Dir. Gabe Ibanez. Spain. 2009. 90 mins

Spain’s reputation as a breeding ground for classy supernatural tales is given further credence by the slickly executed feature debut of commercials director Gabe Ibanez. Hierro is atmospheric and intriguing but never especially scary, which could prove problematic when it comes to attracting genre fans. Ibanez takes a confident approach to the depiction of psychological torment but his attempts at more traditional horror tricks feel very familiar and uninspired.

The story by Javier Gullon is cleverly constructed but baffling for so much of the running time that it may also prove offputting for mainstream audiences who don’t want to work that hard for their thrills. Hierro certainly doesn’t cast the same spell as The Orphange or Pan’s Labyrinth but it could still attract a modicum of interest from international arthouse distributors looking to support an emerging talent in a fashionable genre.

Ibanez does have an ace to play in his use of the remote island of El Hierro, Europe’s southernmost point. A barren, unwelcoming landscape with beaches of black, volcanic ash, it provides a spectacular backdrop to the main story instantly suggesting the elemental power of a world that seems to conspire against grief-stricken mother Maria (Elena Anaya).

Maria is heading to El Hierro on a holiday ferry with her five year-old son Diego (Kaiet Rodriguez) when the boy vanishes. The obvious assumption is that the child has been swept overboard. Six months later, Maria is called back to the island. A child’s body has been discovered and it matches the description of Diego. When her sister is called home, Maria is left alone on the island with only her wild imaginings for company. She remains convinced that the boy may still be alive, an impression increased by the discovery of posters seeking information on another young boy missing since a tragic car accident.

Ibanez has an eye for unusual locations (a giant greenhouse, a penguin enclosure in a deep sea world attraction) and a fondness for Lynchian oddness most obviously revealed in the scurrying footsteps and sinister corridors that Maria encounters during her hotel stay in El Hierro.

But his more direct attempts to create terror never succeed. Slamming doors, howling winds and sudden appearances from shady characters may jolt the heart rate of the unsuspecting but generally feel half-hearted. Matters are not helped by a thunderous, Bernard Herrmann-style score from composer Zacarias M.De la Riva that jangles the nerves, misleadingly generating expectations of full-scale horror that the film simply does not deliver.

The plot of Hierro does ultimately make sense but is never as suspenseful nor satisfying as one might hope. Elena Anaya is in virtually every scene of the film and gives a physically committed performance. We always want to know what happens next but we are never that emotionally involved in her plight even as she is forced to fight impossible odds to follow the logic of her deepest fears.

Running a trim 90 minutes, Hierro leaves the impression that more clarity in the storytelling and more time to develop our interest in Maria may have resulted in a more audience-friendly chiller.

Production Companies
Telecino Cinema
Madrugada Films

International sales
Wild Bunch
(33) 6 20 36 77 72

Jesus de la Vega
Alvaro Augustin

Javier Gullon

Alejandro Martinez

Production designer
Patrick Salvador

Quique Garcia i vila

Original Music
Zacarias M.De la Riva

Main cast
Elena Anaya
Bea Segura
Mars Sodupe
Andres Herrera
Miriam Correa