I had not heard of filmmaker Issa López until she was a guest on two of my favorite movie podcasts, “The Movies That Made Me” and Fangoria’s “Post Mortem,” to promote the DVD release of her first horror film, “Tigers Are Not Afraid” (2017, Filmadora Nacional-Peligrosa, 83 min.) The flick sounded intriguing, so I picked it up and watched it.
Working with an ensemble cast of children with little acting experience, López has crafted a gritty, handheld documentary-style street film that might be too tough and heart-wrenching to watch were it not for the touches of magical realism that run throughout.
“Tigers Are Not Afraid” is about Estrella (Paola Lara), a young girl living in a city devastated by the Mexican drug wars. Just as a teacher gifts her with three pieces of magic chalk that will grant her three wishes, school is indefinitely suspended. She comes home to find her mother missing, and takes refuge with a gang of street orphans squatting in an industrial warehouse; one of the orphan boys has stolen a gun and iphone from the local crime boss’s top henchman.
This cinematic tale is an odd but effective blend of squalor and magic: when Estrella comes home to an empty apartment, a trail of blood like a red cord follows her, a cool surreal touch very reminiscent of Guillermo del Toro.
The film works, yes, but my DVD copy didn’t have a Spanish version of the film with subtitles, which I would have preferred, just a version with teenagers dubbing the voices of the much younger kids in the film. There’s a 45-minute behind the scenes documentary showing the filming of the cast using their actual voices that, even on DVD video, has a power that the dubbed soundtrack does not. The “teen” soundtrack really does harm the film’s potential, so while I’m recommending “Tigers Are Not Afraid,” try to find a version with the original soundtrack.
“Gretel & Hansel” (2020, Orion-United Artists Releasing, 87 min.) brings a fresh gender take, eerie ambiance and enough story twists to justify yet another version of the Brothers Grimm folk tale. As the title tells, this time the balance shifts towards Gretel (Sophia Lillis, “It Chapter One and Two”), orphaned with her brother Hansel (Sam Leakey). Working from a script by Rob Hayes, director Oz Perkins—son of Anthony Perkins—establishes a grey, forbidding fairytale world that Gretel must make her way through.
Perkins is not a fan of coverage and editing, preferring to let his camera follow characters through an environment in long moving masters without cutting, and there are shots of Lillis wandering through the witch’s cottage that are very reminiscent stylistically of Roger Corman’s 1960’s cycle of Edgar Allan Poe films. And let it be said that Alice Krige as the witch is every bit as creepy and disturbing as her turn as the Borg Queen in “Star Trek First Contact” in 1996.
Also recommended: “Patton Oswalt: I Love Everything,” “Taylor Tomlinson: Quarter-Life Crisis,” “Marc Maron: End Times Fun,” “Have a Nice Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics” and “Bojack Horseman” on Netflix.