The decision of whether to expand a successful short is one that has befuddled filmmakers for a long time. On the one hand it can be handy for getting funding or interest, by being able to demonstrate what people liked in the first place. On the other hand, films expanded in this way can often feel overstretched. Carlota Pereda’s Piggy (one of the few films directed by a woman at this year’s Frightfest) is an expansion of her 2018 short. But does it work as a full film?
The film is a kind of brutal coming-of-age story. It follows Sara (an excellent Laura Gálan who returns from the short) , an awkward teenage girl in a small Spanish town. She is horribly bullied, in particular by 3 girls her age. They bully her for weight and call her “piggy”. The bullying carries on across social media and from older boys in the town. As a result she is shy, spending her days working in her family’s butcher shop (veggies and vegans be warned – this is a Spanish film). She lives with her kindly but ineffectual father, her mother who cruelly criticises her, and her younger brother. She goes to the town’s pool early one morning to find herself alone except for a quiet solitary man. Suddenly, her bullies pass by and begin mocking her.
They near drown her by placing a net on her head, and then steal her clothes. One girl – Elena (Pilar Castro) – seems to have sympathy and tries to reign in queen bee Maca. Ultimately, though, she still participates in the cruelty. We have seen vicious bullying on screen before and it is a hot button topic, particularly when carried on across social media. However, this sequence is particularly harrowing. One of the strengths of the film, in general, is its ability to place you in Sara’s headspace, achieved through intimate tight cinematography and aided by brilliant performances.
The girls leave and Sara is forced to walk back in to town in just her swimsuit. She is accosted and sexually harassed on her way by the group of boys. She then stumbles upon the man from the pools van off the main road. Suddenly, a bloody hand hits the vans back window and one of the girls appears, covered in blood and pleading with Sara to help. The killer and Sara lock eyes. He leaves her one of the girls’ towels and Sara slowly and awkwardly raises her hand to say goodbye.
This bravura first act is where the short ended. In itself it’s a fantastic slice of horror. The interaction between Sara and the killer is brilliant in its non-verbal simplicity. There are many great moments that set up a sense of unease. From there the film begins to follow the fallout of Sara’s decision to say nothing about the girl’s abduction. As a body is discovered and word of a serial killer spreads across the town, Sara begins to come under pressure from the girl’s parents and the local police. I shall divulge no more of the film’s developments, but this is the section where the film lost me somewhat. I was never bored per se but it lost focus for me. Thankfully it came back together with some strong horror elements in the end.
The filmmaking style reminded me of Alexander Aja‘s Haute Tension (High Tension or Switchblade Romance 2003), Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008), and the “survival horror” or “torture porn” (and I don’t invoke the trend as a put-down!) trends that were popular in the mid 00s. There is also a discernible influence from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), particularly in its clangey discordant soundtrack. Having said that, gorehounds may not find its violence particularly extreme, but that’s a personal preference.
A strength of the film is that it avoids the well trodden path most easily taken. There are no soliloquies from the killer about why he spared Sara or why performed his brief act of kindness.
For me the film stops just short of entering the top tier of recent horrors. However it is an effectively nasty coming of age horror, which – I must admit – has stayed in my head.
Piggy was viewed at Frightfest London and is on general release in the UK and Ireland on the 22nd of October