Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Horror Hospital: Jaume Balaguero’s Fragile

Posted by CinemaPsycho on October 11, 2010

I recently saw a message board post from some anonymous person who stated that “fake killings are what horror is all about”. My response to this was basically: yikes. Not sure I’d want to meet that person in a dark alley. Seriously though, there does seem to be two very different schools of thought when it comes to horror. Some folks seem to think that horror is all about watching people die in horrific ways, and that’s pretty much it. So many modern horror films seem to subscribe to this notion (like MTV’s godawful Savage County, one of the worst horror films I’ve ever seen) that it’s all about the “kills” and any sense of artfulness seems to have fallen by the wayside. Not that a good slasher film can’t be fun, but there’s still something to be said for mood and atmosphere and genuine chills. Some of us still appreciate those elements, as rare as they are these days.

Spanish director Jaume Balaguero is an old-school kinda guy. Even though he’s best known for the [REC] films, which are basically shaky-cam zombie movies, most of his filmography is made up of old-fashioned ghost stories like The Nameless and the severely underrated Darkness. Balaguero is one of the few horror directors left whose work is about creeping you out, not making you want to vomit, and we absolutely need that now more than ever. Like Guillermo del Toro, he gets that horror at its best has a kind of dark magic, a primal power that transcends the simple pleasures of “watching people die”.

Balaguero’s film MV5BMTc4Mjg5Mjc1N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDI0Njg1Mw.jpg Fragile is a bit of a lost gem. Shot in 2005 but never released in the US (it was caught in limbo thanks to the Bauer-Martinez financial fiasco), the movie has finally been released on DVD as part of the Fangoria Frightfest series (think 8 Films to Die For). I’m pleased to say it was absolutely worth the wait. Fragile is an effective chiller that deserves a wider audience. I’m sure some audience members will compare it to acclaimed horror films such as Pan’s Labyrinth and The Orphanage, but of course it technically predates those films and should be viewed on its own terms.

The plot is deceptively simple. American nurse Amy (Calista Flockhart) has been hired by a children’s hospital on England’s Isle of Wight that is in the process of closing down. Her job is basically to work as the night nurse temporarily, while assisting in the eventual transfer of the children to a larger hospital. Upon her arrival, she discovers that a young boy is suffering from an inexplicable case of broken bones and bonds with a little girl named Maggie (Yasmin Murphy) who claims to have seen a “mechanical girl” roaming the halls. Amy has her own issues that stem from her last job, in which she made a mistake that apparently caused the death of a patient (it’s never spelled out), and she decides to redeem herself by protecting the kids from whatever may be intending to harm them.

Needless to say, things are a little more complicated than they seem at first, and Amy has to investigate the history of the hospital and its former residents and employees to discover what exactly is going on here. Nothing new there, granted. But Balaguero displays a knack for deriving tension and suspense from the most basic of horror tropes, ranging from being stuck in a malfunctioning elevator to the inevitable confrontation with the malevolent spirit. What’s more, he is capable of making us actually care about the characters, adults and children alike, and investing us in their fates. Generally, there’s nothing more manipulative and cheap than putting children in peril, but it doesn’t feel that way here. Because the film shares the same concern as Amy – protecting the children from harm – we come to share that concern and lose any interest we may have in seeing Balaguero ratchet up the body count. And while I was never a big fan of Ally McBeal, Flockhart displays some serious acting chops here as the perpetually sad and unnerved Amy, who starts out as a curious outsider and gradually becomes the kids’ reluctant savior.

I know what some people might be thinking as they read this – “wow, this sounds like really tame stuff”. And indeed, Fragile is rated PG-13 and will not satisfy those looking for “extreme horror”. What separates it from the countless other ghost stories of its type is simply that Balaguero is damn good at this and means every frame of it. Which makes his films just as necessary and important to the genre as the likes of Saw and its various rip-offs, if not more so. Let’s put it this way: if you believe that horror is and should be nothing more than blood and guts, “fake killings” and dead teens, Fragile is not the movie for you. If, on the other hand, you believe that mood, atmosphere and chills down your spine are important to a successful horror film, then Fragile is one you’re going to want to see. Give it a rent this Halloween season, and enjoy some real scares.

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