The slow-boiling, atmosphere-heavy psychological horror film “The Wasteland” is among the first of Netflix’s 2022 offerings. It’s also a great way to kick off the movie year especially for horror fans. Set in 19th century Spain, the movie’s rich period setting brings with it a distinct folk horror flavor. But the psychological edge is just as potent, and it’s examination of heavy themes such as fear and isolation leave a strong impression.
Horror is a tricky thing these days. The genre can’t be narrowed down or painted with broad strokes. And while too many creepers come across as derivative and old hat, there are still filmmakers who are constantly finding new ways to use horror. “The Wasteland” certainly falls among the latter.
Directed by David Casademunt from a script he wrote with Fran Menchón and Martí Lucas, “The Wasteland” begins by telling us of consecutive wars in Spain that drove many people to isolate themselves in an effort to escape the “violence and madness”. We’re then immediately taken to a vast barren moor where a small stone house sits alone in the middle of nowhere. It’s where young Diego (Asier Flores) lives with his stern and rigid father, Salvador (Roberto Álamo) and his gentle and tender mother Lucia (Imma Cuesta).
Salvador is a sad and distant man, determined to prepare his son for the harshness of the outside world. There are only bad people out there, he explains to his son. He also tells of a beast which feeds on the fears of its victims. “Once you see the beast”, he ominously warns Diego, “you’re doomed forever.” Lucia scolds her husband for scaring the young boy with such tales. But Salvador’s solemn eyes and the tall posts draped in tattered cloth that he’s built around their property gives you the uncomfortable sense he believes it.
Things take a turn after a rickety boat floats up in a nearby stream. Aboard lies a man, bloody and unconscious. After the man dies (in one of the film’s more shocking moments), Salvador finds a picture in the stranger’s pocket. Its of the man and his family. It leads an already troubled Salvador to make a rash decision and take the stranger back to his family, leaving his own to fend for themselves while he’s gone.
As days turn to weeks, Diego watches as his mother begin to drift away, seeing things lurking in the shadows or behind bushes. Does she now see the beast? And as the security Diego once had in his mother starts to fade, will he too be terrorized by the fear-consuming creature?
Casademunt poses these questions by slyly making us feel a part of this slowly deteriorating family. Through his sharp pacing, smart visual choices, and Balter Gallart’s fantastic production design, we’re able to feel the same isolation and fear they feel. It mostly comes through young Diego’s eyes whose perspective is raw, emotional, and sincere. But it also comes through the camera – the exquisite framing as well as the crafty use of focus, shadows, and angles.
There are other touches that soak us in atmosphere and sustain the film’s foreboding mood. Little details such as the eerie wood-carved toy figures or the macabre nursery rhymes and children’s songs Lucia sings to Diego. But it comes back to examining fear and feelings of lonliness and isolation. It’s a tough subject especially during this pandemic era we still find ourselves in. But Casademunt uses horror to explore it all in a way that should impress viewers whether they’re fans of the genre or not. “The Wasteland” is now showing on Netflix.