Piggy: still waters run deep in this Spanish revenge horror

Revolving around the terrorisation of an unpopular girl with weight anxieties by a clique of local teenagers, Carlota Pereda’s psychologically rich feature debut is a thoughtful tale of violent retribution.

20 October 2022

By Carmen Gray

Laura Galán as Sara in Piggy (2022)
Sight and Sound

Kids can be cruel – an unfortunate truth the horror genre has long drawn upon to spectacular effect. Spanish director Carlota Pereda’s psychologically rich feature debut Piggy (2022), expanded from her 2018 short of the same name, revolves around the terrorisation of Sara (Laura Galán), an unpopular girl with weight anxieties, by a clique of local teenagers.

Sara helps her parents in the butcher’s shop they run in a Spanish village near the Portuguese border. Remaining within the pink-hued walls of the family business – where animals, in a bloody foreshadowing of events to come, are carved up for sale – feels less fraught with peril for her than venturing out for a swim. It’s a sweltering summer, but Sara is self-conscious in bathing attire, and fears a run-in with the local kids, who taunt her with derogatory names and oinking sounds. Rita Noriega’s camerawork, while never seeming exploitative, frames Sara’s body as her inescapable, preoccupying reality, her sense of isolation only exacerbated by scrolling through social media on her phone, as the in-crowd upload videos of themselves having fun – as well as one post making a cruel joke out of a photo of Sara’s family at their store.

Even Sara’s former friend Claudia (Irene Ferreiro), seeking acceptance by the group, goes along with the bullying. Family offers Sara scarcely more comfort: her mother (Carmen Machi) regularly belittles her, and responds to the revelation of her daughter’s bullying not by intervening to stamp it out at its source, but by forcing her onto a salad diet, as if Sara has only herself to blame for her ostracism.

When Sara is ambushed and nearly drowned by her peers at the local pool, left without her clothes and forced to make her way home in just a bikini, the distress and humiliation engendered by the prank are so great we can’t help but be reminded of the pig-blood prom stunt in Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), which also features a girl on the cusp of puberty who is subjected to increasingly barbaric high-school persecution. But Sara’s situation is distinct. While Carrie channelled her rage into telekinetic revenge, Sara’s negotiation of violent impulses is more grounded, ambiguous and complex, even as the film’s gore level escalates and its crimes grow more baroquely disturbing.

In fact, the vigilante retribution in Piggy initially appears not as a reaction from Sara, but from a mysterious van driver (Richard Holmes) who also happens to be at the pool that day. After witnessing her ordeal, he begins to exact revenge on the girls responsible. We soon suspect, having seen the submerged body of a lifeguard in the water, that this man has killed before. And so, rather than venturing into the supernatural territory of Carrie, Piggy’s narrative offers Sara the option of radically disavowing her hostile community through allegiance to – and potential romance with – a dangerous man.

This shadowy outsider obsessively circles Sara, stocking up on her favourite comfort-eating snacks, intent on punishing each and every one of her detractors. Meanwhile, the town preoccupies itself with solving the mystery of the girls’ disappearance. Pereda leaves us in suspenseful uncertainty not only over the fate of the missing bullies, but over how Sara really feels about the miraculous appearance of this defender, who seems as much stalker as guardian, and who, protective though he may be, has opted to take the path of lawless violence and death. We’re left for most of the film to wonder to what degree Sara will get her own back in an explosive release of pent-up resentments, and whether, as in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994), the outlaw, having tried to rescue a girl from an environment of abuse, will enlist her in his killing spree. As Sara launches her own search to find answers about what has become of her tormenters, she is soon forced to take a stance on potential payback.

Pereda’s sensibilities, it turns out, are attuned to independent female thought as a potential way out of a legacy of oppression and patriarchal violence. The unexpected force of male terror unleashed on the town breaks up the community’s established hierarchies, but does not ultimately manage to co-opt Sara’s agency. The essence of real justice, amid the opposing pulls of eye-for-eye retribution and forgiveness, is a thorny question in Piggy. For Sara, brutality remains an option, not a destiny.

► Piggy is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

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