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El Sanatorio
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by Jay Seaver

"In Costa Rica, the ghosts show up on camera."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Here's how this goes: I tell you that "El Sanatorio" is a first-person horror movie about a group of young filmmakers who take their cameras inside a haunted building, you groan "what, ANOTHER?" At this point, I'm expected to say "but this one's different!" And maybe it is; it's Costa Rica's first entry into the horror genre and manages to inject a fair amount of humor into the proceedings. Mostly, though, it's just good.

The haunted building is El Sanatorio Duran, built in 1919 for TB patients, but since used as a prison and an orphanage. Legends have it that the ghosts of orphans and a raped nun haunt the place, among others (it depends on who you ask). The filmmakers are director Luis (Luis Bogartes) and journalist Arturo (Pablo Masis). They recruit a motley crew of others - medium Lulu (Marisa Luisa Garita); techs Papillo (Kabek Gutierrez) and Gaston (Abelardo Vladich); megalomaniac producer Esteban (Olger Gonzalez); musician - and skeptic/atheist! - Kurt (Kurt Dyer); and Mariana (Maria Elena Oreamuno), the researcher that Arturo would like to get closer to. They spend some time learning the lore of the place, but before long, they're in.

That's when the scares start, but not the good times. From the very first scene, cast and crew seem to be having fun with the idea that the characters don't take this activity all that seriously. They snicker during interviews. Luis and Arturo get distracted by the old Nintendo system they find when looking for a tape deck with which to play back the cassettes from an earlier investigation. Arturo is clearly more worried about his crush on Mariana than anything else. Co-writer/director Miguel Alejandro Gomez isn't quite making a comedy, but the high joke density makes what could be the expositional slog portion of the movie entertaining on its own.

The energy continues once the haunted house section of the movie starts. This is not the sort of found-footage horror movie where a bunch of relatively banal conversations and endless wandering is briefly interrupted by some small, creepy thing - once stuff starts going down, it continues going down without any sort of ambiguity about what's happening. The effects are mostly practical, with people getting thrown and dragged around fairly roughly, and the manifestations are generally clever. The filmmakers are also quite aware of how absurd the guy carrying the camera at shoulder level while running for one's life can be, tweaking it a little.

The cast isn't bad either. A lot of them are working somewhat basically - Kyle and Lulu are meant to be bickering but sort of wind up repeating talking points, while others like Esteban are easy (if funny) stereotypes. The core group - Bogantes, Masis, and Oreamuno - is pretty entertaining, though, during both phases of the film.

It's played big and broad, but playing a first-person haunted house movie that way turns out to be a lot of fun. For a short (72 minutes) movie from Costa Rica, "El Sanatorio" winds up doing as well as (or even better than) many of its big brothers.

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originally posted: 07/24/11 22:44:27
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2011 series, click here.

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