Set in war torn 19th century Spain, The Wasteland (El Páramo, The Beast), is a new addition to the Netflix horror lineup. The debut feature of director David Casademunt who co-wrote the script with Martí Lucas (Gran Nord) and Fran Menchón, it’s an odd mix of monster movie and psychological thriller that brings to mind horrors set in the American West such as The Wind.
Salvador (Roberto Álamo, The Goya Murders, The Skin I Live In), his wife Lucía (Inma Cuesta, Águila Roja, Invader) and their son Diego (Asier Flores, Once Upon a Time in Euskadi) live in a small house in the middle of nowhere. Isolated, but safe from the ravages of war and the pestilence and looting that comes with it. One day that isolation is broken when a man (Víctor Benjumea, Fermat’s Room, The Chosen) is found floating in the nearby river. The family nurses him back to health, only for him to kill himself. Shocked, Salvador sets off to tell his family of his fate.
If this seems like an odd decision to you, you’re not alone. It’s obvious that life is hard, if not downright dangerous for the family. In the early moments of the film, we see that Diego isn’t even allowed to go as far as the outhouse by himself. But somehow he thinks leaving his wife and child alone to go on this quest through the wasteland is the right thing to do.
The film’s alternate title, The Beast, comes from the tales Salvador tells his son of a creature that lives just beyond the markers he’s set as the boundary between their land and the wasteland beyond. It’s a creature that feeds on a person’s fears and vulnerabilities. And we believe they are just that, stories told to him as a child by Juana (Alejandra Howard, Fatima, The Barcelona Vampiress), his abused and mentally ill sister. Until he leaves and Lucia begins to see it in the distance and coming closer.
At this point, The Wasteland becomes a psychological horror film as we try to figure out if the stress and isolation has brought on insanity. Or if there is indeed a creature out there waiting to strike.
The problem is Casademunt takes his time telling his story and The Wasteland becomes an extremely slow burn, at times more like a smoulder, actually. I don’t mind a slower paced film if it’s done right, but The Wasteland is just too slow and threatens to grind to a halt at times. Visually, The Wasteland is impressive, cinematographer Isaac Vila (Out of the Dark, Below Zero) succeeded at capturing the feeling of being utterly alone and isolated. The dark, cloudy skies only add to the oppressive feeling. It’s that atmosphere that helps get the film through its weaker moments until it finally picks up steam going into its final act.
The acting is also solid, with all three of the leads being quite convincing in the subtitled version I saw. There is a dubbed version of The Wasteland as well, but I wasn’t going to sit through the film twice to review the voice acting in it.
Overall, The Wasteland, while not being as barren of entertainment as its title might suggest, just didn’t have enough in the way of scares to keep my attention. Nor was there the constant suspense to make up for it. At times, it felt more like a dark drama than a horror film or a thriller. If your taste runs in that direction, maybe you’ll enjoy it more than I did.
The Wasteland is available to stream on Netflix in both the original Spanish with English subtitles and in an English dubbed version.