What does it take to be a good horror antagonist? A supernatural element? Any serial killer flick will tell you that’s not the case. Humanity? Not according to Jaws or this summer’s Crawl. We’re not even sure it takes being a moving creature, if you count Twister as a horror movie. But can you strip away even more than that? Can you take an active threat away entirely, pitting the victims only against the rules of reality, and still make a good horror movie? Playing this year at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, The Yellow Night says “Yes”.
The Yellow Night is about a group of Brazilian teenagers, recent high school graduates who have decided to take a celebratory roadtrip. One of the teens, Monica, knows of the perfect place they can stay for free: her grandfather’s nearly abandoned beach house. It’s probably safe to hang out there, says Monica, although her grandfather was doing some pretty strange work there. He was a theoretical physicist who, according to some of the tapes of his lectures, believed that space and time aren’t as rigid as we think. As a result of his experiments, his house is now the hub of something truly terrifying, a horror that will defy the laws of the reality we know… and send Monica and her friends through a hell where time itself seems to be twisting against them.
“The Yellow Night is a little like looking at your favorite painting through a kaleidoscope. The colors are there, but they are fractured, scrambled, turned into something as familiar as it is strange and beautiful.”
Before we move on to talk about the technical aspects of this movie, let’s address something that you’re probably thinking right now. Yes, this plot sounds pretty damn similar to every teen slasher that exists. Couple of kids, some booze, and then a whole lotta scares—haven’t we seen this vehicle before? In a way, the answer is “absolutely.” The Yellow Night wears the tropes of the subgenre on its sleeve but it’s in the way that it subverts those tropes that makes the movie stand out. For example, the protagonists are teens, but instead of the unrealistically attractive, sex-obsessed high-schoolers of your average teen slasher, these are real eighteen-year-olds, in all their awkward, selfish glory. Similarly, there’s a kind of dark history surrounding the place they stay, but we never get an explainer of what’s going on from some creepy old guy at a gas station. For horror fans, watching The Yellow Night is a little like looking at your favorite painting through a kaleidoscope. The colors are there, but they are fractured, scrambled, turned into something as familiar as it is strange and beautiful.
Part of that beauty comes from this film’s storytelling, specifically, the way it is paced. For a long stretch of the movie, we’re actually just spending time with the teens. We get to know them, see what they’re like. Ramon Porto Mota and Jhésus Tribuzi, who collaborated on the script, definitely took a risk in telling their story like this. It is, as we mention in our title, a noticeably slow-burning film, and it wouldn’t be surprising if that aspect actually makes some of the audience drop off part of the way through. However, what Porto Mota and Tribuzi are sneakily doing is making us empathize with the characters, so that when shit does start getting crazy later on, we feel the same terror that they do. Here, again, is The Yellow Night subverting a slasher trope: instead of characters being there for the gory (and darkly fun) ways they die, these characters are here to come alive.
And speaking of those characters, this movie wouldn’t be half of what it is without some spectacular performances by Rana Sui, Clara Pinheiro de Oliveira, Felipe Espindola, Caio Richards, Matheus Martins, Marina Alencar, and Ana Rita Gurgel. These actors, many of whom have never done a feature film, have an on-screen chemistry that’s authentic and often time hilarious. And there’s good reason for that. After the screening at Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, a Q&A with some of the producers revealed that before shooting, these actors spent a full month on the road together, getting to know one another. The result is a group of friendships that feel effortlessly genuine. Chemistry abounds and provides much of the film’s humor. Before the movie played, the host introducing it pitched it as a “Richard Linklater hangout film with slasher tropes.” And she was 100% right.
But don’t think all this human drama takes away from this being an effective horror flick. Ramon Porto Mota’s direction made for some extremely satisfying scares, usually in the way he used the setting to tell the story. The Yellow Night can make a slightly open door scarier than other movies can make a monster, a disappearing beach horizon freakier than pounds of blood and guts. There’s a particular hallway scene that stands out as evidence of Porto Mota’s mastery of the craft, one that will have even the most experienced horror fan on the edge of their seat. Of course, if that horror fan is big on gore, they might be left a little disappointed with The Yellow Night, which features almost no blood whatsoever. But even the biggest gore fan in the world can’t deny Porto Mota’s ability to create atmosphere.
“The Yellow Night can make a slightly open door scarier than other movies can make a monster, a disappearing beach horizon freakier than pounds of blood and guts.”
It takes a special kind of talent to subvert horror tropes. Twisting them just because “they’re bad,” always comes off poorly, because after all, tropes exist because they’ve worked in the past. Instead, it takes a love of those tropes to reappropriate them, exemplified best in films like Scream or Cabin in the Woods. And though The Yellow Night is certainly not as on-the-nose about horror tropes as either of those films, that love is obvious. That affection for the genre, combined with a different type of peril for the lovable victims and a noticably skillful mastery of filmmaking, makes The Yellow Night an absolute must-see.
For more coverage of what’s showing at this year’s Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, keep an eye on our Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter. And for more reviews like this one, plus all the best horror news and interviews, keep lurking at Nightmare on Film Street.