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Plot: thirty-something girl anxiously awaits her date… or is she?

Spain has always been fertile ground for fantastic – and horror cinema. With several decades of history to draw from and the old masters rightly enshrined as the innovators that they were Spain never really stopped producing horror or weird cinema. Over the last twenty years Álex de la Iglesia and Jaume Balagueró have been the prime names associated with Iberian terror and suspense and the country continues to produce horror at a steady pace. Over the past several years Norberto Ramos del Val has been producing low budget horror and terror. Lucero is our first exposure to his work and since then he has directed, among others, Heaven In Hell (2016) and Killing Time (2022). It’s impossible to gauge how important he will become to Spanish fantaterror, but new blood is never bad. Whether he is the de la Iglesia or Balagueró for this generation only time will tell.

In the Lucero barrio (neighborhood) of Madrid 34-year old Eva (Claudia Molina) attends the Sacrament of Penance during the Semana Santa (Holy Week) procession. After returning to her apartment it becomes clear that Eva is mentally unstable and deeply unwell. She is interested in witchcraft and has the literature to prove it. On top of that, she’s probably neurotic, is constantly itchy, and possibly suffers from OCD. Her boyfriend Angel (Edgar Calot) has left her – and she’s understandably saddened and frustrated with the whole situation. Tonight she has a date with Lucas (Jaime Adalid) and she’s fighting against the hours for him to arrive. As the shades of night descend it dawns on Eva that her date might not be coming tonight or at all. This triggers her anxiety even further and as memories of her time with Angel wash over her she sinks deeper into depression and loneliness. As Eva is consumed by paranoia and explores the deepest chasms of her soul a terrifying secret is bound to surface…

The opening montage with all the footage from Madrid and Claudia Molina in high couture sort of gives off the vibes that this might turn into a modern day giallo but once Lucero settles on the apartment as its one and only location any such pretensions or ambitions are, sadly, instantly abandoned. At a brisk 68 minutes it still takes forever for something nothing substantial to happen – and when it does, it happens oh so very, very slowly. For a good 53 minutes Lucero sort of flows glacially (or serenely, whichever you prefer) with no apparent direction or specific destination in mind until it suddenly explodes into a phantasmagoria of Satanic covens and full frontal situational nudity. The only novelty (if it can be called that) that Norberto Ramos del Val introduces is that Lucero has no dialogue whatsoever. None. Not a single line is uttered. It might seem like an odd creative choice at first but on second glance it seems perfectly logical.

And then there’s the title itself, Lucero, that can refer to any number of things. For starters, there’s Venus, the morningstar. Second, it’s also another name for Lucifer, which probably goes a long way explaining the skeletally thin Satanic cult subplot that really begged further exploring as well as the international market title Fallen Angel that this has gotten in some territories. If Lucero accomplishes anything it’s making us wanting to see more of Claudia Molina. Molina wonderfully succeeds in carrying what little story there is all by her lonesome. This being Spanish the bathtub scene (and the fact that Eva doesn’t utter a single syllabel for about 68 minutes) suggests that Ramos del Val probably has seen Female Vampire (1973). The solitary kill scene is effective in its brevity and functional minimal gore. It sort of echoes She Killed In Ecstasy (1971) passively and the coven scene indicates that Ramos del Val has seen his fair share of either Jean Rollin or any early seventies Meditterranean horror of your preference. Sadly, this is also where Lucero wastes most, if not all, of its potential. There’s so much here and so very little is done with it. Hopefully one day Ramos del Val will make the Satanic coven and witchcraft (lesbian or otherwise) movie that’s alluded to here.

If you were feeling charitable perhaps Lucero could be described as a Spanish take on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976) but truthfully this is closer to Pål Sletaune’s hugely atmospheric and occassionally gripping Next Door (2005). Except that that had actual characters and story – and this not necessarily does. There’s only so much a naked Molina in the third act and a sufficiently ethereal ambient score (that could have come from Simon Boswell or Michael Stearns) can possibly redeem. The problem isn’t so much what Lucero is but what it could have been. Some dialogue would have worked wonders here. As much as the non-verbal route allows the viewer to project whatever they want onto what they see informed by their own experiences, it also makes the entire thing inconsequential on its face. An entire Jean Rollin or Paul Naschy type fantastique could be extracted from the coven and witchcraft scenes. For most of the time Lucero is closer to the oeuvre of Rene Perez than to Paul Naschy. Much more of a moodpiece rather than a character study Lucero is style over substance.

Plot: lovelorn office worker is seduced by his nubile neighbor… or is he?

Described by Variety as, “an homage to Roman Polanski with nods to David Lynch Norwegian-Swedish-Danish co-production Naboer (or Neighbor, for some reason released internationally somewhat awkwardly as Next Door) is indeed a solid thriller. The comparisons to Polanksi and Lynch might be slightly hyperbolic and a wee bit optimistic in the grand scheme of things, but said associations aren’t unfounded. Next Door uses a well-known formula to utmost effect and while not revolutionary in any sense of the word, it pulls no punches and the twists it offers are always intelligent. No wonder then that it was showered with awards at the 2005 Norwegian International Film Festival, Cinénygma Luxembourg International Film Festival, and won the Kodak Award as well as the Young European Jury Award and Black Tulip Award at the 2006 Rouen Nordic Film Festival and Amsterdam Fantastic Film Festival, respectively. Which is a really roundabout way of saying that Pål Sletaune’s third is just as much of a contemporary classic as its domestic and international critical reception suggest.

Borrowing plot elements from Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976) with a slice of that nightmarish suburban claustrophobia from Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) Sletaune himself always insisted that Alfred Hitchcock was his biggest inspiration. Next Door masterfully weaves influences from the old masters with a contemporary aesthetic closer to Love Object (2003) and Hard Candy (2005). Kristoffer Joner won an Amanda Award for his role and the three girls Cecilie A. Mosli, Julia Schacht, and Anna Bache-Wiig all turn in commendable performances. Schacht especially is mesmerizing as the trashy wanton seductress whereas Mosli and Bache-Wiig are given ample opportunity to show their emotional range. Schacht has that drowsy look somewhere between that doe-eyed Emmanuelle Seigner and Nastassja Kinski quality that Polanski favored in the 70s and 80s and 1990s heroin chic. Imagine a poor white trash Lene Marlin (circa 1998-99) and you’re about there. As far as international marquee value goes, the biggest name here is probably Michael Nyqvist.

John (Kristoffer Joner) is a mentally unstable and deeply unwell thirty-something. His girlfriend Ingrid (Anna Bache-Wiig) has left him – and he’s understandably incensed and embittered. He’s none too pleased that Ingrid has hooked up with their mutual friend Åke (Michael Nyqvist). One day his next door neighbor Anne (Cecilie A. Mosli, as Cecilie Mosli) sort of candidly asks John if he can help move a cabinet in their apartment. John is surprised that he actually has neighbors and that he never noticed them before now. After the usual formalities and once the cabinet is moved John makes his acquaintances with Anne’s sister Kim (Julia Schacht). The two sisters seem to know suspiciously much about John and his amorous trouble with Ingrid. Kim, being the wanton minx that she is, almost immediately comes on to him strong and easily seduces him. Now in too deep and caught in a web of deception John finds it increasingly difficult to differentiate between what is real and what’s in his head. It gets to the point that his colleague Peter Reis (Øystein Martinsen) wonders what’s going on. As the sisters close their web around him a terrifying secret is bound to surface…

Kristoffer Joner, Cecilie A. Mosli, Julia Schacht, and Anna Bache-Wiig all are regulars of Scandinavian television. Joner gives an especially simmering performance that’s alternately understated and unhinged. No wonder he won an Amanda Award for this. Bache-Wiig shines as the battered, scorned wife and is quietly threatening whereas Mosli and Schacht play two sides of the same coin. Mosli’s calm and collected demeanor and personality contrasts beautifully with Schacht’s electrifying performance as the trashy seductress. Judging by their performances here the small screen is where talent of this kind thrives, something which history has documented to be the case. In a supporting role is Michael Nyqvist - he of, among others, John Wick (2014), Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011), and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). On the producer end of things there a few familiar names as well. Anna Anthony produced the acclaimed Swedish LGBT teen drama Fucking Åmål (1998) and Lars Jönsson was behind Lilja 4-ever (2002), both directed by Lukas Moodysson. The music was composed by Simon Boswell. He of Dario Argento's Phenomena (1985), Lamberto Bava's Demons 2 (1986) and Delirium (1987), Michele Soavi's Deliria (1987) as well as Richard Stanley's Hardware (1990), and the 1994 Philips Interactive Media/TripMedia dystopian surrealist cyberpunk video game Burn: Cycle.

Pål Sletaune was offered to direct the multiple BAFTA, Screen Actors Guild, and Academy Awards-winning American Beauty (1999) but declined because he didn’t think the script was good. At least he was in good company as David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, Mike Nichols, and Robert Zemeckis all had turned it down too. Perhaps it was healthy and wise of him to steer clear from the grinding wheel of the Hollywood machine. Many a director has been put through the ringer for the chance of directing a potential blockbuster but just as many end up as rapidly forgotten about roadside casualties in the pursuit of profit. Would American Beauty (1999) have launched Sletaune to potential international superstardom considering the cultural juggernaut it has become in the two decades since? Probably. In the decades since Sletaune has prospered on television and he seems content working on the small screen. He has no new theatrical projects on the horizon, as of this writing. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Sletaune is not the type for big budget event movies. He seems most comfortable with smaller more low key character-driven productions that Hollywood abhors.

Perhaps the comparisons to Lynch are a wee bit exaggerated. Sletaune does his best to make all four principal characters morally corrupted and multi-dimensional. However for the Lynch comparisons to work the symbolism is not nearly enigmatic and opaque enough. Sure, the characters could be culled straight from an early Polanski feature but Next Door never commits to them either way. Anybody with the least bit of cinematic literacy will be able to figure out the major plot twist long before the third-act revelation. Not that it’s telegraphed or anything, but it’s far too straightforward and obvious to call it Lynch-ian in any degree. Where with a Lynch feature the revelation puts the entire thing on its head the odds in Next Door never really change after the third-act reveal. The revelation was hinted upon throughout and the entire thing kind of collapses in on itself after that. The final revelation in and of itself is strong enough but ultimately doesn’t amount to anything. Next Door desperately wants to be important or shocking – and to some it might very well be. In fact, Next Door is a lot of things but Audition (2000) it certainly is not.