The most surprising thing about Amat Escalante’s The Untamed is not that it revolves around the discovery of a multi-tentacled alien monster with a voracious sexual appetite, but that the film is so damn serious.

Despite the schlocky, sensationalist direction the writer/director could have gone in, with his fourth feature Escalante chooses to keep his outlandish pink ball of horny feelers in the background, focusing instead on the trials and tribulations of a young family.

So, although the film opens with the one-two punch of a meteor hurling through space followed shortly by a scene in which a naked woman pleasures herself with an extra-terrestrial, for the most part The Untamed focuses on Alejandra (Ruth Ramos), her brother Fabian (Eden Villavicencio), her husband Angel (Jesus Meza) and the taboo-shattering partner-swapping that goes on between them.

Although the trio of quarrelling characters do eventually find themselves (literally) intertwined with the quivering ball of space flesh, for the most part Escalante keeps these narratives at arm’s length from each other – an attitude that will be familiar to any viewers who have seen Andrzej Żuławski’s masterpiece Possession, a film The Untamed directly references.

Ultimately, this approach has its upsides and its downsides. On the one hand, Escalante’s carefully controlled cross-cutting enhances both facets of his narrative: the love story becomes more surreal in proximity to the gooey, sex-stuffed sci-fi stuff, and the gooey, sex-stuffed sci-fi stuff becomes enjoyably mundane in proximity to the love story. There’s something just so satisfying about jumping from a scene in which a young couple argue over a potential betrayal of trust to a shot of a creature that looks like a combination of Alien’s xenomorph and a cluster of dildos, and the film is full of a giddy tonal inertia that some viewers will revel in.

But it’s not all good. There are moments the film drags, and Escalante’s Carlos Reygadas-inspired spiritual explicitness does eventually grate just a little. Ultimately, despite the madness of the film, viewers may well find it receding ever so slightly in their memory, and there is little that will warrant a second viewing.

Yet when The Untamed works, it really works, and Escalante deserves plaudits for taking a sick idea and making it even sicker, capping off the film with a grim punchline of an ending that will surely inspire wry, appreciative laughter – at least from those audiences who didn’t evacuate at the first sight of tentacle sex. At its best, The Untamed is thrillingly insane: a kind of cosmic sick joke played unimaginably straight.

The Untamed was reviewed as part of Sydney Film Festival 2017.

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