Two groups of people potentially qualify as the title characters in The Condemned, a Puerto Rican drama that straddles the line between (tame) horror movie and (marginal) ghost story. At a glance, the condemned appear to be the citizens of Rosales, a small village that was the site, decades earlier, of groundbreaking cancer research by a Mexican physician. None of them seems happy, and when the doctor’s adult daughter (Cristina Rodlo) arrives back in town with plans to turn the family mansion into a scientific museum, one old-timer immediately blows his head off, and another hangs herself. On the other hand, with all the creepy goings-on in said mansion—unexplained tremors, objects flying about on their own, lengthy tracking shots down dusty corridors—perhaps it’s Rodlo and her various assistants, as well as her now-almost-vegetative father, who’ve been declared unfit for continued existence.
Given the basic premise, it isn’t terribly hard to guess what horrific revelation The Condemned is building toward, which makes the climax feel spectacularly anticlimactic. Well before then, though, director Roberto Busó-García has established himself as a one-trick pony, holding the same vaguely ominous note from start to finish. (He does throw in one early jump scare, which in retrospect seems designed to assure audiences that this is indeed a genre film.) An almost imperceptibly moving camera can be an effective suspense tool, but not when it’s employed in just about every shot; after a while, it functions more like a hypnotist dangling a watch in front of viewers’ faces and insisting, “You’re getting sleepy.” The performances are all equally somnambulant, though, which at least gives the film an admirable consistency.
In the end, however, The Condemned is one of those films that largely succeeds or fails on the basis of a concluding twist—one that’s not so easily guessed, though it’s carefully set up from the beginning. Viewers who enjoy a big rug-pull will want to keep an eye out for this one, as it essentially combines the surprise endings of several notable films into one all-encompassing “Gotcha!” Whether this makes up for the zombie shuffle of the preceding 80 minutes will be a matter of personal taste, and a case can be made that the script (by Busó-García, Danielle Schleif, and Luis R. Trelles) doesn’t play fair with the audience. It’s a welcome shot of adrenaline, however, in a torpid genre flick that badly needed one.