Starring Juan Pablo Barragán, Alejandro Aguilar, Mauricio Navas, Juan David Restrepo
Directed by Jaime Osorio Marquez
Distributed by The Scream Factory
Colombia is generally known for two exports – cocaine and neckties. They are not much of a blip on the radar of cinema. Colombians have been making movies since the 1910s, but the only real breakout hit to emerge from there has been Maria, Full of Grace (2004), which was a joint production with the U.S. – and it was about one of their two main exports. Lately, however, their film output has grown drastically from three-to-six films a year to now around a dozen. If first-time director Jaime Osorio Marquez’s The Squad (El Paramo) (2011) is any indication of what the country can offer us horror fans, let’s hope they continue on that path of increased production. What I had expected to be a low-budget, overdone zombie movie (don’t ask why I thought zombies because it isn’t a zombie movie) turned out to be a methodical, psychological thriller that is heavy on implication and extremely light on viscera… possibly to a fault. Anchored by some truly strong, emotionally powerful performances The Squad is just now – three years after its release – getting some buzz courtesy of Scream Factory.
A group of soldiers is ordered to hike up to a remote mountainside military base when contact is lost with those stationed there. The austere fortress is shrouded in a cloak of fog, miles from any civilization. The men enter cautiously, expecting to be ambushed by guerillas who they presume have overtaken the base. Their trepidation turns to confusion when they reach the summit and, after a quick search, find no one present. There are no bodies, no bloodshed and nothing has been stolen, ruling out the possibility of a guerilla attack. During their continued search, however, one of the men hears a woman cry out from behind a wall. They quickly break it down and release her from the shackles in which she had been placed. But some of the men are no so quick to come to her aid, believing she was placed there for a reason. This woman had been intentionally hidden away, items consistent with black magic carefully placed around her makeshift tomb. Paranoia begins to breed.
The soldiers’ concern is only exacerbated when logs are found detailing the last few days of the men stationed there, suggesting the woman may be a witch. As night falls and the men begin to realize leaving the base won’t be as easy as their arrival, the squad settles in for a long night of mistrust and suspicion. The woman, meanwhile, has vanished with no one able to account for her whereabouts. Who will survive until morning?
Praise goes to Marquez for playing his cards so close to the vest and resisting the urge to show them – at all. The Squad excels at building a tense atmosphere where the real threat appears to be the men themselves, not this supposed witch they came upon. In some ways this is reminiscent of The Thing (1982), which no doubt was a big influence here. When we first meet this group of soldiers, they’re a tight unit; a makeshift family that works together and cares deeply for one another. Once the “witch” is discovered, almost immediately these relationships begin to deteriorate. Is there some sinister arcane force behind it all?
It’s not an entirely smooth ride to finding out. After a promising, intriguing start the film suffers some heavy lag in the middle. Marquez would have done well to trim a good ten minutes and tighten up the pacing. The plot appears to be aimless for this stretch before reeling viewers back in with a prolonged third act that sees the unit completely crumble under the weight of an unseen force. It is during this time that the actors emote with furious passion. There really isn’t a single lead actor here; every man plays an important role in the story. Of course, there always has to be one person the audience can root for – and that would be Ponce (Juan Pablo Barragan). He has the heart of a fearless soldier yet he is overcome with emotion as he keeps a level head while recognizing the inhumanity expressed by some of his compatriots. All of the men are run through an emotional gauntlet, which brings out the best and worst of their capabilities.
Kudos to Scream Factory for giving foreign horrors a home on their label, exposing fans to international cinema that would have been easy to miss otherwise. Not every title they’ve selected has been a winner (I’m looking at you, Dead Shadows), but when a minor gem like The Squad makes the roster it’s a reminder that good films are out there – right now – waiting to be discovered.
And speaking of discovery, the film’s final shot is provocatively haunting.
Bathed in atmosphere and enshrouded in darkness, the film’s 2.35:1 1080p image handles extremely well no matter the conditions. Most apparent – and impressive – are the details evident in every shot – worn lines in a soldier’s face, the textures on uniforms, mud & sweat caked on skin – there’s nary a soft shot in the entire picture. The color palette leans toward steely, gray hues with very few vibrant primaries on display. Shadow delineation is strong, especially when actors are cloaked in fog, and black levels appear consistent and rich. Alejandro Moreno’s cinematography utilizes minimal lighting, maintaining definition but allowing the film’s environment to feel genuine. This is a strong picture through and through.
Other than a weird audio defect that occurs around the 11-minute mark, the Spanish DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track has a commanding presence. Despite the lack of major action, this is a robust, immersive track filled with powerful gunfire, some unsettling “juicy” gore sounds, and strong supportive bass. The sound design is quite dynamic, especially rears which are often filled with spooky string arrangements and faint dialogue. It’s creepy in all the right ways. A Spanish DTS-HD MA 2.0 track is also included, with subtitles available in English.
Behind The Squad (Making Of) shows off the film’s tough shoot, done high up in the mountains and requiring the crew to carry a lot of equipment up steep terrain. And to think they almost lost the location, as the government wavered on approving their request.
The film’s theatrical trailer is also included.
- Behind The Squad (Making Of)
- Theatrical trailer