We have seen a lot of pandemic horror films that sprang from the paranoia and uncertainty of COVID-19. Isolation isn’t good for anyone, especially if you are already struggling. In director Alfonso Cortés-Cavanillas’ Ego, inner demons haunt Paloma, a young woman reeling from the recent suicide of her father and her own bout with mental illness. You may think you know where Ego is going. It’s easy to prejudge this film and slide it into the other identity theft horror films like Cam, but it actually shares more DNA with the sublimely trippy Jake Gyllenhal mindbender Enemy. A harrowing look into a troubled mind, Ego is terrifying for the possible supernatural slant as well as the all too common ones.
What if we are our own worst enemies? What if we were forced to live with ghosts real and imagined as we ride out the isolation and confusion of Covid? For even the most stable of us, it was rough. In the early days of the pandemic, no one knew what to expect or how long things would go on. The anxiety over the virus hung in the air and tainted every interaction. Now imagine if the one person you should be able to trust turns against you. Ego makes good use of space and a breakout performance from María Pedraza to ratchet up the tension and relentlessly wring fears from the mundane.
Paloma(Pedraza) lives with her mother in their family home in the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown in Madrid, Spain. Her mother is packing them up to sell the house after Paloma’s father committed suicide there. When they will be able to move and where they will go hang uncertainly in the air. Paloma has very little interaction with the outside world except for conversations with her best friend Jorge and her therapist. When she turns to dating apps to pass the time, she finds someone who looks exactly like her. Convinced she is a victim of a catfisher, she contacts the doppelganger. That one choice leads her down a rabbit hole of paranoia and danger as she opens the door for a stalker to harass and torment her. What is real and what is imagined are the best parts of this psychological thriller.
Mostly closeted, Paloma is dealing with a lot. From nightmares, she describes to her therapist; you get the idea she may have found her father after his suicide. Coupled with her need to repress her sexuality and Paloma is a powder keg of emotions and vulnerabilities. Whether someone is out to get her and whether that person is imaginary or not you don’t know until the very end which puts the burden solely on Pedraza to deliver. Playing both roles, Pedraza is equal parts calculating and helpless at different times, but both are played perfectly. Without her subtle but effective performance Ego would have been far less compelling.
The genius use of Cyndi Lauper’s Girl’s Just Want To Have Fun juxtaposes what Paloma wants with what is being thrust upon her. Paloma may want to live a carefree life where she is content to be who she is and finally sleep free from nightmares, but that isn’t her reality. Plot beats throughout Ego point to an internal struggle with her sexuality and her father’s death. She feels powerless and aimless as she shuffles through most days and nights. Insomnia does not help her mental state, neither does having to hide her sexuality from her mother. Even if she doesn’t realize it, Paloma isn’t comfortable in her own skin.
Alfonso Cortés-Cavanillas creates an atmosphere of claustrophobia. The home Paloma and her mother live in is sizable and brightly lit with large outdoor spaces, and yet, the walls of the house and even the vast views of the city constrict and confine until you are left feeling as anxious as Paloma does. Boxes and sheets cover most surfaces leaving only Paloma’s room safe. It is no wonder she feels uncertain. Her home and circumstances scream limbo. This is a haunted house filled with memories, real and imagined.
The majority of the film leaves you wondering what is really happening to Paloma. Although she has scars on her wrists and is on medication, she seems coherent and trustworthy. The best elements of the film are the inherent blurring of Paloma’s situation. The slow-burning jump scares are used sparingly to keep the tension high without cheapening the message. It is impeccably paced, spacing out the shocks and the dread until you find yourself as breathless as Paloma. Spread over a week, Paloma’s fragile state is stretched beyond its limits in just seven short days. By placing an end date on the horror, it’s easy to get lost in the story. The screenplay by Jorge Navarro de Lemus keeps exposition to a minimum, letting the plot shine. His succinct writing allows Ego to cut sharply and painstakingly ooze with fear depending on the scene.
Girls may just want to have fun, but Paloma just wants to be free. Ego is a devastating and haunting look at life in the pandemic. It is a fresh take on the theme and is genuinely surprising. It zigs when you think it will zag, and the poignant final shot is a reminder that even though we were alone, too many of us were suffering. Yet, there is beauty in that if only we could recognize it. Ego is a tragic and surprisingly effective horror movie utterly unique from the rest of the pandemic-themed films out there. Ego won Best Feature, Best Screenplay, and Best Actress at Brooklyn Horror Film Fest and is currently awaiting worldwide release.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.