Earlier this week, I went to Cineworld to see the Mexican horror movie, Kilómetro 31, with Nick. This was the third time we have been in the ‘De Luxe’ screen with the reclining seats as the only patrons. The previous occasions were also for subtitled films (the first Grudge film and Denys Arcand’s Oscar winner, The Barbararian Invasions). Each of these three films represented a chance taken by a distributor in opening subtitled prints in a multiplex. All clearly failed in Bradford (although to be fair, it was the early evening show). What to make of this? I checked the UK Film Council’s box office chart at the end of the week and Kilómetro 31 recorded one of the lowest screen averages of any film on a release of more than a few prints in my memory — an average of £187 for 27 prints giving a weekly box office of not much more than £5,ooo. That’s a pretty poor return for Yume Pictures who must have spent £25,000 getting the prints out. Unfortunately there was little if any promotion and only limited support from the specialised press. Yume have done some good work in getting cult films out there, but they boobed this time.
One question is whether the film would have done better showing a few weeks later at the National Media Museum — i.e. on a ‘specialised screen’. It might, but I also remember that The Host struggled last year at this time in both multiplexes and on specialised screens. Like The Host, Kilómetro 31 is not a ‘specialised’ film. It’s a popular genre movie that in its domestic market did sensational business and ended up as one of Mexico’s top box office films of recent years with 3.6 million admissions. The real problem is that UK audiences are not prepared to go for subtitled popular films. The arthouse audience seems to think that such films will be trashy and offensive and the popular audience perhaps thinks that they can’t enjoy a film with subtitles. This last doesn’t seem to be the case with the subtitled films I have shown to large student groups.
But is it any good you ask? We both thought that there were problems of pacing and plotting, but that overall it worked well and would certainly be worth showing to a student audience. For slightly older audiences (i.e. early 20s) it may be that the film suffers from coming at the tail end of the Ring Cycle and its American remakes. The ingredients are all familiar in the watery environments, young women with long black hair and a ghost child straight of The Grudge. Younger audiences might find these elements slightly less familiar. Of course, these generic tropes make the film much easier for critics to dismiss — stand up Xan Brooks in the Grauniad with a fairly sloppy mini-review. Once again, the venerable Philip French in the Observer shows a more measured approach, recognising what Kilómetro 31 actually is and granting that it does its job pretty well.
The story is based on a ‘local myth’ which is a familiar narrative in other horror movies. In this case it is La Llorona or the ‘Crying Woman’ who appears to motorists on the highway and who in her way is just as dangerous as the mad hitchhiker of urban myths (or indeed as the old women who seduce and murder passing samurai in Japanese horror). Director Rigoberto Castañeda has claimed that the script took a long time to develop and that he was not directly influenced by The Grudge which appeared during the shoot. Hmm, perhaps! But The Ring was certainly out earlier. Does it matter? Not really, what is interesting is how the familiar elements are used and what they mean in a Mexican setting.
One interesting link is to Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también in which the three central characters — from Mexico City — tour rural areas and Cuarón uses a voiceover to tell the audience something about the lives of the people by the roadside and how they have been overlooked, oppressed by the urban ‘neo-colonialists’. The four central characters here are urban motorists driving through a suburb where, at the time of colonisation, an Indian mother lost her child because of maltreatment by the Spanish (or as the subtitles intriguingly put it ‘a Spaniard man’). Like Y tu mamá también, Kilómetro 31 has a Spanish character as one of the protagonists. The film is a Mexican-Spanish co-production, but the inclusion of the Spanish character is also an important narrative element.
A second link is to other US horror narratives such as the Poltergeist films, in which a modern town/suburb is built over traditional burial grounds, allowing both a thematic of colonialism/materialism and the narrative promise of the ‘return’ of a ghost, who cannot sleep until injustice has been put right. This focus on the ‘phantasm’ is something which Guillermo del Toro has spoken about at length, especially in relation to his ghost creation in The Devil’s Backbone. I wonder what del Toro thinks of Kilómetro 31? The Mexican reviewers have generally claimed that Kilometro 31 is a ‘return’ for Mexican horror after a 20 year absence. They tend not to count del Toro’s Cronos (which I would certainly call horror), so I’m not sure what was the last Mexican horror film to be seen outside the country.
Finally, it’s worth saying that the film looks good in ‘Scope with a familiar (from The Ring) blue-green palette. Perhaps the most striking visual aspect is the director’s penchant for extreme close-ups. One kiss in particular sees two noses in profile edging towards each other from either side of the ‘Scope screen. Very disturbing!