Disturbing film reveals both material and supernatural horrors
October is a month full of horror movies designed to have you toss your popcorn in the air by any means necessary, whether it’s a cat jumping out of a closet or chainsaw killings. . “Fever Dream” is also a horror film, let there be no doubt, but it takes place in a calm cold that begins with discomfort and slowly evolves into a terror in its own right.
Director Claudia Llosa (“Aloft”), co-adapting Samanta Schweblin’s novel with the author, draws on fears that are both universal and specific, always perfectly recognizable. It’s about the panic of parents over turning their children into someone they don’t recognize, and the dangers and toxins that modern industry is constantly injecting into the world.
“Fever Dream” opens with a narrative dialogue that unfolds throughout, and although the storytelling is so often a band-aid meant to disguise faulty handwriting, Llosa and Schweblin weave it brilliantly from start to finish, putting the audience immediately on edge while allowing viewers to follow a mysterious story that by necessity jumps back and forth in time.
The narrators are Amanda (María Valverde, “Exodus: Gods and Kings”), a mother who traveled from Spain to Chile to spend the summer in her family home, and David (Emilio Vodanovich, Netflix’s “Blood Will Tell” ), the young son of the family who lives next door. Why is David dragging Amanda into the woods and putting her in a boat? Everything will be explained, especially by the questions that David asks Amanda about the beginning of summer, seeking, as he puts it, “the details” that put them in this situation.
Amanda and her daughter Nina (Guillermina Sorribes Liotta) are delighted to arrive in this charming country place, with swimming pool, and even happier when the friendly neighbor Carola (Dolores Fonzi, “Truman”) passes by, carrying buckets of water. from what comes out of the tap is not always drinkable. Amanda and Carola quickly become friends, each admitting to having concerns about motherhood.
For Amanda, it is the constant worry that something terrible is happening to Nina; she is constantly calculating the length of the invisible wire between them – what she calls the “rescue distance” – and whether or not she will be close enough to jump into action when in danger. (The original Spanish title of Schweblin’s film and book is the less prosaic “Distancia de rescate”.)
Carola’s apprehensions about David, however, run much deeper; he almost died drinking poisonous river water, and the local healer (Cristina Banegas) had told Carola that the only way to save the boy’s life was to migrate half of his soul into another body so that ‘it can partially eliminate the poison. Whether the healer has told the truth or not, Carola is convinced that David is no longer the boy she once loved, although she does not regret taking drastic measures to save his life.
“Fever Dream” never provides firm answers about what this healer did to David – or whether David and Amanda’s storytelling is a psychic conversation, or maybe just happening in Amanda’s imagination. – but anyway, the idea of a child becoming a stranger to their own parent resonates throughout the story. As for the poison in the river, it has a more tangible source, and it’s up to Amanda and David to piece together the truth before it’s too late.
It’s a story that interweaves real-life disaster with the supernatural, and it works thanks to the engagement of the performers. Valverde and Fonzi beautifully capture the kind of fast-paced friendship that can happen even for adults over the course of a summer, but they also convey the deep terror that they are not good moms and that their children will suffer from their decisions. . The two young actors playing David (Vodanovich and, in flashbacks, Marcelo Michinaux) masterfully alter their facial expressions to make the character take turns adorable and creepy.
Cinematographer Oscar Faura (“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”) rotates the visuals of the film in the same way: he can shoot a country house or a bucolic forest like a sun-drenched paradise or, with the slightest change , a dangerously disturbing place. It’s a transformation of the terrain that not only confuses the viewer, but also underscores the anxiety of the main characters – their notion that each step of parenthood leads to unstable and unpredictable terrain, where the previous rules no longer apply. Also underlining this anxiety, literally, songwriter Natalie Holt (“Loki”), who feels a lot of discomfort because of the extended bass notes in the string section.
“Fever Dream” delivers its jolts with a whisper, not a scream, and its enigmatic final shot vibrates with a deep sense of dread, one that won’t go away once the lights are on.
“Fever Dream” opens in select US on October 6 and premieres on Netflix on October 13.