Many haunted house stories begin with the same themes and motivations...
...A house (or in this case, an apartment) with a dark secret welcomes a typical looking family with hidden darkness of their own. After suspicious happenings and a suggested ghost, the family might express their desire to leave, but financial limitations keep them from escaping their new haunted home. The Shudder Exclusive 32 Malasaña Street follows this same pattern with a bit of a twist. Taking place in post-Franco Spain, director Albert Pintó places his haunting in a culture and time where poverty and religion controlled the masses. Any lifestyle deviating from the religious norm earned the title of freak and risked turning the person (and their entire family) into an outcast. A house with ‘things that go bump in the night’ develops a sense of terror, but the horror of this film comes from the human mind and its sometimes-debilitating failure to accept others.
Traveling back to 1972 Madrid, two young brothers fight over a marble only to have the toy fumble out of their grasp and bounce purposely down the stairs to rest in front of another apartment door. Despite the whispered warnings from his brother, the younger sibling goes inside the apartment as some mysterious force seems to draw the marble further into the home. The boy just wants his marble back, but he quickly discovers something much more shocking. Flash forward four years and the Omelda family arrives at the same apartment building looking to leave all the poverty and gossip of their small village life behind. The third-floor apartment is fully finished and largely untouched since the discovery of the dead woman in the opening scene.
Manolo (Iván Marcos) and Candela (Bea Segura) and their children Pepe (Sergio Castellanos), Amparo (Begoña Vargas), and Rafael (Iván Renedo) discover various likes and dislikes of their new home. Pepe sees a pretty girl in the window across from his room and they start a flirty exchange of increasingly demanding notes, Amparo finds a wardrobe filled with old dresses, and Rafael learns he must share a room with Grandpa (José Luis de Madariaga). Grandpa needs a machine to sleep and seems to exist in a catatonic state most of the time. He barely speaks and his face stays in a permanent stare, offering very little insight into his mind. The father (who is actually Amparo’s stepfather) plays the macho-man patriarch set on controlling everything and everyone under his roof. He hates privacy and demands his children never close any doors.
Throughout the house we get glimpses of an old woman who never clearly appears in view. Her face and body usually appear distorted or obscured because of shadows or a warped reflection. The actors and the various manifestations of the ghost haunting the family should have allowed for a thrilling and spooky time. However, all the atmospheric suspense almost goes to waste because the well-crafted creepiness becomes overshadowed by cheap jump scares. The storyline also follows a predictable pattern because like most haunted house movies, the youngest first suspects something is amiss with the new place. Marbles appear, the tv turns itself on, and there are whispered voices which only Rafael can hear. While watching tv a creepy children’s show with a little old lady puppy speaks directly to the youngest Omelda. With his parents away at work and both siblings preoccupied with a cute mysterious girl and a wandering grandpa, Rafael finds a playmate in his new creepy tv friend.
Director Albert Pintó, who previously worked mostly in the realm of comedy, tries to separate himself from the world of humor with 32 Malasaña, preferring instead to try his hand at making a haunted house story. Working with a team of writers (Ramón Campos, Gema R. Neira, David Orea, and Salvador S. Molina), the story looks at Madrid during a period of transition into a more industrial and fashionable time. Pintó has a good way of directing his actors, choosing shots, or moving the camera, and with his chosen environment of a large, dusty apartment he generates quite the atmosphere of terror. However, with four screenwriters on board, each one seems determined to bring their own horror nostalgia to the film, which resulted in an overcrowded amount of scares. The retro production design and a music score to make your heart race creates some similarities with the recent Verónica, but plot wise the story more closely resembles Insidious or Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist. The supernatural apparitions preying on childhood and the racing search of desperation from room to room creates an admirable haunted house story, but nothing we have not seen before.
Within the haunted house story, the director uses terror to talk about other issues. The big reveal speech is well placed, both chronologically and in the neighborhood in which it is framed, but the film does not dedicate enough time to it. It is a pity the explanation for this haunting is not developed well enough during the film, but rather abruptly and hastily in the final moments. 32 Malasaña would have had more power had it spent more time exploring the ideas which gave the film some uniqueness. He does not leave loose ends story-wise, so it seems odd that Pintó chose not to dig deeper into the themes he developed. His characters deserved to have their drama explored more in depth and earlier, both the living and the dead.
32 Malasaña Street comes to Shudder October 22nd.
By Amylou Ahava