15.10.17

A Film a Week - The Maus


Sometimes all you need for an efficient, lean and mean horror flick are: a forest setting, a broken car, a terrified woman and a reckless man. The monsters and/or psychos will emerge somewhere somehow, but the real sense of terror comes from being lost and having almost no control over the events that will follow. Gerardo Herrero Peredo’s debut feature The Maus, having its European premiere in Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival of Catalonia, exploits the very same fear and comfortably lives on it. Up to a point.

It opens with a young woman Selma (Bosnian actress Alma Terzić of Snow and In the Land of Blood and Honey) clinging to her talisman and praying to Allah. When the scope widens, we can see that the car belonging to or rented by her German boyfriend Alex (August Wittgenstein) is stuck on the road in deep forest. It is somewhere in eastern Bosnia and Selma has every reason to be scared: from the rational point of view, the wooded area is still full of landmines, and from the personal side, she is still traumatized from the war in the 90‘s she survived losing her family in Srebrenica genocide. They both have no idea where they are and where they should go.

The real trouble follows soon in the form of the two forest workers, Vuk (Aleksandar Seksan) and Miloš (Sanjin Milavić), kinda offering help, but being rude and unpleasant to Alex and Selma. After an accidental mine explosion, she gets hurt and two of them run out of options. The men that are supposed to help them are not just rude, they are also local Bosnian Serbs, which puts Selma in paranoid mode while she is slipping in and out of horrific nightmares of ethnic violence.

It works well because Herrero is using a lot of cinematic technique and nightmare logic to throw us a curveball after curveball, so The Maus is genuinely unpredictable. Hand-held camera flying around the characters in quick, but smooth movements depraves us of any idea where are they at the moment and where are they going, denying us any sort of mental map of the place. Also, for a decent period of time we are wondering what is Selma’s bad dream and what is reality.

The lead actors are proving themselves to be a good casting choices. Alma Terzić is gentle and scarred and determined at the same time, while August Wittgenstein shows enough of the casual cockiness for the type of the character he is playing. Vuk and Miloš are pretty poorly written caricatures and the actors are doing enough to get the paycheck, but not more than that.

The real problem, however, shows up around the midpoint when all the dream-reality dichotomy wears out its welcome and culminates with the random, “anything goes” solutions to end the conflict. More to the point, we are not at the end yet, and plot twists are getting more and more insane and even dubious from the ethical standpoint. First-timer to feature-length films, Herrero obviously wants to put the Bosnian context to a use, but clearly does not know a lot about the region (not a single take was filmed there), its history, its traumas or its folklore.

It is good when the characters do not know where they are, it is even acceptable to keep the viewers in the same type of dark from time to time. But if it is the case with the director, that is not going to end well. Herrero had enough ideas for a short to mid-length film and he is clearly technically accomplished to pull it of, but a feature, even though it is a simple “slasher in the woods” trope, has proven to be too much for him.