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HouseEnd-NewPoster-Web

Some films grab you from the first frame, locking on like a steel bear-trap and refusing to let go until the end credits roll. Some films, however, take a little longer to work under your skin. Alejandro Hidalgo’s debut feature, La Casa del Fin del Los Tiempos (The House At the End of Time) (2013), is one of those “growers”: while the film has rough patches, it gets gradually better as it progresses, culminating in a genuinely powerful finale that features a twist that’s organic, surprising and very satisfying. For a first-time writer-director, I really couldn’t ask for more.

After spending a couple of decades in prison for the murders of her husband and son, the now-aged Dulce (Ruddy Rodriguez) is released under house-arrest, right back into the same home where the murders originally occurred (her son’s body was never found). Left alone with only her thoughts, memories and the “ghosts” of her past, Dulce settles into a lonely existence, her ever-vigilant guards and the local priest (Guillermo García) serving as her lone connection to the outside world. She’s a sad, broken-down person, surrounded by the ghostly remnants of her former life, never more than a few rooms removed from the place where her husband met his bloody end and her child vanished into thin air.

As Dulce roams around her former home, however, she notes a number of odd occurrences: strange sounds, doors that seem to open of their own volition and, most disturbing, the seeming specter of an elderly man (José León) wielding a butcher knife. The film parallels Dulce’s investigation, in the present, with flashbacks to their original events, decades in the past. In the past, we see a much younger Dulce, her husband, Juan Jose (Gonzalo Cubero) and her two sons, Leopoldo (Rosmel Bustamante) and Rodrigo (Héctor Mercado), as they go about their lives in the house. Before long, the two timelines collide, as Dulce uncovers the full truth of the terrible events that sent her to prison, as well as the full story regarding Leopoldo’s disappearance. What is the history behind the house and its strange, subterranean tunnels? Do ghosts walk its halls or something decidedly more earthbound? And, most importantly: did Dulce really kill her own child?

The House At the End of Time opens with a great deal of atmosphere, similar to the thick Gothic miasma that enfolds Del Toro’s more sedate films, and manages to maintain this for the majority of its runtime. Indeed, one of the film’s great strengths is its claustrophobic aura: Hidalgo and cinematographer Cezary Jaworski get a lot of mileage out of the numerous creepy shots of Dulce exploring her old home, slowly walking from one abandoned hallway to the next. A less self-assured film might pile on the jump scares but Hidalgo shows a remarkable degree of control there, as well: you won’t find a musical stinger or scary-faced spook hiding around every corner in this particular haunted house.

In many ways, the film is a variation on the “alternate timeline” trope, ending up in the same basic peer group as Timecrimes (2007), Triangle (2009) and Coherence (2014). That being said, Hidalgo throws some interesting twists into the idea: it’s nowhere near as complicated as Timecrimes or Coherence but it manages to evoke much of the same vibe. While the various plot machinations don’t always make perfect sense (there’s a reliance on chance and pure, dumb luck that’s uncomfortably close to a deus ex machina, for one thing), it all manages to come together, in the end, and the final resolution is not only a smart way to wrap it up but a genuinely emotional ending.

As mentioned, the film isn’t always smooth sailing. The pacing is slightly off for the first third of the film, giving the movie a lurching, uneven quality. There’s also a few inconsistencies in the performances: while Rodriguez and Cubero are always good (Rodriguez, in particular), the kids waver between decent and way too broad (think sitcom-quality acting). Similarly, Guillermo García is quite believable as the sympathetic priest who takes a personal interest in Dulce’s case, whereas the police officers who guard her feel one step removed from slapstick. None of these are particularly critical issues, mind you: the cops are basically background characters and both of the young performers have plenty of great scenes. The focus of the film is squarely on Rodriguez’s capable shoulders and she acquits herself just fine. For the most part, it’s just the little details that keep the film from really hitting its full potential.

I’ve also got to take a minute to call out the film’s rather dreadful old-age makeup: the constant flopping between past and present obviously necessitates this but there’s absolutely nothing believable about Rodriguez’s “present day” makeup. I’m willing to wager that this was due to budgetary constraints and, as above, is definitely not a critical issue: I’m reminded of how much I enjoy cheap Italian zombie films, despite the fact that the makeup often resembled lumpy oatmeal. It only seems to be an issue here since we spend so much time with “old” Dulce: it’s kind of like having your rubber-suited monster in every single shot…it gets a little hard to properly suspend that disbelief.

When all is said and done, however, The House At the End of Time is a more than worthy accomplishment. Low-key, creepy and intelligent, the film has all the earmarks of a genuine sleeper and bodes good things for Hidalgo’s future. To use one final comparison: imagine the film as an old, reliable vehicle. It may take a few tries to get the motor started but, once it’s chugging away, you have no doubt that it’ll get you to the destination. As I’ve said before: you could ask for a whole lot worse.

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