Maybe it’s just harder than ever anymore to come up with anything scary. People have seen so much horror in the movies and so much worse in real life that thinking up something new must be a chore. At least, it appears hard for Spanish writer-director Jaume Balaguero, whose last two films were supposed to be shockers, “The Nameless” (1999), reviewed here, and “Darkness” (2002). Both films make a stab (if you’ll excuse the expression) at horror, but both films end up hopelessly senseless and clichéd. This is especially a shame considering that Balaguero is clearly a talented director who appears to need better screenplays.

“The Nameless” (“Los Sin nombre”), which is based on a story by noted English horror writer Ramsey Campbell, begins with an introductory sequence in which a policeman, Bruno Massera (Karra Elijalde), is called in to investigate the death and mutilation of a six-year-old girl. The child’s body is found burned head to foot with acid and pierced with thousands of pins. The body is so damaged, it can only be identified by the fact that one leg is shorter than the other and that the girl’s clothes are found nearby. The body is a grisly sight to which the audience is unnecessarily subjected for the sake of gratuitous gore. It is not horrifying; it is sickening.

Flash forward five years. The murderer has never been caught. The police officer has quit the force, presumably because his wife has died and his nerves are shot. And the girl’s mother, Claudia Gifford (Emma Vilarasau), has divorced her husband and is working as an author. She is currently writing a book about tattooing and body piercing.

Then, the mother gets a phone call. It’s from a girl claiming to be her daughter. She wasn’t killed, says the voice. She’s alive and being held captive all these years. Come and help her, she says, but doesn’t explain where she is before hanging up. The mother is understandably distraught, as are we. Is somebody playing a cruel joke on the mother, tormenting her? Is the daughter really alive? Was the body misidentified? Or is the mother hallucinating?

The mother calls the policeman, Massera, who originally investigated the case, and by sheer coincidence he happens to be at his old office picking up some of his things when she calls. She persuades Massera to help her delve into the mysterious phone call, and for reasons known only to screenwriter Balaguero, the ex-policeman agrees. His reasons were not convincing to me.

Almost simultaneously, a young reporter named Quiroga (Tristan Ulloa), working for an occult magazine, enters the picture when he receives a videotape with a number of weird images on it, including the mother in one shot and the mother’s phone number. So, he contacts the mother and he, too, becomes involved in the investigation of the daughter.

By now, we’ve got three main characters to consider, all of them going in separate directions in separate segments of the movie. It’s too much for a relatively brief motion picture to handle because none of the three is developed to any extent, and consequently we wind not caring about any of them.

Anyway, what do they find out, each in his or her own way? That there exists in the world a murderous cult known only as “The Nameless,” a secret society whose members are devoted to the practice of pure horror, torture, abduction, and killing as a way to purification and power. In other words, they’re nuts. They believe that as long as they can remain nameless, they can reject any connection to basic human morality. Furthermore, it’s suggested they were created as an outgrowth of the Nazi death camps of World War II, under the supervision of a man named Santini (Carlos Lasarte) who is now in prison serving a life sentence for some-or-other. He’s actually the best and most interesting character in the story, a really creepy guy who is interviewed for a brief but memorable few minutes, in the manner of a Hannibal Lecter.

You can guess about a half an hour into the movie what exactly happened to the daughter. Massera discovers that another girl the exact age of Claudia’s daughter and with one leg shorter than the other went missing at exactly the same time that the daughter supposedly was murdered. So, where is Claudia’s daughter now?

OK, that’s the setup, and, yes, you’d think there was the basis for a story in there somewhere. But the screenplay goes nowhere we haven’t been before. The characters are poorly drawn; the situations become more ludicrous as the story goes on; and the scenes of bloodshed that are meant to shock only nauseate us.

Except in the last few minutes, the movie moves along so slowly you’d think you were watching wallpaper. What Balaguero is clearly trying to do is establish a mood with his tale, a dark, forboding mood of the sort so well drawn in movies like “Se7en” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” But those movies had characters we cared about and action that kept us intrigued and entertained. “The Nameless” has only the sorrowful mother, the brooding ex-detective, and the enigmatic reporter to comfort us. They’re not enough.

Nor is the totally illogical and misguided behavior of the main characters any help to our understanding of them or to our enjoyment of the picture. To put a child in danger is often considered the cheapest way for a writer to create fear, and here the writer-director does nothing but put children in danger. Worse, the characters carry on in a distinctly melodramatic manner. The mother, an invention of a male writer, to be sure, is a typically helpless screen female, becoming ever more irrational and hysterical as the movie proceeds, while the two male leads calmly go about their investigations. Understandably, the woman is quite distressed and has a right to be. But have the filmmakers never heard of women’s lib? Have they never met a strong, intelligent woman before, one at least as secure as the male leads?

I don’t usually like to give away too much plot, but if you don’t mind, here’s a thought about the film’s ending, which only gets worse as it goes along. I mean, if you found out that there was a bloodthirsty gang of vicious, insane monsters kidnapping young children and hiding out in an abandoned hotel, wouldn’t you think of a couple of things: Like, how do all these people live or meet in an abandoned hotel for years and never get seen or reported by anyone? Or, why do these people concoct such an elaborate scheme for the mother rather than doing things more directly? And, more important, why not just call the police and let them search the place with a squadron of heavily armed officers?

Nope. The three leads in this movie all go into the old hotel alone, two of the three of them unarmed. As far as I’m concerned, anything that happens to them, they deserve. Lastly, the film ends in the most unsatisfactory fashion possible, providing us no clue whatsoever about why any of it happened. Or why we just spent our time watching it.

The subject matter of “The Nameless” is bloody and unpleasant, but there are no compensating thrills to keep us interested. Indeed, there are more thrills in two minutes of Sydney’s Pollack’s “The Interpreter” than in the whole of “The Nameless.” The result is a movie that has little reason for being except as an exercise in atmosphere with no substance to hold it up. It looks for all the world like an eye-catching but empty shell.

I have to give Buena Vista credit for giving the transfer their best shot. It’s in widescreen, measuring a ratio close to its stated 1.85:1, perhaps closer to 1.78:1 but close enough; it’s anamorphic, enhanced for 16×9 televisions; and it’s mastered for DVD at a relatively high bit rate. Yet the picture quality is mediocre at best. I can only attribute this to the condition of the original print, which must account for the image looking soft and light at some times and soft and overly dark at others. Color balances often favor the magenta side of the spectrum, so facial tones are not always realistic, either. Maybe they’re not supposed to be. Fortunately, there is little grain so the image is easy on the eye, if not very detailed.

The audio is much better than the video. The English language track is in Dolby Digital 5.1, and it displays excellent dynamics and very low bass response. There is a good use of the surrounds, too, especially for music and thunder, which often show up from the sides of the room, between the front and rear speakers. Unfortunately, in order to appreciate the 5.1 sonics, you have to listen to the English dub. If you want to listen to the original Spanish soundtrack, you have to settle for Dolby Digital 2.0, which is much less effective in pinpointing the directionality of the film’s various noises.

Not much here. We’re offered fourteen scene selections, complete with a chapter insert to remind us of them, and two theatrical trailers for other Buena Vista-Dimension Films. However, the only way to access the trailers is upon start-up; they aren’t listed on the Main Menu. Go figure. An English language dub or the original Spanish spoken language are available, with English subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Shots:
Visually, there’s a lot to like about “The Nameless,” with its gloomy, noir atmosphere closely resembling that of “Se7en” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” But the storyline is so convoluted, illogical, and gratuitously gory that it lessens any sense of mystery, suspense, or terror the filmmaker was trying to achieve. I wound up admiring Balaguero’s visual style, his imagery and cinematography, while remaining indifferent toward his characters, and hating his narrative. The result is hardly a film I would want to revisit.