Wednesday 1 October 2014

Fearful John (2010)

Director: Daniel Romero
Stars: Iván Martín, Sonia Lázaro, Fernando Ustárroz and Óscar Villalobos
This film was an official selection at Phoenix FearCon IV in Tempe in 2011. Here's an index to my reviews of 2011 films.
While Ma'am's Copy Shop was long for a short film and took its time to develop (pun unintended but I'll take it), this Spanish short, Juan con miedo or Fearful John, whips by us at a rate of knots. It runs eleven minutes but it feels like half that, as we immerse ourselves in the dark whimsy of fairy tales. The title is a take on Fearless John (or Juan sin miedo in Spanish), a simple Brothers Grimm fable that suggests that if only you can be completely without fear, you'll be able to land yourself a princess. In the story, the king promises the hand of his daughter, Princess Lily of the Valley, to whoever dares to spend a night in the haunted woods which contain the wonderfully named Castle of Terror. Because he's apparently unable to count, Fearless John doesn't just last one night, he stays in the castle for three, running off ghosts, tying up a bear and conquering a fire-breathing dragon and dumping it into a well. When he eventually comes back home, the king is so impressed that he allows him to marry the princess and the kingdom rejoices.

As the title of this film suggests, this particular John isn't going to be quite so brave. The inevitable John and Mary of the tales become Juan and Maria, who meet while the former is playing tag. He thinks she's playing too, but she's just trying to escape some creepy old guy. Fortunately she knows a hiding place of ill repute, a gloriously dilapidated house with a gloriously dilapidated gated courtyard, and she and Juan quickly take refuge there. Maria is clearly in charge here, not only because the character is dominant but because Sonia Lázaro is obviously a better actor than Iván Martín, who remains passive (fearful, I guess) throughout. 'In the tale you're always fearless,' she tells him, so off they go inside to hide out during the imminent storm. She dominates here too, counting its progress and passing the time by reciting a story her grandmother had written, a sort of legend called The Man of the Birds, which she keeps close to her even though she apparently knows the whole thing by heart.
It's a freaky story, built of the usual elements: sleeping peasants, crying children and spirits reincarnated as living scarecrows, you know the sort. It's made even more freaky by the location, which is surely one of the biggest successes of the film, even before the storm starts to bathe it in stroboscopic light. If this is a set, I'm stunned at how authentic it is, but I bet it's just a really good choice of location at which to shoot. It feels precisely like what it claims to be, an old house that the villagers won't buy because they say it's haunted. The film can be read in a number of ways, but my take is that we're watching the ghosts doing their haunting. Perhaps Juan is real, a city boy from Madrid in town every holiday to spend time with his grandfather, but Maria and that creepy old guy, whose identity is eventually revealed, are more likely to be ghosts than villagers. Either way, they drive the story, especially Maria with her rapid fire speech and her many stories; Juan merely experiences the haunted house like, well, a haunted house.

I enjoyed Fearful John a lot, though less for the acting or the story and more for the tone that it manages to successfully set. The house is a beautiful wreck and what it holds is gloriously designed too. The speed at which the film unfolds helps to make it a hallucinatory experience, as does the storm which would turn it into a dancefloor with a different score. The music here isn't modern at all, but it's strong and dynamic and drives the piece on, at least until Maria takes over with her fairy tales. The way they're recounted as story but woven into the fabric of the film we're watching is capably done, right down to the design of the espantapájaros who provides the nightmarish image with which we leave the picture. By the way, I chose to use the Spanish word there partly because it's such a glorious thing and partly because you deserve to experience it yourself without knowing what it means. Just don't forget to breathe, as the eleven minutes pass in fairy tale time.

Fearful John can be watched for free at Vimeo or YouTube.

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