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Guerrillas in the mist
A UK region 2 DVD review of THE SQUAD / EL PÁRAMO by Gort
 

To the horror fans out there, see if this rings any narrative bells.

When communication with a remote army outpost is lost, a small platoon of soldiers is sent to investigate. They find the slaughtered bodies of their comrades, a single half-mad survivor, and signs that supernatural forces may have been at work. Yep, it's the setup of Kong Su-chang's 2008 Korean war/horror crossover G.P. 506, or Guard Post as it was released here. Right, well it's also the setup of first-time director Jaime Osorio Marquez's 2011 Columbian war/horror crossover El páramo, or The Squad as it's been released here. A remake, then. Not exactly. A rip-off perhaps. Well, yes and no. It's hard to believe that both Guard Post and Kong's earlier cross-genre horror R-Point weren't at least an influence here. But tonally The Squad does initially go its own way with the central concept.

It's certainly not in as much of a hurry to get going as Guard Post, which kicked off with its doomed platoon making their way into the darkened halls of the title location. Taking his cue more from R-Point, Marquez instead spends the first ten minutes watching the soldiers apprehensively approach their destination. It's not hard to see why. As locations go, this is a belter, an isolated mountainside military encampment shrouded in fog and that feels for all the world like a previously undiscovered corner of Silent Hill. It's a deliciously ominous build-up that vividly captures the soldiers' apprehension as they edge closer to the camp and lie silently at the foot of the hill atop which it sits, not knowing what lies above and anxiously awaiting the order to advance.

It's here we get to know a few of the squad by their name and their defining quirk. A few have those unflattering nicknames that soldiers in movies seem to dish out to their comrades, including Indian (he's the ethnic outsider), Ponce (never did find how he got that one) and a black soldier called Negro. Hmm. In keeping with a whole string of platoon-in-a-fix war stories, the commanding officer is a newbie and lacks any real sense of authority. Thus when he orders the men to sit tight and wait for backup it's not long before Private Arango ignores him and belts up the hill regardless (he's got good reason, it later emerges). Private Chispas gives chase, but his attempt to call Arango back him goes tits up when he steps on a land mine, shattering his leg and the radio he's carrying. Oops. And before you ask, the Lieutenant has a mobile phone but can't get a signal, and for once I believed this was probably true. Frankly I'm surprised even radio waves were able to reach this place.

The gloomy and foreboding interior proves to be devoid of life, and a cautious search of the buildings reveals blood and dangling talismans that Indian assures his comrades are used to ward of evil. Indian is spooked, but the others mock his superstitions. So might we in real life, but in a horror movie he's the one person you should definitely listen to. It's also he who works out that the blackboard with warnings scribbled all over it is covering a false wall, behind which the boys find a bedraggled and almost feral woman who communicates primarily by snarling and biting.

From this point on it's a downhill ride for the entire squad, first signalled when Cortez assures a worried Ponce that nothing will hurt him and that he'll definitely get home to see his soon-to-be-born son, a kiss-of-death assurance if ever I heard one. As they individually self-destruct and/or turn on each other, much as the platoon in Kong's war/horror double did, it's strongly suggested that their behaviour is the result of rampant paranoia rather than the ghosts of past occupants, while the rapidity of the process suggests that despite outward appearances, these boys are wrapped a little too tight for tense situations. It's then just a matter of how and when it goes bad for each of the soldiers and concludes with a limp "boo!" that in the light of what has gone before is neither scary nor infused with any real sense of threat.

If you've been keeping tabs on Colombia's decades-long civil conflict then you may well pick up on the intended metaphorical aspect of the soldiers' self-destructive spiral, but if you've come to the film by way of the uneven pleasures of R-Point and Guard Post – both of which owed a sizeable debt to Michael J. Bassett's 2002 Deathwatch (which you should also have seen by now) – then you may well find yourself pestered by a nagging sense of déjà-vu. But The Squad is still worth seeing for its impressively and unsettlingly atmospheric build-up, the surprisingly low-key handling of sequences that convention dictates will be played at full volume, and a genuinely creepy second-half sequence in which the soldiers become individually isolated in thick fog and convincingly fall victim not to malevolent spirits, but their own environmentally triggered disorientation and paranoia.

sound and vision

From the look of the accompanying featurettes, The Squad was shot on HDV and the transfer was thus likely made from the digital master, bypassing film print stage and ensuring that there's not a dust spot to be seen. As is the way with just about every horror film from anywhere in recent years, the image has been partly desaturated to give it that cold, detached-from-the-real-world look, which actually works rather well here, thanks in no small part to Alejandro Moreno's hand-held scope camerawork. The contrast is well balanced, the black levels hold fast even when the light levels drop, and the transfer copes impressively with the scenes set in fog, a notorious minefield for compression artefacts.

The Original Spanish Dolby 5.1 surround is the only option here, and it's a solid if sometimes surprisingly low key affair. Always clear and with the sort of range you'd expect from any modern film worth its salt, it's Ruy Folguera's splendidly sinister minimalist score that makes best use of the full sound stage and the LFE bass. Elsewhere the surrounds are subtly (but effectively) employed for ambient sound and the occasional specific effect.

extra features

Making-of featurettes (20:03)
Four sequential pre-release featurettes that provide a whistle-stop tour of the making of the film. Pace is everything here, so what we get are sound-bite sized snippets but little real real context, which is a bit of a shame given that several of the issues touched on are interesting enough to make you wish we could have spent time exploring them. These include the physical problems of shooting at a de-oxygenated altitude of 14,000 feet in the cold and rain, working without a full script and improvising the dialogue, and securing permission to film at the real army post in which the film is set withdrawn only after they'd hauled everyone and everything halfway up a mountain.

Trailer (1:47)
An English language trailer that is once again devoid of dialogue to avoid scaring off the subtitle-phobic.

summary

Nothing in the breathless featurettes confirms whether director and co-writer Jaime Osorio Marquez has even seen R-Point, Guard Post or Deathwatch, but if not then he's sitting on a pretty beefy coincidence. But for the first half at least, The Squad comfortably holds its own before moving into more familiar 'guys go nuts and turn on each other' mode. A very decent transfer is supported by four featurettes that, while intermittently revealing, were designed primarily as teaser promos and are in too much of a hurry to enjoy to the full.

The Squad
El Páramo

Columbia / Argentina / Spain
104 mins
director
Jaime Osorio Marquez
producer
Federico Durán
screenplay
Jaime Osorio Marquez
Diego Vivanco
script consultant
Tania Cardenas
cinematography
Alejandro Moreno
editing
Felipe Guerrero
Sebastián Hernández
music
Ruy Folguera
art direction
Oscar Navarro
starring
Juan David Restrepo
Andrés Castañeda
Mauricio Navas
Mateo Stevel
Daniela Catz

disc details
region 2
video
2.24:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
Spanish
subtitles
English
extras
4 making-of featurettes
Trailer
distributor
Momentum
release date
18 June 2012
review posted
27 May 2012

See all of Gort's reviews