“Fever Dream” is a vaguely unsettling horror parable about the ties of motherhood, tragedy and the environmental legacy we’re leaving our children.
Peruvian-born writer-director Claudia Llosa, adapting Samantha Schweblin’s novel, masters the messaging and mournful tone. But the movie never delivers the chills it might have and and her latest — she did the similarly moody and subtle “Maidenusa” and “Aloft” — never rises above “vaguely unsettling.”
A mother, Amanda (Spanish actress María Valverde of Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings”) seems to be on a psychotherapist’s couch for most of the movie. We hear her, in voice-over, quietly interrogated, remembering the days when she and her little girl Nina first came to this corner of Chile for the summer.
“Details, details,” and “that’s not important” another gentle admonishments from the person doing the questioning. He’s a little boy, perhaps in his tweens. And he’s insistent. He could be the villain, the hero or the victim in this story. So he sees something at stake.
“David” is mostly glimpsed, and then rarely, as his tattooed, chain-smoking mother, Carola (Dolores Fonzi) tells the new neighbor of “the worst day of my life,” the night that her horse-breeding husband’s prized stallion collapsed and her little boy David (played by Emilio Vodanovich and Marcelo Michinaux at different ages) took ill.
Amanda has confused notions of “worms” in her mind, of being paralyzed and dragged somewhere, powerless to alter her fate.
And as her endless narration goes on, we hear how David’s story tied into hers and Ninas, how David’s illness and Carola’s desperate trip to “The Green House” to see someone who is more conjure-woman than doctor didn’t so much seal all their fates as provide the form of the parable we see play out.
Llosa works with dreamy extreme close-ups, characters glimpsed through nature or in it, with furtive phone arguments (Amanda’s husband hasn’t left the city for the country house they’ve rented) and nightmares. She serves up warning after warning from Carola, who can’t stop talking even after she’s said (in Spanish, with English subtitles, or dubbed), “If I tell you, you won’t let him play with Nina,”
Llosa seeks to cast a spell with this story of “the invisible thread” that ties a mother to her child, a thread that wraps her in guilt when things go wrong. But while I admire the picture’s funereal tone, Llosa’s rare attempts at cheap shocks spoil the larger jolt, the one that would make the viewer recoil as we figure out the too-thinly-hidden Bigger Message here.
Fonzi and Valverde are intriguing, but neither gives us much to grab hold of with their characters — who might be crazy, who might have ulterior movies, who might be leery of buying into what she’s told or what she’s figuring out for herself.
The movie’s tedious overuse of voice-over cripples it, a device best left to the printed page of a novel. The constant questions-and-answers do nothing to reveal what we don’t see and hear play out on the screen. Even in the most literary of screen adaptations, voice-over is best used sparingly.
Because at some point, somebody’s got to scare somebody else. The droning on and on, more mesmerizing than urgent or creep — “Am I going to die, David?” — sucks the urgency right out of “Fever Dream.”
The little we see of David at his most troubled and alarming (young Vodanovich looks like Emile Hirsch or River Phoenix at that age) isn’t enough to get us past “vaguely unsettling.”
Rating: R, for brief sexuality and nudity
Cast: María Valverde, Dolores Fonzi, Emilio Vodanovich, Marcelo Michinaux, Germán Palacios, Guillermo Pfening
Credits: Scripted and directed by Claudia Llosa, based on a novel by Samanta Schweblin. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:33