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It should go without saying that one of the prime directives of parenthood is to protect your children, at all costs. I say “should,” of course, since the world rarely works in ideal ways. In truth, the winding path of adolescence can be just as hazardous and filled with hidden malice as the most dangerous military expedition. The “bad guys” don’t always look drastically different from the “good guys” and, frequently, can be two halves of the same person. Caught between a menagerie of predators, on one hand, and a cultural imperative to “grow up fast,” modern kids truly are stuck between two unpleasant extremes. Children should never have to navigate this labyrinth alone but, increasingly, it seems like they do. Even with the best of intentions, it may be difficult for parents to completely shield their children from all the evil that the world has to offer. When parents behave in less than ideal, selfish ways, however, it makes it all that much easier for the “bad guys” to creep out of the darkness. Spanish auteur Adrian Garcia Bogliano’s newest film, Here Comes the Devil (2013), quite ably explores the intersection between “parental sacrifice” and “selfish desire,” finding a shadow world where innocence is fleeting and evil can wear many different faces.

After a dynamic opening that introduces us to the diabolic forces at work, Here Comes the Devil settles down with our main protagonists: husband-and-wife Felix (Fracisco Barreiro) and Sol (Laura Caro) and their two young kids, Adolfo (Alan Martinez) and Sara (Michele Garcia). The family is on a vacation in Tijuana, a relaxing little day-trip that involves kicking back on sand dunes and exploring the nearby hills and their honeycombs of interconnecting caves. When young Sara gets her first period (a situation that causes Adolfo no small amount of distress: “Sara is bleeding! And I didn’t even touch her!”), Sol takes her to a public restroom to get cleaned up, assuring her that this is the furthest thing from a big deal: this happens to every woman and is nothing to be afraid of. Afterwards, Adolfo and Sara decide to go explore a hill that they noticed earlier, which gives Felix and Sol the opportunity for a little “alone time.” When a little fooling around turns into a hot and heavy session, however, the parents lose all track of time…and their own kids.

When Sara and Adolfo don’t return, Sol and Felix get righteously freaked out and frantically try to find them: Felix goes out to search the darkening landscape while Sol hangs around the nearby gas station, just in case they should return. As Sol waits, despondent, the gas station attendant (Enrique Saint-Martin) informs her that the local hills are cursed: no one goes up there because “creatures” live there who consider humans “nothing more than shells.” This kind of revelation doesn’t usually set worried parents’ minds to ease and, sure enough, Sol is beside herself: she blames the whole thing on her husband, who never wants to spend time with the family and had to be practically forced to take them on this excursion. If he was a better father, perhaps they would have gone to a better, “safer” place: if she was a better mother, she would have been watching her kids, instead of getting off. It’s a vicious back-and-forth that bleeds into the next morning, when the search is supposed to begin properly.

As they prepare to head out, however, Felix and Sol have a bit of a surprise: Sgt. Flores (Giancarlo Ruiz) is waiting for them, with Sara and Adolfo in tow. The kids look frightened but none the worse for wear. According to them, they got lost in a cave and couldn’t find their way out. Regardless of the reason, the family is happily reunited and go on to live happily ever after. Only, of course, they don’t. Cracks and fissures begin to appear in the kids’ story and their personalities seem different: Sol is certain that something is going on when Sara’s bloody panties from that day are nowhere to be found. Even stranger, Sara’s period appears to be over. Concerned, Sol takes her daughter to the doctor and gets the terrible diagnosis: while the doctor can’t be certain, there does appear to be signs of sexual trauma.

As Felix and Sol face the horrible implications, they launch their own “investigation” into the incident and come up with a possible suspect: Lucio (David Arturo Cabezud), a local weirdo who lives in a little trailer and has a predilection for stealing underwear. In a quest to “avenge” their children, Felix and Sol make a terrible decision, a decision that begins to rob them of their basic humanity. Even worse, however, is the nagging suspicion that they may have been wrong. As Sara and Adolfo begin to act odder and odder, culminating in a truly perverse, jaw-dropping incident with their unfortunate babysitter, Marcia (Barbara Perrin Rivemar), Felix and Sol are forced to confront the unthinkable: the innocent-looking kids who came back to them might not be so innocent, after all.

Writer-director Bogliano has become quite the go-to guy for Latin American horror films as of late, being responsible for three of the finest in recent memory: 36 Pasos (2006), Cold Sweat (2010) and Penumbra (2011), as well as one of the most effective, unsettling stories in the ABCs of Death (2012) anthology with “B is for Bigfoot.” Bogliano’s films tend to be hyper-sexual, gritty and very kinetic, flirting with a truly bracing combination of supernatural mythology, real-world horror and gallows humor. While Here Comes the Devil is nowhere near as purposefully “funny” as Penumbra (which often felt like a subtle satire of similar Satanic-themed films), there is plenty of humor to be found here, albeit mixed with elements that drain the laughs out like air from a leaking balloon. Bogliano is a masterful writer, capable of dropping hints, when necessary, but just as content to let his audience blunder their way through to the resolution. Unlike many modern horror filmmakers, Bogliano doesn’t hold hands: if the audience isn’t paying attention, he fully expects them to tap out and there’s nothing wrong with that. Truth be told, I wish more filmmakers dealt with the kind of intelligent, high-concept genre fare that Bogliano routinely does: Bogliano will have his English-language debut with Late Phases later this year, so let’s hope that he doesn’t “dumb down” his style for less discerning American audiences.

The things that work in the film work exceptionally well: the performances are all authentic, the cinematography (by frequent Bogliano collaborator Ernesto Herrera) is usually beautiful and the sound design is pretty great. Unlike many films that feature bickering parents (particularly horror films), the emotions and actions behind Felix and Sol seem to be more authentic than plot-driven. In addition, Here Comes the Devil is absolutely sodden with Gothic atmosphere, which works wonders in establishing a truly claustrophobic environment for the characters to get lost in. The film isn’t gore-drenched, by any definition of the term, but what’s there is unpleasant, in-your-face and pretty hard to forget: one Grand Guignol scene seemed to work on a “tiered” system which had me reacting, in ever escalating disgust, to each new development. By the time we get an up-close and personal meeting with someone’s trachea, the scene had pretty much cemented its place in the Hall of Fame. The effects work seems to be practical, for the most part, and is exceptionally realistic.

While Here Comes the Devil is an exceptionally well-made, powerful film, it’s certainly not without its faults. Despite being just shy of an hour and forty minutes long, the film still manages to seem at least 10 minutes too long. I can chalk this up to some repetition (necessary to explain plot points but rather cumbersome, all the same) but there are plenty of instances when scenes (and shots) seem to be held for just a little longer than necessary. This was also a bit of an issue in Penumbra, although the film’s (relatively) complex plot made this “stretching out” more welcome than intrusive. The biggest issue with the film (and one of my personal pet peeves, in general) is the rather obnoxious use of zooms to set-up foreshadowing. One of Bogliano’s favorite tricks in the film is to execute a sudden zoom (usually to eyes or items) as a manner of saying “Hey, pay attention to this!” We get zooms on wristwatches (to show that they’ve stopped), zooms on hand-holding (to highlight relationships), zooms into the landscape (to show us something), close-up zooms (to show us small details)…Here Comes the Devil is so zoom-happy that one could fashion a pretty vicious drinking game out of it: take a drink every time there’s a zoom and be ready to die by the half-way point.

I tend to hate the “revealing zoom” because it’s such an obvious filmmaking trick but there’s a bigger reason to dislike its overuse in Here Comes the Devil: the frequent zooms completely change the tone of the films, making it see-saw between somber atmosphere and giddy “action beats.” Used in moderation, I could get behind the technique (although I still find it highly unnecessary) but Bogliano (or Herrera, take your pick) absolutely beat it into the ground, rendering it meaningless. It may seem like an awfully silly quibble but keep this in mind: the obnoxious zooming turned this from an “excellent” film, in my book, to a “very good” one, which is testament to exactly how intrusive it is.

Nonetheless, the high points in Here Comes the Devil are very nearly enough to wash away the low ones. When the film is firing on all cylinders, it’s a lean, mean, angry, berserk little piece of insanity: there are no happy endings here whatsoever, nor are there any pulled punches. While the ultimate resolution may be a touch vague, there’s nothing open-ended about it: the only thing up for debate is just what, exactly, the family is dealing with. Bogliano has staked himself out a nice piece of land in the current horror real estate explosion, placing one foot firmly in the horrors of the “real world,” while the other tromps ground on the “supernatural” side of town. If he can make the transition to English-language films as surely as Del Toro did, our favorite over-extended director might just get a run for his money. Now, if we could only get these guys in the same room together…