Film Review: Hard Labor

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Office worker Otavio (Marat Descartes) and his wife, Helena (Helena Albergaria), know the economy is rocky, but he's been at his job for ten years and she's about to sign off on renting a medium-sized supermarket in a nice residential neighborhood. Yes, the place needs work, but it comes with fixtures and she's ready to invest the sweat equity required to get it up and running. Then Otavio is abruptly fired, replaced by a younger co-worker, and getting the market going takes center stage: They have a young daughter in private school, the job market is dog-eat-dogville and they've just hired a live-in housekeeper, Paula (Naloana Lima), whom it makes no sense to fire if Helena is working full-time and Otavio is dividing his energies between looking for a new job and helping out at the store.

All of which is harsh but hardly out of the ordinary, the stuff of gritty drama driven by the collision of hard economic realities and human frailty...until hellhounds start baying on the street, mysterious black slime oozes up from between the floor tiles, there's a nasty odor that no amount of cleaning will dispel, and customers allude darkly to unfortunate things that happened to the last family who tried to make a go of the Mercado Curumim.

Many American horror fans– a demographic that skews resolutely young—are likely to find Hard Labor tough going, and not because it's a lazy or soullessly formulaic film. The issue is more that it's a slow burn, lacks both gore and jump-out-of-your-seat scares, and is rooted in depressingly grown-up problems: Struggling to pay bills, negotiating a work-life balance, and facing the fact that making a fresh start when you're not getting any younger are deeply scary in a totally un-fun way. Plus it's in Portuguese, a minus for viewers who resist reading subtitles. But Hard Labor is a smart, sneaky little shocker whose subtexts add depth to its haunted-house framework and pay off in a final scene that's both weirdly off-kilter and entirely logical.

Hard Labor opens tomorrow at New York City's Cinema Village and will also be available on Fandor.