Is it just me, or does horror material come in waves? Just as I was complaining about how witches have lost their popularity status in modern day horror, during my Witching & Bitching review none the less, The Damned comes along with a sinister “bruja” cursing poor victims and raising Hell. Originally titled Gallows Hill – a more interesting headline when compared to The Damned‘s nondescript nature – director Víctor García attempts to redefine typical haunted house stories with a dash of occultism, but something feels constantly amiss. Despite a menacing child, morphing skin, and some seriously tingling chills, García’s film just isn’t as damning as we’d hope.
Peter Facinelli plays David Reynolds, an overprotective husband and father who only wants to retrieve his vacationing daughter (Nathalia Ramos) before his wedding day. Driving down a twisty, beaten road, David’s family – along with a journalist Aunt and her cameraman – find themselves in the middle of a horrendous storm, warned by a cop to turn around before flash-floods begin. Ignoring his cautionary words, the group presses on until being toppled by a rogue surge of water, sending the car tumbling down a ravine. Seeking refuge in a nearby house owned by a skittish, sketchy man, a small child is discovered in the basement, locked in a closet alone. Thinking he’s doing the right thing, David lets her out, only to discover something much more horrifying was locked away with her…
I always like to stay positive early on in my reviews, because no one likes to hear some sourpuss immediately start ranting right off the bat – unless it’s justified. Looking at what The Damned does right, I can honestly say García and writer Richard D’Ovidio generate an ample amount of shriek-worthy scares through a unique concept I haven’t seen played out too many times during possession movies. D’Ovidio’s sticky caveat states whomever kills the witch will be possessed by her soul, as a child’s body obviously isn’t strong enough for her aggressive, violent plan. This poses an obvious problem for anyone attempting to survive her malicious attacks, because self defense could kill you anyway. Hopelessness and sacrifice become two very prominent themes throughout The Damned because of D’Ovidio’s sinister speed bump, and as an avid horror fan, originality struck me like a swift, heavy blow.
García establishes many of the same camera tricks and concealed scares that so many creaky old mansions have utilized before, and the size of this house does call into question how people become so isolated, but able cinematography competently transitions tension into legitimate spooks.
Young Julieta Salazar plays Ana Maria, the witch’s initial vessel, and while her performance pushed my paternal clock back a few more years, it’s García and cinematographer Alejandro Moreno who squeeze every ounce of visual terror out of her petite, non-threatening body. Popping her in and out of frame, Salazar’s dead, chilling glare seared itself directly into my soul, making me slink back in my comfy movie seat, gleefully discomforted. Visually, The Damned brings unspeakable horrors to a rustic, countryside Inn, despite being a dusty, dilapidated, run-down mess – but here’s where the point deducting begins.
Facinelli and Ramos have a strange chemistry together as father and daughter. Sometimes their conversations are seamless and flow with ease, while other times these two bicker as if they’re stuck in some crumby Lifetime movie. There’s a particular scene where García struggles to keep pace with their dialogue, and we get a quick exchange that goes from sadness to childish anger in a matter of seconds, ruining a truly gut-wrenching moment on screen. Frankly, I couldn’t bottle the few chuckles that rolled out as Ramos ran away from the situation pouting and screaming “I HATE YOU DAD!” – a horrid, mindless cliché that ruins an otherwise brooding, tragic occurrence. Suffice it to say this isn’t the only time characters stumble with their words, as The Damned becomes an inconsistently speedy mess that bounces about with an inherited bit of cinematic ADD, unable to mask some truly atrocious acting blemishes.
While García shows visual strengths, he can’t exactly hide D’Ovidio’s more generic situational horror setups. The pure hilarity of a homeowner proclaiming “Do not leave this room” only to have every character start wandering about minutes later never ceases to amaze me, setting off a chain of events that never seem the least bit peculiar to our braindead wanderers. One by one they start exploring, discovering cut telephone lines, heretic markings, and other pretty serious red flags – yet a group mentality never quite sticks. Again, in a matter of seconds we hear David proclaim everyone should stick together, and with the next breath a plan is hatched to split the group in half. I know this sounds like nothing, but without thoughtful comprehension of an entire horror film, such “insignificant” details sully a whole experience with personal questions, eye-rolling, and stereotypical horror crafting that gets stale and crumbly as the film itself progresses.
The Damned is a movie I didn’t care for entirely as a complete picture, but in acknowledging some pretty noteworthy strengths, I know there’s a fanbase out there waiting for this type of possessive haunter. Hell, maybe there’s a coven of witches drooling over the idea of their kind bringing terror to the masses once again, and to them I say “Have at it” – because García’s grounded witching and bitching certainly doesn’t skimp on thrills. Sadly, I can’t help feeling like this bubbling cauldron is missing a key ingredient, and despite getting MOST of the recipe right, there’s still a forgotten component. Eye of newt? Baby’s blood? Hair of ox testicle? Whatever it is, The Damned shows a ton of promise – but can’t cast a commanding, hypnotic spell.
The Damned opens July 25th on VOD platforms and August 29th in theaters.