I absolutely loved it! For me, among my favourite films of the festival so far: maybe the
*** MASSIVE SPOILERS UP THE MOUNTAINSIDE AHEAD: ALL THE WAY TO THE END! SO READ NO FURTHER IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW MORE! ***
A group of sporty best friends split up following the death of one of their mountain bike team, but they are soon persuaded to regroup in Chile for even more competitive downhill action. When the Lycra-clad group, out riding across the mountainous and rugged terrain, discover an injured man involved in a collision - they put a rescue plan into operation. But the injured man's face is also covered in strange blisters. And he is being stalked by a local crime kingpin and his pals: could the man be part of some kind of drug-dealing setup? The young bikers soon discover that it's not drugs these people are dealing in: it's something much less human.
The Chilean location was spectacular; those waterfalls and mountainsides and the eeriness of an abandoned, concrete construction ski lift-framed resort in the middle of rampant overgrown natural landscape really made for an unsettling and lovely backdrop to increasingly depraved and bloody horrors; a set-up stuffed with creature FX and littered with gunshot wounds. The mix of fantastical, demonic and criminal was a mash-up made in some kind of happier Hell than the one we enter in the film's heartless, hard-hitting and deeply creepy finale.
And the sense of unease and threat from the lurking locals was seething and relentless; the gunshots loud enough to blast your eardrums out.
The film deliriously crossed local evil cult barons and a bloodthirsty she-devil with roughed-up intimidation and menace with a sci-fi slant of an unexplained virus lurking - possibly - in the river and a demonic, progressively building evil cult that exists and thrives in everyday homes (the number on the door was a neat touch: normality above chaos; like Hell below ground) but exists mainly underground; in carved-out caves. The sacrifice scene at the end of the film was intense and a good contrast with the chase thriller above ground in the glare of cold sunlight of the first half. Facial pus, blisters, transformation and mutation (don't drink from the lake) were suitably disgustingly realised: the addition of body-dwelling creatures; waste products almost; as part of the cult's evil rituals - was a blast. The soundtrack was also pulsing and angry and the final song over the credits was deliciously beautiful (the director likes to contrast the brash with the occasionally wistful and melancholic to destabilise the senses).
I thought the finale was a riot. The cellar orgy unexpected and icky. The escape from the sacrifice and vengeful strength of the lead (female, by the way) pure kick-ass punch and ice-eyed cool. The blistering lightshow of an ending was a trademark playfulness that few horror directors get to show off. Chilean director Patricio Valladares has admitted he isn't too happy making films not in his own language and wants to get back to home grown cinema (although this may not be possible due to commercial demands). The London-based screenwriter Barry Keating told us on stage at the Q&A that director Valladares likes to cut out chunks of dialogue wherever he can, which reminded me of Dario Argento's preference for visuals over script. And I thought the goats in their demonic cameo at the end of the movie rocked the shack!
As for the accusation that Valladares doesn't have decent female characters in his films, or treats them as less important to the 'more aggressive' supposedly male characters: the clear lead in DOWNHILL was a woman (eventually with a shotgun) who made her male companions look fairly pathetic and the gangsters too at some risk of having their heads blown off. Male characters in this director's movies may have ideas of power and greatness, but without realising that it's on a small scale and always localised; and they don't last long. In fact, the film's two main characters were women: one demonic and the other human. Men were seen mainly as sex pests or thugs and extensions of their own big guns (which they rarely aimed at anyone very well; except for the biggest shock moment of all, mid-point in the woods, where the unexpected blast of gunfire is bum-off-seat raising).
This is punk mentality filmmaking: hardcore horror cinema on a fairly low budget. DOWNHILL was filmed in two weeks, and with a big dollop of spite, attitude, blood and guts. Nathalie Burn as lead Stephanie performed all her own stunts and gritted down teeth with vigour in the film's delirious final showdown. Ignacia Allamand as Magdalena was less feisty but more devious (cheating with her best friend's boyfriend and telling him, when he had doubts mid-intercourse, that: "It's only sex", was hilarious). Both female leads oozed charisma and grit. The male leads deserved all they got: and boy did they get it!
DOWNHILL was a real blast to the brain and the final flashing montage of light and noise - a shotgun of assault on the senses - is really just a screw you to doubters (at the Hidden in the Woods screening at FrightFest a few years back, the director just found the criticism - amid, it has to be said, also quite a lot of rabid praise - all part of the fun). Yes, Valladares probably does need to return to making films in his own language and ditch the co-productions he now works within to truly showcase his raw ability, but DOWNHILL is a risky and daring ride for those new to the director's work: blistering, brutal and bloody good fun!
[As a bonus treat, at the early morning screening I went to, the film ended and Patricio Valladares was introduced, but: no director in sight - or any crew or cast! They were all missing somewhere down the red corridors of doom at VUE for up to 5 minutes; probably even longer in fact. Alan Jones bravely ad-libbed until the guests were eventually found; just at the point our 'beyond the call' host seemed about to give up: "Ok," he said, "this is getting boring now!" In walked Valladares, screenwriter Barry Keating and star Natalie Burn, possibly a little subdued at first: out of breath? I heard VUE organisers apologising to Valladares in the corridor on the way out for the "mix-up" and Alan Jones making the joke: "It's all downhill from here!" He apologised for the joke before saying it though, to his credit... ]
OK, off to Monday FrightFest now to watch brutal bank holiday murder in a lovely windmill and other delights ...
Mark Gordon Palmer
// Seat at the Back - Cinema Magazine //