Sins of the Past: Buso-Garcia’s Sophomore Feature a Familiar Exercise
Returning with his first feature since his 1999 debut Paging Emma, Puerto Rican writer-director Roberto Buso-Garcia brings us a haunted house thriller, The Condemned, which attempts to serve classic spine-tingling chills at the same time as it explores dark historical circumstances through a sort of rudimentary post-colonialist lens. While there are fleeting moments of foreboding during its initial set-up, Buso-Garcia’s dependence on a nearly constant eerie score and clichéd details soon give way to disinterest, culminating in not only a predictable ending but the addition of an extremely erroneous and useless final twist that feels about as satisfactory as the film does as a whole.
Ana (Cristina Rodlo) is the beautiful and headstrong daughter of a once famous doctor who has serious designs on killing the rampant rumors about strange misdeeds from the earlier part of her father’s career, a man credited for his cancer research which resulted in the reduction of the amount of radiation used in treatment. She has uprooted the decrepit and speechless man from Mexico to Rosales, his home town in Puerto Rico where he first began his research. Ana has renovated the family mansion there to turn it into a museum honoring her father’s work, her plan to rally the townsfolk into the cause as a way to abate the vicious rumors that began there. Her mother, now deceased, worked as a nurse for her father, and committed suicide. It seems that neither ma nor pa is remembered fondly by the townspeople.
The mansion’s caretaker, Cipriano (Rene Monclova) seems to know more than he lets on, and the townspeople literally turn their backs on her when she opens the house to commemorate her father’s first free research clinic in Rosales. Of course, it doesn’t help that a presence in the house makes the walls shake during the open house, and goes on to try and reach out to Ana through household appliances, convincing the young woman that the spirit must belong to her dead mom. But what’s mom trying to say? And just what did dad do at the free clinic in Rosales?
It doesn’t help that Buso-Garcia’s script lays out so many blatant details during its initial expositions that we can’t help but guess what happened in Rosales oh so many years prior. And it’s not too much of a shocker. The most satisfactory moments of The Condemned happen before we can clearly define what’s going on, with Buso-Garcia and Pedro Villalon’s cinematography establishing an old school haunted house vibe, giving us a dilapidated mansion plopped in the middle of a veritable ghost town, rife with creepy old coots, the scariest being Dona Clara (Luz Odilea Font). It’s just too bad that the predictable finale reveals everyone and everything to be quite benign. There’s a rich history of experimentation on Puerto Rico’s population (like the development of birth control, for instance), and The Condemned is trying to tap into a dark past of exploitation and other horrors, but instead throws out its spices and mutes them in a generic ghost story.