“The Wasteland” or “The Beast (El páramo)” as it was originally-titled, is a Spanish period piece that inverts that classic horror trope of a mother doing anything to save her child from “evil.”
In a remote corner of 19th century Spain, doted-on-Diego (Asier Flores) eventually figures out that his mother (Inma Cuesta) is the one in real peril from this “Babadook” like “beast.”
The debut feature of direct/co-writer David Casademunt has an arresting, minimalist setting, a nerve-rattling moment or two and some decent performances. But it’s a slow slog of a thriller, playing much longer than its actual 93 minute running time.
A family of three is riding-out Spain’s troubled, war-wracked 19th century in a farm in a near-literal wasteland. The backlit trees are dead, their cabbage and corn are wilted and Salvador (Roberto Álamo) can barely keep them alive with the rabbits he raises.
It doesn’t help that little Diego is in the habit of treating them as pets. Dad’s “He needs to learn to be a man” (in Spanish, or dubbed into English) demands, handing the boy a bunny-bashing club, only send the kid running to the comfort of his mother.
Mother and child play games, share a bed and even baths. She tells Diego stories, some of them scary.
But when a bloodied, wounded stranger washes ashore in a boat on the edges of their land, and then kills himself in front of mother and child, Salvador tells his own story. It’s about “the beast.”
“No eyes fill the sockets of its face,” but it “still sees through you,” he warns. It’s another tale told to keep the kid in line, because “There are only bad people out there, people who hurt other people” beyond their land.
So what does Salvador do? He impulsively decides to take the body to “his family,” as if he knows them, as if leaving his own wife and son alone isn’t the worst idea anybody in any horror movie ever had.
That leaves mother and son to deal with the spooky sounds in the wind, Diego’s visions of Dad’s long-dead “beast” victim sister (Alejandra Howard) and Mom’s growing paranoia, firing the family shotgun into the darkness, or at nothing Diego can see in the broad daylight.
The kid’s jobs? Distract her. Reel her back into reality. Follow her instructions for fighting the beast, and learn how to bludgeon bunnies.
The bunny-bashing is one of several unpleasant things Casademunt flings at us. We see crude, spooky homemade dolls, and images of rotting fruit and animal carcasses decorate the setting as Mom despairs of her husband ever returning and Diego starts to figure out Mom’s what this beast wants next.
The slow pacing and elementary mistakes about how to frame, light, film and edit horror to make it shock and awe render this otherwise good-looking, stark and elemental thriller too bland to pay off.
Rating: TV-MA, graphic violence, suicide
Cast: Inma Cuesta, Asier Flores, Roberto Álamo and Alejandra Howard
Credits: Directed by David Casademunt, scripted by David Casademunt, Martí Lucas and Fran Menchón. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:33