Jorge Olguín’s LA CASA is another reckoning with the deadly past of Latin America through the auspices of a horror film. With a very small cast and a V/H/S style found footage aesthetic, Olguín uses a local urban legend of a bad place, Casona Dubois, in the municipality of Quinta Normal, Santiago, Chile to reveal that history.
Gabriel Cañas is most of the movie. He is the lead and the actor who the camera is on most of the time. He is a Chilean actor and singer, who started in theatre, and he does really excellent work and holds the entire structure of the film on his shoulders. Without him, the film does not work. He plays an obviously disturbed cop named Arrigada. With very little dialogue and with the work of a voice actor playing his distrustful wife, Cañas establishes this character quickly and easily. He is not a likable person but, the longer you watch him, the more magnetic his performance becomes and the more you are drawn into the film. It is another enviable acting feat. The rest of the solid cast, who support this high wire act, are Felipe Silva Rodríguez, Camila Palma, Jorge López Vidales (who is also a producer), Camila Carreño, Carol Campos (another producer on the film), and Carlos Cortés.
Jorge Olguín wrote and directed the film and he also composed the music. LA CASA was apparently shot over three nights. It has an unusual narrative structure and a shockingly short running time that works to the film’s advantage. It’s a lean cinematic cut.
At first, I was lulled into a belief that it was the standard scary found footage movie, but the performance of the actors, especially Cañas, and the slowly building horror made me focus so intensely on what was happening on screen that I missed dialogue in the subtitles. I still knew what was going on though. It turns from what might originally seem like a story you’ve seen before to a much more frightening and realistic horror-filled experience. The filmmakers had me fooled and led me exactly where they meant me to go. Then they let the bottom drop out from under me. I don’t want to spoil it, but one of the most affecting scares did not have anything to do with unknown forces at all.
The sound design and music help the film immensely in building its tensions. It also brings up a most disturbing possibility, as seen previously in Jayro Bustamente’s La Llorona and even further back to the fount, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. They all propose to us that we are our own ghosts. They all propose to us that we haunt ourselves.
Now the reckoning: Augusto Pinochet was the brutal dictator of Chile from roughly 1974 to 1990, which was not so long ago. In a CIA backed coup against the democratically elected socialist, specifically Marxist, president and physician Salvador Allende, who allegedly committed suicide after that military coup. This was part of the larger Operation Condor meant to destabilize and put many Latin American countries under the right-wing boot for the perceived safety of the United States. So yes, your tax dollars also went to kidnapping, torture, disappearances, and assassination of the citizens of Chile and other Latin American countries who were seen as Marxist and Socialist threats. One of Pinochet’s favorite methods of murder was the “death flight”. The victims would be taken out in a plane or helicopter and simply dropped into the ocean with no hope of rescue.
Like other genocidal torturers that I have spoken of previously, they enjoyed using rape as a method of torture as well.
They needed to train their henchmen in how to torture and would sometimes kidnap innocent teenage girls off the street with no intention of interrogating them or any suspicion to be used as test subjects for new recruits.
What makes this movie even more realistic and frightening is something that you might have missed. Remember that coup attempt in Washington DC on January 6th? Well, Augusto Pinochet has been a bit of a hero and talisman to groups we used to know as the “Alt-Right” and who we now acknowledge are full-blown fascists. Among the groups at the Capitol Building riot were members of the Proud Boys. The Proud Boys have merch and among their favorite merchandise was a t-shirt that read ‘Pinochet Did Nothing Wrong‘. Do you recall what MAGA and Q Anon’s most common accusations against their enemies are? Pedophilia is a big one, but most of the time, if you oppose them, they’ll waste no time and immediately call you a Socialist or a Communist.
Say hi, Kellyanne!
Those t-shirts aren’t really a joke. That’s what these people really believe. They believe that it is not wrong to murder, torture, and rape someone if you call them a communist, a socialist, or if they’re feeling particularly fancy that day, a Marxist.
Part of the horror of LA CASA is in the realization that we, as Americans, fed the monster of right-wing authoritarianism in Latin America. You might have noticed that quite a few Proud Boys happen to be Latino and the group’s current leader Enrique Tarrio is Cuban. You might see that finally, the monster that we created has come home to us. You might understand, through the story of Arrigada, how easy it is to become a monster yourself.
LA CASA is now available on VOD and will be available on Blu-ray on February 2, 2021.