Fantastic Fest Review: HOUSE OF SWEAT AND TEARS (2018)

HOUSE OF SWEAT AND TEARS is the feature film debut from writer/director Sonia Escolano that centers around a vicious cult leader and her followers and the doubt that snakes its way into their lives. The films stars Eudald Font (The Hunter’s Prayer), Haydée Lysander (Black Hollow Cage), Padi Padilla, Coline Charvin (Cinq minutes) Alzira Gomez (El dia de manana) and Paula Mateu in her debut film.

Set in a remote European location, “She” (Alzira Gomez) is the leader of an unknown religious cult (though I suspect it’s in line with Catholicism) and rules her coven with an iron fist. Believing that pain is the path towards towards redemption, “She” makes her followers prove their devotion through the act of cutting the bottoms of their feet and walking with glass shards in their shoes. When a mysterious outsider arrives, and shows them compassion and tenderness, doubt begins to creep in and beliefs are tested, culminating in a finale in which the consequences of their actions receive deadly retribution.

My favorite subgenre of horror is, without a doubt, anything religious based. Sure, I love possession movies, but I really enjoy when a film takes religion head on and pulls back the curtain to reveal the horrors that lay underneath. Sonia Escolano does a superb job of showing the trance-like state that these followers have towards their leader and the blind faith in which they believe that everything “She” says is undeniable truth. However, there are two members that have a tiny seed of doubt within them, but that’s all it takes for a cavern to open wide and devour all that they once knew.

Having grown up in a Christian household, I know the effects that religion can have on people. Though I was never in a cult, I’ve seen how fanatical religion can affect people and their interactions with other. At times, I found the film hard to watch because of the intensity and all encompassing hold that “She” had on her followers, especially when it came to how they sacrificed their bodies for painful religious gains to whatever deity they believe in. However, where I felt that the film faltered was in some of its vagueness, most notably centering around a scene where some of the followers were made to wear masks and driven away. I have some ideas as to what that could have been but nothing was said to either confirm or deny that.

When a film is vague, I typically don’t have an issue with it as it gives me an excuse to do further research, but I felt that HOUSE OF SWEAT AND TEARS was just a tad bit too vague with very little information to look into. I would have liked to have had some backstory on how this cult came to be and what their goal was. One aspect that I did pick up on was that these “followers” may have had a sordid past. One of the characters reveals a Nazi tattoo on her stomach which indicates that maybe these people are looking for redemption and a way to cleanse their past with the use of severe religious indoctrination. However, what we come to learn is that those who have found their righteous path now look down upon those who question the unknown and act outside of their normal existence. This comes to light when an Outsider arrives and brings the cult into a frenzied panic by introducing doubt that goes against what “She” is preaching. For me, the Outsider represented Jesus, but if that was who he truly was, that aspect was left up for interpretation.

All in all, I think Sonia Escolano had a tremendously good concept on her hands with HOUSE OF SWEAT AND TEARS. I think had she tightened up the script and given the viewer an opportunity to learn more of what was going on in the background it would have allowed for a much more cohesive story. As a fan of religions undertones in horror films, I definitely picked up on the Judeo-Christian themes at play and even with a few bumps in the road, HOUSE OF SWEAT AND TEARS is still a film that I would recommend to those looking for a more surreal viewing experience. In the end, I’m excited to see where Sonia Escolano goes from here.

Shannon McGrew
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