It’s impossible to think of a time before religion pervaded every aspect of our culture. Even in today’s largely secular society religion is always there, like the specter at the edge of the film frame waiting to frighten wandering eyes. But it’s just not as pervasive as it once was, perhaps because life’s many mysteries are easily answered not by a divine power, but through the application of sciences.
Outside of faith there is no tangible proof that something exists beyond our reality. And while I’m not naive enough to think that what I see is all there is to know, it would be helpful to see those that are worshipped, I dunno, drop us a line once in a while? Especially in today’s unsteady anxious age, if there is a celestial force, shouldn’t it be made to answer for the atrocities its allowed to happen here on our big blue planet? When young children are forced into sex trafficking or die from bone cancer, or we think of the countless centuries of slavery, abuse, and warfare: we have to ask that same question Edward G Robinson infamously didn’t ask in The Ten Commandments: “Where’s your God now!?”
And when God with a capital G won’t help, then who is the desperate to turn to? If you are at your wit’s end, wanting to see the suffering of your child end, wouldn’t you turn to anyone, or anything, that listened? This crisis is at the heart of Guillermo Amoedo blisteringly fresh tale of loss, faith, and demonic possession The Inhabitant (El Habitante).
With a shade of Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breath, the film begins with three sisters planning to rob an affluent home in Mexico. The eldest sister, Camila (Vanesa Restrepo), has found herself in a rough spot being forced to steal a cache of money from Jose (Flavio Medina) and Angelica (Gabriela de la Garza). Camila ropes in her two sisters, Ana (Carla Adell) and Maria (Maria Evoli) who act as a moral counterbalance to Camila’s desperation. As they make their way through the house, taking Jose and Angelica hostage, they discover lurking in the basement the couple’s dark secret: strapped to a bed and alone is their young daughter, Tamara (Natasha Cubria who, no joke, looks astonishingly like Lady Gaga as Ally in A Star Is Born).
The sisters hold their own secrets, having been born into a household of physical and sexual abuse, all in the name of God. They instantly recognize what is happening to Tamara, and pledge to do what they would have wished would have happened to them: free Tamara from her tortuous confines. But as they are soon to discover there is a good reason for Tamara to have been kept down in the basement, and in three hours when Cardinal Pedro Natale (Fernando Becerril) arrives at the house, they will fully realize what evil truly looks like. The Inhabitant is a story of possession, but more so it’s about a loss of faith. Faith in humanity, your family, and even yourself.
We seem to be in a renaissance for the possession film, but it’s not like the sub-genre has really ever gone away since The Exorcist was nominated for so many Academy Awards. The possession film, when done right like in William Friedkin’s staggering work, can easily encapsulate everything we go to a horror movie to see. We get horrifying imagery, nightmare dream logic, typically some kind of horned monster or dread filled shadow, and of course the constant: a spooky little girl. And while Tamara is only a piece in the puzzle, Cubria still puts in an incredibly strong performance as she intones the deepest secrets of those involved in the botched robbery. But also, and perhaps an all-time favorite trope of mine, this possession film also makes the house an Eldritch Location, wherein everyday laws of physics don’t apply. A person will be in the bathroom at one moment and then hanging from a noose the other. That living room you just passed? Oh now it’s just your childhood bedroom where you father beat and raped you. Thanks a lot demon! The film leans on nightmare imagery that feels birthed from Alejandro Jodorowsky or Juan López Moctezuma Alucarda. Nothing gets my heart pumping like seeing a good ol’ fashioned Black Mass complete with demonic priests crying tears of blood!
The Inhabitants, though, doesn’t feel completely concerned about the battle of lost faith typically at the heart of possession stories. The film feels more about grappling with faith in yourself that despite your past, despite who you are, with conviction and willpower you can kind of overcome anything. And that includes a super demon-possessed girl who literally can conjure Legion and will choke the life out of you.
The film is also about ending the cycle of violence. Which is perhaps the point of the film’s one dark joke: at some point every character, no matter if they are possessed or not, gets captured and tied to a chair. When faced with the choice to take otherworldly revenge on her abusive father, Maria chooses life. She chooses forgiveness. And the greatest power we have as humans doesn’t lie within the power we can exert, but rather what we can give back.