The Squad (El páramo)
Columbia (2011) Dir. Jaime Osorio Marquez
Aiming to show us that there is more to Columbia than cocaine, first time director Jaime Osorio Marquez presents us with this low key horror film that plays on the effects of paranoia on the judgement of a military unit when confronted with a suspected supernatural enemy.
When contact is lost with a mountain top military base, an anti-guerrilla squad is sent to investigate, led by an experienced sergeant (Andrés Castañeda). While awaiting the official order to climb the hillside one of the squad, Aranago (Andres Torres) gets impatient and rushes off alone, only to trigger a hidden landmine. Needing to given Arango medical treatment, the sergeant gives the order to head for the base.
Upon arriving at the base, the squad find it dirty, bloodstained and with odd writing on the walls, translated by their local guide Fiquitiva (Nelson Camayo) as curses to protect them from evil. Knocking the wall down they find a lone bound woman (Daniela Catz) whom they assume is one of the guerrilla army they believe killed the other troops. Later the sergeant is later found dead and the woman has mysteriously gone missing.
It’s probably little misleading to label this a horror film, as it doesn’t totally fulfil the remit in the truest sense of the word, but it is a creepy and tense tale of survival against unknown forces meaning it shares some DNA with the genre. Anyone expecting a cavalcade of jump scares, blood and gore will be disappointed with this moderately paced yarn, making this more suited to patient film fans.
There is little in the way of exposition or character backgrounds at the start and with a hefty number of faces and names to remember it is easy to lose track of who is who, especially while in full battle uniform. The two most frequently featured characters are rookie Ponce (Juan Pablo Barragan) and the hot-headed Cortez (Alejandro Aguilar), who vows to look after Ponce and return him safely to his pregnant wife.
After the sergeant meets his end the Lieutenant (Mauricio Navas) takes over command of the squad but his passive style of leadership and lack of action taken against the woman infuriates the rest of the troops and they eventually rebel against him. But as the grip of paranoia takes hold and the chain of command crumbles soon everyone is at each other’s throats.
The biggest conceit is the woman. Who is she and what is she are the two biggest questions, neither of which yields any answers, leaving the men to only rely on the interpretation of Fiquitiva of the set-up outside the wall and a log book from the original base squad, which describe her as a witch. Aside from screaming in place of speech very little about this woman gives the impression she is a practitioner of dark arts but the dead bodies at the foot of the hill are enough to convince the soldiers.
Jaime Osorio Marquez must be a keen psychological horror fan himself evident by the pervasive sense of familiarity that accompanies his debut, yet no distinct influence leaps to mind. Whatever it was that has inspired Marquez, he has put to good use in creating the atmospheric and convincingly unnerving world the soldiers are trapped in.
Without a hefty budget to work with, the performances of the cast is paramount in perpetuating the believable illusion, along with simple tricks such as minimal light, heavy mist and close, hectic camerawork. These are used to great effect along with the low saturation colour palette which gives the whole presentation a cold, grey aura to it.
The idea that the presence of the witch has invaded he heads of the squad and their inability to do anything about it plays out at what might be a glacial pace for some viewers. The woman herself isn’t revealed until thirty minutes into the film and without wishing to spoil things, her presence is hereto after fleeting at best. It is up to the men and their deteriorating camaraderie to demonstrate the horror of the situation, the individual pangs of guilt and suppressed fears exposed as the invisible net tightens around them.
In terms of being a psychological horror – or thriller of you so wish – The Squad ticks all the boxes, deftly capturing the mental decline of a group of strong men within the confines of a single location. The military base may not be small but the tight camerawork and conflicts between the men create a palpable sense of claustrophobia, aided by the frugal use of light to heighten the fear of the unknown.
It’s an intriguing touch to have the antagonist be such a threat without doing anything or being a direct physical presence to the squad but the downside is that she remains too much of an unexplained enigma. The result is that we essentially are led to assume we have an easily spooked, mentally unstable group of soldiers upon whom the Columbians are relying for their protecting.
A little more information on what constitutes this women being a witch is much needed here, to at least satisfy our investment in her alleged abilities and to help the film reach the potential the story teases. In truth, this is arguably the feeling this film will engender despite its obvious strengths, but as a first timer Marquez is sure to iron out such kinks as his career progresses.
It’s hard to recommend The Squad purely because it straddles two distinct film genres and may or may appeal to fans of either. Some may enjoy the gradual psychological build to the disturbing but gore free carnage while those who enjoy their horror more graphic and tinged in claret will be sorely disappointed.
Marquez shows promise as director so this is worth a look if you fall into the former category but not really a keeper.