‘Shrew’s Nest’ (‘Musaranas’): Toronto Review

Shrew's Nest Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Shrew's Nest Still - H 2014

Enjoyable if unsubtle historical horror featuring a deliciously over-the-top central performance by Macarena Gomez

Alex de la Iglesia-produced Spanish horror debut set in '50s Spain

Spanish horror has a nice way of rooting its B-movie plots in troubling psychological truths, and Shrew’s Nest does just that, showing us in no uncertain terms that repression is a dangerous thing. A skeletons-in-the-closet yarn about two lonely sisters set in 1950s Spain, and playing not unlike a less nuanced mashup of Misery and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, much of its impact derives from a spellbindingly over-the-top, disturbing performance by Macarena Gomez. Alex de la Igesia's imprimatur should ensure limited offshore sales.

Montse (Gomez, starring here for the first time) and her unnamed younger sister (Nadia de Santiago) are seamstresses. Nadia is a normal 18 year-old, but Montse, highly strung to breaking point, is a psychological trauma on legs. Deeply religious but physically abusive to her sister, she is phobic about leaving the home and only keeps herself under control by downing copious quantities of morphine, which causes her to hallucinate visits from their dead father (Luis Tosar).

When their upstairs neighbor Carlos (Hugo Silva) falls down the stairs and injures himself, Montse invites him in, ties him to the bed 'for his own safety',and gives him morphine. As Carlos's right leg putrifies, she falls in love with him. Carlos, meanwhile, falls in love with the sister, and shortly everyone’s past is starting to catch up with them in predictable but effectively staged ways.

Squawky-voiced, clear-eyed, trembling from first frame to last and with the air of a younger Baby Jane Bette Davis about her, Gomez senses the opportunity for a bit of old-style guignol and unreservedly goes for it, dictating the film's mood of Shrew's Nest from center stage as it moves from the uneasily repressed and quietly nasty over its first hour before exploding into riotous splatter over its cathartic final movement. De Santiago holds her own superbly through their regular screaming showdowns, but Silva, confined to bed, is literally and metaphorically flat.

On the downside, the plot has been thought through to its final consequences, there’s little here that we haven’t seen before, and the final revelations, though shocking and nicely played out, are not so much a revelation as the confirmation of a suspicion. De Santiago’s voiceover tells us things the scriptwriters want us to know but has little dramatic value.

Its over-literalness, which unhelpfully explains the metaphorical value of shrews to the story, is matched by the generally unnecessary sequences featuring Tosar. Though they give audiences the chance to again enjoy the work of one of Spain’s finest character actors, his appearances only slacken the tension. The soundwork is excellent, as exemplified in one scene where butter scrapes nerve-jangling over dry toast.

Essentially, Shrew’s Nest is a chamber piece. The fusty, sickly atmosphere of a Catholic household in the Spain of half a century ago, with its statues, religious art and rising damp on flowered wallpaper, is beautifully rendered by Pedro Ruigomez, able to bring his full attention to it since most of the action takes place in the sisters' home. D.P. Angel Amoros suffuses it all with a soft, lace curtain hue.

Production companies: Nadie es Perfecto, Pokeepsie Films
Cast: Macarena Gomez, Nadia De Santiago, Luis Tosar, Hugo Silva
Screenplay: Juanfer Andrés, Sofía Cuenca
Directors: Juanfer Andres, Esteban Roel
Screenwriters: Andres, Sofía Cuenca
Producers: Alex De La Iglesia, Carolina Bang, Kiko Martínez
Executive producers: Carolina Bang
Director of photography: Angel Amoros
Production designer: Pedro Ruigomez
Editor: Juanfer Andres
Composer: Joan Valent
Sales: Film Factory Entertainment
Rating: R, 91 minutes