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Before True Detective, A Fantastical Crime Thriller Subverted the Ghost Story

Issa López’s 2017 crime thriller planted the seeds for True Detective: Night Country.

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This Sunday, True Detective makes its highly anticipated comeback with a thrilling season that looks to bring the crime anthology back to its glory days. But it would take more than the star power of Jodie Foster and a frigid new setting to reinvigorate a show that had long lost its luster as one of the biggest TV phenomenons of the past decade. Those play a part, for sure, but there’s a more significant factor at play: the deft direction of showrunner Issa López, who draws from the best classic horror movies to transform True Detective into a full-fledged supernatural thriller.

It’s a genre López is intimately familiar with, having made a splash a little less than a decade ago with her eerie horror film Tigers Are Not Afraid. The 2017 crime fantasy-horror at first seems to have little in common with the new Alaska-set season of True Detective. Set in a Mexican city devastated by the cartels, Tigers Are Not Afraid follows Estrella (Paola Lara), a young girl orphaned by the gang that rules her town. She soon joins up with a group of fellow orphans who survive by looting empty houses and bonding over fairytales of princes who turn into tigers. But it's in the movie’s ghostly flairs that you can see López honing what she would perfect in True Detective: The Night Country.

At the beginning of Tigers Are Not Afraid, Estrella’s teacher hands her three pieces of chalk pieces as they hide from gunfire that erupts outside the classroom. “They’re wishes,” the teacher tells a frightened Estrella, who tightly grasps the chalk as she walks home, passing a dead body lying in a pool of blood on the street — blood that seems to follow Estrella as she makes her way home and discovers her mom is missing. It’s then that she makes her first wish: for her mom to return. But instead of her flesh-and-blood mother, Estrella finds herself visited by a wheezing ghostly figure wrapped in plastic who beckons to her and tells her, “Bring him to us."

It’s these kinds of moments — shot with a palpable, sickening dread cut short by a sudden jump scare — that reveal Lopez’ keen eye for horror. But she also infuses the horror with a bitter sadness, stemming from the unconscionable tragedy of it all. Estrella’s mother is dead for reasons she can’t even try to comprehend. And as terrified as she is of the ghostly vision, deep down Estrella knows it’s probably the only way she can see her mom again.

As Estrella abandons her empty home to live with her fellow orphans on the street, who form a sort of Lost Boys coalition around their plucky leader El Shine (Juan Ramón López), Tigers Are Not Afraid takes on a more magical-realist tone, as strange — and equally frightening — things happen around Estrella at increasing frequency. But the ghosts, as scary as they are to her, seem to help Estrella more than hinder her. They give her nightmares, but help her and the boys when they face off against the murderous crime boss El Chino (a pre-Black Panther Tenoch Huerta).

The children dream of being strong warriors like tigers in Tigers Are Not Afraid.

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It’s easy to make the Peter Pan-meets-Guillermo del Toro dark fantasy comparison to Tigers Are Not Afraid, and there’s a certain roughshod quality to the film that shows a director still trying to find her style outside of her most prominent influences. But what comes across most clearly ahead of the release of López’s season of True Detective is that grim, melancholic approach to the ghost story.

True Detective Season 4 roots its frightening specters and ghostly visions in the Indigenous culture that resides in the fictional town of Ennis, Alaska, and like in Tigers Are Not Afraid, the ghosts the characters will meet are part of the tapestry of trauma and tragedy that form this chilly arctic town. It’s what distinguishes the kind of horror López is using apart from the rest: maybe tragedy is inevitable, and all we have left are ghosts.

Tigers Are Not Afraid is streaming on Shudder.

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