TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID
Directed by Issa López
One of the great things about film festivals and streaming services is they allow us easier access to movies we’d otherwise never think about watching or have the chance to. Among these are low budget, international horror films. Tigers Are Not Afraid, from writer/ director Issa López, is a move I’ve been hearing about for over a year since it debuted at FrightFest Glasgow, picking up a reputation as being the best film Guillermo del Toro never made (this is unfair given it does its own thing). Finally getting a general release, thanks to the fabulous online horror channel Shudder, I’m glad to say it’s among the very best movies I’ve seen this year.
The horror genre has always provided a platform to communities who do not normally get one. In this case, it’s the many children orphaned by the Mexican drug wars: accidental adults who are denied their chance to just be kids. This theme is apparent from the start, where a lesson about fairytales is undercut by stray bullets going through the classroom window. In the aftermath, young Estrella (Lara) gets given three pieces of chalk by her dying teacher, that she’s told will grant her three wishes. Upon returning home, passing a body in the street, she uses the first to wish for her missing mother to come back. Which she does, albeit as a creepy spirit, who follows her everywhere. Terrified, Estrella tries to find safety in a gang of local boys who live on rooftops eating what they can steal: a dark twist on Pan’s lost boys. But to join them, she needs to help their leader El Shine (Lopez) get even for the death of his mum, and other ghosts created every day by the ongoing drug war. What follows is a harrowing revenge film that, from its enchanted beginning, plays with familiar fantasy conventions.
As per the best of del Toro’s work, such as Pan’s Labyrinth or The Devil’s Backbone, this movie mutually embraces elements of magic realism and gritty drama, juxtaposing a dark palette with more playful effects. Only here the fantastical elements aren’t there to offer the characters a way out of their horrific reality, as much to emphasise how bad it can be. We aren’t told at any point if these bits are real, or if the apparitions are things the introverted Estrella has come up with to process the trauma of what’s happening to her, yet I suspect this is the point. Perhaps in these circumstances, not even the imagination of a child can provide refuge. There’s a striking contrast between the run-down, dilapidated neighbourhoods they occupy and the tasteful CG that allows for things like graffiti tigers to come to life. Visually, it’s quite simple, with the generated images never undermining the despair in which the characters live. Still, there are well-earned moments of transcendent beauty and hope to this that stops it from being the type of misery porn kids in crisis films can become in the wrong hands. The young cast all exhibit good emotional range, never losing sight of their innocence even when they’re swinging guns around. It helps that they are written with the nuance and complexity to make them interesting leads.
In particular, the interplay between Estrella and Shine is outstanding. At first, it seems like a matter of temperament. But it soon becomes apparent each is dealing with grief their way. She does by closing herself off, and him with a thirst for revenge: when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose. There’s a tragedy to how the archetypes and the narratives Shine has internalised, about what it means to be a warrior/ tiger, have corrupted him, changing him from a sweet boy into a soldier. It’s not a big leap to see how he could grow up to immerse himself in the same cartel culture that’s stolen his childhood. By covertly giving its villains an origin story, showing links between the violence kids grow up in and the violence they may later commit, the villains get humanised. Not that this makes them any less scary. Though the film has accomplished horror set-pieces, with the location being a literal ghost town haunted victim of the drug wars, its flesh and blood monsters are by far its nastiest. A visceral threat runs through the third act, with a series of increasingly tense chase sequences. And though the cartel members we get to know don’t necessarily want to shoot children, we are never left questioning if they would.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is a film made with a clear love and passion. Early on, it put a spell on me that never let-up before its genuinely breathtaking conclusion. As both supernatural horror and stark social commentary, it’s an excellent film and among my highlights of an already exceptional year of genre cinema. Prepare to be excited, frightened and potentially moved to tears for several different reasons at once. Good things come to those who wait.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is now streaming on Shudder