A stifling heatwave has settled over Madrid, Spain, and something is very, very wrong with the city’s elderly inhabitants. It all begins with a personal tragedy. An aged woman, Rosa, sits in her sweltering apartment. She gets up, dresses herself in what passes for fancy clothes, and brushes her hair as she stares absently into a mirror. She steps out onto her balcony, then after a moment’s hesitation, throws herself down to the cobblestone streets below. Rosa’s body twitches as her blood and her life slowly drain from her body.

Following this cold open and an eye-catching and creative credits sequence, The Elderly introduces its central characters. Mario, his teenage daughter Naia, and Mario’s new wife Lena have accompanied Mario’s father Manuel to the funeral home. After attending to the Rosa’s funeral arrangements, Manuel seems distant and is perhaps suffering from the onset of dementia.

The Elderly has an effective setup and a rather creepy central conceit”

As the temperatures in Madrid continue to climb, so do the concerning behaviors of not just Manuel but all of the titular elderly in the city. At times the seniors appear lost or confused, but at others they are threatening and outright aggressive. Manuel’s changes begin to weigh heavily on the family. Lena, pregnant and unsure of her place within the newly blended family, is convinced that the old man is dangerous and wants him to be taken to a home for the aged. This causes additional friction between Lena and Mario, and between her and Naia.

The Elderly has an effective setup and a rather creepy central conceit, dealing not just with our innate fears of aging, but also of those who have aged. Where the film stumbles is in its lengthy middle act. Old people do creepy things, the family argues, no meaningful action is taken to mitigate the threat. Lather, rinse, and repeat, slightly increasing the sense of danger each time But even when an old man in a wheelchair takes a literal bite out of Naia’s friend’s head, or Manuel tells his family around the dinner table that he is going to kill them all on the following day, the police or authorities aren’t involved. It’s one of the most frustrating instances of characters not reacting realistically I’ve had with a film this year.

Perhaps even more maddening is that the film seems to waffle back and forth over just what is going on. At times the strange happenings appear to be supernatural in nature, with Naia experiencing visions of and even hearing Rosa, or being visited by her grandmother’s restless spirit in dreams. In one moment, Mario even captures a picture of the ghostly old woman’s reflection in a mirror. Later developments seem to skew the weirdness into the realm of the pseudo-scientific and possibly otherworldly. One of the film’s two directors, Raúl Cerezo, had originally intended this to be a short film–and perhaps The Elderly‘s shortcomings wouldn’t feel so pronounced in that format.

“The older actors are pretty fearless in their roles, forcing viewers to confront their own thoughts on and fears of aging”

That’s not to say The Elderly is without merit. The small cast is solid, giving strong performances throughout. The older actors are pretty fearless in their roles, forcing viewers to confront their own thoughts on and fears of aging. The movie looks great too, with its often claustrophobic settings conveying the oppressive heat. The final ten to fifteen minutes of the film really ratchet up the tension and gore, making up for some of the second act’s drag.

Ultimately, I wanted to like The Elderly more than I did. There are some promising aspects throughout, and hopefully codirectors Cerezo and Fernando González Gómez can better capitalize on those strengths in their future projects. Unfortunately, The Elderly feels too muddled to be truly successful. The exciting final few minutes help, but an ending that raises more questions than it answers leaves the high points struggling to redeem the whole.

The Elderly had its U.S. premiere during Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas.