Winning the audience award for best feature at Dead by Dawn is no small feat. The Edinburgh horror festival has a tight group of in-depth genre fanatics who know their stuff and get exposed to the newest and best once a year. Juanfer Andres and Esteban Roel’s Musaranas (AKA Shrew’s Nest) is a beautiful powerhouse of dysfunctional family gothic not to be missed.
Montse (Macarena Gomez) is an agoraphobic dressmaker, confined to the cosy but isolated dwellings of her childhood home many years after her parents’ deaths. Hermana (Nadia de Santiago), Montse’s beautiful younger sister, has just turned 18 and is beginning to take her first steps into adult life. After finding a man unconscious with a broken leg in her stairwell, Montse makes a decision that sees her delicate world begin to unravel.
Sure Musaranas shares its lonely spinster story with Misery, but that’s about the only parallel. Andres and Roel have, impressively, left all vestiges of similar thematic endeavours out in the cold by making sure Musaranas is 100% its own beast. Everything about the story, characters, events, and even locations is distinctly infused with clean-cut insanity and dilute garishness. Misery is winter gothic, bound to the isolation of the Colorado Mountains, where Musaranas is equally reliant on the vibrant social atmosphere of its small town.
Musaranas is wise not to operate beyond its brief. It doesn’t push itself so far that the weight of its finely tuned black humour crushes the horror aspect, or vice versa. Andres and Roel know exactly when they want us to laugh, cover our eyes, and sit right on the precipice of our seats just waiting to see where this domestic nightmare will turn next.
Macarena Gomez steals the show, there’s no way around it. Her particular brand of matriarchal madness is an absolutely arresting delight. Thankfully Gomez understands that insanity is a difficult sell: often silly when handled incorrectly. But in Musaranas her portrayal of the delicate Montse is somewhere between prim and perverted, a pitch-perfect horror character with as much depth and heart as any of the genre’s best villains. Luis Tosar (Sleep Tight) appears as the girls’ fierce father, every bit the bad guy but touchingly subject to his own foul demons. It’s a hard thing to pull off a guy like this whilst enabling the audience some window into his mind, but its executed wonderfully.
An incredible piece of work for a debut feature; tightly edited and written, expertly cast, and sporting a slew of finely tuned comic, horror, and family themes in such a concise way it’s impossible not to enjoy. Musaranas is a perfect vignette, a peek into the bubbling hive of anxiety that is family.