Isolation has to be, at least, one of the key valves helping pump lifeblood into the horror genre. Haunted house stories thrive on it, relishing in scenarios where a way off the beaten path location keeps a group of people cut off from the world but trapped with a bunch of very angry ghosts. Found footage movies tend to follow suit, with movies like The Blair Witch Project (1999) and the Spanish contagion horror flick REC (2007) closing in even more on those being oppressed by bad things.
Alfonso Cortés-Cavanillas’ Ego, about a young woman suffering from severe depression and a history of suicidal tendencies that discovers an exact copy of herself in a dating app, embraces the horrors of isolation by leaning into the hellish experience of the COVID-19 pandemic to create a haunting case study of how people can end up haunting themselves if forced to live within the confines of their already broken homes.
The woman in question is called Paloma (María Pedraza), a very intense but deeply traumatized character that is trying very hard to be a normal girl that just wants to have fun (a sentiment that puts pressure on her constantly through Cortés-Cavanillas’ clever use of the Cindy Lauper classic song of the same name). Her family is dealing with the loss of someone that was essential to their core unit, which took place inside the apartment they live in.
It’s within this context that Paloma is trying to deal with a particularly invasive strain of suicidal depression, on top of her trauma and mental illness. The character is accompanied by her mother (played by Marian Álvarez) and by one of her best friends via video chat called Jorge (Pol Monen). And then there’s Paloma’s double, whose intentions quickly turn sinister.
Ego presents horror as a threat that’s ever-present and ready to pounce just as soon as daily routines and whatever it is that we consider as ‘normal’ takes a hit. It elegantly captures just how havoc a massive social health emergency can wreak, especially when considering that people are essentially locked in with themselves and their own personal demons in extreme situations such as these.
Cortés-Cavanillas takes the opportunity to address Covid as an invisible force that can’t be entirely kept out of our homes, the places where we’re supposed to feel safest at. María Pedraza does a great job of making Paloma embody that idea as she interacts with certain parts of her home with a degree of trepidation knowing that key rooms within that space can push her sanity beyond her limits.
The camera sticks close to Paloma throughout the movie, putting a lot of the storytelling responsibilities on Pedraza’s performance. Thankfully, Pedraza is up to the task. She melts into the role and carries her character as if she were an open wound that desperately wants to heal despite being haunted, essentially, by herself.
The movie showcases clever uses of video chat and social media forms of communications to mix in some elements of found footage movies into the story and helps deepen that sense of distance that the quarantine created. It all contrasts in very frightening and uncomfortable ways as some scenes feature radio broadcasts of Spain’s political leaders asking for unity, repeating phrases on how the pandemic is something we’re all dealing with together despite being considerably separated from other people. Survival, in fact, hinges on forced isolation.
The doppelgänger aspect is played in surprisingly subtle ways, with the exception of a scene or two. There’s enough of it to cast doubt on its existence, but there’s also enough to convincingly argue there’s a supernatural element truly oppressive Paloma. It invites thought. Putting the pieces together as from the audience’s side results in a very rewarding process.
Ego is a masterful example of how to turn social crises into thought-provoking horror. Respect is afforded to the topic and the range of emotions the story’s characters have to contend with and none of it is treated superficially. It ticks off all the boxes of a great horror movie while adding a few new ones along the way, setting the bar high for future forays into pandemic horror.