Lara, a paranormal radio show host, learns her close friend and former lover has been tragically killed in an accident at small village of Jimena. Determined to find out what happened after a mysteriously mailed tape unveils disturbing images of her friend, Lara travels to Jimena to investigate the accident she believes was intentional. Entangled amongst the village’s strange residents, suspicions are high on just about everyone who had contact with the deceased, but Lara is certain about one thing, at the center of her investigation is an abandoned house with a ghastly urban legend, afflicted by the entombment of murdered women and children souls and, one-by-one, the faces of the torture souls are manifestly etched out from within the walls onto the surface. As Lara inches closer to the truth of her friend’s research of the phenomenon, the shocking truth will reveal a dark power trying to keep the house’s secrets contained.
Estranged lover. Tortured souls. Witchcraft. Secret experiments. Murder mystery. Agustí Villaronga’s “99.9” depicts a loaded, shrouded ethereal thriller with a thin translucent layer of homosexuality draped over so delicately you almost don’t realize the Spanish filmmaker’s subtle exhibition of lifestyle exile. The 1997 film, also known as “99.9: The Frequency of Terror,” a subtitle moved from the main title to tagline status, is shot primarily in Madrid as well as certain exterior shots in La Vereda, Guadalajara to provide the intimate essence of a small village’s ever-watching glower. Villaronga, along with cowriters Lourdes Iglesias and Jesús Regueira, stitch an argyle style narrative sweater of consistent checkered behavior inside an ostentatious presentation of simmering hostility toward foreigners and homosexuals, stirring an isolating heroine into a mixture of local animus and lingering occultism. “The Black Moon” and “Ninth Gate” executive producer Antonio Cardenal solely funds “99.9” and with Impala and Origen Producciones Cinematograficas serving as co-productions.
Bearing most of the story’s weight is lead actress María Barranco (“Witching and Bitching”) in an unfamiliar to her thriller role polar opposite of her profound previous work as a comedienne in the vocational genre. Yet, Barranco grabs the role with undue hesitation or eager to professional please Villaronga with her character entering a spurning atmosphere seething with mistrust and ill-intent. Playing a single mother enduring the unknown status of her estranged lover, also the father of her fatherless child, it isn’t until a package containing a VHS tape of mostly recorded static and a naked man, her estranged lover Victor (Gustavo Salmerón, “V/H/S Viral”), briefly seen fleeing for his life instills a strong uncompromising need to find the truth. Barranco captures being rocked and shaken by Victor’s footage so much so that her tension and fear contagiously transmit to the viewer and that hardly lets up in a deluge of suspicious and dread curiousness compelling her to investigate the gruff and oddly civil villagers. One of those village inhabitants, Juan Márquez, reeks of nervous energy that’s poured into his hunky local mechanic Mauri who becomes the mystery’s weakest link amongst the unbreakable locals, especially under the rigid impatience of Mauri’s girlfriend Julia (Ruth Gabriel), house owner Lázaro (Ángel de Andrés López, “Sexy Killer: You’ll Die for Her “), and the creepy committed bruha mother Dolores (Terele Pávez, “The Day of the Beast,” “Witching and Bitching”). Pávez stamps her presence into “99.9’s” grim resolve that links Dolores to the souls trapped in the house with fanatical obsession. The cast rounds out with Simón Andreu (“Flesh+Blood”), Pedro Mari Sánchez (“Creation of the Damned”), Maite Brik, and Paula Soldevila (“Immortal Sins”).
If I had to compare another film to “99.9’s” persistent bleak atmospherics and a singular principle quietly poking around to solve a cryptic scene-turner, a more widely known and recognizable title with a familiar cast, I would put up Villaronga’s film against Robert Zemeckis’s circa 2000 Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer thriller “What Lies Below.” Both works are saturated with melancholy stuffing and are beautifully shot in their own stylistic right, but Villaronga adds an undercurrent of homosexual persecution as well as a xenophobic aspect that seeks to discourage, dismay, and disconcert nosy foreigners poking around in local business with a gray area of a big city versus little community vibe and scientific fact versus yokel superstition. Yet, the script renders omission at more pivotal character junctures that go in-depth about backstory, such as the case with the forgotten Victor who, despite being a major plotpoint in the opening scene of the movie, is more a name thrown around as device to stir commotion amongst the locals. Victor’s experiments in capturing the images and sounds of tortured souls aimlessly floating inside an ethereal plane in the electronic noise of television broadcast during his very much alive subjects’ REM sleep practically dissipates faster than a bottom burp with the window open and the breeze blowing. As loose as the script may be, Villaronga makes up for it with a tone of stern pall, a delicate theme of bigotry mitigated by the tortured souls and mischievous plot ingredients, and the timorous determination exuding from Maria Barranco’s portrayal.
“99.9” is Lara’s radio station frequency; a frequency in the story that nurtures and embraces the abnormal paranormal from callers night in, night out. Instead of sitting comfortably behind a mic and headphones, cozy in her sound proof studio, her frequency is a barrier that is flipped on it’s head as she becomes involved in like the stories of her callers. Speaking of flipping, in more of a “99.9” is Lara’s radio station frequency; a frequency in the story that nurtures and embraces the abnormal paranormal from callers night in, night out. Instead of sitting comfortably behind a mic and headphones, cozy in her sound proof studio, her frequency is a barrier that is flipped on it’s head as she becomes involved in like the stories of her callers. Speaking of flipping, in more of a layman, satanic sense, “99.9” inverted is also the sign of the beast. Either way, two solid possible metaphors for “99.9” give meaning to the tuning title that’s now available on a dual-layer Blu-ray and DVD combo from Cult Epics who present the film in the original European preferred widescreen 1.66:1 aspect ratio from a 2K scan of the original 35mm negative. Villaronga’s chromatic vision finds unadulterated success in the crisp, clean picture of the Cult Epics release with almost no damage from the original transfer. There’s a slight, and extremely brief, scratch noticeable in the first half of the film, but the amount of grain is perfection and no evidence of manipulation of enhancing. Details are insanely delicate on every tactile texture, even the skin. Aforesaid, Villaronga expresses in color, using a cool blue tints, which is actually toned down some with the transfer, and implementing different lighting techniques to reinforce Javier Aguirresarobe’s breathtaking scenic wide wide shot cinematography. The Spanish language DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 on the Blu-ray packs a punch with balanced channels funneling not only clean, unobstructed dialogue, but also “Pan’s Labyrinth” composer, Javier Navarrete,’s brooding baritone, chordophone score. There are two other audio options for the DVD: a LPCM 2.0 Stereo and a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Optional English subtitles are available and do match up well with no faults. Special features include a new-ish interview with director Agusti Villaronga conducted by Cult Epic’s Nico B, the making of 99.9 that has archival interviews with the director, María Barranco, and other cast and crew, an isolated Javier Navarrete score, and Agusti Villaronga trailers. Both formats are region free and not rated with a runtime of 111 minutes. Back in the 90’s when Spanish supernatural thrillers peaked, “99.9” was right there with a captivating ghostly gossamer from Spain.