A Mexican-American couple expecting their first child relocate to a migrant farming community in 1970s California, where the wife experiences strange symptoms and terrifying visions...
Heavily pregnant, Diana (Ariana Guerra) was fired from her hotshot reporter job in bustling Los Angeles because the newspaper didn’t want to pay her maternity leave. She’s a city girl and her husband, Beto (Tenoch Huerta), is a country boy who’s only been in the US for five years. Realising he needs to step up and cover the shortfall in family income, Beto feels lucky to have landed a plum job as a farm manager. The de rigueur drone shots tracking their drive emphasise the increasing rural isolation of the setting. Beto relishes a return to the simple life, looking forward to integrating with a community of Mexican migrant workers, but Diana’s not sold on the idea. That we learn all this in just a matter of minutes goes to show how functional the screenplay is. It’s quite an achievement, then, that both Guerra and Huerta manage to assert character, despite the rather forced and non-naturalistic dialogue they have to contend with throughout.
The latest offering from Blumhouse for Amazon Prime Video, Madres is written and put together by the numbers, which isn’t always a bad thing. The first half has some nicely executed set-pieces, but its purpose is to get us to the middle of the film. The familiar scenario, shot choices, pacing, and sound cues carry things along efficiently but there are no real surprises. Hardened genre fans may well roll their eyes at the tired tropes and one could be forgiven for losing interest in what seems to be a competent but unremarkable psychological thriller. However, it’s really worth sticking with…
The couple’s new home has been provided by estate boss Tomas (Joseph Garcia). It’s a rather spartan but spacious ranch house, in need of redecoration and with a crucifix conspicuously hung over each doorway. On their first night, an ominously slamming door, which had been foreshadowed in one of Diana’s unsettling anxiety dreams, draws them to an outbuilding. Inside they discover the belongings of the previous occupants stowed there, including a bunch of photographs and a musical box that plays a tinkly lullaby. There’s also a collection of newspaper clippings relating to the use of new agrochemicals.
Home alone whilst Beto is at work, Diana begins to feel a presence and becomes convinced someone’s prowling their grounds, especially once she discovers a small bag hanging from a branch outside their window that contains an eyeball in a ‘nest’ of thorny twigs. With talk of a local curse that only afflicts mothers-to-be, and the introduction of Anita (Elpidia Carrillo)—the local, witchy, wise woman—we find ourselves deep in the realm of folk horror. Even the small-town doctor (Robert Larriviere) suggests that prayer might help combat the mysterious symptoms that begin to afflict Diana.
Guerra and Huerta play really well off each other, making much of a brief interlude where they discuss celery. The entire cast manages rather well with a patchy script that paints its characters with broad strokes. I was happy to see Elpidia Carrillo bringing an emotional weight to her integral role, she’s been a hardworking actress since the seventies, but I remember her best from Salvador (1986) and Predator (1987).
If Madres was simply a straightforward horror film, it wouldn’t work. But the slick textbook direction thus far hints at intentional misdirection. If the plot had followed through on the initial trajectory, it would’ve been a watchable waste of time and probably forgotten before bedtime…
Making his feature debut, director Ryan Zaragoza serves more than enough blatant clues in the first half to suggest several scenarios and part of the fun is trying to second guess which one will play out. A ghost story thread drives the narrative for a while before touching upon a worthy eco message, selling itself as an environmental horror. Then, themes of cultural conflict are introduced as tensions mount and Diana and Beto argue over who remains truer to their Mexican roots. It’s not long until that interpersonal conflict is elevated to the political arena. Are the migrant farmhands prepared to put up with potentially unsafe working practices rather than take a stand and risk losing their jobs? Social inequality is clearly an issue being addressed whilst the horror is definitely gendered. Maybe avoid if you are a woman in late pregnancy! That said, the unease will affect any caring parent.
Although its often a bit too mournful, and the choral elements a little hackneyed, the score by Isabelle Engman-Bredvik and Gerardo Garcia Jr. helps everything hang together. There’re a few perfectly-timed sound cues and, here and there, a phrase of just a few notes beautifully underpins the emotion of a moment. The duo had already collaborated with Zaragoza on his short film, Bebé (2017).
Felipe Vara de Rey uses a subdued, painterly palette in his consistent cinematography that benefits from extensive digital enhancement in post-production to tweak the depth of field and adjust the lighting. The result is that distinctive graphic feel that seems to be part of the Blumhouse brand—more like ‘quality television’ than cinema. I particularly enjoyed a split-screen montage sequence that reminded me of movies from the 1970s, which is rather fitting as that is the period setting.
It owes a great debt to Get Out (2017), likewise packing a pretty hefty socio-political punch in the guise of entertainment. Madres doesn’t manage to meld its disparate elements as effectively, but it’s not a waste of time either. It may even be educational and makes a point well worth pushing to the fore in post-Trump America. Madres walks the line between supernatural horror and psychological thriller and, to varying extents, it delivers on both counts.
USA | 2021 | 83 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH SPANISH
director: Ryan Zaragoza.
writers: Mario Miscione & Marcella Ochoa.
starring: Elpidia Carrillo, Tenoch Huerta & Kerry Cahill.