With Halloween right around the corner, many are searching for hidden gems to get their fix of frights for the spooky season. Scares come in many different packages, but there is one resource that is close to omnipresent across all horror, one that has been overused and cheapened to a point where it’s more of a crutch than a crown jewel of the genre: The jump scare. Although the jump scare is generally considered a tactless resource whose overuse is found mainly in lower quality horror films, there is an underrated beast of a horror flick that nails the art of scaring and startling, and shows us how haunting a jump scare can be if done right: Demián Rugna‘s brutal and unforgiving 2017 horror film Terrified.
Rugna has yet to fully break into the industry outside his home country of Argentina, but this may soon change, as his new film When Evil Lurks, which just released in select theaters, has been met with critical acclaim on this year’s various festival circuits. Fans of that film may want to check out Terrified, which is available on Shudder or for rent via Amazon Prime, and “enjoy” the film’s masterfully executed brutality, hopelessness, and, of course, its carefully constructed jump scares.
Terrified is an Argentine independent horror film of the poltergeist variety, centered around an increasingly violent haunting that plagues a middle-class neighborhood, as well as the police and paranormal investigations attempting to find out what the hell is happening. The setup is tried and true, but Terrified succeeds at putting various unique spins on what you may have come to expect from the genre through the power of extremes, masterful execution, and meticulous pacing.
For one, the haunting is notably more extreme, aggressive, and mean-spirited than your average poltergeist, showing a strong thirst for murderous violence during the film’s harrowing opening sequence (which we won’t spoil here). It also shows its power by spreading itself throughout an entire busy area of homes and families instead of sticking to the average rickety old mansion in the middle of nowhere. After the opening scene firmly establishes the nefarious power of the entity, we are then introduced to the various neighbors and police officers of the neighborhood in which the film takes place. It’s at this point that the brutality of the demonic presence is contrasted with a strong sense of kitchen-sink realism, built upon a foundation of grounded, human-feeling characters with believable behavior and reactions to the traumatic events surrounding them.
From this point forward, the film is very efficient with its time, as it wastes no opportunity to develop its central cast of characters within the few well-paced minutes of downtime that precede the horrors inevitably returning. Before the locals (or the audience) has even grasped the severity of the situation, more harrowing tragedy strikes this small cul-de-sac. After that, the immersive character development of the various neighbors and police officers gives way to a sinister occult undertone that gradually becomes more Lovecraftian as the film develops, pulling the rug out from under the viewer and truly getting under their skin. This skin-crawling, grimy feeling the film gives is further amplified by how unforgiving it is. Without spoiling anything, it’s safe to say that Terrified is willing to kill and then subsequently defile any single character at any time without hesitation, regardless of who that character is (or how old they are).
The first and second acts establish a lot of questions: Is it really a haunting that’s affecting this neighborhood? Is it the consequences of the possession of a young boy after his death? Or is it something bigger than that? Something cosmic? Enter the group of police investigators specializing in paranormal phenomena to try and answer those questions. Despite going to some insane heights of spectacle once the paranormal investigators arrive, the film never loses that believable, immersive essence established in the first act.
Finally, once all the spooks have hit the fan for these unfortunate souls, the film draws to an ambiguous but satisfying conclusion, where the nature of the entity is somewhat explained — just enough to make sense of some of its more unique behaviors, but not enough to truly understand what the entity was, what its motives were, and thus, maintaining the audience’s fear of the unknown intact long after the credits have rolled. From the uniquely vicious threat of the film to the well-realized characters, Terrified successfully sells itself as far more than what its initial cliché plot would have us believe it is.
It’s commonly said that the jump scare is the horror equivalent of a comedian tickling his audience to make them laugh. Both jump scares and tickles recur to a basic biological reaction to achieve a desired outcome instead of simply using good writing or original ideas. In recent years, one could say that these are getting way out of hand, as the musical stings of jump scares get more and more grating while the “scares” they accompany are less and less earned.