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A minor technicality prevents David Casademunt’s Netflix’s The Wasteland (El páramo, The Beast) from being classified as a horror Western; it is set in 19th-century Spain as opposed to the American frontier. However, the Netflix period film fits in both visually and thematically with subgenre staples like Bone Tomahawk, The Burrowers, and The Wind. Here a family of three finds a new home after escaping a civil war. In time their rural refuge is fraught with unprecedented problems, including an uncanny threat hiding on the plains.

The innate characteristics of horror films are magnified when set against arid and desolate backdrops. There is also now the addition of cruel and untamed territories; places that civilization steers clear of because of more unparalleled dangers. Young Diego (Asier Flores) and his parents, Lucía (Inma Cuesta) and Salvador (Roberto Álamo), did not come to these parts because of a desire to develop the land or to look for new resources. No, they are here because of the turmoil back home. With no neighbors in sight or violence to witness, the film’s characters are safe. At least for the time being.

Netflix's Spanish Period Horror 'The Wasteland' Presents a Monstrous Home Invasion [Horrors Elsewhere]

It does not take long for the dread to creep in and sour the family’s peace. While Diego and his mother are relaxed, Salvador is always uneasy. He knows what the world outside this utopia is like. Yet, every time Salvador wants to teach Diego about guns, hunting or farming, Lucía pushes their son toward safer, household chores. Little does she know, Diego’s mother is delaying the inevitable and leaving her son completely unprepared for what comes next.

Something else Lucía frowns upon is her husband’s mode of bedtime storytelling; he hopes to toughen Diego up with a childhood tale of a mysterious beast that preys on people’s fears. As usual, Lucía shields her son from anything she deems unpleasant and scary. This does not stop Salvador, though — he later tells Diego the whole story about his sister, Juana, who supposedly died after seeing the beast. The son then wonders if the wounded stranger (Víctor Benjumea) they eventually find in a boat also saw his own beast, if not the same one that killed Juana.

Netflix's Spanish Period Horror 'The Wasteland' Presents a Monstrous Home Invasion [Horrors Elsewhere]

Despite Lucía’s protests, Salvador soon departs in search of the stranger’s family. While it seems like Salvador is doing the right thing by ensuring this other man’s wife and children are looked after in his absence, Lucía understandably feels abandoned. There is always the possibility Salvador may not return; he might rather stay with a family he feels actually needs him, as opposed to Lucía who is constantly undermining his fathering. Nevertheless, this development forces both Lucía and Diego to change in ways they did not ever foresee. 

Salvador’s chronic discomfort allowed his family to be more carefree; he alone shouldered the emotional burden. Now, there is no barrier between Lucía and Diego and the harshness of their surroundings. They are forced to do all the farming and butchering; the duties that habitually defaulted to the patriarch. On top of that, Lucía must now protect what is left of her family from external harms. She wields the rifle — an engraved birthday gift from Salvador to Diego — she did not want her son to have in the first place, and she teaches her boy how to kill when in close combat. Lucía indeed continues to guard her son, but her methods are progressively severe and menacing. Every day without Salvador, the mother becomes a shadow of her former self.

Netflix's Spanish Period Horror 'The Wasteland' Presents a Monstrous Home Invasion [Horrors Elsewhere]

Maternal horror frequently finds mothers imperiled by not only outside forces but also their own insecurities and misgivings. At first, it is unclear if the beast Salvador spoke of even exists. Is there really a horrible creature lurking nearby, or has Lucía succumbed to her growing anxiety and manifested the monster? According to Lucía, this beast was her husband’s way of coping with the fact that Juana was abused by their parents. Lucía, on the other hand, is no longer afforded the luxury of an untroubled life anymore. She cannot ignore the violence she hoped to never experience again. Whether or not the threat is a society’s upheaval or the collapse of her own family, Lucía must reckon with ugly realities. Although she cannot stop a war or bring her husband back, Lucía can fight a monster. Fending off the beast is all that keeps her focused in these trying times.

Netflix’s The Wasteland is a ravishing film made with sparse elements. Cinematographer Isaac Vila draws beauty from the barren environment as well as Diego’s rustic yet cozy house. The general gamut of earth tones is occasionally broken up by scarce reds, fragmented sources of light, and unearthly shapes born out of intense darkness. Most importantly, the small cast of four is cut in half by the last two acts. This reduction in characters emphasizes the increasing sense of loneliness and an urgent push for survival.

At times Casademunt’s film comes across as too modest for its own good, and viewers will likely be divided by both the pace and the scanty sightings of the fabled beast. Even so, Netflix’s The Wasteland is an attractive slow-burn, not to mention a welcome addition to the wild, wild world of horror Westerns.

Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not be universal, but one thing is for sure a scream is understood, always and everywhere.

Netflix's Spanish Period Horror 'The Wasteland' Presents a Monstrous Home Invasion [Horrors Elsewhere]

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