Sunday, December 10, 2017

Review: The Glass Coffin (El ataúd de cristal)

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2017
Images from the Internet

The Glass Coffin (aka El ataúd de cristal) 
Directed by Haritz Zubillaga
Basque Films; Byp Media; Demeter Films; Life & Pictures;
Morituri; Peccata Minuta; MVD Visual
77 minutes / 2016; 2017

The premise is simple: actress Amanda (the lovely Paola Bontempi) steps into a stretch limousine on her way to get a Lifetime Achievement Award for her 20 years in the business. Through her cell phone, she quickly finds that her husband Saul, is stranded somewhere during a storm and will not make it to the awards dinner. But that is the least of her troubles.

Soon the windows of limo the go black, the doors are locked, the cell phone is jammed, and she is trapped by… well, all you hear is a disguised voice coming from somewhere beyond the hidden front seat. She is told she must do what the disguised voice says or suffer consequences.

While this is a nice story motivation, the requests come across as a bit sexist out of context (i.e., the why), and that it is what actually makes the scene uncomfortable for not only Amanda, but viewers like me. Sort of like how unsensual some sexual films are, such as Irreversible (2002), which are not just uncomfortable to watch, but they are icky because you it’s harder to really justify the action, even if it’s explained (think of 2010’s A Serbian Film, for example). Okay, so they want to degrade the character, I get that, but it’s what is requested more than why. And I’m only a third into the film!

Now, I’m willing to admit that’s partially on me, probably. I mean, going into watching the film, it’s pretty obvious that as Amanda is put into uncomfortable positions (both figuratively and literally), the idea is to make the viewer empathize and feel her discomfort with her. Mission accomplished. At first, she is cynical, and then is angry, but after a while and with good cause, she is cautiously compliant; but you know it’s a bit out of her control, at least for the bulk of the film, as these tend to run. About the end? I ain’t tellin’, because in today’s genre climate, there’s a 50-50 chance of survival or death of the main character.

Thing is, once the big reveal is accomplished, the story really picks up, and the icky factor gets replaced more by tension, which is much better. As Andrea is put through her paces and rules change in various directions, we get more involved rather than just wanting to flinch away, even with knowing the motivation behind the actions.

Naturally, as 90 percent of the film takes place in the confines of the “glass coffin,” i.e., the stretch limo, of course it feels a bit claustrophobic, but rightfully – and I’m sure intentionally – so. That Bontempi is on the screen nearly constantly, being the center of the whole she-bang, also helps. Luckily, she can cannily play a full range of emotions, so you’re not going to get tired of watching her performance, and that she’s attractive doesn’t hurt either, even when covered in bruises and blood.

As a frequent watcher of murder mysteries and even banal television shows, I often pre-guess what is going to happen (my wife and I make a game of it), and so naturally I had my own ideas on how it would turn out, and who was behind it all. There are a couple of red herrings in the first few minutes to lure you away from the truth, but odds are you aren’t going to see it coming… well, I didn’t, so there.

Horror films from Spain have come a long way from the Blind Dead series in the 1970s, but while I would consider this film in that genre, I should also say that it falls equally into the thriller category. That being said, there is a nice level of practical effects gore, but none more than necessary, and what I mean by that is there’s nothing over the top like projectile spurting, just a realistic amount for the actions taken. I admire that.

Considering the confined space, the camera doesn’t move around much as far as actual motion goes, other than a dolly shot occasionally down the length of the stretch limo, but thanks to multiple cameras, the tension of editing works really well. So does the lighting, which constantly shifts colors from blaring white to dusky, dark blue. Most limos these days are “party buses,” so there is a lot of lighting that has been added to the rides. The film successfully takes full advantage of that, so the viewer feels as dazed by it as does Andrea.

Being a film from Spain, you’d be right to assume that it’s in Spanish. Luckily, you don’t have to turn on any captions, as it is already there. While I cannot attest to the accuracy as I don’t speak any other languages than English and Brooklynese, my one complaint is that the lettering is white with just the minimal shade of outer shadow, so when placed over something on the screen that is white, it can be hard to read. Luckily, because so much of the film is in a semi-dark limo, it doesn’t interfere too much. I was able to follow everything with the occasional fill-in-the-blanks.

As for extras, there are none other than chapter breaks, but honestly that’s pretty common for foreign language films, and I’m okay with that.

Despite the initial icky factor, this is an especially strong film that is well supported by Bontempi, which reminded me a bit of a more brutal version of the play/film Deathtrap, especially once we get some footing of the why things are happening rather than just the what. I don’t know if I’ll give this a second viewing, but I am definitely glad I sat through the film. It’s a very razor-sharp piece of filmmaking.

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