Review: Magic Magic (2014)

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Director: Sebastián Silva
Screenwriter: Sebastián Silva
Cast: Juno Temple, Emily Browning, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Michael Cera & Agustín Silva
Runtime: 97 min // Certificate: 15

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elU_AlgW6Lw]

The horror genre has been in perpetual decline for at least a decade, if not much longer. The “golden age” of horror cinema now feels like little more than a distant memory from a long forgotten era; an era in which daft concepts like “plot” and “character” were intrinsic to a film’s overall success. I know right… plot and character; man, what were those idiots thinking?

Magic Magic, the new “psychological thriller” from Crystal Fairy director Sebastián Silva, makes scant effort to halt this decline, though in its defence an attempt is at least made in the earlier stages of the film to establish something resembling a story. Set in Southern Chile, it tells the tale of Alicia (Temple; Killer Joe), a young woman who appears to suffer a serious mental breakdown while travelling with her cousin Sarah (Browning; Sucker Punch) and said cousin’s friends – Brink (Cera; Superbad) and Barbara (Moreno; Maria Full of Grace) – and boyfriend, Augustin (Silva; Crystal Fairy). Dealing with themes of paranoia and, to a lesser extent, the supernatural, Magic Magic follows Alicia as she appears to become increasingly unhinged to the point of genuine insanity, yet all the while we cannot be completely sure if darker forces aren’t at work.

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Now, most modern horror films tend to fall into two distinct categories. Either they explain absolutely everything to their audience, irrespective of how ludicrous, contrived or just plain stupid said explanation might be, thus depriving them of the inherent terror that resides within the unknown, or they explain nothing, instead relying on the audience to fill in the gaps so they don’t have to. Magic Magic falls firmly into the latter of these two categories, and though I appreciate that a lack of explanation is generally better than a shit one, it’s still nothing less than infuriating when you waste 90-plus minutes of your life on a film that can’t even be bothered to end properly.

That is the fatal problem with Silva’s film. The first two acts are creepy, mysterious and intriguing, Temple’s performance as a woman on the verge of a complete mental break is fantastic, and the implications that Sarah and her friends aren’t all that they seem are handled with real care and subtlety… and then nothing happens. The film literally just ends. Some bizarre shit goes down in the final act, Alicia is one step away from smearing her own excrement up the walls and then the credits roll without any explanation whatsoever. Is Alicia crazy? Are Sarah’s friends a part of some cult? Are there supernatural forces at work? Who knows? Who cares? It’s such a lazy, pointless cop-out that every morsel of tension and fear that is built up in the first 90 minutes dissipates in a single instant and you’re left wondering why on Earth you even bothered with it.

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It’s a real shame too because though certain elements of it are a tad generic and predictable, Magic Magic is a genuinely unsettling experience. Silva slowly cranks up the tension, baffles his audience, exploits and abuses his characters and establishes an atmosphere that often fills you with sheer dread without ever resorting to jump scares, instead relying almost entirely on the horror of uncertainty. His characters are interesting, the cinematography is often quite mesmerising and you get a genuine sense that with a mildly competent screenwriter to rein in Silva’s obvious excesses, this could’ve been a real hit. Alas, the lack of anything even the vaguest hint of an explanation is just unforgiveable. Literally nothing is explained. What was Sarah doing when she disappeared? What was the phone call about? Why is Barbara such a prick? Why did Alicia rub her fanny in Brink’s face? What the fuck is going on!?

This is a film that promises so much and delivers so little. Were it not for Temple’s fantastic performance and Cera’s surprising turn as the creepily pathetic Brink, Magic Magic would’ve been a total catastrophe. Unfortunately, the fact that it had such potential makes its failings all the more irritating because you just know that a few tweaks to the screenplay could’ve made all the difference. The first two acts do a reasonable job of exploring the breach between the supernatural and plain old delusion but Silva soon chickens out and offers no answers to any of the questions he poses. In fact, right up until the last ten minutes or so, Magic Magic is an effective light thriller with some honestly unsettling undertones. Then it just gives up the ghost, and not only does it fail to recover but it also drags everything that came before down with it. That’s its biggest crime, and one that is simply inexcusable.

★★

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