Fantasia 2017: The Night of the Virgin
Roberto San Sebastián’s The Night of the Virgin, playing at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival is perhaps the most utterly repulsive film I have ever seen. Don’t get me wrong, this film is absolutely worth your time, especially if you enjoy gross-out horror. But, certain points, especially a masterful sequence in the film’s climax, had me near retching. The Night of the Virgin, however, is hardly a simple exercise in repulsion. Sebastián uses his gender swap to flip the script on the usual psychological sadism of the genre, cleverly referencing certain touchstones in the genre.
Sebastián’s story starts out with a New Year’s Eve newscast, in which two awkward broadcasters trade clichés while anxiously whiling away the time until they can finally get off camera. They shift back and forth and smile unnaturally broad smiles. It’s an effective tonal statement of intent introducing us to both the discomfort the film hopes to instill and the comedy that results from this horror. What ensues is a night of seduction, repulsion, freely flowing (and disturbingly stagnant) bodily fluids, viscera, and bodily functions that culminate in one of the grossest things I have ever seen in a film. It is, at times, a feat to struggle through the violently repulsive setpieces, but Sebastián is consistently keen to reward revulsion with cathartic comedy, sometimes crossing the streams to beautiful effect.
Though I’m hesitant to go too deep into which films have a clear narrative mark on The Night of the Virgin (for fear of spoiling the film’s best surprises), suffice it to say that it pulls from the best and rarely uses more than it needs. And, what it does pull from, it cleverly inverts, even if it doesn’t necessarily subvert. Just this small alteration feels totally fresh. It’s so rare that we see a final guy being tortured and dragged through hell. And, Sebastián cleverly calls attention to this oddity by imposing the same genre conventions on his film by which so much of the horror space abides. Visually, Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre feels like a clear influence in the film’s grimy, thoroughly repulsive aesthetic. The make-up and set design teams deserve praise for the frankly disturbing amount of detail in several shots. Whether it’s a close up of cockroaches, hair caught in the drain of a bathtub, or the gallons of blood that are spilled over the course of the film’s two-hour runtime, it all repulses in equal measure.
And, this brings me to perhaps, my main criticism - The Night of the Virgin feels like a 70 to 80 minute film dragged out to 120 minutes. I understand the desire to expand the scope to make the revulsion really land, but I can’t help but feel that the film loses some of its luster as these scenes - many of which end up losing their impact through overexposure - drag on for five to seven minutes at a time. A lack of concision is, in many ways, its fatal flaw.
Still, The Night of the Virgin is a gross-out horror-comedy that, like one of my favorites from this year - Raw - uses its horror and comedy as complements to each other, alleviating the stress of the former and adding some weight to the latter. It’s a tight balancing act that Sebastián pulls off, for the most part, with aplomb. If you like gross-out horror or fresh takes on the genre’s conventions, give The Night of the Virgin a shot. Just make sure you aren’t eating anything when it hits the fan.