The structure of most horror films involves a threat entering into the protagonist’s world. There is a fear of an outside that comes in, best exemplified by Psycho, where, at your most private moment, you can be brutally murdered. Horror does what it can to disrupt our safe spaces, but the foundations it rattles are always threatened by a kind of “other.” In Shrew’s Nest, a Spanish film directed by Juanfer Andrés and Esteban Roel, the source of the monster is reversed, for the threat is not about someone coming in, but rather a fear of getting out.
Shrew’s Nest is the tale of two sisters, the much older Montse, and her younger, nameless sister, who is referred to as “the girl.” Their mother died giving birth to the latter, and a few years later their father disappeared during the war, so Montse has raised the young girl for years. Montse is a talented seamstress but severely agoraphobic, and the younger sister is her lifeline to the outside world. Things begin to spiral out of control on the occasion of the younger sister’s 18th birthday. While spying on her sister Montse sees her talk to a young man, and is overcome at the horror of any man touching her sister. Her religious fervor kicks in, and Montse cuts her younger sister’s face with a switch, a mark that “the girl” will have for the rest of the film. “The girl” defends herself by hitting Montse in the head with an iron. Montse’s wound is hidden by her dark hair, and this is the first of many wounds that is revealed throughout the film. Their dead father torments Montse in visions, alluding to her “true self.” Montse has been hiding what she is for so long that the seams begin to unravel.
One night there is a knock on a door, and a strange man is collapsed outside it. Terrified but inspired by Jesus, Montse takes him in, and quickly becomes enamored. The man has broken his leg and needs to “disappear” from his own life, so staying at the apartment of the two sisters is ideal for him. His intrusion, however, sets off a violent spiral revealing the family’s secrets. Montse becomes increasingly obsessed with this man, drugging him with morphine and doing everything in her power to make sure he doesn’t leave. As “the girl” attempts to figure out who this man is and rescue him from his sister’s clutches, Montse becomes more and more obsessive, descending into violence.
Beyond this point are spoilers, but from the plot summary I am certain we all know where this film is going.
A tight, claustrophobic, and aesthetically pleasing horror film, I was looking forward to this until about 10 minutes in where I realized the direction it would go. Montse’s agoraphobia and religious fervor come from her father sexually abusing her as a child, and the younger sister is not her sister, but rather her daughter, a child of an incestuous rape. Montse’s murderous madness, which is what it turns into by the end of the film, was caused by this abuse. Their father did not disappear, but rather was killed by Montse, when she suspected he was about to begin abuse their daughter.
Montse has hidden his body in the house, and as more intruders come in, searching for the man, Montse has to hide those bodies as well. The horror of this film is the monster that is hidden in the family, the horrors that are boarded up in the walls. Montse has killed, and feels like she “has to” kill again. Montse’s agoraphobia is not a fear of the world, but rather, she is afraid of herself, for the “monster” here is within. When finally confronted with the outside world she destroys what she can, hoping to save herself.
My biggest pet peeve in cinema is the reduction of all non-normative behavior to being raped. Not only is this deeply offensive to survivors of rape and abuse, but also terrible writing. Why does one have to be insane to kill their rapist? Why does one have to be raped to be insane? Any attempts at motivation or character traits that are not superficial, are reduced to this initial trauma, making Montse nothing more than her rape. This trope, which reeks of misogyny, for it is almost always a woman, makes a promising film tired, offensive, and easily forgotten.