The Atlantic island of Hierro is the smallest of the Canary islands, and lingers on the furthermost southern edge of the Spanish archipelago. It’s also the remote setting for first time feature director Gabe Ibáñez's atmosphere-drenched horror debut of the same name. Although plastered in former animator Ibáñez's stylish visuals, it is the young Spanish actor Elena Anaya who mesmerises with her gut wrenching performance as an isolated and grief-stricken mother, searching for her missing child in a desolate, forbidding landscape.
Young Diego (Kaiet Rodriguez) mysteriously vanishes without trace on-board a holiday ferry headed for the popular island destination, while his exhausted single mother, María (Elena Anaya), dozes in her seat. Only the child’s ball remains -- found by the distraught mother, rolling forlornly along the deck; and although the ferry is emptied of other passengers and searched from top to bottom upon its arrival at Hierro, nothing is found. The authorities are convinced that the child must have fallen overboard, but María comes to believe that Diego could have been abducted by one of the other passengers. She returns home to wait for news, but now finds she is unable to venture near water without succumbing to panic attacks; even taking a shower triggers disturbing hallucinations and fainting fits. Then, one day, the dreaded news comes through: the authorities have retrieved a child’s body -- found floating in the waters off the coast of the island.
Accompanied by her sister Laura (Bea Segura), María must return for the apparent formality of identifying her son’s body. However, the corpse turns out not to be Diego's after all! Which presents a problem: so sure had the island authorities been that the body would turn out to be the right one, they hadn’t arranged for a judge (required by law to oversee the necessary DNA tests) to arrive for another three days! María must now bide her time on the island while she waits for this formality to be carried out. Growing tension begins to divide the two sisters after Laura’s new-born son back home develops a fever, so the increasingly introverted María agrees to stay on alone while Laura returns home. Proximity to water sets off her disorientating visions once again, and a fleeting vision of her missing son leads the lonely mother to a dilapidated caravan site, and the discovery that another child recently disappeared on the island itself -- apparently removed from the site of a car crash which left the now-crippled mother convinced her son was taken by her former husband. Convinced that the two incidents are related, María conducts her own desperate investigation and encounters resistance from the local police chief and indifference from the creepy locals. The desolation and gloominess of the strange island locale leads her relentlessly on in an odyssey that ends in its remotest, most mountainous areas -- and a fateful discovery which will require all her maternal instincts if she is to prevail.
Part of a now well-established ‘missing child’ sub-genre which includes such classics as “The Wicker Man”, “Don’t Look Now”, fellow countryman Jaume Balagueró’s debut “Los sin nombre” and more recently, Fabrice Du Welz’s amazing “Vinyan”, this Spanish horror thriller from the producers of “The Orphanage” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” always had its work cut out if it was ever to live up to its illustrious predecessors. Low on overt chills, the film does succeed admirably in building up a suitably mysterious atmosphere with its animal symbolism and intriguing water imagery. As was the case with the recent Belgium paranoid horror thriller “Left Bank”, the film’s main strength lies in the casting of its lead actress, who gives a very compelling and uncompromising performance throughout, which provides the central emotional core that underpins director Gabe Ibáñez's sometimes overwhelming and overly tricksy ‘Matrix-like’ visual style.
Like Eline Kuppens in “Left Bank”, Elena Anaya, who plays the mother María, spends a good deal of the film’s running time naked, in stark scenes that relate water to maternal womb-like birthing imagery, but which also represents the character’s unwillingness to accept the possibility of her son’s watery demise. The film thus pivots on this ambiguity in dream-like images that suggests both birth and death simultaneously. The island location is the other true star of the film, forming a desolate but somehow beautiful backdrop with its mountainous scrubland, haunting forests and remote but picturesque beaches. The story itself could be seen by some as being somewhat predictable; the mystery is slow in unfolding and some seasoned viewers of contemporary psychological horror thrillers such as this may be left feeling under-whelmed by the big reveal at the end. I was not one of them though: such is the visceral pain and remorseful desperation conveyed in Elena Anaya’s performance, and so skilfully does Ibáñez suggest a sense of isolation as he slowly builds up the tension and the tragedy in the final twenty minutes of the film, that I was thoroughly engaged by the plight of this character, completely alone in a hostile and unfamiliar environment . The predictability of the relatively straightforward plot (which doesn't leave that many options for manoeuvre) simply imbues the film all the more with its doom-laden sense of fate, only complimenting further the stark atmosphere and symbolic images. If the film has one drawback it is the unfortunate tendency, which these days seems to afflict most modern Spanish horror films, of relying too heavily on overt orchestral underscoring in order to convey emotion. This can sometimes create a syrupy, over-egged ‘Hollywood-esque’ vibe that detracts from the overall power of the actors’ performances.
“Hierro” arrives on UK DVD and Blu-ray in a bare-bones release which features a nice transfer showing off Alejandro Martínez’ ‘aqueous’ cinematography, along with a perfectly acceptable 5.1 audio track. The only extra is the film’s trailer.