NZIFF 18 Special – Aterrados (Terrified): Gets you terrified, but not thinking

A series of terrifying and unexplainable supernatural hauntings plague a Buenos Aires suburb, wreaking death and havoc upon the unsuspecting inhabitants. Unable to find answers alone, a group of policemen and paranormal researchers unite to investigate what otherworldly terror lurks under the neighbourhood’s sleepy surface. 

One of only five horror entries to the NZIFF this year, Aterrados (or Terrified, for those whose Spanish is no bueno like mine) has a lot to live up to in flying the genre’s flag. Argentinian director Demián Rugna’s fourth feature, the film starts off like a demon out of hell, gripping us in a frantic opening 20 minutes. The movie mostly continues at this rip-roaring pace throughout, offering scare after scare until your heart can barely take another – only to realise at the credits it’s because if we were given a minute to think, we’d see straight through a thin plot.

One of the central tenets of horror films is timing. More so than other genres, horror relies on the rising tide of tension, scare and release to build perfectly-weighted terror. Or so I thought. What Rugna offers instead is more like a rollercoaster ride, with thrills from the first minute that build rapidly as the film progresses. From the opening scene, Aterrados is geared for an adrenaline ride of terror.

Another key concept to the horror movie genre is hiding the threat – keeping the monster in the shadows is a major part of building tension, but Rugna instead shoves the threat in our face from the opening minute, so we know exactly how scary and otherworldly the creature we’re dealing with is.

But this is where the film starts to unravel. The creature we see from the film’s opening sequences is freakish, no doubt, but now the fear of the unknown is ruined, at least for the audience. Aterrados falls down majorly on a confused plot. There’s no explanation as to why the hauntings have begun, no sense of how long they’ve been going on for and no obvious indication of what the threat actually is. All the audience needs to know, it seems, is that it’s terrifying. Things just seem to happen because they’re scary, as if Rugna couldn’t establish the rules of his narrative universe and decided instead that anything would go. This makes for unpredictable moments but equally confusing and illogical actions.

Alongside this, the performances are mostly inscrutable. Characters arrive, are terrified and ultimately… I’m not sure. Die? Are possessed? Maybe Rugna himself doesn’t know. There is little narrative attempt to build backstories or invest their actions with meaning, and the events of the second and third acts aren’t pitted as a battle for survival. The characters are so thin that their deaths seem inevitable and pointless. It’s like the characters were aware of their role in a horror movie and quietly go on to their ends with no complaint. This makes for baffling action, unfinished character arcs, and numerous narrative loopholes.

But despite all this, the film’s rapid pace and terrifying set pieces mean you don’t realise this until you’re on your way home. A fun horror movie – just don’t think about it too much.

Frenetically paced, Aterrados boldly tries to live up to its name, but lacks the right pacing, plot or performances to sell the scares once you’ve had a chance to think. 5.5/10.

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