You have to credit Eli Roth and Nicolas López. It takes cojoñes to make a horror film out of the real life tragedy of the 2010 Chilean earthquake. In a devastation that took at least 550 lives and affected 93 percent of the Chilean population with blackouts, property damage and a terrifying tsunami, one must have a bit of a warped mind to make a FICTIONAL horror out of this nightmare. But that may just be the brilliance of director López’s film, which he co-wrote with Roth and Guillermo Amoedo.
Taking a page from Roth’s Hostel movies, foreigners have come to Chile for a debauched vacation (though this time, Europeans are also the outsiders). Gringo (Roth) is a divorced father who is looking to get over his post-marital funk. He does this by alternating between the Chilean vineyards by day and the most elite clubs by night with local pals Pollo (Nicholás Martinez) and Ariel (Ariel Levy). Pollo looks like a South American Zach Galifianakis, but his father has deep connections all over the country, making him a man about town. Given an instant animosity between him and the totally square “Gringo,” one wonders why they are friends in the first place. Yet, it is unimportant for the film’s early decadent tone, which amounts to little more than a deep breath before a horrifying plunge.
Gringo wants to party and Pollo knows all the best underground spots in town. Along the way they pick up a trio of foreign women: Kylie (Lorenza Izzo), Monica (Andrea Osvárt) and Irina (Natasha Yarovenko). Kylie and Monica are American half-sisters who are long estranged due to Monica’s overbearing, parental tone and Kylie’s rebellious, teenage attitude. Irina is their Russian friend who is looking to have a good time. The usual conflict ensues as they peruse the tourist spots as a kind of foreplay to the alcohol soaked nights. But before any real confrontation can appear between the group’s sexual tension…the Earth cracks open.
An earthquake, with an 8.8 magnitude, rips apart the posh nightclub and takes half the dance floor with it. Within a moment, the movie changes from a story about shallow vacationers into a nightmare survival scenario. The tremors last only a few minutes, but the real aftershock is the immediate collapse of society. Our cast of characters will have to struggle against shattered roads, escaped convicts and worse, as the unrelenting sirens blare the most ominous warnings of tsunami.
Aftershock is the most harrowing experience I have had watching a movie this year. Some may consider it cheating to set this survival story in a real apocalyptic hellscape, but the way Martinez ratchets up the unrelenting drumbeat of oblivion cannot be denied. Even scoring the opening credits to alternating sounds of a club beat and the siren calls of imminent obliteration adds to the movie’s immediately menacing world. The film submerges the viewer in a sense of nihilistic inevitability that feels both in bad taste and unflinching seriousness.
Aftershock was filmed on some the remaining ruins of the 2010 disaster, which offers a location shoot that more than meets the mark. Working with a limited budget, the actual disaster portion of the film feels slightly glossed over for what becomes the movie’s greatest fear: humanity. As our group of six is slowly weeded down to a smaller and smaller number, the biggest immediate threat becomes a slew of escaped convicts who are relishing the collapse of civilization as an excuse to kill, rob and rape. The three women of the group make them a moving target in a landscape without many open doors. Communities shut their gates on survivors for fear of wolves being among the sheep and the local emergency responders become completely incapacitated by the scope of the carnage. What could easily have become something akin to a cheesy Irwin Allen disaster picture instead chills with a vision of humanity that is both pathetically hopeless and endlessly cynical.
Ultimately, that cynicism does hold the film back in its third act. The taut thriller takes on some last-minute twistsand turns that lose the verisimilitude of the movie’s earlier nightmares. And it unfortunately ends somewhat with a thud when it embraces the most glaring of the horror genre’s staples. There is also a bizarre Selena Gomez cameo that appears in the final cut for probably no other reason than it amused Roth.
However, everything else leading up to those final moments of doom is so finely tuned in its misery that the ending’s weak tremble takes little away from this, overall, grizzly work.
If you can put political correctness aside, Aftershock may be both the most gripping and unnerving thriller yet seen in 2013.