I’ve always contended that the horror genre is best suited for tackling issues too controversial or dvisive for other genres, and my festival travels seem to bear this theory out: the horror films I see at Sundance, Toronto, and Fantastic Fest are often packed with social commentary, stark analyses of gender roles, and political insights too personal, uncomfortable, or incendiary to translate via comedy or melodrama.
Plus when you’re dealing with a horror film with a brain, you know that almost anything can happen.
Such is the case with the rock-solid indie thriller Undocumented, which is both a highly entertaining thriller and a somewhat shocking horror film, but it’s also a highly insightful and darkly amusing indictment of America’s contradictory policies on illegal immigrants.
Directed with style and intensity by first-timer Chris Peckover, Undocumented starts out like a rather clever “found footage” thriller -- the narrative device used to fine effect in flicks like [REC], Cloverfield, and (of course) The Blair Witch Project. The premise is that five American filmmakers are intent on making a documentary about a group of Mexicans who board a bus one night and head off into the desert. The ultimate goal, obviously, is the American border, but our five documentarians (and the dozens of hopeful migrants) are captured and abducted by a group of .. well, let’s just say they’re not the United States border patrol. They’re much, much worse.
If Undocumented feels a bit schizophrenic -- as if it wants to straddle the fence between trenchant social commentary and simple (if dark) escapist entertainment -- I’d say it’s due to the filmmakers trying hard to balance the smart stuff and the scary stuff in equal measure. If it doesn’t always succeed (one harrowing scene feels a lot like Saw, and Undocumented simply doesn’t need that sort of elaborate set-piece), at least you’re still looking at a film that tries to deliver shocks and insight in even doses. The effort is admirable enough to help you forgive a few moments of genre-style familiarity.
Despite a few moments of “been there, seen that,” Undocumented is a surprisngly unique example of how to infuse stark, graphic horror with a few salient points on issues social and political, but it all boils down to plain old morality. (Plus the film works exceedingly well as a plain old suspense thriller, especially in Act III.) The cast takes to the multi-camera faux-verite gimmick remarkably well, and while there are strong performances across the board, Undocumented is almost single-handedly stolen by the ever-nefarious Peter Stormare. The actor exudes intelligent but noxious malice without even showing his face.