Fair Warning: Light potential spoilers for Tigers Are Not Afraid lie ahead.
Issa López’s Tigers Are Not Afraid is a damn good movie. A girl named Estrella (Paola Lara) lives in a Mexican city ravaged by the Drug War. During a shooting that shuts down her school, Estrella is given three magical pieces of chalk by her teacher. Each piece carries one wish. When Estrella’s mother vanishes, murdered or trafficked by local creepazoid crime lord Caco (Ianis Guerrero), Estrella makes a wish. And as so often seems to be the case, her wish comes true in the worst way. Her mother comes back as a terrifying specter bearing dire tidings.
Fleeing both ghost and gangsters, Estrella falls in with a band of homeless kids led by the cynical, scarred Shine (Juan Ramón López). Shine and his posse have all lost loved ones to Caco, and they want him to pay. For his part, the villainous Caco just wants back the cell phone Shine stole from him. Oh, and he wants the kids dead. It doesn’t really matter which comes first. The ghost of Estrella’s mother, one of many murdered souls haunting the city, has goals of her own. Thus does López set the stage for one of this year’s finest films. Tigers Are Not Afraid arrives on Shudder today, and it’s also playing a limited theatrical run. In other words, you’ve got a window to shower it with laurels.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is dense with terrific craft. Lara and Ramón López play their challenging roles with aplomb. Guerrero and Tenoch Huerta are admirably loathsome and sneering as the villains of the piece. López’s script weaves smoothly between tones, fitting together the fantastic horror of relentless wraiths, the mundane horror of venal men, and the young protagonists’ rare moments free of worry. The film’s art design – from the eerily plastic texture of its ghosts to the bold cartoon tigers Shine paints – is striking. But if I had to pick one aspect of López and her collaborators’ filmmaking that makes this horror film click, it would be the ways Tigers Are Not Afraid uses special effects. They’re central to some of the film’s most indelible moments, and the skill with which they are wielded deserves to shine in neon.
Tigers Are Not Afraid was not an expensive film (converting pesos to dollars, it cost a little over $1,300,000 to make) and sometimes its seams show. But a special effect being obvious does not automatically make it ineffective. Working within her limited budget, Lopez wastes nothing, wielding digital effects and practical props to craft a world where the supernatural feels true. And the attention paid to how, when, and where effects are deployed ensures that every use serves the story Tigers is telling.
Most of Tigers’ digital work takes advantage of the medium’s unreality to heighten its atmosphere. When Estrella makes her first wish, a trail of blood begins to follow her wherever she goes. There is no mistaking it for anything else, and the wrongness of its physical behavior makes it all the more unsettling: blood is not supposed to flow in clean lines or move with purpose. When Shine tells his crew a fairy tale about a tiger, the tiger he painted earlier in the film animates: it acts out Shine’s story, pouncing from the wall on which it was painted and chowing down on its human foes, vividly alive even as it holds to a strictly 2D plane.
Tigers’ practical effects work makes the experience of its young heroine tangible. When violence erupts, it hits hard not only because of the cast’s fine work, but because the effects used to render it give it consequence and weight. When Estrella interacts directly with the supernatural, Tigers’ practical effects and props bolster the story’s truth. A line she draws in a doorway with the wishing chalk not only bars the blood trail from pursuing her, it puts an exclamation point on the trail’s otherworldly eeriness by comparison. The make-up and costumes used to create the ghosts give texture to their undeath – plastic bags and charred skin speaking to the horrific ways in which they died.
López and her collaborators deploy Tigers’ effects with intention and care. Each one does precisely what it needs to do in the way the movie needs it to be done. Case in point, the stuffed tiger seen in this piece’s header image and the trailer below:
The tiger’s animation may be Tigers’ most elaborate digital effect, and it comes after having had significant screen time as an actual stuffed toy. On an immediate visual level, it is an invocation of the film’s key motif. To dig a bit deeper, spending time with the toy when it’s just a toy acclimates the audience’s eye to it. When it comes to life, its digital counterpart is already familiar. It’s more readily accepted as real. One of López and company’s cleverest choices reinforces the tiger’s reality by bounding its choreography within the weight and range of motion of a toy.
López and her collaborators bring that same level of precision and thought to all of Tigers Are Not Afraid’s visual effects work, and to the film as a whole. The result is, for my money, essential viewing. It’s one of this year’s best films.