If M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” inspired Alejandro Amenabar’s “The Others,” Amenabar’s “Open Your Eyes” appears to be the inspiration behind this mystical thriller by Spanish writer-director Alvaro Fernandez Armero. “The Art of Dying” tries to mimic that film’s hazy, hallucinatory quality, its ghostly apparatus and its surprise denouement, but its reach exceeds its grasp. Instead it resembles a European version of “I Know What You Did Last Summer” recast in terms of vaguely Freudian dream theory, with a stab at a Dario Argento murder mystery thrown in for good measure. And unhappily it lacks a sense of style distinctive enough to overcome its derivative quality.
The setup is all too predictable. A group of college friends–three guys and three girls–are responsible for the death of their arrogant pal Nacho (Gustavo Salmeron), an artist who specializes in gruesome paintings of the dead and dying. Four years later, the detective investigating his disappearance (sad-faced Columbo stand-in Emilio Gutierrez-Caba) comes up with new evidence and the case is reopened. In trying to recover the body to insure it won’t be found, the six set fire to the house where it’s buried and barely escape. But Nacho’s spectral form begins to haunt one of them, the nervous, uptight Ivan (Fele Martinez), and before long several of the others die suspiciously. Eventually only Ivan and his girlfriend Clara (Maria Esteve) remain alive, and they’re threatened too. At this point everything seems to point toward a finish in line with the unfair (but amusing) conceit of “The Beast With Five Fingers” (1946), but a concluding twist invokes a labored supernatural explanation instead.
About the most imaginative thing about “The Art of Dying” is its title, which cleverly juxtaposes the medieval literary genre “de arte moriendi”–which specialized in detailing how people should prepare for death (an allusion made by Nacho at one point in the narrative)–with the theme of Nacho’s own paintings. Apart from that, however, the picture is sadly mediocre. The basic premise of a hidden crime resurfacing is all too commonplace, and compared to the razzle-dazzle ghoulishness of an Argento, the murder scenes are dully realized. The cast is amateurish down the line, and it doesn’t help that Esteve looks curiously like a young Catherine O’Hara, inviting laughs when she goes all teary. As for the big finish, it’s not only revealed too soon (this isn’t “Vertigo,” after all) but after the films of Shyamalan and Amenabar comes across as none too surprising.
There’s some hint of promise in Armero’s picture, and it might be worth checking out on DVD or late-night cable when the opportunity arises. It’s not worth seeking out in a theatre, though.