Director: Amat Escalante
Stars: Ruth Ramos, Simone Bucio, Jesús Meza
The strange mysteries and preoccupations of our biology as human beings are investigated through this striking familial drama from Mexican director Amat Escalante; a film which has gained a level of notoriety for how this is achieved by integrating an unusual and perverse alien influence into the mix. The film opens with an asteroid turning slowly in space. The very sight of this causes suspenseful conflict throughout the first hour of the ensuing melodrama. How is it relevant? Even more provocative is what follows. A woman, Veronica (Simone Bucio), sits naked in a cabin as she is sexually stimulated by a tentacle which withdraws from between her legs. She leaves the cabin wounded, bitten and bleeding. The connections made here lead one to assume this is going to compartmentalise The Untamed as sci-fi body horror, but what follows does it’s best to defy such easy pigeonholing.
Veronica appears to be addicted to paying this cabin in the woods visits for sexual gratification with ‘It’, but she knows that she can’t go on this way. She looks for a successor (it appears some form of connection to the rarely glimsped beast is necessary). She becomes our entry point into examining the collapsing relationships within a family defined by confusion. Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) is married to the bullish Angel (Jesús Meza). They have two children. Angel, however, is having an affair with Alejandra’s brother Fabian (Eden Villavicencio). Fabien works as a nurse at the hospital and thus meets Veronica. While Veronica grooms Fabian as a potential new candidate for union with the thing in the cabin, Alejandra and Angel’s marriage is tested by the weight of secrets and dissatisfaction.
Angel makes a slew of homophobic remarks throughout, overcompensating in an effort to mask his infidelity, in the process underlining the stigmatism that homosexuality continues to face in Mexico. Such displays of supposed bravura are expected of him and so he complies, in essence betraying himself in order to conform as well as to evade. He is a man at war with himself, conflicted by his own desires and requirements. Alejandra, meanwhile, seems more and more withdrawn, sensing perhaps that something is amiss and having seemingly resigned herself to a marriage of unfulfilling sexual experiences.
The family’s unrest manifests physically in other ways. Pissing is a recurring motif in the film – preempting further cinematic transgressions to come – as both children and adults find bladder control sporadic and unruly. One of the children publicly wets himself at a birthday part, while later Angel douses himself in his own piss when he comes home drunk. It is as though the psychological warfare between them is causing them physical disharmony; these people are so mentally out of sync that their bodies are reacting accordingly.
Escalante presents all of this with determined, minimalist restraint. Scenes are unhurried and quiet. In a similar manner to Takeshi Miike’s Audition, for example, he rests the film’s ability to hold attention on the viewer’s foreknowledge that, at some point, the other shoe is going to drop. The reputation of The Untamed helps it to succeed during this stretch; knowing something is coming, but not being sure of what (a scene of tree branches scratching against a window in a storm eerily reminds the viewer that there is an inhuman element waiting outside of frame at all times, the shadows appearing like claws on the glass).
When an unseen violent episode causes a rift in the family, the film moves into its second phase and the supernatural element uncoils to present itself. Some minimal exposition connects the asteroid to the creature in the cabin, and a CG enhanced spectacle set at the site of impact ushers in a more overtly sexual and transgressive mood. Escalante prepares us for this dreadful and exciting feeling of a world caught in heat with a long slow zoom that ends at Alejandra’s crotch, as though her repressed or ignored sexual cravings are gradually overtaking all other concerns. Alejandra enters the cabin and The Untamed reveals itself as phallic tentacles wander to meet her.
Here myriad reference points present themselves, from David Cronenberg’s body horrors (particularly those of Naked Lunch), through Hokusai’s famed The Dream Of The Fisherman’s Wife and on to that most tawdry and troubling of anime subgenres; tentacle porn. Salacious and provocative it may be, but Escalante skirts exploitation by inferring as opposed to directly showing (in most cases). Aware of the power of these strange ideas, the director chooses carefully how much is enough, favouring a well-judged less-is-more approach (again, most of the time…).
The electricity of these brief moments infects the other aspects of the film. Suddenly throwing rocks through windows is acceptable, and a sense of collapsing order seeps in. Via this otherworldly entity which Veronica insists is only capable of providing pleasure, Escalante shows us how we are prepared to surrender ourselves in the extreme for the sake of a craving, no matter if it’s deemed socially unacceptable, unnatural or otherwise. We are animals and we will sate our urges if we can, in spite of rationale, shame or indoctrinated prejudices. Hell, even one of the children here compulsively eats chocolate even though he is allergic to it. Sometimes the taste is worth the pain.
The gulf between the mundane and the fantastic here occasionally feels too wide, but this uneasy space within the film creates its own personality, a vacuum which helps define it. This sensation doesn’t do The Untamed any favours in terms of how easy it is to digest, but the result is as distinctive as it is difficult. The original title translates as “the savage region”; this destination can be read as geographical, psychological and sexual.