Shortly after their arrival in Chile, Sarah (Emily Browning) must leave her cousin Alicia (Juno Temple) behind so that she can resit an exam back home. Suddenly alone with strangers on her first trip outside of the United States, the naturally nervous Alicia becomes increasingly anxious about her situation. Unable to sleep, and spurred on by a would-be suitor known to his friends as Blink (Michael Cera), she agrees to be hypnotised by Sarah’s boyfriend. His interference doesn’t have the desired effect, however, and she soon finds herself beginning to unravel.
Written and directed by Chile’s own Sebastián Silva, Magic Magic takes an established horror set-up — a group of young people on holiday; not a phone signal between them — and turns it into something new and unpredictable. This is surely best encapsulated by the casting of Cera, an actor more commonly associated with the comedy genre, but who here modifies his usual schtick as a socially awkward and unusually sensitive outsider into something much more sinister and unsettling.
We can surely all relate to feeling uncertain and uneasy in a new environment, and Juno Temple exploits this beautifully as Alicia. Early scenes spent travelling by car from Santiago are incredibly claustrophobic, creating a tension that is then only intensified once they arrive at their destination on a sparsely inhabited island off the coast. Alicia plays with our sympathies from the get-go, easily empathetic in some scenes and completely mystifying in others as she loses her grasp on reality.
Even when Sarah finally arrives, the situation just seems to become more desperate. Suddenly it’s not just Alicia who is scared, but those around her who find themselves completely unable to understand, let alone assuage her fears. It’s this sense of helplessness and inevitability that makes Magic Magic an effective horror movie, as the characters (along with the audience) seem to know that something bad is going to happen in the end. Neither group, however, can be quite prepared for what that something might be.
Playing on fears of isolation, medication (both therapeutic and pharmaceutical) and the unknown, Magic Magic builds an unfalteringly oppressive atmosphere that is occasionally as funny as it is frightening. Silva’s film might end suddenly and perhaps even unsatisfyingly, but as what worked best about it was his ability to defy expectation and subvert convention that seems only fitting.