Monday, February 9, 2009

El Arte de morir (Spain, 2000)

A group of six (unnaturally) dissimilar friends get tired of the condescension and conceitedness of their seventh friend – Nacho (Gustavo Salmerón), an artist that does stuff like sneaking into morgues to photograph the dead for inspiration but, in the end, basically just repaints details of the imagery of Hieronymus Bosch – and decide during an overnight camping party to punk him good. The particularly retarded prank, however, goes majorly wrong, resulting in one dead body and six people who don't want to go down for it and have their lives ruined. Four years later, long after everything is dead and buried, a detective focuses in on the case again when a junkie shows up with the identity card of the "missing" artist. In fear that the detective might learn where they buried the body, all six of them go back and dig it up, but before they can move it, the abandoned building catches afire. They barely manage flee the structure, which burns to the ground, but soon thereafter they begin, one by one, to die horrible deaths – starting with the beautiful Candela (Elsa Pataky – seen here in one piece in a photo not taken from the film) who gets torn apart by dogs. Iván (Fele Martínez), the friend that was closest to Nacho, is plagued by visitations from his dead friend, but when he tells the others of the visitation's dire forewarnings of terrible events, they all assume he is both a nutcase and the killer – and the fact that he is basically stalking his ex-girlfriend Clara (María Esteve) does little to help his reputation. Only when his sudden appearance saves Clara does her opinion change, but can they avoid a violent death like that suffered by all their friends?
The Art of Dying, as El Arte de morir is known in non-Spanish-speaking lands, is a slickly made horror film that manages to overcome some truly horrendous gaffs in the initially textbook slasher script and acting department to develop into something rare: a body-count film that transcends its initial derivativeness and become both enthralling and, at times, scary. But then, although the bodies do drop one by one, the film is much more a supernatural horror film than a simple 10-little-indians flick, for there is far more of Carnival of Souls (1962 / trailer) or Jacob's Ladder (1990 / trailer) in The Art of Dying than, say, Scream (1996 / trailer) or Friday the 13th (1980 / trailer).
On the one hand, scriptwriters Curro Royo and Juan Vicente Pozuelo – the duo behind the script of Trece campanadas / 13 Curses (2002 / trailer), another seldom seen Spanish horror flick that agitates ever so slightly in an art circle – deserve some respect for managing to save their script mid-way through by injecting an unexpected and surprising (if not somewhat implausible) twist, but on the other hand they deserve a good slap in the face for regurgitating such an abominable dramaturgy the first half hour.
The basic premise of The Art of Dying cribs mightily from I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997 / trailer) and any number of Golden Age and non-Golden Age teenagers-with-a-secret-who-begin-to-die flicks, and like so many of the worst of the genre, The Art of Dying fails to bring together a believable circle of friends. True, for the most part the six remain all equally unlikable, but they never actually click as a believable clique. That the realm in which they live (extremely well) is, as always, absent of any parental figures – with the exception of the grieving father of the young artist gone missing that serves both as a symbol of guilt and recovery – can be overlooked for they are old enough, per say, not to have any umbilical cords left, but as friends they already don’t seem to fit together before the big bad event even happens and thus remain unconvincing. Likewise, when all characters are uniformly dislikable – and not one character is introduced in such a way that makes them so (although some do manage to gain some sympathy as the film proceeds) – it is very hard to root for anyone, or to care when they die. Lastly, the second key event of the film, their return to the location where Nacho is buried, is brought about in such a contrived and unbelievable fashion that the event almost ruins the film; indeed, director Álvaro Fernández Armero – a director of comedies and dramas on his first fling in the genre of horror – deserves a hearty slap on the back for managing to exhibit enough directorial style and control that the viewer does not turn off the DVD player at this point with a groan.
It is from here onwards, however, that The Art of Dying finally gains its solid footing and becomes an engrossing rumination on love and sacrifice, guilt and redemption, and (to an extent) guilt and revenge. The highly original editing of the film – events are not 100% linear, but are crosscut from the past to the present as needed to advance the story – assists in maintaining the general sense of unease, in part by making unexplainable events (like a bar that is normally full suddenly being empty) as strange to the viewer as the person involved.
In short, despite its flaws The Art of Dying is an amazingly effective, surprisingly creepy and at times frightening horror film that deserves more attention than it has gotten. The soundtrack, with its classic-like and ethno drum and bass interludes, is totally bitching, too.

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