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The tense and wonderfully unusual film out of Argentina, “Rock, Paper, and Scissors” blends family drama with classic horror chills and mayhem.

When Argentine filmmakers Martín Blousson and Macarena García Lenzi reached out to me to pitch their film ROCK, PAPER, AND SCISSORS ahead of Fantastic Fest, I knew it was one I had to add to my must-see list. I have a real soft spot for small, independent foreign films. I also adore classic genre films and couldn’t resist the comparison to films like WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? and the lure of an offbeat and gory black comedy.

The film premiered at Frightfest in London less than a month, where it received a very warm reception. It made its North American Premiere at Fantastic Fest on Friday, September 20th. Marking the directorial debut for both Martin and Macarena, ROCK, PAPER, AND SCISSORS is a micro-budget film shot entirely in one location with only three actors.

The story about twisted family ties, illusion and disillusionment, resentments and revenge lives and dies on the strength of the performances and the ability of the filmmakers to create considerable tension within the confined space of the family home.

Fortunately, on both fronts, this film more than delivers.

The movie opens on a woman, Maria José (Valeria Giorcelli), as she sits near catatonic on the couch in a grand old home, eating popcorn and watching Wizard of Oz. Someone is frantically ringing the doorbell, but she pays no attention.

A man, who were soon learn is her brother Jose (Pablo Sigal), joins her on the couch to complain about the incessant ringing. He asks her to go answer it, and she begs him to do it. They play a quick round of rock, paper, scissors to see who will be forced to greet the unwelcome visitor.

Having lost the game, Jesus descends the long staircase to open the door, where he finds a woman he barely recognizes. But he quickly realizes it’s Magdalena, his long absent half-sister (Agustina Cerviño).

The three have a seemingly cordial reunion, but Magdalena makes it clear she’s not there on a social visit.

She’s returned to help settle the estate of their recently deceased father and claim her share of the inheritance.

Since all the money has been spent on their father’s care following his attempted suicide, Magdalena suggests they sell the spacious family home where Jesus and Maria are living. However, shortly after arriving, Magdalena takes a serious tumble down the stairs, leaving her incapacitated and completely dependent on her estranged siblings.

While Jesus and Magdalena appear to have a warmth between them, it’s immediately clear that she and Maria are on less friendly terms. Magdalena confesses her suspicion that Maria deliberately pushed her down the stairs, referencing the strange girl’s mental instability.

The strain is exasperated as the two share a series of uncomfortable exchanges, with Maria playing nurse to Magdalena, just as she was forced to care for her invalid father for months before his death.

There’s an unbearable tension as Maria pulls a large pair of scissors out to cut the bandages from Magdalena’s wounds. She begins to bathe her, while quoting the bible and speaking of betrayal and the need to forgive one’s enemies.

Jesus remains sympathetic, balancing his love for one mentally ill sister with his concern for the safety and well-being of the other. But slowly, Maria starts to look like more victim than aggressor, while Jesus’ shiny veneer begins to crack. Suddenly Magdalena — and the audience as her proxy — wonder who, if anyone she can really trust.

And just like that, this atmospheric chamber piece turns from dysfunctional family drama to a slow-burning thriller, with each of the three characters taking turns reeling us in and repelling us.

Bit by bit, breadcrumbs are laid out that hint at the family’s darker secrets. Though the filmmakers take care not to reveal too much, keeping the audience constantly guessing.

The characters are compelling, and the actors do an extraordinary job eliciting both sympathy and disgust. Though it’s never entirely revealed what happened to her, and how much of her instability is nature vs nature, Maria is played as a childlike woman oddly obsessed with Wizard of Oz and a pet Guinea Pig named Toto.

Jesus is an aspiring filmmaker, whose experimental film-within-a-film — an unsettling ode to Oz starring his sister — delivers some of the movie’s more visually striking and disturbing animated sequences.

Magdalena does an exceptional job conveying a wide range of emotions, ranging from confusion, to pain, to cool calculation and palpable fear. Although she spends the majority of the film bedridden, her emotional range and expressive eyes help sell the horror of her situation.

The film is as visually captivating as it is well written.

The dilapidated old home becomes another character, shot in muted jewel tones, with interiors and costumes that make it hard to place it in a time period. Thus, there’s a sense that this is a house lost in time with inhabitants who no longer dwell in the real world but rather exist in a time and space all their own.

The directors are adept at creating atmosphere and mood, delivering a quiet and creeping chiller. It keeps you firmly planted on the edge of your seat, until the subtle hints of madness unravel into an explosively satisfying ending in this deadly game of Rock, Paper, and Scissors.

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