Whatever the state of the housing market, it seems, filmmakers can always find another haunted house, no matter how far they might need to roam. The latest cinematic spirit-laden abode is an isolated locale in Russia, uninhabited by non-spectral sorts, where a young woman and the twin brother she meets there have been sent by a mysterious notary to search out long-buried family secrets. In “The Abandoned,” of course, they get much more than they bargained for.
You, on the other hand, get a good deal less. Like “The Messengers,” the last haunted-house movie from a few weeks back, this one doesn’t have many effective shocks or real surprises, but unlike it, it doesn’t even boast the flamboyant technique the Pang brothers brought to that picture. It’s dreary as well as dull.
In writer-director Nacho Cerda’s tale, a prologue set in the Soviet Union of 1966 (where, curiously enough, religious icons and practices remain rife) shows a young woman frantically driving a truck down a mountainous road, two squealing infants beside her, until she stops at a farmhouse and then expires. Forty years later, Marie (Anastasia Hille), an American movie producer, comes to Russia at the behest of notary Andrei Misharin (Valentin Ganev), who has discovered the identity of her parents and wishes to turn over the deed to their property. Marie then hires a tight-lipped peasant, Anatoli (Carlos Reig-Plaza) to drive her to the long-deserted family home, called “The Island” because it’s entirely surrounded by a river save for a single bridge. He strands her there, but she finds Nicolai (Karel Roden), who introduces himself as her long-lost brother, also sent there by Misharin. Before long the two find themselves having visions of a man beating a woman and images of themselves, bloodied and apparently dead, threatening their still-alive selves.
Much of the hour or so that follows is composed of interminable shots of Marie and Nicolai stumbling down dank hallways and through nocturnal forests, interrupted periodically by another tedious insert of those self-apparitions and occasional flashbacks revealing, sometimes in fairly gory fashion, a part of what actually happened back in 1966. In addition to the infants, papa and mama, as well as the present-day twins, a herd of boars proves to be involved, none too gently. There is an explanation of sorts for all the goings-on, presented in Nicolai’s occasional ramblings and those flashbacks, but it certainly doesn’t make much sense, and the downbeat ending suggests that though you can go home again, it doesn’t pay to.
It doesn’t pay to go to a movie like “The Abandoned,” either. One gets the sense that Cerda was aiming for a spooky ambiance with an almost Kubrickian feel (one shot of Nicolai with an apparition of his nude mother looks like an imitation of something that might have come from “The Shining”), but he hasn’t the craft or the resources to pull it off. The whole picture, shot in Bulgaria, looks rickety and cheap, like something tossed together by a bunch of moonlighting film-school students; Xavi Gimenez’s widescreen cinematography is murky and bleached of color (apart from a few of the flashbacks, which are shot in odd green and purple glow), and what passes for effects are several steps beneath homespun (one sequence simulates a tornado-like catastrophe apparently by having the camera tossed around frantically, resulting in images that are blurred and indistinct—but hardly scary).
The acting’s pretty terrible across the board, too. Roden and Ganev are particularly stiff—perhaps the difficulty in twisting their tongues around English lines had something to do with it—and Hille makes a singularly bland heroine. The rest of the cast provides some local color, perhaps, but have very little to do. This is basically a chamber piece in which the main players don’t hit particularly strong notes.
“The Abandoned” joins the ever-expanding string of European horror pickups by Lionsgate designed to fill a niche in the American marketplace. And like the others, it’s pretty meager gruel. Abandon all hope of entertainment, ye who enter here.