Disappear Completely (2022)
Directed by Luis Javier Henaine
Screenplay by Ricardo Aguado-Fentanes
Starring Harold Torres, Tete Espinoza, Fermín Martínez, Vicky Araico, & Norma Reyna.
Horror / Thriller
★★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)
The following essay
or be spoiled forever.
Luis Javier Henaine’s Disappear Completely is a horror version of Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler starring Jake Gyllenhaal, swapping the career consequences of being a money-hungry stringer for the terrors of witchcraft. In Disappear Completely, Santiago (Harold Torres) is a stringer who snaps lurid photographs at crime scenes to sell to a National Enquirer-like tabloid bent on delivering the nastiest true crime reporting to their readers. After leaving a high-profile crime scene, he’s attacked in the street by an unseen person. He loses his wallet, but soon after he starts to lose his sense of taste and smell, too. As things get progressively scarier for Santiago he comes to understand that someone with a grudge has put a curse upon him. He has to figure out how to break the curse, or he’ll continue to lose his senses until he disappears completely.
Henaine’s film is a traditional folklore tale brought into the contemporary world bridging the ancient worlds of witchcraft and Indigenous Mexican magic with the new worlds of twenty-four-seven news media and true crime reporting. Disappear Completely is an unnerving supernatural horror story that brings the morality of our everyday world into question when it comes to the pop culture obsession with true crime. The story doesn’t only point a finger in the direction of the filmmakers and creators of true crime, it just as much calls into question our roles as viewers. In the end, the film is a morality play in which one man must decide whether the money gained from infamy is worth his soul, or if he wishes to die with a shred of his humanity left intact.
Disappear Completely doubles as a horror interrogation of how fiction, and even non-fiction, uses true crime for its narratives. It’s a fresh conversation even if we’ve seen it discussed previously in other films like Nightcrawler because it’s also something current. The new Dahmer series, like other recent shows and plenty of podcasts, has been accused of exploiting true crime and, most importantly, the victims of that crime; not that I agree with the criticisms about Dahmer specifically, but it’s a conversation about pop culture that’s been going on a lot as of late.
Henaine’s film, through Santiago’s predicament, questions the morality of making art out of the suffering of others, with the focus squarely on those who do so with no consideration for the victims whatsoever and solely profit in mind. All the same, the film’s story confronts the audience of true crime just as much as the makers. Early on, a tabloid newspaper man tells Santiago to forgo all the artsy photography because: “Nobody cares how the dead look, as long as they look dead.”
Something important about this film is the way in which it depicts witchcraft. Yes, the curse put upon Santiago is awful and it ruins his life, but it’s Santiago who brought it upon himself in the first place. The person who put the curse on Santiago was likely, as one of the cops mentions, a family member of a crime victim whose photograph Santiago took and plastered all over the tabloids. Disappear Completely presents witchcraft here as a righteous magic performing an act of social justice by terrorising Santiago, whereas many films about witchcraft, particularly those involving curses, presents it in a decidedly evil light. Henaine’s film blurs those lines in its study of Santiago’s flawed morality. And by the end, the curse’s effects force Santiago to redefine his own morality by making an important sacrifice.
Throughout the film, Santiago’s experience of losing his senses becomes a metaphor for what his hideous exploitative photography has done to him. There’s a great moment when Santiago first realises he’s losing his smell and a cop at a crime scene asks, with bewilderment, whether the stink bothers him. Of course it’s part of the curse, but it’s also something we’ve started to wonder prior to this scene when it comes to Santiago: has he become desensitised to the blood, the gore, and the horror he sees at crime scenes nearly every single night? Disappear Completely goes further by attacking every last sense, not only smell.
The most profound attack on the senses comes late in the film when Santiago discovers he’s lost the sense of physical touch. A sad moment happens when Santiago and his wife climb in bed together, only for the truth to dawn upon him: he can’t even feel sex with his wife anymore. Again, the metaphor returns, in that Santiago’s desensitised himself to the horrors committed against humans and their bodies to the point he can’t even feel his own body anymore.
The finale is a shocking moment, though not in a traditional sense. We’re shocked by the decision Santiago makes because we’ve come to see him as a thoroughly morally corrupt man. So, when he chooses goodness over infamy, it’s a shock, albeit more so because of the way the film’s directed. After Santiago makes his damning choice it’s only a matter of seconds before the film cuts to black, signalling not just the end of the film itself but also the fact that Santiago has disappeared completely from the realm of the senses and the world of humanity. There’s a beauty in it, in spite of the haunting quality, since Santiago chooses to hold onto his human emotion, the only ‘sense’ he has left, and spares his wife/unborn child to accept the fate he made for himself. A genuinely beautiful act shrouded in tragedy; not a typical, expected horror ending, but such a welcomed one, and just one of the reasons why Disappear Completely is a profound, emotional horror.