TLA Releasing // 2004 // 104 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // August 18th, 2005
A perfect housekeeper with a murderous obsession.
Part ghost thriller and part Gothic creeper, The Promise is more chilling and thoughtful than fear-inducing. Still, a great lead performance and some dazzling visuals will please fans of old-fashioned murder mysteries.
Deeply religious and superstitious housewife Celia (Carmen Maura, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) sees the battle between good and evil in everything. In her husband, now that they are getting older and he has become verbally and physically abusive, she only sees evil. Celia reaches her breaking point, killing him in his sleep and moving on to begin a new life.
She lands in a small coastal town, where she is employed by a wealthy but dysfunctional family in a huge old mansion. Her job is to clean and look after Daniel (Santiago Barón), the troubled son. Soon, Celia starts to observe a familiar tension between Dorita (Ana Fernandez, The City of No Limits) and her husband Roberto (Juan Margallo). At the same time, mysterious things begin to happen in the house. Are there ghosts in the house, or has Celia simply brought her own guilt and madness with her?
Religion and superstition are ever-present in Gothic thrillers. Celia lives in a dark, Gothic world where every action and thought has deep religious significance. She is the victim of an ongoing series of strange occurrences, which she understands as a visual indication of the spiritual battle between good and evil. What makes The Promise stand out is that her perspective on the world isn't taken at face value. Most of the characters around Celia don't see these occurrences as anything but coincidences. If a pile of laundry falls over, it happens because the pile was too high. Due to the other characters' lack of faith, we're completely sure that we are watching a Gothic thriller. Celia may be witnessing the supernatural, or she may be completely off her nut, which makes her a dangerous person to have around. The film uses the interplay between these two worldviews to question the validity of religion and superstition in general. Why do we give significance to some events, but shrug others off as mere coincidence? People have always tried to find meaning in the events around them, but our society has been losing that order-seeking tendency over the past few decades. In the postmodern worldview, nothing we do has any larger significance, but only personal significance.
It's also very refreshing to see a thriller that focuses on a woman over 40 years old. This is something we virtually never see in Hollywood, and it gives The Promise a very unique perspective. Celia isn't a young, innocent woman arriving in what may be a haunted mansion. She is a woman of experience, someone who has survived a difficult relationship for years and understands the situations she observes from her own memories. Since we have already seen her murder her husband, we can never trust her, even though we are told the story from her perspective. The suspense and horror of the film flows out of our uncertainty about Celia during the course of her descent into either madness or fear. This is a great performance for Carmen Maura, who brings depth and class to her creepy character. The rest of the cast is equally skilled, particularly young Santiago Barón. He is just as hard to pin down. We can never quite figure out whether he is a troubled young boy trying to cope with a cruel father or a creature of evil.
The Promise arrives on a well produced disc. The cinematography and scenery are stunning, captured well on the anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer. There are a few instances of ghosting, probably the result of transferring from a PAL source. The detail level is good, though, as is contrast and shadow detail. The sound is also excellent, featuring a Dolby 5.1 track with clear dialogue and subtle use of the surrounds. While it's never as immersive as it could be, the sound does add much to the film's creepy tone.
There isn't much in the way of special features. In addition to the original trailer, there is a production featurette that discusses various aspects of the production. It doesn't say much that we haven't heard before, but it's a nice addition to the DVD.
Even though The Promise has a suitably creepy tone and some very interesting ideas, it is far from perfect. Many viewers will be put off by the film's leisurely pace, especially those looking for grisly Gothic horror. This film has hardly any jump moments and virtually no gore. We have become conditioned to expect certain things in a genre film, and anyone who comes at this one expecting big scares could easily miss its philosphical questioning of superstition and religion, and find himself or herself bored.
Also, things start to fall apart at the end of the film. Some concepts are given a lot of discussion throughout the film, but are completely ignored when the truth is unfolded. In a film so obsessed with significance, it seems odd that such important ideas would be glossed over at the most crucial moment. The ending doesn't sit well with me, either. It feels tacked on, and doesn't give Celia the closure she deserves. It's a minor problem at the end of a solid film, but endings are important.
Whether or not The Promise is worth your checking it out will depend largely on your taste in movies. If you mourn the death of thoughtful supernatural mysteries, you will find great pleasure in the performances, tone, and plot twists of this film. Those seeking a grisly Spanish horror flick will probably be very bored. It is a chilling way to spend two hours, though, and even raises some thoughtful questions about belief and morality. For most, though, a rental will probably be enough.
Perhaps against my better judgment, I hereby proclaim Celia not guilty and free to go. Someone had best keep an eye on her, though, just in case.
Review content copyright © 2005 Joel Pearce; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: TLA Releasing
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Production Featurette