A lot of bad horror movies start with teenagers heading into the woods for a vacation. Very rarely, good horror movies also start this way. Such as Sebastian Silva’s Chilean tale of missed social cues, superstition, paranoia, madness, and worse. Magic Magic is partly one of those “foreigners are evil” movies, about the strangeness of Chile through an American visitor’s eyes. But the foreigners here are the Americans, which is the exact opposite of Eli Roth’s crassly ignorant stories of otherness, where he couldn’t care less if it’s South America or Eastern Europe. Silva’s intimacy with his own country, and particularly the way he conveys menace in the mundane, gives Magic Magic its power.
Next to Silva’s insidious direction, the key to Magic Magic is Juno Temple. This is the sort of fiercely discomfiting and fearless performance you expect from, say, Gena Rowlands. It’s hard to watch. She’s a fascinating actress, singularly committed in a way that’s all too rare for actors of her generation. And although it might give you pause at first, Michael Cera’s role is perfect. He’s just Michael Cera, but he’s in exactly the right place doing exactly the wrong things right. To Cera’s credit — he’s one of the producers, along with indie heavy hitters Christine Vachon and Mike White — he’s not forcing himself into new types of roles so much as finding unexpected and appropriate places to situate himself. This Is the End, for instance.
The rest of the cast is exemplary, with actors far more talented than the usual horror fodder playing roles that transcend the slut, jock, virgin, and nerd archetypes that venture into the woods. Director Silva’s brother, Agustin Silva, is the movie’s scruffy heart. The icily Latina Catalina Moreno (remember Maria Full of Grace?) is its voice of reason and perhaps its villain. One of my favorite shots features Moreno in the background and out of focus, and it’s a sign of Silva’s skill as a director. And the ageless Emily Browning, looking more 14 than ever, is all heart and empathy. Finally, if you’re going to shoot a horror movie in a mysterious foreign country, who better for a director of photography than the amazing Christopher Doyle to bring the color alive and shine shards of light into the dark? All told, Magic Magic is an almost magical concoction of Hollywood talent and arthouse horror storytelling.
Magic Magic is available on video on demand. Watch it here to support Quarter to Three.