“Archivo 253” (Archive 253) is a found footage horror film from Mexico directed by Abe Rosenberg and written by Rosenberg and Joseph Hemsani. The film follows a group of young paranormal investigators who break into an abandoned psychiatric hospital that is rumored to be haunted.
Achivo 253 is the first, and to date only, feature length film from either Rosenberg or Hemsani. The two filmmakers are frequent collaborators on short films, with Hemsani also credited as cinematographer. As of this writing, Archivo 253 appears to be Mexico’s only entry in the found footage genre.
The film opens with archival footage and interviews about the San Rafael Clinic, a psychiatric hospital in New Mexico that opened in 1954. The clinic was closed in 2009 under mysterious circumstances and later demolished in 2013.
In a testimonial, a former patient describes the abusive treatments at the clinic, including even exorcisms performed on patients. A former nurse speaks of a ward that was strictly off limits to all but a few nurses—very few knew exactly what happened inside.
The film transitions to recovered footage shot in 2012, one year before the clinic was demolished. A group of amateur paranormal investigators breaks into the abandoned facility to determine if there is any truth to the rumors that the clinic is haunted. Of course, the friends soon learn that the rumors are true, and find themselves fighting for their lives against unseen dark forces.
Found Footage Cinematography
The found footage cinematography in Archivo 253 might be the film’s strongest suit. Co-writer Joseph Hemsani is credited as cinematographer, a role he had previously only filled on a handful of short films. Despite his lack of experience, Joseph Hemsani has a natural knack for found footage cinematography. The camerawork is in each scene consistent with the action. The film contains several exceptional shots making good use of silence and sparse cinematography, creating an unsettling feeling from the fact that director Joseph Hemsani sometimes does not explicitly reveal who is behind the camera during several key scenes.
The movie makes extensive use of night-vision, with huge swathes of the action bathed in green, even in scenes where a flashlight would have provided sufficient lighting. Under the circumstances defined by the story, having the cameraperson use night vision is consistently believable. Further, this unusual lighting method often results in more than a few creepy visuals. Many viewers, though, may understandably be put off by the aesthetic choice. A more subtle weakness of relying heavily on night-vision is that this lighting method limits viewers to one character’s point of view. While the one character holding the camera is seeing everything in the enhanced clarity of night-vision, viewers are not privy to where the other characters are located and what they are doing—creating a subtle disconnect between the audience and characters.
Archivo 253 opens with a solid reason for filming reason but falters later in the film. The opening of the movie takes the form of a documentary investigating the history of the abandoned clinic and the main events of the film. The reason the main characters are filming, though, is left vague from the beginning. While the characters might be seasoned ghost hunters filming their exploits or are out to create a documentary on the psychiatric hospital, the film offers no satisfying answer.
This lack of filming motivation also undermines any justification for filming once the danger begins. The characters don’t seem to care particularly about procuring evidence of the paranormal, and Charly repeatedly puts down the camera when asked, so the excuse cannot be used that he’s obsessed with filming. The only plausible filming reason that could be used was that the group was using the night-vision to see at night. But, then, it would be unrealistic that the characters wouldn’t have brought powerful flashlights, which would be far easier to carry than their professional-grade movie camera when running for their lives.
Archivo 253 takes place almost entirely in the single set of an abandoned psychiatric hospital. While the building does feel like an actual abandoned structure, with realistic signs of age and disrepair creating a genuinely creepy atmosphere, there is little in the set dressing suggesting a hospital setting. Tropes such as gurneys with leather straps, ominous ECT machines, or rusted medical equipment might be stereotypical (and in some cases forwarding reductive stereotypes about people with mental illness), but they still would have added flavor to a setting that is even blander and less realistic for their absence.
There are very few effects shots in the film, but the few that do appear on-screen are well-made and effectively filmed. Special effects supervisor Daniel Cordero created the special effects for action classic Predator (1987) and the critically-acclaimed Netflix series Narcos (2015). Visual effects supervisor Raul Prado also has an impressive resume, including the United States horror film Let Me In (2010). Perhaps Archivo 253 would have been more engaging if these two special effects gurus had been offered freer rein to create more gore, creature, and other visual effects.
The performances in Archivo 253 are competent throughout. The actors are given little to work with; the characters are for the most part either bickering or terrified. Michel Chauvet (Diego) and Anna Cetti (Isabella) are convincing as a romantic couple. Some of the best moments of acting come when Isabella and Diego are worrying about and trying to protect each other.
Juan Luis Tovar (Charly) is stuck behind the camera for almost all of the film. When he does get screen time, he comes off as shy and innocent, a barely-there character trait created only through Tovar’s acting. Mario Escalante (Mateo) is delegated the thankless task of playing an abrasive whiner. All of the actors give the impression that had they been provided with better material to work with, they could have turned in genuinely good performances. As the film stands, the actors are hampered by the shallow, underdeveloped characters they are asked to play.
Interestingly, actor Mario Escalante (Mateo) also worked as production accountant on several documentary and reality TV series, along with a handful of film and television roles. Michel Chauvet has perhaps the most high-profile credit, starring in the ongoing telenovela La Querida del Centauro (2016). Anna Cetti (Isabella) has had minor roles in small, mainly short, films. Juan Luis Tovar (Charly) has featured in only one other film in a very small role.
The premise of Archivo 253 is well-trodden territory for both found footage and horror in general. The characters are as stock as they come: the handsome leader, the leader’s girlfriend, the inconsequential videographer, and the jerk who is constantly complaining. The plot goes no further than the standard “young people go into a haunted location, and ghosts/demons/monsters get ‘em.” Basic plots like this one can be redeemed by original presentation or framing—as Paranormal Activity (2007) did for the haunted house genre—but this factor doesn’t come into play in the case of Archivo 253.
The setting of the abandoned psychiatric hospital has been extensively mined. At the same time, however, Archivo 253 fails to take advantage of most of the common tropes associated with the psychiatric hospital setting. As described in the opening of the film, the institution was horrendously abusive (as many older psychiatric hospitals were), but this is never exploited for jump scares.
The first few minutes of the movie consist of a documentary about the disappearances of the main characters. The documentary presents the literally found footage uninterrupted. Strangely, however, the documentary is never returned to; the film ends when the main footage ends, with none of the commentary one would expect from a documentary. None of the background information provided by the framing documentary couldn’t have been summarized by a quick title card—in fact, as discussed above, it is. This lack of closure is especially frustrating, as the introductory documentary is more engaging on a visual and storytelling level.
The film ends abruptly, calling to mind the final shot of The Blair Witch Project (1999). Where The Blair Witch Project’s ending left a creepy feeling of lingering unanswered questions (and had the advantage of being the first of its kind), Archivo 253 has not built enough atmosphere or mystery to pull off this plot element, which is difficult to execute well in even good films.
Mexico has a strong body of horror cinema, most notably the works of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who rose to international prominence with films like The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). The country is rich with history and folklore that could serve as inspiration for truly unique cinema. It’s frustrating that this example of found footage from this culture is so flavorless, formulaic, and derivative of Western cliches. Hopefully, more and better Mexican found footage is on the horizon.