An eerie gothic Spanish treat, Mal de Ojo completely took me by surprise. Dripping in style and dark fairy tale energy, the film follows the nightmarish story of thirteen-year-old Nala (Paola Miguel). Feeling especially neglected in the wake of her younger sister Luna’s crippling health conditions, Nala is an angsty teen who just wants attention from mother Rebecca (Samantha Castillo) and father Guillermo (Arap Bethke). Attention will certainly be what she receives in spades once crossing paths with her horrifying, authoritative Grandma Josefa (Ofelia Medina)… This atmospheric horror hails from Mexico, and is the latest in a long line of effective old-folks terror like The Visit and American Gothic.
The time has come that they all feared: Luna (Ivanna Sofia Ferro) is going through organ failure. Luna’s life hanging in the balance, Rebecca turns to the woman she hasn’t spoken to in years. None of the family has ever met her before either—Rebecca’s mother, Josefa! Nala is understandably annoyed that she has to abandon school to take this trip with her family. She seems cold toward Luna, which is disheartening when Ferro is just so adorable in the role. Still, Rebecca begs Nala to fully support Luna at this time. Unsurprisingly, Josefa’s three-story home is way out in the middle-of-nowhere-countryside. There is also conveniently no wifi, nor any cell service.
Straight away, the audience gets a feel for the grim atmosphere of the movie. Something seems off with Josefa, and Nala appears to be the only one taking notice. Nala begins having nightmares. Things are made even worse when Rebecca and Guillermo announce that they are going away for a few days. The kids will stay with Josefa! Abigail, the housekeeper, gives Luna and Nala corn pudding and tells them a creepy urban legend about triplet sisters that become embroiled in witchcraft. Each night, Nala is haunted by this tale of a witch who would suck the blood of children to stay young. Mal de Ojo is vivid in its language and mythology to the point that it feels very realistic.
The crux of the tale is an evil wish-granting totem called a Baca that hatches from an egg, eventually demanding something horrible of the asker. During the film, this legend unspools until every piece of it becomes relevant to what is occurring within the house. Her parents gone, Nala tries her damndest to defend her sister, Luna, in the face of Grandma Josefa’s awful ways. At one point, Josefa calls Nala a “whore” for the swimsuit she is wearing in front of gardener Pedro (Mauro González). In another, she refuses Nala’s vegetarian food requests, proclaiming the lifestyle choice as a “big city fad.” However, it is the abuse toward Luna that is unforgivable. Nala thinks Josefa is coming out at night, prowling and climbing on their ceiling before sucking blood from Luna’s leg.
Neither Pedro nor Abigail will believe Nala, and she cannot even contact their parents thanks to Josefa locking up the only phone, and curb-stomping Nala’s own. Is Nala being gaslight about the terrors she sees at night, or is there really something witchy afoot? The fact that I ever second-guessed myself while watching proves that the script is strong indeed from Junior Rosario. I felt for young Nala throughout. Mal de Ojo is very dark in its approach to children in peril; I was shocked by the lengths it goes to at times.
Ultimately, this is a super creepy, subversive take on witch mythology. The second I heard the line about witches removing their skin to fly, chills immediately went up my spine. An extra layer is added concerning the mystery element. As the final pieces of the puzzle slide into place, I could not believe the audacity of Mal de Ojo to conclude in such a manner. I think audiences are in for a treat when Mal de Ojo becomes readily available to watch.
Mal de Ojo screened at 2022’s Fantastic Fest.
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