At about 40 minutes into the runtime of the Spanish psychological horror thriller Shrew’s Nest, our main character Montse (played with tragic tenacity by Macarena Gómez) allows herself a chance at feeling vulnerable in a revealing conversation with her younger sister. Montse, who has raised her as her own after the death of their parents, opens up about her severe agoraphobia that prevents her from even poking her head out into the staircase outside their Madrid apartment.
“I’ve turned this house into a giant coffin from which I cannot escape.”
The aforementioned quote not only stands out as the most striking and frightening look into Montse’s deteriorating mental state; it perfectly establishes the motive and drive behind her increasingly bizarre and immoral actions. Mind you, this conversation takes place with a bedridden man named Carlos held captive through means of morphine in her bedroom – the catalyst for this unnerving horror-thriller that unfortunately got buried in a sea of bigger horror titles in the mid-2010s.
Shrew’s Nest, or Musarañas in its home country of Spain, was released in 2014 with famed Spanish filmmaker Álex de la Iglesia behind the project as a producer to some local fanfare. The film earned three nominations at that year’s Goya Awards (like the Oscars for Spain), but apart from a theatrical release in Spain and Peru, it quickly fell into horror obscurity without so much as a dent into popular culture.
It wasn’t until the film premiered on then-new horror streaming service Shudder back in Halloween of 2016 that Juanfer Andrés and Esteban Roel’s somber tale of generational abuse told through the lens of an agoraphobic woman began to make traction beyond its home country. Six years later and Shrew’s Nest is still on the platform as one of the first Shudder Originals, letting this immaculate isolation horror story gain further recognition among the increasing number of Shudder subscribers looking for a bleak depiction of trauma to potentially ruin their night.
Ultimately, trauma is at the center of this story, with our main protagonist Montse having to carry the burden of both parents dying during and shortly after the birth of her younger sister who remains unnamed for the duration of the film. The tragedy of death looms over Montse, having a helping hand in her developing her agoraphobia that, by the time her sister is on the verge of 18, is so severe that she is rendered a sickly mess even looking outside her front door.
Spending decades locked up in her home has taken a toll on her relationship with her sister, maintaining a strict curfew with an authoritarian-like eye and physical harm upon any sign of supposed wrongdoing – even for having a friendly chat with a work colleague. Despite offers for help from some clients from her at-home seamstress job, Montse is still stuck in a frame of mind where she can control the narrative and path of both her and her sister’s lives.
These already weighty topics are framed through the restrictive nature of Montse’s agoraphobia, seeing as how apart from a couple of scenes taking place in different areas of the apartment building, we never leave Montse’s home otherwise. Shrew’s Nest primarily concerns itself with her point of view as the audience warms themselves to her, in spite of her increasingly non-defendable actions – which spiral the moment stranger Carlos arrives injured at her doorstep.
There is the presence of the larger world that consistently hangs over Montse, but her agoraphobic tendencies lock us in with her as her mind gradually withers away. Mood swings, delusions of her dead father, and a newfound attachment to the bedridden Carlos leave Montse to fight a losing battle with her own state of mind, invoking touches of Alfred Hitchcock in the cold presentation of her crumbling reality.
Much like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Shrew’s Nest was not written with the clairvoyant knowledge of a global pandemic forcing everyone to become involuntary shut-ins. That said, there is a frightening layer of realness watching this movie in 2022. While not everyone can claim to be suffering from agoraphobia, most of us have at least had a small sliver of the monstrous effects prolonged isolation can have on our mental state.
We may bemoan the small annoyances of isolation like feeling bored out of our minds and going on desperate bids to conjure up excitement in a confined setting. But the long term effects of living your life in an enclosed space, when your life BECOMES that enclosed space, echo through Montse’s new excitement at their surprise guest. The presence of Carlos motivates her to try and change her ways for the better, but the long term damage of isolation and her sordid history with her father pull her back with no effort.
As she stated in the quote at the beginning of the article, she has become her own undoing within the home she now considers her final resting place.
Agoraphobia is not a new topic for horror or drama, having been used in films such as Shut In, The Woman in the Window, and Shirley. Shrew’s Nest takes the commendable route of not outright exploiting a very real disorder for the purpose of cheap thrills. In a year where isolation thrillers have seemingly become the norm out of real-life circumstance, there’s something morbidly special about a pre-Covid film that captures the intended feeling to greater effect.
It is also disheartening to see a movie like Shrew’s Nest, complete with a magnetic leading performance from Macarena Gómez and a surprisingly high amount of gut-splitting gore for the third act, continuously fall under-the-radar during what can safely be branded the golden age of streaming. Shudder has garnered a significant subscriber count, yet the noticeable initial boost in interest has not progressed further with the increasing relevance of isolation thrillers.
Yes, people may hate being reminded of a life-changing global event during their allocated moments of escapism, but horror is more than just escapist fantasy. It is an opportunity to be confronted with our darkest fears and desires through art.
Horror operates as a reflection of a certain moment of relevance within pop culture, real-life events, etc.
The claustrophobic terror of Shrew’s Nest may not be a horror depiction of life after Covid, but the gradual manner in which we familiarize ourselves with the layout of Montse’s home and even begin to feel that same sense of dread whenever out of it is indicative of the frightening complexity of our own bodies. Montse’s terrifying power over her sister largely contrasts with her complete sense of defeat at the idea of even stepping out of her home.
Covid was a stark reminder of the fragility of our own lives and bodies and Montse’s weakening grip on her sense of control reflects that fragility to unnerving accuracy. The buildup of decades of isolation, the looming effects of her father’s treatment of her and her sister, and her own subconscious transformation into a version of him is a prime story to tell in the middle of our own spouts of isolation.
Shrew’s Nest is ultimately a story of the dangerous cycle of our trauma and our tendency to repeat history as a result. The danger of personal pride and its hand in strengthening the worst of our personal tendencies. It may not be anything remotely new for the genre, but forcing the audience to live through every waking moment of the cycle through extreme isolation gives the bleak Spanish thriller an edge I wish I saw in similar movies about trauma.
For as compelling as watching a complicated metaphor on trauma steeped in vague symbolism can be, there is just as much value in seeing a disturbing decades-long family dispute unravel in almost complete rawness. The beauty of Shrew’s Nest is its simple, yet brutal manner of execution. Nothing to sugarcoat the experience.
In Shrew’s Nest, the evils of the past morph the monsters of today.