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‘Fever Dream’ Tells an Unsettling and Timely Tale of Creeping Contamination

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FIELD OF NIGHTMARES Valverde plays a young mom whose stay in the country goes very wrong in Llosa's unsettling literary adaptation. - COURTESY OF NETFLIX
  • Courtesy Of Netflix
  • FIELD OF NIGHTMARES Valverde plays a young mom whose stay in the country goes very wrong in Llosa's unsettling literary adaptation.

Halloween has come and gone, but some of us like to watch creepy movies year-round. Netflix recently released Fever Dream, a Spanish-language film based on Argentine author Samanta Schweblin's acclaimed 2014 book of the same name. Claudia Llosa (The Milk of Sorrow) directed from a script cowritten with Schweblin.

The deal

Something is wrong with Amanda (María Valverde). Somehow she has ended up lying in the grass, gravely ill — infected with "worms," a whispering voice tells her.

The voice belongs to a boy named David (Emilio Vodanovich) whom Amanda met when she came to stay in the countryside with her young daughter, Nina (Guillermina Sorribes Liotta). David urges Amanda to remember all the events that led to this moment, insisting they could have great importance.

In flashbacks, we see Amanda arrive in the country and strike up a friendship with David's mother, Carola (Dolores Fonzi). Carola confides to Amanda her belief that David is no longer her son but an alien presence she fears. Her explanation involves a runaway horse, a contaminated water source, a terrifying illness and an unorthodox cure offered by a woman (Cristina Banegas) who lives in a green house and "can see people's energy." Amanda dismisses the story as rural superstition — until it's too late.

Will you like it?

Llosa's Fever Dream is an intensely faithful adaptation of a book that is both easy and difficult to read. The framing of the story is urgent: David seems to be pushing Amanda to solve the mystery of her own impending death. (The entire novella consists of their dialogue.) Yet it soon becomes clear that this mystery has no single solution.

Environmental contamination is certainly a key factor; the story takes place in an agricultural landscape with a mist of pesticide hanging over the fields. But it's hard to pigeonhole Fever Dream as eco horror when it's also about magic and folk beliefs in the transmigration of souls.

Perhaps more importantly, Schweblin's story is about the bond between parent and child. The book and film's Spanish title, Distancia de Rescate, translates as "rescue distance": Amanda is constantly calculating how far she can move from Nina and still keep her daughter safe. At one point, Amanda recalls her own mother spelling out what might be the story's leitmotif: "Sooner or later something bad is going to happen. And when it happens I want to have you close."

The brooding paranoia of that quote hangs over Llosa's film. Viewers who expect a movie about any particular "something bad" — the evils of Big Ag, changelings, supernatural intruders — will be frustrated by the multivalence of Fever Dream. Different layers of implied threat constantly shift and overlap, making for an experience that is, indeed, dreamlike.

Llosa uses tight close-ups to put us deep in Amanda's perspective, creating a visual approximation of Schweblin's already cinematic prose. Amanda's narrative is a succession of vivid, seemingly random details — such as Carola's gold bikini or the ash that falls from her cigarette — that impress themselves on us with the force of nightmare.

Llosa's occasional long shots have magical and sinister qualities, too. One carefully composed shot of Carola's husband tending to his horse, for instance, creates the brief illusion that we're seeing a centaur.

The film brings out a subtext that was easy to miss in the book: the flirtatious quality of the relationship between Amanda and Carola. While Valverde gives a strong performance as the cautious, introverted urbanite, Fonzi is magnetic as a small-town glamour girl who seems desperate to change her circumstances but clueless about how. When Amanda teaches Carola to drive — giving her a mode of escape — the chemistry between them crackles.

Unlike many recent horror films that spell out their metaphors, Fever Dream leaves many questions open. Is David really an impostor, or does Carola see him that way only because she feels trapped by parenthood? Was Amanda poisoned by something in those lush green fields or by her own terror of bad things happening to her daughter?

When I read the book a few years ago, I found those ambiguities a little unsatisfying. Watching the movie, I changed my mind, and not just because Llosa has brought the story so skillfully to the screen. In 2021, David's urgent interrogation of Amanda no longer seems simply bizarre. He's asking the type of questions a contact tracer would ask. Fever Dream conveys the free-floating terror of knowing a deadly infection might lurk anywhere, even in the places that feel the safest and most innocent. It's all too appropriate to the world in which we now live.

If you like this, try...

The Hole in the Ground (2019; Showtime, rentable): After moving to the countryside, a single mom begins to suspect that her son is a changeling in this creepy psychological horror film from Ireland.

Goodnight Mommy (2014; Pluto TV, Vudu, Amazon Prime Video, Kanopy, rentable): In this Austrian film with an eerie summer atmosphere similar to that of Fever Dream, it's the kids who suspect that their mom is an impostor.

The Last Winter (2006; IFC Films Unlimited, AMC+, DirecTV, rentable): Larry Fessenden, who directed this flick about an ill-fated drilling crew in the Arctic, has made environmentally conscious horror his specialty.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Fever Dream 4"