LOS PARECIDOS (THE SIMILARS)
Even before it was butchered by an inept English translation the title was terrible. Los Mismos would have been a better effort at a handle but something must happen to Castilian Spanish in South America. Los Parecidos was described as a distressingly familiar film by one critic. Homage is important to both the style and plot, but there cannot be many films as nutty as Los Parecidos. Although packed with references to horror movies and The Twilight Zone there is something singular about this Mexican movie. The famous Hollywood producer Sam Goldwyn said that a film should begin with an earthquake and build to a climax. Los Parecidos begins with a thunderstorm and the arrival of two hysterical passengers in an almost empty bus station. The arrow aimed at the climax, though, misses the target. Sam Goldwyn would not have approved. It is clear that director Isaac Ezban intends Los Parecidos to amuse and scare. Not everyone will think he succeeds. For those who relish modest gore and knowing silliness the playful absurdity of Los Parecidos will have appeal. Some of the ideas deserve applause. The scenes are played straight but fast and with comic timing. Horror fans can have an odd sense of comedy, which is why Los Parecidos has collected devotees. Comedy is at its best exploiting desperation and not the desolation that exists in this Mexican bus station, and that is a weakness in the film, but the insistent silliness of Los Parecidos cannot be begrudged.
The waiting passengers endure terror for two reasons. The bus will not turn up because of the torrential downpour outside the bus station, and everyone including the women will grow a beard and look the same. The person everyone looks like is Ulises played by actor Gustavo Sánchez Parra. Ulises is anxious about his wife who is in hospital and giving birth. Irene is pregnant and needs to get to a hospital. Gertrudis already has a son. These three people are particularly distraught. The rest are just moody, strange and cantankerous. The beard of Ulises makes him, and everyone else of course, look like Sam Phillips the record producer in Memphis that helped Elvis Presley create rockabilly. This may be more than a coincidence because Los Parecidos exists as a reminder of how Mexico and the USA share iconography. The remote setting in the film looks like somewhere from rural Texas. Los Parecidos has an odd rock and roll edge.
The neat trick in the film is that the terror that haunts the people in the bus station is not that terrifying. Rain downpours stop at some point, and beards can be shaved. All the people need to do is settle down, have some patience and apply a little thought. The thinking and conversation that occur do not help. Instead, violence becomes epidemic. In Los Parecidos sympathy and support for the plight of others rarely last more than an instant, and paranoia and resentment affect everyone. For the viewer it means having to observe relentless and often mindless hysteria. Bewildered by the hair that has grown on her face the bathroom attendant attacks her beard with a knife until her face is ripped to shreds, the bathroom is covered in blood and her body has had enough. The reaction is extreme but it is a very thick beard. Outside the bathroom the waiting passengers search for a plausible suspect that carries the beard-inducing virus. Irene tries more than the others to be reasonable but no one emerges with credit. The accusations come thick and fast.
Anyone with any sense will assume that Los Parecidos has a political sub-text. The sacrifice of individuality and the aggression that we witness are a consequence of an authoritarian capitalist society. Raise the stakes in a competitive society to ensure that survival is always at stake and winners will gorge on greed and the losers will scramble for scraps. Unaware that their lives are blighted by distorted rewards everyone will feel threatened by the others and feel compelled to attack rivals. Inevitable envy is resented by those envied.
Throughout the film the news on the radio in the bus station mentions the Tlateloco massacre. This occurred in 1968. Ten days before the Mexico Olympics began students in Mexico City staged a protest against the Government. The students felt that the money spent on the Olympics was extravagant and the oppression of farmers and labour unions excessive. Between 300 and 400 students were killed during the protest, and nearly 1500 were arrested. In a sane world the 1968 Mexican Olympics would have been cancelled. There was some indignation but most of it was restricted to the three African-American athletes who put single fists in the air. Fans of athletics soon forgot the 300 dead students. All of this should confirm that Los Parecidos is a political film.
Director Isaac Ezban, though, is adamant. According to him he included the Tlateloco massacre reference to acknowledge Mexican movies of the sixties and the political context of those films. That loop in thinking is typical of what occurs in the film. What he said about the political context may be true or not but whatever he really thinks Ezban is determined to have fun, and some of it will be at our expense. The joke, though, may be on him. The film he has produced may be a lot less flippant than he is. In his defence Ezban might argue that there is a lot more silliness than politics in Los Parecidos.
The music on the soundtrack is orchestral and relentless. It is at best a decent imitation of the music by Bernard Hermann, it does quote the Psycho soundtrack, or at worst an echo of the production line scores that accompanied B horror movies in the sixties. If it has an effect, it is to remind us of how persistent melodramatic musical exaggeration can soon be ignored by a viewer. Throughout the film the pitch does not vary. There is no shading between individual scenes. Like the rest of the film, this may be a sly and affectionate tribute to bad taste and thwarted imagination.
Rather than film Los Parecidos in widescreen black and white Isaac Ezban decided to desaturate colour film. It looks like black and white but it is not as sharp. The claim is that it creates a dreamlike atmosphere. These days the demand for black and white film is minimal, and that makes it expensive. Desaturated colour film helps to keep costs under control. In certain scenes there are odd items that appear in pale colour, blue seats and the yellow raincoat of the child. It is an effect and different but how it helps either the comedy or the tension is unclear. Black and white film facilitates both crisp images and exaggerated shadow and light. Desaturated colour film like the music in Los Parecidos offers little variation. It also undermines the tribute that is being paid to the past.
Fans of The Twilight Zone, though will not be disappointed. The idea behind the plot, the actual threat to the waiting passengers, is taken from a highly rated episode of The Twilight Zone called It’s A Good Life. The episode was aired in 1961. In that episode the consequences of the threat are more serious and terrifying but the action is gentler. It takes place in the social stability of suburban America and before a Mexican Government waged its ‘Ugly War’ and slaughtered 300 students. Back then we had an alternative view of both the past and the present, our fears about the future and our sense of humour were different. As used to happen in every Twilight Zone episode, there is a spoken introduction and summary to Los Parecidos. The narration at the beginning of the film is more successful than what occurs at the end. The final narration is fanciful and the whimsy, in view of what happened in 1968 to 300 students, is odd.
Much of what happens in Los Parecidos consists of human beings trying to not only apportion but deflect blame. Each person at some point in the movie asserts that one of the others does not belong to the group. These assertions are not consistent, and the accusers are willing to accuse more than one person and for different reasons. In national politics such behaviour is often accompanied by the waving of a flag. Since Brexit there has been much flag waving in the UK and much pointing of fingers. Newspapers create scurrilous headlines about politicians not just having unacceptable opinions but about them meeting someone who possesses what are regarded as dangerous thoughts. Boris Johnson lectures the British people with a speech that says he can unite everyone providing we all agree with him. The British economy flounders but those who like to quote depressing statistics are shouted down with lies. So far there has been mutual hatred and contempt but limited violence. Unwelcome beards are under control but an outbreak of the ‘flu has made the NHS vulnerable. In Los Parecidos no one is able to help the others. This, of course, has been the tragedy of much of the politics of South America. Watch Los Parecidos and it is tempting to think Britain might share a similar tragedy. We could become the Mexico of Europe, a bewildered and impoverished cousin that will eventually recognise with envy the more stable mainland across the Channel.
Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.