Something’s not quite right with the old folk in Raúl Cerezo and Fernando González Gómez’s The Elderly. The film had the privilege of opening this year’s Celluloid Screams festival at Sheffield’s Showroom Cinema. It is not the only film that Cerezo and Gómez have screening at the festival, The Passenger screens on Sunday. However, unlike their order of screening, The Elderly is actually the pair’s second feature.
Set during a heatwave in Spain, The Elderly begins with the suicide of an old woman, Rosa. Despite not knowing anything about Rosa, her motivations or even her name, her demise is haunting. Rosa’s death is the catalyst for everything that follows. In the wake of her passing the story focuses on her widow, Manuel (Zorion Eguileor). Concerned by his subdued and still behaviour, his son Mario (Gustavo Salmerón) takes Manuel to stay with himself, daughter Naia (Paula Gallego), and pregnant new wife Lena (Irene Anula). It’s immediately obvious to Lena that there is something strange with Manuel, but Mario refuses to see it. Naia also picks up on the odd behaviour, but interprets it as grief. As the two women take different approaches to helping Manuel, events happening outside of the home cause calamity.
A snapshot of three different generations, The Elderly spends time developing its character dynamics. Naia, the youngest of the family, is determined to follow her dreams. She desperately wants out of what she views as her dead-end existence and believes that she has found it in her boyfriend, Jota. In addition to grieving her grandmother, Naia is also dealing with the loss of her mother. Whilst she doesn’t outright hate her step-mother, she most definitely resents her presence. These feelings have left her on the edge of her domestic life and help make her more receptive to Manuel.
In contrast, the middle generation – Mario and Lena – are so preoccupied with fighting that they fail to properly understand what is happening around them. The bulk of their spats revolve around income and Manuel. Lena is not happy that he is staying and makes her feelings clear from the outset. She is a complex woman and whilst in many ways her reservations have merit, her methods are all wrong. One key shower scene throws into question where the audience’s sympathies should lie; complicated characters should always be championed. Whereas Lena is laser-focused on Manuel, Mario won’t accept it. He too is still in the depths of grief, for his mother and late wife, and his reticence to see the truth is a clear coping strategy.
At the top of the familial chain is Manuel. A quiet man, Manuel says little. When he does choose to speak though, his words carry weight. Eguileor gives a fantastically chilling performance. Even before the full magnitude of what is happening with Manuel is revealed, he is a character that the viewer is wary of. It’s a great contrast to the typical portrayal of the warm and jolly grandfather type. Whenever Manuel is on screen, attention is held, the audience fascinated by his weird behavioural patterns.
So much of The Eldery’s run-time is spent getting to know these characters that the expected scares are sidelined. The directing minds behind the film want the viewer to understand and connect with these people on screen before unleashing the nightmares. It’s a move that pays off spectacularly as the final third of this film is blisteringly aggressive. In the slow build-up, there are pauses in the story, which take the form of text cards that highlight the ever increasing temperature. Their inclusion works like a chapter point, only instead of announcing a day or similar, it shows how high the temperature is soaring. It’s a simple, but very effective device, and one that effortlessly keeps that tension ratcheting. By the time the text thermometer reaches its final reading, the scene is set.
Literal carnage is set in motion, the devastation amplified by the emotional gravitas for the characters. Were it not for the slow burn building to it, this climax would be much more of a whimper. As it stands, it is bold, brutal, and perhaps one of the best Spanish horror endings since [Rec]. The Elderly more than rewards the time invested in the slow burn story thanks to some excellent construction work from its directors.
A film not afraid to take time developing its character dynamics. The first two-thirds of The Elderly concern themselves with the family and their drama, then the real fun begins…
The Elderly was reviewed at Celluloid Screams 2022.