Los Sin Nombres (The Nameless)
It is odd that The Searchers, the Western by John Ford, has inspired so many films in other genres, odd because the film is flawed and the plot weak. The film has great moments and performances but it is pictorial rather than poetic, and from Ford some of us expect more. The plot becomes absurd when Debbie, the missing girl in The Searchers, is rescued after Scar the Native American Chief encamps close to where a US Cavalry regiment is having a dance and celebration. Well, Natalie Wood was gorgeous, and the film needed a happy ending. Ramsay Campbell borrows the idea of The Searchers for his British horror novel, The Nameless. His novel inspired the Spanish film Los Sin Nombres.
Campbell is a gifted, dedicated and prolific writer. He has a fabulous eye for detail. Mainly this is revealed through a paranoid sensibility but he also understands the limits of social and political Britain. Campbell combines the horror fantasy of HP Lovecraft, his own disturbed vision and the class-consciousness of Alan Sillitoe. Campbell has remained true to his roots. He still lives on Merseyside where he was born. His childhood was odd. The house he lived in was split between his father and mother. Incompatible father and mother avoided one another. Campbell did not speak to his father for twenty years but every night he would hear his father walk the stairs to the top of the house. The mother of Ramsay Campbell was also a prolific writer but she remained unpublished. Before she died she endured schizophrenia. Horror fiction was a consolation for Campbell. He is also a movie fan. He has written film criticism and he had a film review show on Radio Merseyside. His work and his curiosity have helped him to survive. If the gloom of Ibsen consoles those who find existence miserable, horror fiction soothes the fears of people who find the world terrifying.
The compulsion of the terrified to face horror may help explain why Campbell was tempted to adapt the plot of The Searchers. For John Wayne the Native Americans embodied evil and miscegenation was the terror. Wayne believed he would prevail because he was from the superior race and because he was big and had a rifle. In Los Sin Nombres Claudia believes she will succeed against evil because she has the love and status of a mother. She thinks she has worth and entitlement. The evil in Los Sin Nombres is distilled and a product of human will rather than a weakness spread across a supposedly inferior race. It exists in the perverse and the glutinous and not the underdeveloped. In the film the appeal and merit of evil is assumed and explained by two characters. Santini from Argentina has been wrecked and corrupted by his experience in a death camp. He is interviewed in prison by Claudia who wants to know what has happened to her missing and possibly dead daughter. Santini is creepy but persuasive. Evil is presented as something that sometimes exists in complex and unfortunate imaginations. It is merely something else, an aspect rather than a distinct force. Santini is supposed to have a dreadful skin condition caused by the experiments in the camp. When he appears, though, Santini is only wrinkled and a little blotchy. This is a neat touch. His horrific appearance is acceptable, and his ideas merit a listen. Later, Claudia meets Marc the leader of the cult dedicated to evil. Marc talks about how extreme evil can produce saintliness and ecstasy. It would take real talent to make this mumbo jumbo sound rational. The script fails, and the actor Brendan Price tries too hard to be twisted. Santini inside the prison is a highlight. Evil Marc is a disappointment.
The end of the film requires an explanation from Marc of what has happened before and a final twist. The ending has persuaded many to dismiss the film. Although it does make a point about the mother and her assumptions, the twist is not that much of a surprise. And mumbo jumbo is mumbo jumbo. But there is something in the silly explanations that cannot be ignored and that should not be sidestepped by the sophisticated. The important message is that people do what they have to do. Intelligence and rationality do not mitigate human weakness. Both the evil and the virtuous may be willing to offer reasons for their actions but their explanations mean nothing. Emotion rules. The cruel will ignore the pain of others, and the virtuous and self-sacrificing can abandon common sense.
In the original book Campbell captured the fumbling Britain that Sillitoe and other working class writers described. Most Britons live not amidst stunning vistas but in anonymous streets cursed by atrocious weather. This should have been difficult to translate to sunny Spain but the director Jaume Balagueró manages to find scruffy neighbourhoods and retain the bleak Campbell view of existence. Jaume Balagueró is a Catalan, and Cataluña is the region in Spain closest in culture to the North of England. Both regions had industry and radical politics. His regional background must have helped Balagueró to appreciate Campbell. The style of the movie is impressive, and it means that the strength of the original novel is retained. There is no Spanish sunshine in Los Sin Nombres. The skies are overcast. The film is under-lit rather than underexposed and is drained of normal colour. For most of the time the film has a dull blue tint. Claudia is an editor who works in a soulless office. There the light is harsh and bright. Outside she discovers derelict buildings and drives through shabby streets. On the underground trains the passengers look exhausted and defeated. The nightclub in the film has a small bar and space for half a dozen dancers. Escapism is as dull and as routine as responsibility and no alternative to obligation. When the mother looks at the old videos of her missing child, she sees the predictable beach and innocent child yet the images are grainy. They suggest obsession and delusion rather than promise and happiness.
None of this is a surprise because Los Sin Nombres begins well. Fractured scenes are interspersed between delayed titles. The stuttering chronology warns us not to expect predictable or satisfactory endings. The gaps between the scenes and titles also suggest that something is missing in our lives. We are deluded if we think we are capable of joining the dots in what we experience. Memory is inadequate because so much missed our perception in the first place. The world is too big, and others are unfathomable. An ex-detective helps Claudia to search for the missing daughter. Like Claudia, the ex-detective has lost someone. Loss has left gaps in the lives of Claudia and the ex-detective. Both have an empty space that the rest of us, preoccupied by diversions, chatter and the illusion of progress, cannot recognise. Lives continue after loss but they are not the same. People continue and cope with being wounded but they do not heal.
Nuns appear several times in the movie but faith and religion are not compensation for human suffering. The nun Claudia meets is a stern bureaucrat. She remembers without emotion the wasted lives whose records and details she organises and files in neat order. The other nuns are seen from a distance. They are remote and hostile figures. Insulated in their habits and bizarre headdresses they ignore the people around them.
Martin Scorsese was not tempted to film Los Sin Nombres and he has avoided horror in his career. Gothic material could appeal to his sense of good and evil. Compared to Scorsese, though, Balagueró is restrained. The climax is violent but there is no visible blood. The unpleasant moments are restricted to the examination of dead bodies. Death may be romantic to philosophers and classical pessimists but the dead are gruesome. Their appearance and injuries mock hopes and aspiration. The first examination in the film concludes that the missing daughter of Claudia is dead. Five years later Claudia receives a telephone call from her daughter who insists that she is alive. The telephone call is a plea to be rescued. Claudia forgets work and responsibility and investigates clues that may lead to her daughter. Claudia is compelled to not only rescue the missing child but also clear away the confusion in her mind. She is devoted to a daughter that may be dead or, if alive, someone who could be the sweet child in the beach videos or a monster twisted by evil kidnappers. This is the consequence of loss. We are not sure what we have forgotten or what remains. Loss applies to all of us and not all of it is harmful. Most of the time loss is insignificant. The people who disappear from our lives are often easily forgotten and, if they reappear, the surprises we witness are modest. Loss of a child is different and, unlike with mere friends, it leaves us different. Los Sin Nombres is a disturbing film because Claudia is virtuous but driven by need. She will not torture people like the members of the evil cult but she is compulsive. Emotions take over her intellect. The outcome is not what she predicts. Even noble emotions can produce chaos and damage.
Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His next book Choke Bay will be available this summer. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.