From parenting to the environment, director and co-writer Claudia Llosa finds dread in a seemingly bucolic locale
October is a month full of horror movies designed to make you toss your popcorn in the air by any means necessary, whether it’s a cat jumping out of a closet or point-of-impact chainsaw massacres. “Fever Dream” is a horror movie too, let there be no doubt, but it traffics in a quiet chill that begins with discomfort and slowly evolves into full-blown dread.
Director Claudia Llosa (“Aloft”), co-adapting Samanta Schweblin’s novel with the author, taps into fears that are both universal and specific, and always utterly recognizable. It’s about parental panic over their children turning into someone they don’t recognize, and about the dangers and toxins that modern industry are constantly pumping into the world.
“Fever Dream” opens with a narrative dialogue that occurs throughout, and while narration is so often a bandage meant to cover up faulty writing, Llosa and Schweblin brilliantly weave it through from start to finish, putting the audience immediately on edge while also allowing viewers to follow a mysterious story that, by necessity, jumps backwards and forwards in time.
The narrators are Amanda (María Valverde, “Exodus: Gods and Kings”), a mother who has 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 through the woods and putting her into a rowboat? All will be explained, specifically by the questions that David asks Amanda about the earlier part of the summer, looking for, as he puts it, “the details” that put them into this situation.
Amanda and her daughter Nina (Guillermina Sorribes Liotta) are delighted to arrive at this charming country locale, complete with swimming pool, and even more pleased when friendly neighbor Carola (Dolores Fonzi, “Truman”) drops by, bearing buckets of water since what comes out of the tap isn’t always safe to drink. Amanda and Carola become fast friends, with each admitting to anxieties about motherhood.
For Amanda, it’s about the constant worry that something terrible will happen to Nina; she constantly calculates the length of the invisible thread between them — what she calls the “rescue distance” — and whether or not she’ll be close enough to spring into action should danger happen to arrive. (The original Spanish-language title of the film, and Schweblin’s book, is the less prosaic “Distancia de rescate.”)
Carola’s trepidations about David, however, go much deeper; he nearly died from 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 it could partially remove the poison. Whether or not the healer was telling the truth, Carola is convinced that David is no longer the boy she once loved, although she has no regrets for taking radical steps to save his life.
“Fever Dream” never provides firm answers about what that healer did to David — or about whether David and Amanda’s narration is a psychic conversation, or perhaps merely taking place in Amanda’s imagination — but either way, the idea of a child becoming a stranger to their own parent resonates in the story. As for the poison in the river, that has a more tangible source, and it’s up to Amanda and David to piece together the truth before it’s too late.
This is a story that interweaves real-life catastrophe with the supernatural, and it works thanks to the commitment of the performers. Valverde and Fonzi beautifully capture the kind of fast friendship that can happen even for adults over the course of a summer, but they also convey the deep-seated terror that they’re not being good moms and that their children will suffer for their decisions. Both the young actors playing David (Vodanovich and, in the flashbacks, Marcelo Michinaux) masterfully alter their facial expressions to make the character adorable and chilling by turns.
Cinematographer Oscar Faura (“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”) makes the film’s visuals pivot in a similar way: He can shoot a country house or a bucolic forest as a sun-dappled paradise or, with the slightest of shifts, a forebodingly dangerous locale. It’s a morphing of terrain that not only disorients the viewer but also underscores the main characters’ anxiety — their notion that every step of parenthood leads to unstable, unpredictable ground, where the previous rules no longer apply. Also underscoring that anxiety, literally, is composer Natalie Holt (“Loki”), who gets a lot of discomfort out of extended bass-notes from the string section.
“Fever Dream” delivers its jolts with a whisper and not a scream, and its enigmatic final shot vibrates with a deep sense of dread, one that won’t leave after the lights come up.
“Fever Dream” opens in select US on Oct. 6 and premieres on Netflix Oct. 13.
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