Cosmic, or Lovecraftian horror, can be defined as ”Fear and awe we feel when confronted by phenomena beyond our comprehension, whose scope extends beyond the narrow field of human affairs and boasts of cosmic significance”. It is a rather broad definition, to say the least, and certainly open for interpretation, but nevertheless covers the essence of the offshoot fairly accurately. Many filmmakers have explored this concept over the years, some with more success than others, but for better or for worse, the themes and notions of cosmic terror have always remained a steady part of the horror, and to certain extend science fiction, genre. In the past decade or so we have been blessed with quite a few decent attempts on tapping into these colossal sources of fear, varying from little indie productions such as Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Resolution (2012 and it’s loose sequel The Endless (2017), to bigger budget features like Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2016) and Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski’s The Void (2016). However, amongst these, there is a film that has been left with only a minimal amount of attention and fanfare, despite the fact it might just be one of the most refreshing pieces of cosmic horror in years; Aterrados (Terrified, 2017). Don’t let the somewhat hackneyed English title fool you, this superb take on the genre by the director/screenwriter Demián Rugna infuses traditional haunted house horror with bigger, more cosmically charged themes, with a generous amount of violence thrown in the mix, offering a thoroughly enjoyable and more importantly, genuinely terrifying horror experience.
The story focuses on three supernatural incidents, all seemingly unrelated but happening in the same neighborhood. The film opens in the middle of one of these events with a woman, Clara, claiming to hear human voices coming from her kitchen sink. The strange, unnatural noises soon turn into much more tangible kind of terror as she becomes one the unfortunate victims of these bizarre events and her husband, Juan, gets taken to custody suspected of her murder. Meanwhile, the police are called to the house across the street, where a recently deceased child has somehow returned home to his mother. Only this is not a spectral manifestation of a dead loved one nor a version of the living dead; it is simply a rotting corpse sitting at the breakfast table as if he never left. Simultaneously another neighbor has been desperately trying to get help for his own domestic troubles. Convinced his house is haunted by someone or something, he reaches out to different paranormal investigators trying to get the assistance he so perilously needs. Regrettably, the help arrives too late for him, but perhaps not for the rest of the neighborhood. Three experts on the supernatural Jano Mario (Norberto Gonzalo), Mora Albreck (Elvira Onetto), and Dr. Rosentock (George L. Lewis), together with police Captain Funes (Maximiliano Ghione) embark on investigating the events, with unanticipated results.
Aterrados is not a film with a particularly intricate plotline. It’s simply a story about an event and the people in the middle of it. There is no real attempt of trying to build a larger universe outside of this occurrence. Everything that’s important for the story, happens here in this one little corner of the world. No tangible explanations are offered for any of the paranormal events present in the story. There is no sacred Indian burial ground, no curse looming over the place or spectral echoes left behind by acts of violence carried out in the past. There is no clear starting off point or an obvious cause for why these events begin; they just simply do. Some theories are hinted at, but never fully explored. That’s because none of that really matters. It is not the point of the story. While the paranormal investigators of the story are there to try to find the reason behind there bizarre events, we as viewers are not. It is not for us to solve the mystery and dig out sins from deep down in history. For us, the story has only one aim: to terrify.
And that it certainly does in abundance. The tone of the film is set in the first eight minutes, making it perfectly clear just what type of horrors are to follow. The sheer brutality of this is so unexpected, so unparalleled, that it’s hard to see where the film can go from there. Somehow Rugna has managed to keep this same level of tension and impact throughout the story, offering new disturbing twists as the events escalate. Not all of them are as shocking as what the film opens with. Some, like the case of the little neighbour boy, are unsettling in a different way, simultaneously tucking at your heartstrings all the while filling you with seeping unease. The unnatural nature of this return is enough on its own to make the desired impact. However, there is plenty of more disquieting material to follow as not all of those who haunt this neighbourhood are as docile as the little boy. Walter, the man trying in vain to get his house investigated, has already found this out in a most horrific manner imaginable and the three investigators about to enter this hellmouth are not far behind him. As they all embark on their respective cases, the forces surrounding them do not hesitate to manifest themselves.
When it comes to ghosts, Rugna ignores everything we would normally expect from such terrors and instead offers us something refreshingly savage. These are not merely things that go bump in the night but something much more visceral. They represent a very real physical and violent danger and the sheer brutality of these attacks alone is terrifying. On its own, this of course is nothing ground-breaking. Violent and angry sprits have been a stable of the horror genre as long as there’s been scary stories. Rugna’s take on the subject is nevertheless special. The gore is not only well executed when it comes to special effects, but the surprise of such barbarity in the amidst of a ghost story adds an extra element of dread to the overall ambience. The savagery hits its peak toward the end of the film when, besides vicious acts of violence, slight body horror elements are introduced to the story. Walking in the footsteps of John Carpenter and Stuart Gordon, these little snippets of marvellous bodily transformations also offer some of the best jump scares in the whole film, managing to catch you on the offbeat and amplifying the already uneasy atmosphere.
As the supernatural events escalate, the cosmic themes of the film start to filter through. The possibility of other dimensions being in play is briefly mentioned by Mora Albreck as she tries to calm down the rather rattled Captain Funes, but as said, this little remark is not explored any further than that. Instead Rugna has left the rest to the viewers own imagination; just like any decent cosmic horror story should. Even though the story happens in a fairly limited space and with only a handful of characters, the enormity of the cosmic implications comes through loud and clear. Rugna has managed to build on that essential element that is the very essence of cosmic horror, the feeling of helplessness in the face of these seemingly limitless powers. That horrendous anxious panic and the awareness of your own complete insignificance before it, that fills the mind with such terror it’s near impossible to comprehend. What makes it worse is the utter banality of the circumstances surrounding all this terror.
Instead of taking place in a mysterious, half-abandoned fishing village occupied by a bizarre death cult, or in a strange forgotten city in some remote corner of this planet, it all takes place in an ordinary neighborhood, populated by ordinary people, going about their ordinary lives, bringing the horrors of these incidents much closer to home. It gives the sense that these phenomena could happen to anyone, anywhere, and to no fault of your own, you could suddenly be drawn in the middle of a terrifying nightmare from which there is no escape from. True stuff of nightmares. With Aterrados Rugna has managed to create horror in a very pure form. Its well-crafted atmosphere, together with skilfully designed scares that dig in much deeper than merely making you jump, are what the genre is, or at the very least should be, all about. Do not get me wrong, I appreciate a horror film with an elaborate plotline just as much as the next girl, but when it comes to why I watch and love the genre, the answer is because I like to be scared. Unfortunately, after nearly three decades of dedicated fandom, I find that not that much scares me anymore. While I still enjoy a multitude of films for their story, ambiance, technical aspects and so on, it is hard to find anything genuinely terrifying.
In this aspect, Aterrados was an exception. It really, truly scared me in the same way than films used to when I was a child. The way that makes you second-guess every little noise you hear in the dark and forces you to rethink whether you really need that trip to the toilet in the middle of the night. It may be a simple film, but as for accomplishing the one job that a horror story has, Aterrados does so beautifully. It is grotesque, grim and savage, and thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyable.