European genre films are alive and kicking, though it has become decidedly more difficult to dig them up. There used to be a time when a film like Ánimas would've been big news, nowadays, it's just one of the many films at risk of slipping through the cracks. Tough luck for directors like Laura Alvea and José Ortuño, who would've had no trouble launching their careers on a film like this 10-15 years ago. It's a good thing then that I bumped into Ánimas and am able to give it a little extra push, as it is almost certain to appeal to passionate genre fans who appreciate films that thrive on atmosphere.
It's clear the film world still isn't quite ready to embrace Netflix just yet. Ánimas is a Spanish/Belgian co-production that is available as a Netflix Original pretty much everywhere ... except in Belgium. No doubt there are some rights issues at play here, but the bottom line is that us Belgians are effectively cut off from a movie produced in our country, while for the rest of the world it's just one click away. It's no surprise then that I hadn't heard about the film until recently. It doesn't help that Netflix Originals are generally looked down upon and are largely avoided by critics, regardless of their quality.
From what I've read, Ánimas has received a lot of flack for being too "difficult". It is indeed a rather typical mindfuck horror/mystery that keeps you in the dark for at least 50-75% of its runtime, but that's the whole point of this genre. If you're used to watching films akin to The Machinist, The Frame or One Point O, you should have no trouble whatsoever keeping track of what's going on. And rest assured, the finale spells everything out should you still be doubtful about the plot. If you just want some background noise though, it's better to avoid this film.
Alex first met Abraham in the hallway of their apartment, where he was trying to keep his distance from his short-tempered dad. They've been best buddies since, but Alex has some serious problems of her own. Abraham has a crush on Anchie, who isn't too happy with their friendship. Alex' mom isn't around much either and with no one else to turn to, her world starts to crumble. She's seeing vague figures who hide in the shadows, she hears strange noises in abandoned rooms and when one day she comes home to an empty apartment, it looks as if Alex is about to lose her grip on reality.
A film like Ánimas thrives on atmosphere and relies heavily on its audiovisual qualities to make a lasting impression. That's a big bonus for people like me, who love bold cinematography and an extrovert soundtrack. Alvea and Ortuño deliver too. Deep reds and greens make for a creepy atmosphere, a deliberate camera floats and tilts through cramped sets and some smart visual effects add an extra layer of mystique. The editing is maybe a little too conservative (or doesn't quite reach its full potential), but there's more than enough visual prowess here to keep someone like me happy.
The soundtrack too is more than appropriate. Maybe not quite up there with the best in the genre (I'm thinking Pi and the like), but the music is distinct and present, and always looking to add that little extra edge to the scenes. It's a quality score where every note feels functional. Combined with cinematography it makes for a very tight and gripping experience that easily plasters over any deliberate fogginess as to sustain the core mystery. It's exactly what a film like this needs, and I'm happy Alvea and Ortuño executed it to a tee.
The performances are pretty laudable too. Two young (and relatively inexperienced) actors had to shoulder the burden, yet they pulled it off without a hitch. Both Pellicer and Durant are revelations, even when the film doesn't quite hinge on their performances. They felt like contemporary youngsters to me (which isn't all that common in cinema), struggling to survive in a world that's not doing them any favors. The secondary cast is solid too, though they have little to do but make life harder for our central duo. No complaints about the casting in other words.
After a short introduction, Ánimas jumps right into the action. It finds a sweet balance between its horror, mystery and limited drama elements and sustains it for most of its runtime. Halfway through it starts dropping bigger hints, and slowly it transpires what is going on between these two kids. It's a classic setup and the directorial duo makes little effort to deviate from the norm here, instead they put all their effort into making sure the execution is right on point. That makes Ánimas a core genre film, ideal comfort food for people who love this type of dark mindfuck.
Had this film been released 15 years earlier it would've become an instant cult hit and genre fans would've done their bit pushing this into the eye of the mainstream. But released on a platform that buries smaller films and caters to people who prefer to alternate between the TV screen and their smartphones, a film like Ánimas has to fight an uphill battle just to get noticed. That doesn't take away from the film's strengths though. Two excellent leads, a stylish and poignant presentation and a solid central mystery that stretches well into the second half of the film make Ánimas a very successful mindfuck. If that sounds like something you'd like, make sure to not let this one slip by, as Ánimas deserves a loving fan base.