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BHFF Movie Review: Rock, Paper, and Scissors(Piedra, Apel y Tijera)

Family dysfunction gives way to bedlam in this fantastic horror film from Argentina.

Courtesy of Peliculas V

A great movie came across my desk this week.  It was totally unexpected.  It was sent to me as part of Signal Horizon’s coverage of Brooklyn Horror Film Fest, and I’m a fan of Argentinian horror, so I watched hoping for something interesting but honestly with expectations as low as the reported micro-budget.  I’m glad I did, for this was one quiet chiller that stealthily creeps up behind you and squirms inside.  From the opening shot, I was captivated by the level of madness that permeates this film.  Muted jewel tones, dilapidated houses that were once ornate, and characters that are just this side of insane invade the senses.  It is a film for lovers of the classics.  Those who like a healthy dose of grief and dysfunction with their terror.

Siblings Jesus and Maria Jose live in a decaying old home, caring for themselves and shut off from the world.  That peace was broken when their half-sister Magdalena shows up to settle their late father’s estate.  She effectively has been absent for their father’s accident/suicide attempt(?) and left the responsibility both financially and practically to Maria and Jesus to care for him after.  Spoken about in bursts of childlike exuberance it seems Maria had been nursing her father for some time.  When Magdalena swoops in wanting to sell the house and split the profits, it does not go over well, and shortly after she suffers a nasty fall down a marble staircase. 

As she wakes to find herself bedridden and in real danger from one or both of the siblings, she navigates their tricky moods and whims in an attempt to escape.  All while Jesus and Maria lose themselves in a fantasy world of Wizard of Oz and Jesus’ self-made homage to it.
Just as Magdalena does not know who to trust, the viewer ping-pongs between sibling sympathies and contempt for all three characters.  Magdalena is often callous and calculating(sometimes necessarily so), Jesus is both the doting brother and a catalyst for Maria’s temper.  There are moments when his machinations weaponize her volatility more than control it. 

Maria swings wildly between innocent, misunderstood, mentally ill girl and sadistic torturer in ruby slippers.  Each one has moments of true compassion, but they are fleeting.  Pablo Sigal(Jesus), Valeria Giorcelli(Maria), and Augustina Cervino(Magdalena) give powerhouse performances.  Sigal and Giorcelli do the heavy lifting of depraved mania while Cervino quietly holds the film together.  Nuanced and textured the film works because they are so believable.  All three are lost in a fantasy world, but only some by choice.

Many genius tidbits are alluded to with the psychological torture only a sibling can inflict as in the timeless Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? The family dynamic is flawed at best and deadly at worst.  There is even a pet guinea pig that I half expected to be served up for dinner at some point.  As Magdalena begins to pit brother against sister in her attempt to escape, the viewer starts to feel the weight of the house and the past.  There are issues at play that have been simmering for decades. 

Parental abuse, patricide, sexual repression, and roiling jealousy make for a rough family reunion.  Hints are dropped like breadcrumbs begging to be followed that this family had more than its fair share of problems, so when sanity gives way to hysteria, it is no surprise.  The only question is, just how far down the rabbit hole did this family go?  Jesus comes and goes giving cogent moments of clarity mixed with complete madness like the best Anthony Perkins scenes from Psycho.  He is both the girl’s cruel jailer and savior at different times.  All while Maria happily feeds and wash her patient in complete denial.

Instantly Misery comes to mind with most of the film taking place in Magdalena’s bedroom and her trapped in her bed after an accident that was anything but.  There is no obsessed fan though, only an over-eager young woman suffering from Munchhausen Syndrome by Proxy and a vicious, smiling brother.  Surreal moments hit hard as Jesus’ movie is revealed piece by piece and cartoon scenes meld with live-action like the creepiest scenes from The Twilight Zone movie segment “It’s a Good Life”. 

Queen’s famous lyric in Bohemian Rhapsody, “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” play on loop in your head as the drama unfolds.
Designed as a chamber piece this film is reminiscent in spirit to the phenomenally disturbed Bug which began its life as a stage play by Tracy Letts.  Rock, Paper, and Scissors would work equally as well in that intimate setting.  Minimal sets that become a character as much as the main players are shot tightly alongside our siblings show age and warping. 

This is The Fall of the House of Usher rebooted.  There are no formal ghosts in this house, but the stain of evil pervades just the same.
The directors,  Martín Blousson and Macarena García Lenzi, are obviously true lovers of tense horror and are more than a little adept at producing atmosphere and mood.  Interesting angles and focuses are used to provide each character their moment of power and vulnerability.  This is a hyper-focused horror film disguised as a soft-focus family drama.  The juxtaposition of competing looks, feels, and actions of the characters and set keep the viewer on their toes. 

Like the best psychological thrillers, Rock, Paper, and Scissors will have you sitting on the edge of your seat waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop.  When it does, Jesus’ masterpiece takes center stage in a brilliant display of utter pandemonium.

The 80 minute run time is a slow burn that has some minor pacing issues in the middle but oddly does not feel long enough when the credits roll.  Notably, Jesus and Maria’s backstory beg to be told.  Did they really kill dear old Dad too?  Were they always twisted or did a lifetime of abuse make them this way?  I found myself wanting more from the abrupt end.  The action goes from zero to one hundred in the last twenty minutes and then ends with a sudden bang. Once the wheels completely come off and the action heats up, I would have loved to wallow in the mania for just a bit longer.  This is a minor complaint, though.  All in all, I just didn’t want it to end.  Like the best haunted houses, you won’t either.  You can catch it at Brooklyn Horror Film Fest while it awaits worldwide release.

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