Aterrados, written and directed by Argentinean filmmaker Demián Rugna (The Last Gateway) and internationally released under the title Terrified, is a Spanish language spookfest that takes place in a quiet neighbourhood in Buenos Aires. The opening scenes introduce us to Clara (Natalia Señorales, Colonia, My Mother is a Parrot) who’s cleaning the dishes in the kitchen of her home when she hears weird noises and sees a green glow, emanating from the drain of the sink.
Later that day, her husband Juan (Agustin Rittano, The Intruder, Terror 5) comes home from work. Oblivious to Clara’s obviously rattled state, to the point where she couldn’t bring herself to prepare dinner, he cheerfully rambles on to her about a dog that was presumed dead but appeared to be very much alive after all, and he suggests they have take-out dinner instead. When he, on her insistence, checks the kitchen sink, he dismisses the voices she claims to have heard to creaky drainpipes (what else?) and his noisy neighbour Walter’s (Demián Salomón, The Unburied Corpse, You Don’t Know Who You’re Talking To) never-ending DIY home remodelling.
That night, Clara gets out of bed for a bathroom visit when Juan is woken up by a banging noise he assumes is caused by Walter again. But when he discovers that it’s coming from his own bathroom instead, he finds Clara’s blood-covered corpse there, violently thrown around by an invisible force.
Incarcerated on suspicion of having murdered her, and possibly deemed insane for the wild explanations he has given, Juan is visited by three investigators who tell him that they’re aware that he didn’t kill her and that his case shows a striking resemblance to an earlier incident in New York City. Asked about anything else he might remember in particular, Juan recounts a freak accident in the street where he lives in which a boy, who lives across the street, was hit and killed by a passing bus.
In a flashback, we‘re introduced to Walter’s side of the events and occurrences as he deals with furniture moving on its own accord at home and his vain attempts to get in touch with Dr. Albreck (Elvira Ontetto, Russian Roulette, The Attachment Diaries), a psychologist and professor, and an expert in the metaphysical. Walter also inadvertently sends the boy to his death by telling him to get off his lawn.
When local police commissioner Funes (Maxi Ghione, Roma, Cold Blood), charged with investigating Clara’s death, finds the decaying corpse of the boy motionlessly sitting at the dinner table at his mother Alicia’s (Julieta Vallina, Cowboy, Dead Man Tells His Own Tale) home, he calls in the assistance of his friend Jano (Norberto Gonzalo, Romeo y Julieta, Champions of Life), a now-retired coroner with whom Funes has a long working history.
And when Albreck, whose professional interest is piqued by the evidence Walter sent to her, and Dr. Rosentock (George L. Lewis), a paranormal investigator of international fame accompanying Albreck, arrive at the scene as well, the stage is set for our intrepid quartet to determine, contain and, if possible, annihilate whatever evil plagues the neighbourhood as they set up shop in Juan’s, Walter’s and Alicia’s residences.
Whereas Juan’s fate provides the framework for Terrified’s story, we mostly follow the proceedings from Funes’ standpoint, who’s a grounded and fairly likeable policeman, a bit life-weary, now near his retirement from duties and with his health failing. He also knows he’s way out of his depth with everything that’s going on around him and even though he’s basically a passive protagonist himself, his three investigators know, at least to a certain extent, what they’re doing and dealing with. But while the movie hints at an explanation, the evil in Terrified mostly operates as unknowable, taking shape, feeding, possessing, prowling and parasitizing on people, and procreating, as it chooses.
What really sells Terrified though is Rugna’s execution and deliberate, assured direction. He dedicates the first half of its 90-minutes runtime by setting up Juan’s, Walter’s and Funes’ narratives as initially separate and more or less parallel storylines that come together once our three allied investigators Jano, Albreck and Rosentock dig in for battle. Most of the movie takes place indoors, in the three separate but adjacent homes, which lends Terrified a claustrophobic feel as the course of events is effectively garnished with the scary stuff that seems mostly taken from the Poltergeist and Paranormal Activity playbooks.
It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, with now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t disquietude, bathroom scares, monsters under the bed, stuff randomly tossed around or moving, and reanimated or possessed people (or both at once), but it’s all done quite well here. With his astute sense of timing and slow, often even static camerawork, Rugna makes it work as he amps up the pace in Terrified’s second half when the mayhem intensifies, well aware that his visual scares may be running out of steam by that time.
He wisely stays away from quick and noisy cuts and pans and relies on his competent cast, and the almost matter-of-fact registration of the supernatural havoc as it pervades the proceedings, to carry Terrified. Rugna deliberately keeps all the weird and scary stuff mostly out of focus, often even quite literally so, and even finds a surprisingly inventive way to make this a deliberate plot point.
Thankfully, most of the effects work is non-CG and mostly, give or take a dodgy detail here or there, done well. The soundtrack with its accompanying score is nicely in tune with the visuals, with sparingly dosed abrasive string breaks in all the right moments. Rugna gives the film a vintage indie vibe, and I’m not sure if it would have worked as well as it does with a glossy high-end production, but the IP is rumoured to have been picked up by Searchlight for an American remake with none other than Guillermo Del Toro attached as a producer. So we’ll see how that pans out in the not-so-distant future.
Meanwhile, the COVID lockdowns gave Rugna the opportunity to write a sequel to Terrified which is also rumoured to currently be in preproduction in his home country Argentina, which could be interesting as Terrified creates a world, and winds up to an ambiguous enough conclusion, with plenty of potential to be taken in numerous pursuant directions. While not breaking any new ground, it successfully brings a tale well told – and told before – with plenty of familiar tropes together into a tight and satisfying little scare package. You could do a lot worse when you’re in the mood for a little fright-ride and don’t mind reading subtitles if you don’t speak Spanish.