Squad, The (El Paramo) (2012)

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The Squad (El Paramo)Directed by Jaime Osorio Marquez

Starring Juan Pablo Barragan, Alejandro Aguilar, Nelson Camayo, Juan David Restrepo

A squad of soldiers is sent via helicopter to investigate a remote outpost high in the mountains of Colombia. Communication has been lost with the soldiers stationed there and it is suspected that they may have been overrun by rebel guerilla fighters. Ignoring orders to secure the perimeter and wait for backup, one of the men impulsively charges into the base, hoping to find his brother who was stationed there. Another soldier tries to stop him but ends up critically wounded by a landmine, damaging the group’s radio in the process.

Surrounded by a dense fog and cut off from help, the men are forced to hole up in the outpost, finding it seemingly abandoned but with blood and signs of struggle everywhere. Upon further investigation, they find a screaming, almost feral woman imprisoned behind a wall in a room filled with charms and incantations designed to ward off evil. After setting her free, the men find a logbook that suggests the woman is a witch that may be responsible for the deaths of the soldiers who previously occupied the base. Soon, one of their own ends up dead and the woman escapes their clutches, and the rest of the squad gradually becomes more paranoid and self-destructive as the situation continues to deteriorate.

First-time director Jamie Osorio Marquez’s The Squad is the kind of horror movie that’s become something of a rarity these days: a slow-burn psychological thriller that relies primarily on atmosphere to generate its scares. While there are a few jump scares and a bit of gore, Marquez doesn’t use them as a crutch, instead relying on tight, claustrophobic direction and a minimalistic but highly effective sound design to build tension. For the first hour or so, the film has a palpable air of creeping dread as Marquez ratchets up the tension until it’s as thick and oppressive as the dense fog surrounding the outpost.

With its isolated location, ensemble cast and moody score, The Squad recalls John Carpenter’s The Thing in the way paranoia and distrust build among the cast. However, whereas the characters in Carpenter’s film were facing a threat that was very real, Marquez keeps the supernatural elements of his film ambiguous. Is the woman really a witch? Or are the men simply cracking under the extreme pressure of their situation? It’s to the film’s credit that both conclusions are plausible, and this can be seen as an allegory for the civil conflict that has gripped Colombia for decades. After all, when fighting against your own people, how can you tell who is truly your enemy?

Unfortunately, the steady hand that Marquez has in the first two thirds of film starts to waver a bit towards the end, the film losing momentum with a finale that isn’t as effective as the build-up. Although calling it anti-climactic is a bit harsh, the film doesn’t really end up delivering the sucker punch promised by the beginning, although my disappointment was due more to the fact that what came before was so effective than the finale itself being bad. Marquez also takes a minimalistic approach to the dialogue and characterization, only giving the audience a tiny amount of background info for a few characters. Although there are a few exceptions, this has the effect of making the squad members blur together somewhat, and there were a few times I had to remind myself who was who. This may have been intentional, Marquez emphasizing the fact that soldiers have to work together as a team and suppress their individuality a bit, but it also dulls some of the impact as the characters begin to be picked off.

Despite not being able to sustain its slowly building intensity until the end, The Squad is still a remarkably atmospheric and well-crafted horror film for most of its running time, and Jamie Osorio Marquez shows enormous potential as a director with his first feature. I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.

4 out of 5

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