There is military horror, there are witch movies, and in this film, the genres shall meet. Thanks to HBO for broadcasting El Páramo, which I found fairly meaningful, in light of the awful conflicts that continue to ravage some Andean nations.
El Páramo (The Squad) (2011)
Director: Jaime Osorio Marquez
Writer: Jaime Osorio Marquez, Tania Cardenas
Notable Cast: Juan David Restrepo, Andrés Castañeda, Mauricio Navas, Mateo Stevel, Daniela Catz, Nelson Camayo, Andres Torres, Juan Pablo Barragan, Julio César Valencia, Alejandro Aguilar
Plot: The film was released in Colombia on 7 October 2011 and follows a squad of soldiers that are sent to investigate a mountain military base. After a secret military base ceases all communications, an anti-guerrilla commando unit is sent to the mountainous location to discover what exactly happened. The squad expects to discover that the base was attacked and taken over by guerrilla units, but instead find only a lone woman (Daniela Catz) wrapped in chains. (source: Wikipedia)
Commentary: There are days that I think nearly any horror movie could fall under camp – but this isn’t one of them. It’s stark, low lit, tense and as tenebrous as the Andean countryside where it is set.
As I mentioned, the plot falls into the spectrum of military horror: Aliens, Dog Soldiers, Predator… Apocalypse Now? Typically these stories involve a ragtag group picked off one by one by a very physical and monstrous menace, with protagonists showing off their military prowess and firepower. El Páramo takes a different approach. Its menace may or may not be mystical, and the resulting death and chaos comes from within the minds of the soldiers, overwhelmed with paranoia and stress.
The “lone woman” imprisoned at the military base is identified as a witch, based on journals written by the prior soldiers and on occult-looking drawings and objects found all over the area. The feral woman barely utters a word, as her tongue was cut off. Where some of the squad call her a bruja, others call her a ‘guerilla bitch.’ Regardless, without much effort, either her mere presence or her witchcraft cause these men to face extreme guilt, extreme fear, and let their worst, basest instincts come to the fore and take over.
These soldiers are not brothers. Maybe two of them have some sort of friendship bond, but for the most part, the commanding officers demean and demoralize the members. There are racial disparities. There’s no romance or glamor in this war.
I would say this film functions like The Blair Witch Project, but wisely eschewing the found footage format.
What We’re Afraid Of: Rather than just a simple ‘the horrors of war’, or witchcraft and black magic, the plot of El Páramo specifically references the brutal and complicated conflicts that continue to take their toll on Latin American countries. Some of the main characters recognize immediately that the witch was tortured and then begin recalling their own involvement in facing down guerilla movements. What stood out to me was how quickly they recognized and condemned the torture, how rapidly they started calling out their colleagues for ‘more of the same.’ They were weary of these endless wars and their cruelty and the lack of human rights.
It’s for this reason that I think El Páramo is very noteworthy.