Creaking floors, rotting walls, and rusting pipes are oft signs of a terrifying residence. In horror, they usually denote a haunt, creating a sense of discomfort and signaling that ghosts may be afoot. For Ambar, a newcomer to America looking for a place to rest her head, they signal a sense of safety and refuge. Though the street-smart woman knows there’s potential dangers in her new home, a rotting old house is the shelter from the cold she needs, but she’ll have to pay mind to the spirits in the walls before it’s too late.
Ambar (Cristina Rodlo) is new to America. She’s left Mexico and thrust herself into the frigid winds of Ohio in an attempt to start a new life. Ambar is hardworking and savvy, and able to find herself lodging and a job as she tries to get on her feet. Ambar’s battles to make it in America are uphill because she is undocumented and arrived in America illegally. Ambar is swimming upstream; there is nothing to help her protect her job, her cash, or her body so long as she is undocumented. Afraid to ask her well-off cousin for help, she takes up residence in a women’s only lodging house run by Red (Marc Mechaca). Red accepts cash and doesn’t ask a lot of questions, and therefore attracts a certain kind of tenant. Struggling to keep afloat, Ambar’s haunted by visions of her late mother (whom she’d spent the past few years caring for), of missing women, and of a mysterious box that seems to be beckoning her towards it. (Yes, there are His House vibes.) Associating these visions with the lodging house, she tries to find alternative refuge. Unable to stack her chips, Ambar ends up increasingly alone and aimless, and desperate enough to go back to the lodging house to try to regain her deposit. In doing so, she discovers that Red, and his brother, Becker (David Figlioli), have different plans for her and the other lodgers, and she must fight the evil before being fed to whatever lives inside the mysterious box.
The story is based on Adam Nevill’s novel of the same name about a woman who moves into an affordable apartment that ends up being a dangerous place. Director Santiago Menghini wanted to preserve the elements of the story of a woman falling prey to scrupulous people, but added layers to the tale by making it the story of an immigrant in America (the novel takes place in the UK). Along with screenwriters Jon Croker and Fernando Coppel, he created a thicker story about how vulnerable a person can be, especially in Ambar’s particular situation. Little nods like having the police create a sense of fear instead of one of safety, or Ambar being indebted to an exploitative boss, all highlight the unique difficulties of a woman in her precarious circumstances.
Contributing to an overwhelming sense of dread is the architecture of the boarding house. While the scares live in metaphor, the film blends reality with the supernatural in ways that keep you intentionally confused. It’s hard to know what’s a dream, real, or a vision, and the design of the house contributes to that. It’s somewhere between three and eight floors and every shot of it feels impossible. It’s menacing and scary, not just because of its dilapidated appearance but because of its incomprehensible layout. The camera pans lend a sense of audaciousness and simultaneous uncertainty that take you into the headspace of the lead.
While the basic beats of the flick are familiar—a lost woman senses danger, tries to escape, gets sucked back in for a final brawl—No One Gets Out Alive does enough to alter the formula by adding depth. It’s near impossible to watch the cascade of spirits without thinking of the lost immigrants and refugees, reminiscent of shots contained within last year’s His House. It’s oft an obvious collection of horror clichés, imperfectly executed, but the whole is greater than the sum of its body parts.
The scares don’t break significant ground, but they’re effective enough. There are shades of Mike Flanagan with ghosts hiding in plain sight, and timed jumps reminiscent of the work of James Wan. The monster design is certainly the star of the show, but there’s criminally little time spent with it. The monster, designed by Keith Thompson, falls in that impossible space between being seen too much and too little. It would have been more effective to hide it in the shadows, or let it roam more freely, but it instead felt like that frustrating bit of Signs where the would-be mysterious alien is suddenly facing off against a baseball bat. The appearance was a bit wonky, but the film ultimately does cool work leaning into the oft-used vaginal-mouth appearance and allowing brooding men to appear as sidelined henchman for the Queen.
No One Gets Out Alive is a somewhat same-old haunted house movie that uses flickering fluorescent lights and peeling wallpaper for tension, but it adds a layer of humanity and metaphor with its story of an undocumented immigrant. Ambar is a worthy protagonist, a likeable woman forced to claw herself to safety in varying wretched circumstances. There’s beauty in its simplicity, using a familiar tale for a fresh metaphor, even if it doesn’t break a ton of new ground with its structure.
No One Gets Out Alive is available on Netflix globally on September 29, 2021.
Header Image Source: Netflix