'Tigers Are Not Afraid' ('Vuelven'): Film Review

Courtesy of Shudder
An involving tale one hopes won't be a one-off.
8/23/2019

Mexican director Issa Lopez mixes fantasy and gritty drug-war reality in a ghost story championed by Guillermo del Toro.

Moviegoers whose first encounter with Guillermo del Toro came in 2001's haunting The Devil's Backbone may feel a flash of recognition watching Tigers Are Not Afraid, another self-assured fable in which orphans must deal with the spirit world while a flesh-and-blood conflict (this time, Mexico's drug war) rages around them. An odd entry in the filmography of writer-director Issa Lopez, a Mexican filmmaker known mostly for mainstream comedy and romance, it may puzzle horror fans who hope it represents the arrival of a new genre star. That hasn't stopped auteurs like del Toro, Neil Gaiman and Stephen King from pointing fans in the film's direction — nor should it.

Opening titles inform those who don't know of the many thousands of innocent people who have disappeared or been killed during clashes over Mexico's drug trade; they describe the neighborhoods that have turned into ghost towns before introducing four young boys who live in one. A self-formed family of orphans led by the serious Shine (Juan Ramon Lopez), they camp on the rooftop of an abandoned building and scrounge what they can: Early on, we watch Shine brazenly steal the iPhone a drunk gangster drops while urinating in an alley; not realizing how connected this drunk, Caco (Ianis Guerrero), is, he also plucks the pistol from his waistband before dashing off into the dark. Soon, Caco and his cohort will be scouring the neighborhood for the street kid who stole from him.

We simultaneously meet Estrella (Paula Lara), a schoolgirl who's living as comfortable a life as one can around here. Responding to an assignment in class, she invents a fairy tale about princes and tigers that will be the movie's main metaphor, representing those who have been robbed of childhood and must become fearless animals. Tragically, Estrella soon becomes one of them, when her mother is abducted and killed by the gang (the Huascas) led by a local politician. Seemingly from nowhere, a supernatural rivulet of blood enters her world, tracing a precise path into her home and recurring often in the scenes to come. Estrella believes she has three wishes (granted to her earlier by a teacher), and when she uses the first to try to bring her mother back, a frightening visitation proves that this scenario is more complicated than the usual fairy tale.

Estrella finds and eventually befriends Shine's gang, and gets in enough trouble with them to briefly forget about the spirit world. Caco and his bosses are deadly serious about getting his phone back, and as the film expands its gritty vision of the dangers they face, it sees things through the eyes of characters who, despite understanding the stakes, are as prone to misapprehending the world's rules as any kid their age. Director Lopez offers no more lightheartedness than the film absolutely needs to show that their spirits haven't been crushed by squalor; meanwhile, her effects artists use mostly excellent CG to slowly hint at how interested the world of the dead is in Estrella's predicament.

Lara stands out in the cast of young thesps, though Lopez doesn't position the child in ways a commercially minded American filmmaker might: Estrella and Shine are not spunky super-kids, destined from the start to get the better of the killers chasing them, and if they survive, it won't be in a triumph celebrated by local media. The best they can hope for is that the haunted souls who keep frightening Estrella are, ultimately, on her side.

Production company: Filmadora National
Distributor: Shudder
Cast: Paula Lara, Juan Ramon Lopez, Ianis Guerrero, Rodrigo Cortes, Hanssel Casillas, Nery Arredondo, Tenoch Huerta Mejia
Director-screenwriter: Issa Lopez
Director of photography: Juan Jose Saravia
Production designer: Ana Solares
Music: Vince Pope
Editor: Joaquim Marti Marques
Casting: Isabel Cortazar, Andrea Abbiati

In Spanish
83 minutes