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Bad Blood
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by Jay Seaver

"Do one thing and stick to it, or wind up like this."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: There's nothing particularly wrong with either story Portugal's "Coisa Ruim" ("Bad Blood" in English). There's material for an interesting family drama, and there's decent material for a ghost story, and a connection between the two. It doesn't come together, though - the supernatural is a constant distraction from the more conventional story, but it's not big enough to really make for a notable horror story.

As the film opens, the Monteiro family is preparing to move from their home in Lisbon to the country house that father Xavier (Adriano Luz) has recently inherited from a great-uncle. No other member of his family is nearly as enthused, though his wife Helena (Manuela Couto) supports him in front of their three children - young single mother Sofia (Sara Carinhas), elementary-schooler Ricardo (Joćo Santos), and Rui (José Afonso Pimentel), a college student who is the most overtly hostile. What they don't initially realize is just how superstitious the local residents are - Father Vicente (José Pinto) regularly performs exorcisms, and they soon make the acquaintance of a self-described medium, along with the young new parish priest, Father Cruz (Joćo Pedro Vaz). There's something creepy about their new home, and it soon begins encroaching on their already contentious relationships.

I probably annoy my theater-major brother by describing a lot of productions he acts in as "yelling plays", by which I mean stories about families who seem to spend so much time shouting at each other that it's hard to spot the actual affection they must feel. They're gritty, real actors' showpieces that the audience can usually relate to and they bore the hell out of me. Coisa Ruim is a yelling play put on film with a ghost story grafted onto the edges which serves as much as an excuse to enter into intellectual reason-versus-faith debates as to actually intrigue us. It's a terribly frustrating way to tell a ghost story, for as much as I agree that it is important for a tale of the supernatural to be populated by complex, interesting characters, focusing too much on characterization takes away from what is unique about the film. I've seen men of faith and men of science challenge each other (with the end result almost always annoying me because the existence of ghosts or other paranormal activities tends to give the men of faith the last word), and it's seldom as interesting as the writers seem to think it is. And I've got no trouble with yelling plays per se, but when you stick them into a ghost story, the presence of some extraordinary element highlights just how petty the arguments are.

Unfortunately, we don't learn much about the supernatural goings-on until late in the game, and it's difficult to see much of a pattern to the hauntings, and, indeed, few seem terribly malicious or dangerous. Ricardo gets scared early and becomes steadily more so, but we've got very little reason why - we see some ghost kids, but they don't seem particularly threatening. Heck, considering that we don't ever see many other children in this small town, one would almost expect them to become his new playmates. Indeed, that's another hole in the movie - the move to the country is supposed to be the engine which drives the tension, but we never get a whole lot of idea what the family's life is like there. Xavier works with a couple locals at something that is vaguely described as scientific research. We really don't know these people very well, in terms of anything specific. Things like the story behind a grown woman like Sofia living at home with her baby's father out of the picture which could really define a lot of relationships are left unsaid until very late in the game.

What we do learn does lead to one very tense scene, where Rui judgmentally lights into Sofia even though they've apparently been established as close. It's one of the best moments of the film, as we're not sure whether this is him being possessed, or influenced, or just expanding his tendencies to be a surly kid beyond the usual targets of his parents. That moment where you're not sure whether this is an example of a yelling play or a ghost story is delicious, and well-acted by both Pimentel and Carinhas. They and Joćo Santos almost benefit from playing almost-peripheral characters; they get to build personalities with their performances without having to stumble over the boring intellectual debates and unproductive arguments that writer Rodrigo Guedes de Carvalho loads the screenplay up with. Luz, Couto, and Vaz aren't nearly so lucky. Their scenes can be tough, talky slogs to get through; only the marital arguments between Xavier and Helena seem to hold much interest.

I'm not sure who is responsible for the disappointing ending. The cast does well, but someone - I'm not sure whether it's the writer or directors Tiago Guedes and Frederico Serra who wind up making the two big events at the end seem almost completely disconnected. The ending really doesn't feel like a cap of what had come before, but just something else that happened. It's random, and presented in a way that makes it seem like there's two completely separate ghost stories going on, and neither's getting much of a chance to establish itself.

It's a shame. I like the performances, for the most part, and the setting is effectively used. But the script just won't let it be a horror movie, and won't do away with the supernatural elements in order to focus on the family drama.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=14752&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/24/06 10:10:15
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Fantasia Film Festival For more in the 2006 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  N/A (NR)
  DVD: 28-Aug-2007

UK
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