Luis Berdejo, director of the terribly titled The New Daughter, should stick around in Hollywood for a while. He wrote the Spanish film [REC], one of my favorite horrors of all time, as well as its English bastard cousin, Quarantine. With The New Daughter, he's made a slow-burn horror centered around children, Kevin Costner, and an old burial mound (not Kevin Costner) that's both based on a short story, and put out by Anchor Bay. Forget the recipe, this just sounds like a disaster. However, a focused lack of overkill makes it a more gripping film than M. Night Shyamalan has provided in recent times. I use that comparison because it reminded me of Signs, and in the commentary, Berdejo mentions not wanting to use the color red in the film. Also, because M.'s pomposity makes him a sucker.
Kevin Costner is John James, whose wife has left him for another man, leaving him solely responsible for their two children, Louisa (Pan's Labyrinth's Ivana Baquero) and Sam (Gattlin Griffith). He moves them to rural South Carolina, and into a house with a particularly batty history. Because it's a movie, John James is a writer who never writes, and thus has all the time in the world to deal with each plot point. Costner is definitely on auto-pilot here, but his acting caliber is what this film needs. It's an uncomplicated role that many other actors would have overplayed. Am I saying Kevin Costner is boring? I'm saying he's Kevin Costner.
Louisa and Sam have to start school as new students, and James takes kindly to Sam's teacher, Cassandra Parker (Samantha Mathis). (They have a relationship that is only used for its themes.) Louisa doesn't take kindly to her new classmates. She's accosted by one blonde douchebag and takes it to that puberty-grazing angst hole that victimized teens do. Luckily, Sam is too young to fall prey to such un-peer pressure. Baquero and Griffith both have great chops for child actors. Innocence can easily be annoying, but Sam is a cute scaredy-cat. Also, gothic tendencies in girls are often eye-rolling, but Baquero flips between good daughter/bad daughter with minimal damage. There are many things going on with the Louisa character that aren't spelled out, so it serves her as a positive handicap.
Louisa's displeasure leads her to spend time exploring in and around the house, and when she finds a large mound nearby, she's instantly attracted to it. It's supposedly the site of a mass Indian burial, and you know what happens where Indians are buried. She hangs around it more and more, becoming increasingly disjointed in her personality. She snaps at James, and then she just wants her Daddy to take care of her. She sleepwalks, and always has dirt on her hands and feet. When James discovers a straw doll in her possession, he begins to suspect something. And when he finds a live spider hidden inside the doll, he knows he's out of his depths.
Subdued thrills are peppered throughout the first half of the movie, and they then become the glue that holds the rest together. In all honesty, this burner doesn't ever get that hot, but it gets enough right consistently, and isn't too predictable. John investigates the mound, finding out all kinds of things about the previous owners of the house, as well as a thing or two about "mound walkers," ancient gods who were interested in gangbang mating. Wait, maybe it is that predictable.
Berdejo says that he wanted to make a horror movie that looks nothing like a horror movie, and in that he has succeeded and failed. It does indeed look nothing like a horror movie, but then it doesn't feel like a horror movie either, though there are monsters and murders. In this, it is again a success, because many of the horrific elements are off-screen or subtextual, and the few creature scenes are blissfully free of CGI. It's a trade-off between terrible horror and decent thriller. The key is in the tense build-ups that connect the shockers, as well as the minimal dialogue and backstory. I'm usually perplexed when movies like this get made, but I cannot deny staying interested until the final darkly comedic moments.
I won't blame you if you completely disagree with me. I rented it expecting something to rail against, but I'm slack-jawed. Berdejo's bland-but-beautiful cinematography, with everything centered in wide-shot scenes, is never displeasing. Javier Navarrete's minimalist score is full of sustained notes inlaid with the drama onscreen, occasionally hitting suspenseful mini-climaxes. The acting is on or above par throughout. The drawback is definitely the pacing, but it didn't bother me that much. Details bother me, such as a scene where James enters his house knowing something is wrong. Before doing anything, he picks up the telephone, and it's dead, so that the audience knows the lines were cut. But there was no reason for him to pick up the phone, other than to let us know it's dead. And it being dead had nothing to do with the scene. I mean, come on!
I think I've given this thing enough backhanded compliments. If you like classic horror movies with a small cast and a claustrophobic feel , and you like seeing many of those movies' themes and shots aped with respect, this is for you. If you stopped reading at "Indian burial ground," then I guess it doesn't matter.
As surprised as I was by the film, the disc is exactly what you'd expect. There are a large number of deleted scenes that mostly explain things that were hinted at in the un-cut stuff. Nothing mind-blowing or overly interesting, so don't feel the need to watch them. There's a 10-minute behind-the-scenes feature that is as generic as can be, though it's decent enough. After those, all that's left to do is listen to the respectable, ho-hum commentary from Berdejo. It's a little too calm and quiet, but he does manage to legitimize making a movie about mound monsters. He also professes his intention to make a movie that feels timeless, and I'll admit I wasn't quick to realize just how little there is in the film that dates it, except for Kevin Costner's face.