This piece was initially published on Much Ado About Cinema in October 2018.
It’s Halloween month, arguably the best time of the year. As the leaves change to orange and a chill enters the air, it’s the perfect time to curl up with the lights off and watch your favorite horror movies, from Halloween to Trick’r’Treat. But this year, I’m challenging you to sprinkle something new into your Halloween watchlist. This month, I’ll be providing horror film recommendations for films that are by non-American filmmakers that haven’t received much critical attention. My first recommendation comes from Mexican filmmaker, Amat Escalante, with his 2016 sci-fi-horror film, The Untamed, or La región salvaje.
The Untamed follows three characters: Alejandra (Ruth Ramos), her husband, Ángel (Jesús Meza), and her brother, Fabián (Eden Villavicencio). Alejandra and Ángel are deeply unsatisfied with their marriage, one that has been built on necessity and secrets. They are short with each other and their sex life leaves something to be desired. An air of dissatisfaction permeates this film: dissatisfaction with relationships, with heteronormativity, with their ‘assigned’ roles in the household. But these dynamics are interrupted when a mysterious woman named Verónica (Simone Bucio) comes into the picture. She knows about something, something not from this world that can bring ultimate pleasure to anyone. The premise sounds like something out of a campy, 1980s B-horror film. But the attention to cinematography and the sympathy created for its characters make The Untamed something special and something truly odd.
This is a film about a strange alien, yes, but it is also a film about the horrors of prescribed roles in society and what they drive us to do. It is especially a critique of the concept of machismo culture and how men are supposed to act. They must be heterosexual, they must support their families, they must love their wives. Ángel and Fabián are trapped in this societal nightmare, trying to conform but ultimately falling short of any kind of happiness. It is also about destruction in search of satisfaction and what desperation will do to someone. For the characters of The Untamed, ultimate pleasure comes with a price, but they are willing to pay it. This ultimate pleasure means an escape from their everyday lives.
The Untamed is a beautiful film, particularly contrasting the chaotic life of the village and the calm, seductive tranquility of nature. The countryside where the pleasure beast resides is beautiful, quiet, and colorful. Only in escaping the chaotic and constricting life constructed in their village can the characters truly become untamed — they no longer bend to the will of society and the roles they must supposedly fill to maintain the status quo.
As a word of warning, The Untamed does wander into the pornographic on several occasions. However, it fits the film’s themes of sexual frustration and desperation for some kind of sexual fulfillment. Each character is trying to find some outlet for their frustration, and sexual pleasure is their solution. It is a film of extremes, and its explicit sex scenes only emphasize that point.
This is a horror film with a plot structure like The VVitch or Audition where it is building and building to an intense final act. This film isn’t unlike sex: it builds and builds and builds up to a (hopefully) deeply satisfying, momentarily satiating ending. Some may call it slow, but The Untamed challenges the audience to find horror in more than just an extraterrestrial sex monster. The sci-fi horror elements function to situate the audience in a horrified state of mind, one where they perhaps can see the terror in the everyday life of a frustrated mother, a closeted father, and a conflicted brother.
Watch if you like: Audition, Hellraiser, The VVitch, horror films that confront established gender dynamics and heteronormativity.