Argentinian horror film The Returned (Los que vuelven, 2019) is set in 1919 in the jungles that border that country and Brazil, where something supernatural and sinister resides, far beyond the understanding of the wealthy landowners who exploit the area and its native Guarani inhabitants.  

Julia (María Soldi) desperately wants to have a child with husband Mariano (Alberto Ajaka), who runs a maté plantation near the jungle. This European couple employs Guarani house servants including Kerana (Lali Gonzalez), who seems to have a close relationship with Julia but who shows obvious contempt when Mariano hosts a business meeting at the home with fellow landowners to discuss further business ventures in the area. Mariano also uses Guarani men as near slaves on his plantation, and some of them are returning from the jungle in vicious, zombie-like states. 

When, after a series of miscarriages, Julia has a stillborn baby boy, she pleads with a strongly reluctant Kerana to take her to a sacred waterfall in the jungle so that she can ask local deity Iguazú to bring the child to life. This occurs, and naturally there are repercussions in store for dealing with the supernatural in such a manner.

Director Laura Casabe, who co-wrote the screenplay with Lisandro Colaberardino and Paulo Soria, unfolds the story of The Returned in a nonlinear manner, in chapters that convey different time periods. Some incidents are repeated, offering different perspectives on events. For example, what seems like an incidental bump during a cart ride in one chapter turns out to have a gruesome reveal in another. 

The film fairly drips with dread, and its pacing and visuals give a haunting, dreamscape feel throughout. The splendid locale and jarring close-ups of gory, realistic practical effects work are captured beautifully by cinematographer Leonardo Hermo. Soldi and Gonzales are outstanding and have crackling chemistry together, and Ajaka is also impactful as the unforgiving, unbelieving husband and plantation owner.

Dreamlike and haunting in a different manner is writer/director Dmitriy Tomashpolskiy’s Ukranian feature Stranger (Storonniy, 2019). A languid puzzle that mashes up science fiction, film noir, mystery, Lovecraftian horror, and surrealism à la David Lynch and Luis Buñuel, this gorgeously realized slice of cinema is a truly mesmerizing journey. 

A synchronized swimming team disappears in an indoor pool in plain sight of a sizable group of spectators. Inspector Gluhovsky (Anastasiya Yevtushenko), who has solved every missing persons case she has ever been assigned to, investigates, which takes her to a mysterious spa named Water Therapy Clinic #4. It is oddly located right next door to a water treatment plant. Gluhovsky’s investigation leads her to discover and then team up with a woman named Klaudia (Daria Tregubova). Literary, physics, numerology, and other references abound — Thomas Mann, yellow wallpaper, and the number 126 all come into play, for example — juxtaposed with absurd elements such as a book that interprets the future through the timing of sneezes and a Lovecraftian fish-person named The Aquanaut Prophet who insists that the world is flat. 

If you think I have given quite a bit away, you are wrong — this is merely scratching the surface of what Tomashpolskiy has in store with Stranger. The cast is wholly committed to the largely similar acting style of the film. Stern blonde leads Yevtushenko and Tregubova play off of brunette clinic doctors whose characters range only from somber to austere, and everyone is in fine form. Cinematographer Serhii Smychok finds beauty in even wastewater run-off, and the film’s color palette and set design are luxurious. 

Stranger is not a film that can be watched passively; rather, you must give yourself over to it. It is an enigmatic, mystifying work that requires and rewards attention. It is as beautiful to look at as it is perplexing and offbeat. The Returned and Stranger screened as part of Arrow Video FrightFest’s Digital Edition 2, which ran from 21st–25th October 2020.