Mexican horror cinema has taken a sharper turn for the erotic in recent years, exposing the casualties of oppressive societal standards and bigotry still in place today. In Amat Escalante's fourth feature film, The Untamed, these oppressions are magnified through a tight-knit cast of characters facing their own repressions: Alejandra, a bored, dissatisfied young housewife and mother of two small children; her secretly gay husband, Angel, a classic archetype of Mexican machismo whose internalized homophobia leads to expressions of violence toward others; Fabian, Alejandra's openly gay brother having an affair with Angel; and Veronica, a young, lonely drifter.
Their lives are undone by the arrival of an amorphous, otherworldly creature that grants sexual gratification and pure carnal pleasure with its multiple tentacles and orifices. But despite this exciting reach into H.P. Lovecraft territory, Escalante's storyline blends the sci-fi and horror elements too well with the drama, its supernatural elements emerging with little fanfare, explanation or climax.
The film opens on a vague shot of an asteroid in outer space, followed by a naked, post-coitus Veronica finishing her latest interaction with the creature. We learn that the young woman has been visiting the creature for some time in its place of residency, an isolated cabin in the forest where a husband-and-wife scientist team monitor it daily. The young woman leaves this time weakened and drained, with a bloody, open wound in her side. Upon treatment at a hospital, she meets Fabian, a kind nurse who befriends her; she tells him she was bitten by a dog. Little by little, Veronica integrates herself with Fabian and his sister Alejandra, eventually introducing each of them to the creature.
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Although this interstellar sex blob provides carnal release for the visitor, Escalante seems less interested in the encounter itself than he is in its effects on each character, which in some cases turn out to be tragic. But the rules for what this organism is and how it brings about eventual damage are never disclosed. Despite the early warning from the scientist gatekeeping its exposure, "It brings pleasure or pain." We're not given a clear delineation of what drives it to bring either one, which makes it hard to form a connection with the film; we don't know how to anticipate any supposed danger from this creature, so it engenders indifference to its overall presence.
The real horror of the film lies in the realistic danger posed by Angel, whose swallowing of societal pressure to marry, have kids and earn a living have made him a heteronormative monster. Escalante exposes the very deep homophobia that is entrenched in Mexican culture even to this day, with its high rate of violence toward those who live counter to the hyper-masculine ideal. The roots of Angel's fucked-up person are his parents, two very unforgiving and cold people obsessed with keeping up appearances of domestic perfection. Their upholding of traditional, conservative norms is familial horror at its very worst, even more so when you realize that it's sadly based in truth.
The Untamed's atmospheric energy, cinematography and score lend to a wonderfully dark and appropriate mood for its subject matter, but they also contribute to it being distant, sterile and ultimately unsatisfying. With its CGI-ed, visceral creature, The Untamed is an obvious nod to Andrzej Zulawski's 1981 body horror film Possession (there's even a personal hat tip from the director after the closing credits). But it is also lightly reminiscent of the films of David Cronenberg (Existenz, Videodrome, Shivers) in the way it uses body horror as a mirror to collective and cultural anxieties toward sex. Mexican attitudes are either conservative (the Virgin Mary) or sensationalized (porn or tabloids), furthering the "Madonna and whore" binary. In granting sexual agency to these repressed folks, we see through the veneer of these constructs, but the director (who co-wrote the script with Gibrán Portela) also aims to show how sex is an imperfect escape from them; doing it for pleasure, in effect, is only revolutionary to these characters because it was prohibited or frowned upon for so long. It's a complex take that grounds the film, but we're not really left with hope for an alternative. The Untamed might be a pleasure to take in, but ultimately, there's so much more left to be desired.
The Untamed was directed by Amat Escalante; written by Amat Escalante and Gibrán Portela; and stars Kenny Johnston, Simone Bucio and Fernando Corona. Screening at the Frida Cinema, 305 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana; thefridacinema.org. Check website for dates and show times. $7-$10.