Cults and communes have remained a common pop culture talking point for decades; the Manson family alone have a backlog of film and television portrayals, Mary Harron’s Charlie Says being the most recent. Within horror these are usually concocted tales that sensationalise and heighten the cults activities and their charismatic leader(s); think The Wickerman or the recently released trailer for Ari Aster’s Midsommar. With a real-life figure such as Manson or Jim Jones, however, whose practices were notoriously chilling, the zeitgeist moved them beyond their own acts to become icons, losing some of that embedded fear within the process. But what about lesser known examples, ones that stayed out of the spotlight and retain their threat and mystery?
Sonia Escolano’s House of Sweat and Tears attempts to shed some light on just one of these buried cases. Reported to be based on a true Spanish cult case from the 1990s that still has 26 people listed as missing, the cult remains unnamed with an iron-fisted matriarch named ‘She’ at its helm. Residing in a derelict building, wearing all white and with a variety of men and women of all ages, the matriarch leader oversees the members’ attempts to become closer to God, through frequent acts of suffering including self mutilation. When the film opens, we see a young woman break some glass and then put it into her shoe, before slowly putting her foot back inside. The scratch and cracks of the glass are slow and nauseating, communicating enough without having to slash an Achilles tendon or show blood pouring from her foot. This act of mutilation is said to bring the participants closer to God, a sacrifice, the leader telling them to “not be afraid of your impending suffering”.
Impending is correct, and the acts of violence and misery don’t stop there. The film follows multiple characters to a confusing degree as they all struggle with fasting, constant prayer, abstaining from sex and performing acts of mutilation to bring them closer to God. With so little screen-time or backstory dedicated to each character− their unique personhood stripped by very means of association with the cult, makes the empathy very hard to come by. The plight of these various characters is certainly felt in their cries and wails, but how they came to be in such a situation is almost never explored.
Alzira Gómez gives a menacing performance as She; her calmness and delusion make the film more interesting to watch as she lets terror unfold without so much as the bat of an eyelid. Escolano’s ability to make the violence seem so methodical and simple that it almost feels natural is a wonderful element of her film-making within this story. The slow pace at which this is delivered, however, is borderline unbearable. While not all cult films have to reach those dizzying heights, it doesn’t have the build-up of tension that could make viewers feel more uncomfortable as it progresses (take Ti West’s The Sacrament for example), where it wouldn’t necessarily have to finish with a climactic set-piece. Perhaps that’s a fault of the mainstream horror circuit giving us those payoffs too frequently, but House of Sweat and Tears has put all its eggs in one basket within the first scene, never really feeling like it moves anywhere after that.
This slowness, aided by a near-constant shaky camera and dark lighting, make this highly interesting premise feel at times lifeless. Escolano certainly knows how to get under the skin, but the rate at which she delivers those moments is scattered. This deliberately slow momentum oftentimes feels like an ordeal, which funnily enough reflects well on the experiences of the cult members themselves; the repression is felt painstakingly throughout.
In its sedated study of faith and doubt, House of Sweat and Tears deftly conjures its disturbing imagery but never escalates to propel its story, or characters, further. In a sub-genre so saturated with content Escolano attempts to do something different, but ultimately ends up fading into the background.
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of Screen Queens. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her lifesource is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends way too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here