The Condemned can claim an intriguing twist on the usual haunted-house storyline: a mansion populated by the ghosts of an entire generation of children, mysteriously vanished under the aegis of American humanitarianism. But the film is too close to a fairy tale to reflect the real world, and too realistic in its context to be timeless. Writer-director Busó-Garcia does a decent job teasing the obvious political points from his loaded material, but is fundamentally less interested in terrifying his audience (or his main characters) than fulfilling basic genre requirements: sepia lighting, children’s cackles echoing off rosewood walls, ominous tracking shots that rub meaninglessly with jittery handhelds. It adds up to a methodically bland, intellectually sluggish exercise in guilt-tripping that’s nonetheless still more interested in its rich and sexy characters than the supposed unfortunates.
Ana (Cristina Rodlo), the daughter of a hugely successful cancer researcher, takes the entire family estate—and its offshoot foundation—back to Rosales, her mother’s hometown in Puerto Rico. Her American father is vegetative; her mother committed suicide some months earlier. As she works out plans to convert the mansion into a museum dedicated to her father’s work around the world, the townfolk—a uniformly dirty, slouching community of sheepish, wrinkled Catholics with no local flavor to speak of—regard the venture with silent disdain. There’s more than a hint of class consciousness to the way Busó-Garcia juxtaposes the mansion’s interiors with the soot-stained hovels of the poor, but these effects tend to portray life on both sides of the economic divide as symmetrically empty and meaningless. (Even more so than the nondescript but supermodel-esque Rodlo, the film’s key image is a massive Kubrickian chandelier-tower in the mansion’s ballroom.)
Despite skeptical murmurs from the old family retainer, Cipriano (René Monclova), Ana and her coterie of maids, nurses, assistants, and contractors plow forward. Standing beside her tuxedoed, wheelchair-bound father, she throws a Christmas party; the town troglodytes shuffle into the mansion without saying a word, only to stand idly by as she pulls the cloth off a real-estate development model and announces “the Rosales of the future.” Disgusted, one invitee—whose children died following “treatment” by Ana’s father—denounces the project entirely. Cipriano shakes his head and, split seconds later, a phantom earthquake shatters the photo frames and sends guests scurrying. Soon after the botched gala, Cipriano drunkenly admits to Ana that he was always in love with her late mother. From another room, an old torch song by Chavela Vargas mysteriously starts playing from an unmanned record player, the sound filtering throughout the mansion. Soon enough, a nurse is impaled in the jugular by a thermostat, the wheels on the old man’s chair begin spinning for themselves, and Ana has to dodge a telekinetically thrown clothing rack.
Albeit fantastical, in Busó-Garcia’s world an entire town’s youth is slaughtered and an American-led network of “charity” clinics flourishes. Fair enough in the big picture, but mass murderers aren’t notorious for inviting their prey’s parents to fancy cocktail parties. By dragging both victims and perpetrators into close confrontation, the director betrays his own lack of thoroughness in painfully obvious ways, sabotaging himself early and often. Ironically, The Condemned practices the same sin that gets nonprofits into hot water back in the real world: lack of accountability. The inevitable late-game plot twist is, compared to what comes before, actually pretty mindblowing—but it’s too little, too late, a gambit ostensibly designed to erase the depressingly clunky plotting and bad faith that built up to it.