“The Similars” (BIFAN 2016): Love Letter to Classic Science Fiction Boasts Plenty of Suspense and Absurdist Humor

Writer/director Isaac Ezban’s The Similars (AKA Los Parecidos; Mexico, 2015) is a valentine to science fiction television and cinema of the 1950s and 1960s, with special emphasis on The Twilight Zone, and it pressed all of the right buttons for me when I saw it at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN) in July. Ezban pays tribute to more modern influences, as well — but it will be more fun for viewers to discover these sources on their own, so I will not spoil them here. It is important to note, however, that he is not content with merely recreating the visual style and mode of storytelling of that classic era. He has put his own stamp on the proceedings, such as adding some absurdist humor, horror overtones, and some other elements that were not present – and in some cases, not allowed – in the earlier genre offerings.

Similars Ulises and Irene
Ulises (Gustavo Sanchez Parra) and Irene (Cassandra Cianngherotti) are two strangers who both have compelling reasons to leave town quickly in writer/director Isaac Ezban’s The Similars (AKA Los Parecidos).

I caught Isaac Ezban’s debut feature-length film The Incident (AKA El Incidente; Mexico, 2014) at South Korea’s Busan International Film Festival two years ago and was impressed with its spin on Twilight Zone sensibilities. I was thrilled to see Ezban continuing in that vein with his sophomore effort. He blends paranoia, body horror, and some classic science fiction elements in a claustrophobic setting with interesting characters and several unexpected, well-executed twists and turns.

Eight people, most of them strangers to one another, find themselves stranded in a small bus station in a rural town several hours away from Mexico City. Some of them are desperate to leave as quickly as possible, but a torrential rainstorm that seems to be pouring down all over Mexico prohibits anyone from leaving by bus or taxi. Stationmaster Martin (Fernando Becerril) is just a couple of weeks from retirement and seems initially disinterested in the plight of the stranded customers. Ulises (Gustavo Sanchez Parra) is insistent on leaving as soon as possible because his wife is in labor in a Mexico City hospital, and pregnant Irene (Cassandra Cianngherotti) is fleeing from an abusive husband against whom she has just fought back. Roberta, a woman who speaks in an unusual language (Maria Elena Olivares), seems to have some mystical knowledge, while restroom attendant Rosa (Catalina Salas) acts oddly and warns Irene not to trust Ulises, who the two women have only just met.

Similars Martin
Stationmaster Martin (Fernando Becerril) goes through harrowing physical changes.

A taxi arrives a bit later, leaving as quickly as it arrived, bringing mother Gertrudis (Carmen Beato) and her young son Ignacio (Santiago Torres), who wears an unusual medical apparatus and requires mysterious injections, along with university medical student Alvaro (Humberto Busto).

Members of the group start succumbing one by one to seizures and then physical changes. Martin, his face now wrapped in bandages, begins to accuse Ulises of being a demon, and suspicion and mistrust soon start to take rise with the distraught individuals.

Similars Irene magazine
Irene (Cassandra Cianngherotti) makes a startling discovery that only confuses matters more for the trapped would-be travelers.

Isaac Ezban does a splendid job of introducing viewers to his characters in The Similars so that we, like each member of the group, have reason to both believe and doubt that any given individual might be responsible for the bizarre occurrences affecting them. The threat of deadly violence soon rears its head, raising the stakes and heightening the tension. Ezban’s splendid screenplay keeps viewers delightfully off balance as we work to fit puzzle pieces together and try to make sense of what is happening.

The film’s sound design helps set the unsettling tone of the film, with one particular scene involving a loud radio sending both characters’ and viewers’ nerves jangling. Edy Lan’s incredible score, which sometimes recalls the intensity of Bernard Herrmann, also helps raise agitated states in a most effective manner.

Similars mom and son
Gertrudis (Carmen Beato) tries to shield her young son Ignacio (Santiago Torres) from witnessing an outburst of violence.

The ensemble cast is marvelous, bringing dramatic weight and playing things straight even when The Similars offers humorous and absurd elements. Gustavo Sanchez Parra as the confused Ulises, Cassandra Cianngherotti as the voice of reason Irene, Humberto Busto as the increasingly distressed student who goes from caretaker to accuser, and Santiago Torres as the young boy give standout performances, but all involved are a treat to watch.

The color palette of the film is fun to behold, ranging from black-and-white to muted tones to vivid color. Isi Sarfati’s splendid cinematography, including tracking shots and zooming close-ups for melodramatic reactions, captures the events and the sensational set design superbly.

Similars Irene
Irene (Cassandra Cianngherotti) tries to help a seizure victim.

As in The Twilight Zone and many great science-fiction films from the mid-20th century, The Similars has some socio-political references. Viewers who know about or read a synopsis of Mexico’s Tlatelolco massacre before seeing the film will have a basic understanding of those references, but not knowing details about that sad event in Mexican history won’t detract from the overall viewing experience.

Almost nothing is what it seems in The Similars, for reasons too complex and too spoiler-ridden to go into details about here. Suffice it to say that viewers will have a thoroughly entertaining time being immersed in filmmaker Isaac Ezban’s reality-bending world, unlike the characters who can’t escape it. The Similars is not only my favorite film from this year’s BIFAN; it is also one of my very favorite films of this year, as well.

The Similars had its Asian premiere at the 20th Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN) in South Korea (July 21-31, 2016).

The Similars: 4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

Similars poster

Joseph Perry
Joseph Perry fell in love with horror films as a preschooler when he first saw the Gill-Man swim across the TV screen in "The Creature from The Black Lagoon" and Mothra battle Godzilla in "Godzilla Vs. The Thing.” His education in fright fare continued with TV series such as "The Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits," along with legendary northern California horror host Bob Wilkins’ "Creature Features." His love for silver age and golden age comic books, including horror titles from Gold Key, Dell, and Marvel started around age 5.

He is a contributing writer for the "Phantom of the Movies VideoScope" and “Drive-In Asylum” print magazines and the websites Horror Fuel, Diabolique Magazine, The Scariest Things, B&S About Movies, and When It Was Cool. He is a co-host of the "Uphill Both Ways" pop culture nostalgia podcast and also writes for its website. Joseph occasionally proudly co-writes articles with his son Cohen Perry, who is a film critic in his own right.

A former northern Californian and Oregonian, Joseph has been teaching, writing, and living in South Korea since 2008.