Just like its protagonist losing control of her car in the prolog, Argentinian film On the Third Day lacks a steady direction.
The general impression this fantasy horror thriller gives off is one of sheer confusion. And it’s a shame, as a strong central turn from Moro Anghileri drowns in a sea of giallo references and a multitude of themes that seem to cram the plot.
On the Third Day, a mother drives into the night
Playing at Fantasia International Film Festival, On the Third Day (original title, Al Tercer Día) opens with a panicky journey into the night. The movie from director Daniel De la Vega sees protagonist Cecilia (Anghileri) and her young son Martín (Octavio Belmonte) jump in a car and take off.
Too eager to leave their traces behind, mother and child have a serious car accident. Unsettlingly, when Cecilia comes round, she isn’t at the wheel. Alone in what looks like an abandoned warehouse, the lead can’t find her son. Where is Martín? And why can’t Cecilia remember anything that happened over the past three days?
The intro sequence presents the audience with another mysterious figure whose fate is intertwined with that of Cecilia and Martín. Enrique (Gerardo Romano), a priest Cecilia encounters on her brutally interrupted journey, appears to be on a mission. And you can tell it’s not a peaceful one since the man carries an ax in his shady pick-up truck.
While the desperate mother struggles to make her voice heard from police and doctors, viewers got a glimpse of something eerie lurking beneath the surface. As more disappearances and murders leads back to Martín and Cecilia, the woman needs to take the matter into her own hands to reunite with her son.
Mirror, mirror on the wall
De la Vega’s film introduces Cecilia as a woman who navigates a world where men retain all authority and power. Chased down by stubborn, seasoned detective Ventura (Osvaldo Santoro) and abusive ex-husband Fernando (Diego Cremonesi), the protagonist confides in a kind doctor played by Lautaro Delgado.
The movie also feeds into the tired trope of a loving, nurturing mother going bad to save her kid. Anghileri does a great job as this woman battling her own ghosts, but the script is all over the place. This thriller suggests there might be more at play within Cecilia while reminding viewers not to trust anyone.
On the Third Day leans heavily into Cecilia’s supposed double nature. From the opening credits, the film’s symbolism relies on the horror house trope by focusing on all sorts of mirrors. And not in a subtle manner.
There’s a mirror placed in the opening title design sequence. This is followed by multiple reflective surfaces at the hospital and Cecilia’s house. All of these frame the character and her reflection in an obvious, almost annoying way. While it could be interesting to play with the infinite possibilities offered by everyday objects taking on an eerie connotations, On the Third Day ends up feeling a bit redundant.
The mirrors that pepper this story throughout become a portal to access Cecilia’s innermost memories. A game of double exposures and hallucinations with a dash of time-traveling ensues, giving Anghileri the chance to shine. But there is a clear sense that the lead’s remarkable efforts can’t carry the movie.
An ill-conceived pastiche
As for the structure, the film tries its best not to give anything away too soon about the two subplots. The alternation of Cecilia and the priest is genuinely intriguing. Yet, this promising binary form makes for an even bigger disappointment once the denouement is unveiled in the finale.
Without going in full spoiler mode, this movie incorporates elements from different genres — thriller, giallo, sci-fi, possession and torture horror— resulting in an ill-conceived pastiche rather than an enjoyable homage.
The feeling that the script might have needed some reworking is particularly evident in the final act. That’s when screenwriters Alberto Fasce and Gonzalo Ventura shoehorn multiple supernatural references into the story, condemning what could’ve been a decent thriller into a rather pedestrian supernatural horror film. It doesn’t help either that both the subpar CGI and makeup constitute a distraction, pulling audiences further away from the plot.
There’s not much soul to On the Third Day that’s worth saving. Alongside Anghileri’s performance, some of this film’s over-the-top kills and scenes not for the squeamish are among its best bits. Unfortunately, they are not enough to salvage a movie that seems cursed from the start.
Stefania Sarrubba is a feminist entertainment writer based in London, UK. Traumatized at an early age by Tim Curry’s Pennywise and Dario Argento’s films, she grew up convinced horror wasn’t her thing. Until she sank her teeth into cannibal movies with a female protagonist. Yum.