This high-concept curse chronicle manages to be both macabre and moving as it explores the repugnance of murder exploitation in Mexico and the hell-on-earth horror of Locked-in syndrome.
Ambulance chasing press photographer Santiago has dreams of his ghoulish work being exhibited in galleries rather than plastered on the front pages of Nota Roja (Red note) newspapers. However, his morally dubious methods of bribing the police and breaking into crime scenes attract the attention of a powerful and evil adversary.
As Santiago begins to quite literally take leave of his senses he becomes swept up in a frantic race against time to prevent himself from slipping into a witchcraft-induced pseudocoma. He must face dark forces and make ethically obscene choices if he is to ward off the spectre of lifelong darkness.
Dripping with foreboding atmospherics and disturbing imagery Disappear Completely builds plausible character dynamics and drops them into a cunning narrative of self-preservation versus malicious hex-hurling.
Santiago is not a very likable hero. Merciless in his pursuit for artistic notoriety he gives scant thought to the distress that may be caused by his lurid, often semi-staged, photographs of the aftermath of tragedy. Admittedly, he is resourceful and intrepid but his sensationalist exposures are for personal gain when they could be repurposed to incite positive change in his beleaguered country.
The Red note publications, whose salivating jaws Santiago slings the raw meat of death and suffering into, are a real bone of contention in Mexico. All papers must carry some element of them if they are to even secure a market presence at all, such is their mesmeric hold on the population.
Ethically it is clear why many find them distasteful and the genre has been lambasted for exacerbating the exact problems they purport to reflect. Given the devastating sting of karmic retribution dealt to its central character the makers of Disappear Completely appear to be echoing this disdainful criticism.
Although technically illegal in Mexico, witchcraft plunges its wizened talons deep into its society, transcending class divides and infiltrating institutional hierarchy. The filmmakers are more than savvy about this phenomenon and once again, appear to be posting a warning of possible consequences.
As Santiago’s major senses begin to degrade and vanish he mounts a frenzied quest to restore them. The places and people he encounters on his descent into the supernatural carry a tangible air of authenticity and creepy credibility. This almost casual, yet pinpoint, deployment of supernatural paraphernalia and the rituals surrounding it appears to be staking a claim in the realms of realist cinema.
Accurate or not, it empowers the film enough for it to be a contender for the most organically developed and genuinely disturbing glimpse behind the curtains of endemic sorcery since The Wailing.
Complementing this is José Miguel Enríquez Rivaud‘s subtle and evocative sound design mixed beautifully by Jaime Baksht and Michelle Couttolenc. It is no coincidence that this pair also worked together on the stupendous Sound of Metal and indeed became Oscar winners in the process.
Here their talents are harnessed in conjunction with some truly brave cinematography to unleash a climax of immense power steeped in gloriously simplistic originality. You won’t have seen anything quite like it before and you will wonder why.
Although the film never references it directly, the loss of smell and taste, the first of Santiago’s foundation senses to wither, draws clear parallels with COVID. The fact the movie does not feel the urge to over-signpost its themes is typical of the intelligence it assumes of the audience.
In terms of horror movie mechanics, the film doesn’t lurch for the jugular. Rather it builds layers of tension and dread in juxtaposition to the protagonists slowly ebbing faculties. Having said that, there is plenty of witchy weirdness and occult oddities to chill the blood like toads sewn up with hoodoo stuffing and drug and drum-driven purification ceremonies. Neither is the film above some effective and well-earned jump scares to further appease the more traditional fear fans.
The predicament of Santiago may seem like the surface focus of Disappear Completely, but you get the definite feeling that he is just a hapless vessel used to channel the plight of ordinary Mexicans who face the fallout from superstitious fearmongering, corruption, and vicious street violence every day. And just like him, they don’t help themselves by investing in a cruel and counter-productive media circus.
Disappear Completely constitutes a unique vision of elitist devil dealing and the morbid fascination with death that frequently permeates life. Carefully crafted and impeccably acted, it possesses a spine of creative spirit that places it among the most innovative genre releases of the year.
Supernatural Horror Thriller | Mexico, 2022 | 103 mins | Moonlight Pictures | Dir. Luis Javier Henaine | With: Harold Torres, Tete Espinoza, Vicky Araico