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Monday, 31 August 2015

'THE ROTTEN LINK' // LONDON FRIGHTFEST 2015 // "This isn't just a horror film. It feels more like there's some kind of actual evil hiding out in the celluloid . . "


After watching the advance trailer for The Rotten Link/ El Eslabón Podrido, a new Argentinian horror from director Valentín Javier Diment (best known for 2011's Memory of the Dead), I expected a great deal from this film; those few minutes I'd already glimpsed, reeked with sinister intent and decadent rural, heady carnage . .

I wasn't disappointed. In fact, this is possibly my favourite premiere out of many years of attending London's horror movie showcase taking place across the August bank holiday weekend at the legendary FrightFest (for which the four organisers of the apocalypse have done horror fans proud again with their relentless tracking down of crowd-pleasing, horrific film newbies).

The excitement I felt watching The Rotten Link this weekend reminded me of the time I saw Patricio Valladares's wild and raucous 'Hidden In The Woods' at FrightFest in 2012 (a film which the director recently remade for Hollywood) and that, like The Rotten Link, was equally ferocious, screwed-up, and sinister (as a rush of thick bad blood to the head). Hidden in the Woods outraged many hardened genre fans and critics in the crowd that day I recall - a result, right?


The Rotten Link was screened at Leicester Square's Prince Charles Cinema, not at the usual VUE multiplex round the corner where most other films were showing over the weekend - this allowed us a thoroughly independent and vast secret den-like underground location for a film like this to truly revel in (the festival started out at this cinema, many years ago). As I left the Prince Charles, soon after the rapturous applause that had greeted the end of the Q&A with the director, I hastily posted an immediate online reaction to the film that I had just seen, over on the FrightFest forum.

I should, I feel, now repost those words here, as they probably best reflect how I felt as I walked out into the afternoon sun; past that scary chap from Human Centipede 2 waiting in the lobby like he was about to kill us all for just being there (a perfect fright after a film like this).

(Actually, scary Laurence R. Harvey from the Centipede sequel, and who has a handful of new horror films on the way, is really friendly I found out later - in the VUE cinema bar queue; where I caught him wielding an impressively mustardy hot dog in one hand!)


. . . back to leaving The Rotten Link where I headed straight to the nearest pub and sat myself down at a quiet sticky-varnished table in a darkened corner to - well - maybe just recover from all that onscreen sin I had just wallowed in! I posted these initial thoughts to the FrightFest forum, while still in some kind of delirious head rush:

"This film was a real ripening blister of filthy, delirious unease; exceptionally disturbing and fiercely original. I absolutely loved it! The soundtrack was either brooding, growling and folkish or (during the end credits) thrillingly loud. Cast were genuinely intimidating or authentically frightened and all were magnificent. Direction was anxious, dirty, beautiful and sublime. This was earthy, quiet folk punk horror; depraved and poetic with a killer ending that finishes on a multiple orgasm of fear and disgust. It's an instant cult masterpiece up there on the screen and I lived to see it happen at FrightFest! I don't need to see any more films this weekend to know that I've just seen, surely, the best."

A few days later, as I now write a longer review, I don't take back any of that praise from my earlier post. And I could actually leave this whole review with those few words left in the mind, as they tell you enough. But for those of you who want a bit more . . 



The Rotten Link is set in a small woodland rural village far (we think) from bustling civilisation, and with just a few dozen (it seems) pockets of people living in the surrounding area; hidden in those woods. Life centres around a small local drinking establishment (I think 'Hammer Horror-style tavern' may be the best description) or chopping up wood while prostitutes (it would be hard to go with the more politically correct term 'sex workers' in this hostile environment where nothing feels correct at all) or just whoever's sitting next to you at the bar, visit the beds and bar stools of local men (and sometimes their wives, alongside them - expressions unchanged and miserable, even in orgasm).

The women making a living from bed to bed are all much older than the much in demand and younger Roberta (the only girl under the age of forty it seems, in this forbidden and desolate place) and are pressured into selling their bodies under the threat of superstitious repercussion.

We follow the daily life and routine of one family: super superstitious, sick mother Ercilia (Marilu Marini); defiantly hardworking silent woodcutter son Raulo (Luis Ziembrowski) - and daughter Roberta (a wonderfully resigned performance from Paula Brasca) who is the toast between the sheets of all the older perverts in the town, or even at the bar as they wait for their drinks to be served.

This is daily life, not an extreme for the villagers; it's all part of the village tradition, maybe centuries old and unchanged. Tradition that's about to be - fatally; finally - broken.

Roberta's mother warns her daughter not to sleep with ALL the men in the village (she's close to that target) and to leave one man remaining, or else THEY WILL KILL HER (according to local superstition - or maybe just the ramblings of an old woman suffering from Alzheimer's and who has some good days, and some bad; days where Roberta has to ask her mother if she even remembers "Who am I?" in sad, gentle and deeply poignant scenes contrasted against the dirty, dangerous life that exits beyond the family home).

The trouble is, that last man standing is something of a big player in the village, respected by everyone, and he wants Roberta and will get her - even if it has to be with the support of the local priest and fellow drinkers (if not his own wife - who he does keep it a secret from; suggesting there is some moral compass in parts of the village after all!). And he sets out to get what he wants in a horrendous sequence, set in a quiet, dank woodland glade, where he sets upon Roberta with ferocious, lust-ravaged intent. The rapist later retreats, wounded, into the woods - and the young girl is certain her life will now end.

If Roberta's mother dies, then she will only have her brother to look after her and he seems to spend most of his days trundling a trailer full of chopped wood around the village, making deliveries and checking his map; a map that's drawn and painted with bright, ripe colours and set out like an unfurling tree with tentative reaching branches -it details who lives where and which path to take to get there the fastest.


Is Roberta's life really in danger or are her mother's violent (shockingly so at times) warnings too loosely rooted in old myth and superstition to be taken seriously? When Roberta, under new instructions from her mother to no longer be used by any of the old perverts in the village ever again - agrees,  even religion and nature seem to be quickly crowding in on her and her family from that point on. Warning glimpses of ornately crafted cast iron cutting implements (so cool and used like a rural weapon of martial arts) and basic rustic axes pocket the natural landscape and the threat of tragedy is always pervasive.

You now fear for Roberta and her family as the darkness closes in around them; as the Autumnal leaves fall and the wood gets damper and less dry; ever harsher. Then, one night, love rears its ugly head again and all hell breaks loose in a finale that leaves you staring at the screen in disbelief. This is disgust. This is madness. This is perversion. This - is actual horror.

The woodcutter is played by Luis Ziembrowski with a downbeat, hardened, vulnerable edge and you fear that his life, out of all the villagers, is the most fragile. The old woman too, shows vulnerability in her sickness, but her violent outbursts suggest more - possible traits of real aggression and anger festering away inside her. And then Roberta, also desperate to escape a fate that seems to be mapped out for her, in the same way her brother maps out his way through the woods, knows that something will soon break; like a rotten branch on a tree, and the simple, degraded, but stable life she and her family once knew will soon be over - forever. And some lives, we soon realise, are so easy to stub out when the mood of the beast changes . .


Director Valentín Javier Diment films the woodland exteriors with brooding, rambling, peeking shots that ride high in the trees, or crash through fallen leaves and dirt and mud like a hysterical wounded bird. There's beauty in the sunsets and blood reddish autumnal leaves and the landscape is a powerful force of either threat or comfort. Everything feels real; from the villagers huddled around tables drinking and having sex whenever they feel like it (only if they pay, of course) to one accidental death that shocks with its suddenness and brutality. Everyone in this village knows everyone else and there's little left to hide; those with power (even limited power in real world terms, but massive in the tiny community itself) always know they will get what they want. Until Roberta and her mother decide to stop playing along, that is.

I suppose some critics will see the film as dabbling too far with exploitation, but I don't think so. The family unit is seen as a vital essence of life and when that gets corrupted, then nothing else matters - forbidden love only attracts more pain; more brutality. And the director, at the Q&A following the movie, says that this is what the film is mainly about - variations on love and pain. Asked whether the actors felt uncomfortable in some of the more shocking scenes, he tells us that the woodcutter and his mother cast are well known in Argentina, and he was honoured they agreed to appear in his movie. The woodcutter was also a personal friend (and a good thing too - some of his scenes require a degree of bravery that many actors wouldn't even consider!).

While the director tells us he doesn't expect much from the movie and expects little distribution or even any profit (but to not have worldwide distribution for a horror film this creative would be a genuine tragedy - so please someone snap this one up quick!) and even feels quite old compared to other younger Argentinian directors who get most of the attention at film festivals these days (it's not true of course; he's still a young buck running wild in those woods!) he is very proud of The Rotten Link and thanks FrightFest organisers for accepting the film to be screened in London.


I've never seen an ending to a movie as powerful and deranged as the one in this movie gets to have (especially effective compared to the rest of the quiet, earthy, languid - if decidedly grungy and dirty - first three quarters of the film's runtime). While most of the film waits ravishing in muddy beauty and natural menace, the random violence when it comes echoes cult Italian horror director Lucio Fulci for its wild and relentless, splodgy killer mayhem.

There's also one jaw-dropping scene of sudden lust and attraction that's unexpected but (strangely enough, and despite some sniggering in the FrightFest audience) unashamedly conveyed and unnervingly naturalistic. The violence throughout is either stark, quick, and cruel or demented, wild and deliberately ridiculous. At times, the finale reaches surreal and decidedly crowd-pleasing heights and becomes almost like a ballet, as it was once for Leatherface in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre - relentless.

The sense of loneliness, threat, stench of sweat and sex and rottenness to the core in the woodland location is almost palpable. It may be the leftover popcorn from the cinema's night before that I could smell, but I don't think so. I think this film conjures up realistic atmosphere and a musty foul reek with absolute perfection. It's crowd-baiting stuff, and many will laugh, but it also has the beauty of Bergman and one film of his in particular - The Serpent's Egg. There's superstition, old wine, depraved behaviour, constant raw copulation and threat and disgust here, framed only by a sense of community (however spoilt and ruined) and a deliciously, delicately portrayed family unit of mother, son and daughter that - spurned on by love - conquers and creates tragedy in equal measure.


The Rotten Link may look filthy and dirty stuff, but, like the films of John Waters, there's a big fat ball of love at the centre here and a tragic love story being played out that makes all the ugliness around it, vanish and feel safe. If not for long.

In summary, this isn't just a horror film. It feels more like there's some kind of actual evil hiding out in the celluloid. It's a masterful conjuring up of human hatred through love and pain and hardship. I've never experienced anything quite like it. If you are easily unnerved, or offended - then please don't watch this movie. Otherwise - just go for it!


Defiantly anti-glossy and absolutely, unashamedly depraved in an intelligent and poetic kind of way, I couldn't possibly condone this film's behaviour, except to say that it felt like the return of a more dangerous breed of horror film to the big screen; especially if you are of an age to remember when the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Last House On The Left felt like the forbidden, untouchable fruit.

Dedicated to Wes Craven

Words: Mark Gordon Palmer


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