous destruction on hand to make thinks much livelier.
Does that mean there’s no room left for suspense? Of course not. The best of these films delight in taking that seemingly unbeatable group and stripping away their defenses to show them as no more able to handle themselves in the face of supernatural evil than us ordinary civilians. “El Páramo” is just that sort of film at it’s heart. Director Jaime Osorio Marquez takes his “hard boys” and drops them in what has to be the most remote, and eerily claustrophobic fire base I’ve ever seen on film. While our soldiers all seem to be cold efficient killing machines, it isn’t long before you start to see the cracks in each of them….. flaws that this weird place starts to work away at, wearing them down and making them more a danger to themselves than any monster, ghost, or demon ever could be.
Our heroes are the stock stereotypes you’d expect, the “by the books” officer seen as weak and inexperienced by his pack of gristled killers and always just a step or two away from an accidental fragging, the token “native” guy who knows all the local superstitions, the stock “vicious thug” who enjoys the job of killing a wee bit too darn much, and our main character…. the loyal trooper forced by a dirty war to do those things to win it that a man can never wash off his soul.
Much of the film rides on the slow disintegration of this group once they arrive on the mountaintop base and find it deserted. Shrouded in fog so thick that it makes you wonder how this place ever would have been considered a good observation post, there’s no sign of the expected rebel assault…. and at first anyway…. no bodies to explain it all. Not to say there isn’t plenty here to creep them out. There’s bloody messes everywhere….. and the totally unexpected discovery of a traumatized woman walled away in a bunker behind a barrier of mystic signs and religious symbols.
Rebel prisoner?…. Witch? Or maybe even…. Demon? It’s never really explained, although our “indigenous” trooper seriously suspects all of the above. Stuff starts to unravel pretty quickly after she’s set free…. and subsequently manages to escape into the foggy labyrinth of the trenches around the base, but the real danger starts as the troopers all slowly become unhinged, one by one succumbing to the odd nature of the place to either end up killing themselves or their companions. Perhaps the scariest bit of the entire film is the death of one trooper…. freaked out by his encounter with the rotting remains of the soldiers originally assigned here, found in a pit just outside the camp towards the middle of our film…. that causes him to constantly obsess about feeling the terrible itching of parasites burrowing away under his skin. What’s a guy to do to deal with that? Why skin himself alive with a really sharp bayonet of course…. Brrrrr….. so creepy… and sooooo gross.
One by one our brave commandos meet their terrible fate. You just know there aren’t going to be any survivors… no way… no how. Somehow, that’s alright though. By them end, you can honestly see that even our hero has reached the conclusion that maybe death is the answer…. the only right answer… to balance the scales for the terrible things that they have all done in the name of war. Mind you…. I imagine he never expected to get his karma balanced by being brutally killed by a homicidal “bruja”…. but hey, that’s how it goes sometimes. Well… that, and it sets things up nicely for “El Páramo 2: La Dia de las Bruja”, Hahahaha!!
So how did this one grab me? Hmmmmm? While it certainly tries to do a lot with it’s small cast and stellar locale, I have to say I was a wee bit disappointed that the supernatural elements weren’t explored as fully as they might have been. Certainly the film and the story didn’t need them…. it would have worked just as well as a straight psychological thriller exploring the power of fear, guilt, isolation, and self-loathing to bring about a horror just as deadly as any ghost story. Having added the idea of our “witch”, I wish there had been a bit more back story to explain who and what she was supposed to be. Without that, she was merely a superfluous plot element introduced and then basically ignored till the conclusion rolls around. Even then…. you still don’t know if she’s really a witch or merely a crazy woman…. Very confusing and disappointing.
Still, this one is certainly a good looking film, and it understands the idea of evoking the dread feelings inherent in a truly creepy location. I just wish the suspense had also been balanced with a bit more action… maybe the added threat of those “rebels” we kept hearing about. Ah well…..
Overall, I give this one a decent 3 out of 5 “Meows”. It wasn’t bad… but it wasn’t great either. At best it gives me the idea that director Jaime Osorio Marquez has the talent and the eye for the kind of filmaking I will definitely want to keep my eye open for in future. He may not have scored a home-run with this one, but he certainly made it clear that sometime soon he just might.
The UK Region 2 DVD is an excellent version of the film, being presented in widescreen PAL format with it’s original Spanish audio track and some excellent selectable English subtitles for your viewing pleasure. If you are so inclined to take a look yourself, it’s available for 12-19 $ US from most of the usual places.
Time to wrap things up but….. last but not least, we have a Trailer?… But of course!!