Released Oct. 12, 2018
Unrated (equal to R rating for violence, imagery, thematic elements, and language)
Directed by Paul Urkijo Alijo
Starring Kandido Uranga, Uma Bracaglia, Eneko Sagardoy
Set in the Basque region of Spain, a government official arrives in a sleepy village still reeling in the aftermath of a civil war. He is in search of a blacksmith (Uranga) who allegedly absconded years earlier with a fortune of ill-gotten gold. Meanwhile, young orphan and local misfit Usue (Bracaglia) has the head of her beloved doll ripped off by bullies and thrown over the wall of the blacksmith’s forbidding makeshift fortress. These two sets of circumstances will collide to expose the fearsome blacksmith both to the horrors that he hides from and those he keeps trapped within.
Errementari is a very visually ambitious film with a fairly straightforward narrative that still somehow manages to surprise. It stands strongly in a very small niche of dark folk fantasy/horror.
This film is fascinating for a number of reasons, not least of all being the language and culture of the enigmatic psuedo-nation in which it is filmed. Americans like myself tend to know very little about The Basque, the region of northern Spain that has a very distinctive identity all its own and has reared its head numerous times in fierce and violent separatist movements. About all we know of the area is the famous Running of the Bulls, held in the city of Pamplona during the Festival of San Fermín, which we incorrectly attribute to being a particularly Spanish thing. While matters have settled down over the last decade or so, the region has been notable for its embrace of its Christian traditions, a distaste for liberal politics, and a desire for greater self-governance. It’s like I’m talking about Texas. Anyway, I mention these things because Errementari possesses a very unique tone that is partly attributable to the history, native tongue, and culture of The Basque. In fact, it is only the second horror movie ever filmed in the Basque language and the first to be released here in the States.
Not that it is somehow unprecedented, this movie does have some notable influences. The first and most obvious would be Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro’s masterwork that likewise juxtaposed a layer of dark fantasy on top of the ravages of war. Here, however, the war isn’t ongoing but a bad memory that its characters are trying to keep buried, and consequently, that’s a central theme of the film. Also, the fantasy of Errementari has no root in fairy tales but instead in the imagery and ideology of medieval notions of Christian Hell – complete with red-skinned, pitchfork-wielding imps for demons who are way more hideous than old-timey cartoons would lead me to believe. When it comes to the creature design here, think more Ridley Scott’s own take on dark fantasy, Legend. Further, the design of the blacksmith’s abode and the look of the village may owe a nod toward Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow and there’s just the slightest hint of the kind of absurdist whimsy found in many of Terry Gilliam’s works. That’s a pretty fantastic list to draw from and these aren’t the kind of movies we get to see too often, yet Errementari still feels somehow different.
Oftentimes, it’s grey, grim, and grimy – many of the characters are miserable and the blacksmith’s fortress, in particular, is an imposing and chaotic nightmare – filthy, disorganized, and covered in giant iron spikes and misshapen homemade crosses. For additional reasons I won’t spoil, the place is clearly designed to keep things both out and in – it’s something of a triumph of set design when a location becomes its own character. The ramshackle village and its church – the only structure that appears to be receiving any proper maintenance – further contribute to a sense of immersion not unlike a video game. There were times I got some strong Elder Scrolls vibes in Errementari and I mean that as high praise.
The acting, particularly of its three leads, is great as well. The morality at play in the film is definitely a grey one and many of the characters have both unflattering and redemptive moments alike. Instead of bogging things down, they come across as relatably flawed and human and the fantastic script co-written by director Paul Urkijo Alijo deserves some thanks in that regard as well. His is a name I’m going to be watching out for in the future, for his sense of style is an amalgamation of many of my all-time favorite directors but with a distinct flair that’s his own. It’s difficult to believe that this is his debut feature.
I’ve been heaping praise on the movie this whole time – now for a serious nitpick. It’s not even technically the film’s fault, but it’s a glaring issue. The subtitles here are a literal translation from Basque, which leads to a number of instances where culturally unique phrases and idioms were used that seemed either clunky or nonsensical to me. The dubbed version, on the other hand, used an interpretive script for the dialogue, making sense to my American ears but employing substantially inferior voice acting. I went with subs, but had to rewind and rewatch in dubs in several spots, most notably on the final pivotal line of the film. That really irked me, and I don’t know if Netflix takes the blame or the film’s producers. Unfortunately, that’s going to be a dealbreaker for quite a few people. There’s also a major plot device involving the role of chickpeas in the folklore of the region – that’s not a complaint, but a heads-up so it doesn’t catch you off-guard like it did to me. When it comes up, just run with it.
Ultimately, Errementari is the best horror movie of the year thus far (a status that is immediately in danger as I’m reviewing the new and highly praised Halloween movie tomorrow). Alijo has presented here a world that I eagerly want to see more of. There was more yet I wanted to cover here, but I think I got the point across that I really liked it.