By Scott Dorward
Tigers Are Not Afraid (Mexico, 2017)
“Every time I make a wish, something really bad happens.”
Children’s fairy tales and cartel violence collide on the streets of a Mexican slum in one of the most remarkable horror films I’ve ever seen. Actually, scratch that. Tigers Are Not Afraid is one of the most remarkable films I’ve seen in any genre. This one will haunt you.
Tigers Are Not Afraid is set in an unnamed Mexican border town, following the precarious lives of a band of homeless children. Most have been orphaned by cartel violence or the sadistic actions of men protected by the cartels. Led by a tough pre-teen known only as Shine, the children live in the cracks of society, squatting in abandoned buildings, stealing to survive.
Two events transform their lives. First, Shine steals a mobile phone and a gun from a drunken cartel member, inviting trouble and retribution but also giving the children weapons to fight back against the predators who stalk them. Then, a girl, Estrella, joins their ranks, bringing her own agenda and a world of dangerous magic.
Until this point, Estrella had been living a stable life, with a roof over her head and looked after by a loving mother. When her mother disappears, she finds herself unable to face living on her own and runs away to join Shine’s gang.
Estrella is not a normal girl, however. She lives in a world where tiny dragons fly out of phones, cuddly toys come to live and graffiti dances across walls like cartoons. It is a magical world, where wishes come true. And this is terrifying.
In an early scene in Estrella’s school, a class exercise of writing fairy tales is disrupted by gunfire. As the children cower on the ground, the teacher presses three sticks of chalk into Estrella’s hand, telling her that each will grant her a wish. When Estrella uses her first wish to ask for her missing mother to come home, her mother does so as a decaying revenant, driven by revenge.
Throughout the rest of the film, Estrella and her new friends fight back against the cartel thugs who have destroyed their lives. The film never holds back from showing us what a dangerous and foolhardy thing this is, however. The children take terrible risks and face deadly consequences. And every wish that Estrella makes only adds to the horror.
One of the many remarkable things about Tigers Are Not Afraid is how it finds beauty and wonder amidst all the squalor and violence. For all the terrible things the children go through, they are still children, amusing themselves through games and make-believe. In less deft hands, this might undermine the horror; here, the light provides a contrast that makes the shadows all the darker.
The performances of the child actors — some of them very young indeed — are superb. They handle the tonal and emotional wrenches of the film perfectly, never letting us doubt the reality of their characters in an increasingly unreal world. I would love to see a behind-the-scenes documentary about how director Issa López managed to coax such amazing performances out of her young stars.
While the story and setting are utterly different. there are definite echoes of Pan’s Labyrinth in Tigers Are Not Afraid. Both depict the collision of childhood innocence with the horrors of both the adult world and the supernatural. And both remind us that fairy tales are so often rooted in nightmare.
In previous October Horror Movie Challenges, it was obvious when I watched what was going to be my film of the month. When you see something remarkable, you just know it. I’d be shocked if any other film I see this month affects me quite as much as Tigers Are Not Afraid. That said, I would be delighted to be proved wrong!
I cannot think of a single flaw with this film. The premise, storytelling, performances and cinematography come together through some wonderful alchemy to make a perfect piece of cinema. My only regret is that I didn’t see it on the big screen. This is a film to lose yourself in.
As a general warning, don’t let the fairytale elements and the child protagonists fool you into thinking this is in any way a children’s film. It is unflinchingly brutal and emotionally devastating, the kind of film that will give adults nightmares. At the same time, it is not nihilistic. There is hope to be found even in the darkest parts of its conclusion. Just be warned that the road there is a bloody one.
A Final Note
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- 1 – Baskin (2015)
- 2 – The Bar (2017)
- 3 – The Editor (2014)
- 4 – The Beach House (2019)
- 5 – The Mummy (1959)
- 6 – The Wind (2020)
- 7 – Tigers are Not Afraid (2018)
- 8 – Voices From Beyond (1991)
- 9 – Dearest Sister (2016)
- 10 – Patrick (1978)
- 11 – The Transfiguration (2016)
- 12 – The House at the End of Time (2013)
- 13 – The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
- 14 – The Hallow (2015)
- 15 – Night of the Demons (1988)
- 16 – Deep Dark (2015)
- 17 – The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976)
- 18 – Black Sheep (2006)
- 19 – The Battery (2012)
- 20 – Eaten Alive (1976)
- 21 – Satan’s Slaves (2017)
- 22 – Evolution (2015)
- 23 – Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)
- 24 – The Dead Center (2018)
- 25 – Your Vice is a Locked Room and I Have the Only Key (1972)
- 26 – The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013)
- 27 – Here Comes the Devil (2012)
- 28 – Gretel & Hansel (2020)
- 29 – Two Thousand Maniacs (1964)
- 30 – The Stepfather (1987)
- 31 – In Fabric (2018)
Be warned that I may alter this list according to availability, what I feel like watching at the time, and sheer capriciousness.
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!