REVIEW: CURSE OF THE XTABAI
Nehanda (Nehanda Higinio) has been having a reoccurring nightmare about a Mayan evil spirit known as the Xtabai. At the same time, a nearby Mayan cave has been exposed, and a strange sickness has fallen over Nehanda’s village. Fearing a major breakout, the Belizean government sends the army to quarantine the area.
When Nehanda’s brother (Tomas Fabian Serrut) gets sick, and the local doctor is unable to help, Nehanda’s mother (Miriam Antoinette-Ochaeta) defiantly tries to walk beyond the army blockade, despite warnings that she will be shot if she continues. As Nehanda and her schoolmates look on, Nehanda’s mother is killed by the army. Distraught, but convinced that her nightmare of the Xtabai may hold the secret to stopping the sickness and saving the world, Nehanda and a handful of her schoolmates, including her professor (Jim Goodchild Arnold), hire jungle expert Mr. John (Arran Bevis) to sneak them by the army blockade so that they can investigate the Mayan cave and, hopefully, stop the curse of the Xtabai. Unfortunately, death lurks in the jungle, and not just from the army.
Matthiew Klinck’s 2012: Curse of the Xtabai is a muddle of many things. Certain aspects are impressively polished and professional, while others are amateurish in the strictest definition of the world. Knowledge that this is the first film made entirely in Belize, with cast and crew made-up primarily of Belizeans, explains quite a bit; the film exhibits multiple signs of this being a first-time experience.
First, though, the quality. The cinematography is predominantly strong. The footage looks strong, even as it is framed in more of a floating camera, documentary-style. Some scenes don’t look as great as others, but often there’s an obvious obstacle involved, such as an extremely dark setting or a river, for example. In those case, the footage looks more than good enough.
There are also a handful of quality visual effects, mostly occurring near the film’s climax, that make for some interesting visuals. The imagery of the Xtabai haunting over the jungle is also integrated nicely, for the most part. It is creepy when it needs to be, though I will admit, at one point, it struck me more as comical than disturbing. The arrival of the army is also handled in an earnestly epic way.
Which leads me to the earnestness of this production. This is not a case of tongue-in-cheek drama amid a horror-thriller tale. No, everyone here is truly committed to the ideas and storyline, and everything is played serious. Almost too serious, because there is a disconnect between the level of drama the film is going for, and the level of drama the actors are capable of convincingly portraying. This means that, if you’re laughing at something, chances are it’s not for the right reasons.
It is clear that many of the actors in the film are new to the craft, or if they’ve had experience, they’re still early on in that experience. The result is that, when forced to come up with the necessary emotions for the scenes they’re in, often the vibe falls short. Part of it is the acting, but the narrative can be to blame too.
For example, the scene involving the death of Nehanda’s mother. Extremely dramatic moment where Nehanda and her class essentially watch Nehanda’s mother murdered in public by the army. It’s a devastating moment, or else it should be, but the class reaction feels far too tame for what has happened. Likewise, shortly thereafter, Nehanda and friends are sneaking off into the jungle in an almost care-free manner with little signs of the traumatic event that has just unfolded, or the potential dangers ahead.
This emotional disconnect continues throughout the narrative, as other characters start to die thanks to the Xtabai. If a friend dies in the river the night before, the next day probably shouldn’t be a time for hanging out in the river for fun. Some moments do come up to the proper emotional level, however, so it’s not all “off,” but much of the film lacks that cohesion between what has happened and the resulting emotional reaction.
And the edit doesn’t always help there, as it sometimes tries to mask these moments with audio score to drive the emotion, and instead comes off as awkward. Likewise, some sequences play out too long, giving a sense of bloated repetition (the aforementioned river at night experience, for example). The result is a film that often feels like it is meandering too much for its own good.
I think 2012: Curse of the Xtabai was an interesting attempt at a horror-thriller, and if it is the first film out of Belize, among other considerations (the production being a teaching and learning experience), then it makes sense that it stumbles where and how it does, and there is certainly room for improvement in future films. While the acting definitely had trouble reaching the levels of drama that were being set up in the narrative, I also think the story itself could’ve done a better job by having events occur in a way that made more sense in regard to the tragedies that unfold. Overall, though, as far as first efforts go, this could be much, much worse. LINK