Every once in a while, I find a hidden gem of a horror film. Something with a low but meticulously managed budget. Something that prefers spooky lighting to buckets of blood. Something inventive, moody, and unsettling. Something that I can’t stop thinking about, even a week later.
The most recent movie to make me feel this way was 2013 Venezuelan psychological thriller/gothic horror film La Casa del Fin de Los Tiempos, or The House at the End of Time. Written and directed by Alejandro Hidalgo, this movie is old-school gothic horror, in the same vein as The Others (which is one of my favorites).
The film tells the story of Dulce (Ruddy Rodriquez), who is trapped in a strained, loveless marriage with Juan José (Gonzalo Cubero). Together they have two sons, Leopoldo and Rodrigo (played by Rosmel Bustamante and Hector Mercado, respectively). The near-destitute family has recently moved a shadowy mansion, which they could afford only because it is rumored to be haunted and the landlord was desperate to rent it. The house is oppressive and intimidating, built of dark corners and winding passageways. Its inhabitants are prone to go missing, as if the house itself has swallowed them whole. But those are just rumors, right?
Rumors or not, Dulce puts on a brave face for her family. She is determined to make the best of things and struggles to hold her family together. Despite her best efforts to raise her children, endure her husband’s drinking, and guard her own secrets, Dulce cannot prevent the tragic events of the terrible night that rips her family apart. Juan José is found murdered. Leopoldo is missing. Though she maintains her innocence, Dulce is convicted of murdering them both and locked away for good.
That is, until thirty years later, when she is granted compassionate release and forced to live out the remainder of her sentence in the same awful house. An elderly Dulce must then confront the truth about that night.
Spoiler-free review first, so I don’t ruin it for you: I compared this film to The Others, which is apt in terms of the atmosphere. The house is imposing and harsh, with cavernous rooms, tight hallways, and more locked doors than seems normal or necessary. The scenes are dark without being too dark. The camera work is excellent, creating a claustrophobic, tense feeling as it follows the characters through the house. However, the comparison ends there—while The House at the End of Time relies on many of the tropes of the haunted house/gothic horror subgenre, the film puts a very clever and unexpected twist on the story, which I won’t ruin. Seriously, the less you know, the better.
I really enjoyed the actors, who all nailed their roles. Ruddy Rodriquez carries the movie, gracefully and skillfully. Not even shoddy old-lady makeup stops her from acting the hell out of every scene. Gonzalo Cubero plays the role of struggling husband with sad stoicism, even if he is somewhat underutilized (barring one particular scene that had me shrinking into the couch with fear). The child actors are pretty good for child actors, expressing a range of childhood emotions and holding their own in the more tense scenes.
The actors owe much to the script, which was solid. I felt like more could have been done to develop some of the secondary characters, mostly Juan José, and some scenes probably could have been shortened, but all in all, the script’s strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. There is some blood, but it is used sparingly and in service of the slow burn, to focus on Dulce’s terror of the truth and her horror upon realizing what her part in the tragedy was. The script leads us through mounting tension until finally hitting us with the twist, which I loved.
I’m afraid to say anything else. Go watch it already.
But if you really want to know…
Or if you’ve seen it already, keep scrolling…
Seriously, SPOILER ALERT…
Some background first: one of my favorite parts of gothic horror is the setting. This is an essential part of gothic horror, of gothic literature in general, and is, arguably, the most important. The setting serves as a metaphor for the decaying world of the story and mirrors the mental and emotional state of the protagonist. Oftentimes, the setting serves as the conduit through which mournful ghosts and vengeful spirits exact their will.
Another important element is the inescapability of old sins. A huge component of gothic horror is how the characters can never escape the ghosts of the past, no matter how many apologies are made, no matter how unfair the retribution is, no matter if such punishment is warranted. The guilt passes from generation to generation. Children pay the price for their parents’ crimes.
So how inventive, how insightful is it to structure a gothic horror around a house that has the power and the volition to push people into various timelines, not solely into the past, but into the present and the future? The house catches Dulce in its time-jumping clutches, just as she is caught in the web of her guilt for past lies. She is stuck between what she has done, what she swears she hasn’t done, and what she hasn’t done yet.
First, she has lied and continues to lie to Juan José, about both her love for another man and the truth that Leopoldo is the son of this other man. She has always lied about this. We never know if she cheated on her husband or if she married him in order to secure legitimacy for Leopoldo. It doesn’t matter; especially because we know (as does Dulce) that Juan Jose wouldn’t care about the truth so much as he cared about the lie. Things are going as well as can be expected until a ghostly old woman (Dulce’s future self) warns Leopoldo of Juan José’s rage. Dulce cannot keep the lie afloat and Juan José nearly murders Leopoldo in a rage when he learns the truth. (By the way, I was on the edge of my seat for that scene. Juan José’s controlled fury and Leopoldo’s desperate pleading made my blood run cold.)
Second, when Dulce is released from prison and returns home, she tries in vain not to acknowledge her “alleged” crime despite constant confrontation. Her suffering is compounded because she honestly believes she would never have committed the murders, even in the face of overwhelming evidence against her. This Dulce didn’t do it. She had no control over the situation (or so she thinks) yet she alone bears the punishment. At this point in the timeline, she is innocent of those crimes.
On top of all that, “ghosts” begin to appear throughout the house, just as they used to do before the murders.
Dulce isn’t outrunning just her past transgressions—she’s unwittingly trying to avoid her future actions. And she fails to do so. The future, as embodied in the specter of elderly Leopoldo, haunts the house. In true gothic fashion, he finally makes himself known to the aged Dulce and commands her to save him by killing Juan José, thereby committing the horrendous deed and fulfilling the future created by the house.
Dulce is presented with an impossible choice—kill her husband before he butchers her son or let her son die. The choice seems easy and clearly she was acting to defend her child, but her guilt is all-consuming. The film does an excellent job of convincing us of the weight of her shame, which renders the moment of choice fraught with emotion for Dulce and the audience. We know she’s made the right choice when she lets the house transport her back in time to kill Juan José and close the loop, but it’s scary and sad to watch her carry out the grisly but necessary deed. Did she really deserve this? Do her lies and her misdeeds justly condemn her to murder and moral turmoil? It’s not fair, but it’s very, very gothic.
And yet, in a subversion of gothic tropes, her son does not have to pay the price for his mother’s actions. Dulce fulfills her role in both timelines and saves Leopoldo with her sacrifice. She accepts the sin and its consequence, isolating herself in years of anguish and grief. Leopoldo needs no redemption—she has redeemed herself.
I really enjoyed this film. I was not expecting to find a gothic horror movie to be depressing and uplifting at the same time. I was not expecting the film to reimagine and then subvert tried-and-true tropes. Weeks later, I’m still pondering the twists and turns of this movie. If you are a fan of gothic horror, or even if you want a pensive, well-made tale of transgression and sacrifice, go watch this movie. You won’t regret it.