Film

The Devil Comes for Mexico in BAM’s Retrospective of the Best Horror Films You’ve Never Seen

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It was inevitable, perhaps, that the cross long ago lost its power in American vampire stories. For over a generation, bloodsuckers from Anne Rice, Charlaine Harris, Stephenie Meyer, and movie after movie have scoffed at the old-world conviction that their unholiness would wither in the face of, like, two sticks held together just so. Even in the best of the pre-war vampire movies, like the original Universal Dracula, where Van Helsing’s crucifix sends Bela Lugosi’s count skittering away with a feline hiss, the cross seems less an icon of faith than a tool of the trade, like that can of shark repellent that Adam West’s Batman thought to pack. You never get the sense, in even the best of these films, that anyone involved truly believed — or thought that audiences believed — that that cross held true divine power. It’s just rock, and vampires were scissors.

That’s not the case in the extraordinary films constituting BAM’s vital series “Holy Blood: Mexican Horror Cinema.” As terrified as they may be of whatever local monster they’re fleeing, the protagonists here continually face against a greater fear, in the films from the 1950s and ’60s especially: that they’re caught up in the ancient battle between their god and its devil. The scares may be local, but the screams reverberate across time. More upsetting to us today, in the increasingly secular United States, is the bald truth exposed in some of the later films: that seemingly good people truly scared of their god are far deadlier than any occult beastie.

The ten-film series boasts a couple of canonized works (Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre [1989], Felipe Cazals’s Canoa: A Shameful Memory [1976]); a pair of warm but still scarifying psychological slow-burners (Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos [1993], Carlos Enrique Taboada’s Poison for the Fairies [1984]); one flesh-rending Seventies softcore spree (Juan López Moctezuma’s Alucarda [1977]); a clutch of dead-serious black-and-white beauties that create a state of gothic delirium (Fernando Méndez’s El Vampiro [1957], Chano Urueta’s The Witch’s Mirror [1962], Rafael Baledón’s The Curse of the Crying Women [1963]); and one skull-puncturing, centuries-defiling goof (Urueta’s El Barón del Terror [1962]), made all the more gloriously funny and fascinating by the fact that it, too, is often dead serious, even as its furry rubber-masked Ferengi of a warlock sucks brains out of heads via a forked proboscis-like tongue.

All whiskers and nose, that warlock suggests nothing less than the Fagin that George Cruikshank drew for the original serialized printing of Oliver Twist. At least, that’s his monster form, assumed when he goes on his killing spree among the swells of 1961 Mexico City. His mission of vengeance began 300 years earlier, when the ancestors of his twentieth-century victims burned him at the stake for his sorcery and blasphemy; the film opens with a giddily inventive flashback to 1661, as the godless Baron Vitelius d’Estera (Abel Salazar, a producer of this and El Vampiro) vows to rain hell against his hooded inquisitors. His crimes: divining the future through experiments with corpses and — apparently this is just as bad — “seducing married women and maidens.” Soon d’Estera (still Salazar) is looming in the posh nightclubs and apartments of the film’s present, heralded by a comet. He’s alluring in his formal wear, working a set of powers clearly inspired by cinema’s vampires: The reflection of a light will pass over his eyes, and his victims then stand there mesmerized, eyes bulging, as he shifts into his true form, that of a nineteenth-century anti-Semite’s vision of a Jewish mosquito.

His quarry today, of course, know nothing about their forbears torching him, but they seem resigned to the fact that they’re now being hunted for deeds they had nothing to do with — that’s the order of things. Still, they’re practical and of their age, so when they at last dispatch their film’s representative of anarchic godlessness, they do so with flamethrowers. (Conflagrations figure into the climaxes of most of these movies, and even the oldest are still effective, layers of flame and faces scored to shrieks and prayer.)

The baron’s true antecedent, of course, is Dracula. Tod Browning’s 1931 Universal film had been a hit in Mexico, and in the late Fifties the success of Fernando Méndez’s moody pleasure El Vampiro proved the profitability of quality local horror. (El Barón del Terror notwithstanding, BAM’s retro features self-consciously artistic genre fare rather than luchador cheapies.) In El Vampiro, the local count (Germán Robles) holds to the Bram Stoker tradition of shipping in crates of soil from his European homeland. The vampire myth, too, seems imported here, with characters laying out the traditional rules about mirrors and crosses, when not wandering the sumptuously mist-choked boneyards and forests, chapels and manors. The conviction with which it’s all treated is certainly homegrown, though, especially the full investment of belief into Catholic symbols, and the studio craftwork of Mexico’s mid-century golden age stands with anything the Americans or the Italians were cooking up at the time. The influence of that studio system’s expertise in romance and melodrama becomes more pronounced as the story wears on: There’s a dutiful rapier duel and even a who-will-inherit-the-hacienda? plot.

A few years on, singularly local terror soon flowered in that imported horror dirt. Baledón’s The Curse of the Crying Woman and Urueta’s The Witch’s Mirror both subordinate key concepts of the vampire films — ancient evil reawakened, mirrors rejecting the unholy, nightgowned virgins in peril of corruption — to domestic folklore. (They also borrow liberally and fruitfully from Mario Bava.) The resulting mash-ups still delight, surprise, and even jolt. Cringe for the dead woman’s corpse casually run over by a carriage in Curse, the superior of the films. Baledón’s villain (Rita Macedo) is an eyeless witch whose visage is dominated, like the gray aliens of U.S. abduction lore, by wide puddles of black. Like most of the immortals stalking the BAM series, the crying woman kills as she plots to awaken a second ancient evil, in this case La Llorona, the original crying woman of regional myth, whose speared skeleton is on prominent display in the torture basement of the regal Selma (also Macedo).

The film opens with Selma in her witch form, haunting a foggy crossroads, siccing her Great Danes on passersby and weeping as they slay. Soon, she’s greeting newlyweds (Rosita Arenas and, yet again, Abel Salazar) at her mouldering home, pushing the happy couple into a mad potluck of a horror plot involving voodoo dolls, more mesmerism, a knife-throwing handyman, a skeleton that leaps for the camera, some sort of wolf man, ritualistic sacrifice, negative-printed flashbacks to long-ago unholiness, and that sense that it’s not just everyone’s lives on the line — it’s their very souls. That fear likewise pervades The Witch’s Mirror, which also features Salazar and offers an equally disorienting stew of wicked myth and Catholic genuflection, with even more emphasis on youthful beauty being spoiled by devilishness. Highlights include the usual shadowed fogscapes, chapels, and shapeshifters, plus the revelation of the face of a mummified woman, and hands that operate independently of a body. “The satanic rays of this moon will return to death what belongs to death” runs a typical line. It’s all unhinged enough that one character dares to voice skepticism: “Deborah,” he says, “I am a man of science, a medical doctor! I cannot believe in ghosts!” Bad move, doc.

Disbelief manifests more fully in the later films in the series, when the monsters retain human forms, and the heavens stop acknowledging the supernatural with comets. Moctezuma’s relentlessly lurid and garish Alucarda finds young women possessed at a convent, doffing their clothes and slicing each others’ breasts in close-ups. Their punishment for consorting — in what may or may not be a fantasy sequence — with the goat-headed devil? Why, more nude torture, administered by nuns and priests. The floggings are protracted and soiling, the overkill numbing. The film feels more set-bound even than the Fifties and Sixties productions, but the set here is more a black-box theater space redressed again and again for a troupe of actors who declaim biblical hokum as they mime the scoring of flesh. Moctezuma’s film suggests, as did so many other Seventies horror flicks, that the devil is real, but what’s scariest here is the zeal of beating him out of women.

We learn nothing about those possessed teens except for what they look like unclothed and in pain. But the much younger girls in Taboada’s dark summertime idyll Poison for the Fairies get to carry their story, and to be compellingly original characters. Fairies is quiet, thoughtful, attentive to the practicalities of youthful witchcraft; its heroines (Ana Patricia Rojo and Elsa María Gutiérrez) may be its villains, and as their curiously intense, occasionally bullying friendship persists, we’re never quite clear whether their attempts at spellcasting are just fantasy — or whether they change the wider world itself. On holiday in a lushly grassy region, Rojo’s Verónica puckishly sticks her tongue out at a cross that she’s told was erected on the property long ago, when the devil used to visit. Genre rules demand that she be punished for this, but Poison for the Fairies itself remains agnostic on crucial matters. What’s terrifying, in the end, is what one of these girls believes about the other — and her certainty about the best way to handle it.

That certainty animates the most terrifying film in the lineup, Cazals’s avowedly realistic Canoa: A Shameful Memory, a horror-touched docu-drama based on a real-life tragedy: the 1968 murder, by a torch-bearing mob, of young visitors to the small town of San Miguel Canoa. Cazals employs documentary technique (repertorial direct address and narration) to establish the heated milieu of the era, when the Díaz Ordaz government massacred university protesters in Mexico City while feeding its citizens propaganda about a possible Communist takeover. Way out in Canoa, a powerful local priest (Enrique Lucero) warned that students/commies would soon be coming to town, a pronouncement that spells doom for the adventurous young men who turn up one rainy night hoping to climb a nearby volcano. “Communistas! Hijo de diablo!” shout the townspeople. Soon, Cazals is tacking between doc technique and brutal mob horror, adeptly putting them in counterpoint. Whether or not you believe in a god or a devil, there’s no doubt that the scariest thing in creation is people convinced that their allegiance toward one obliges them to kill.

‘Holy Blood: Mexican Horror Cinema’
October 27–November 2
BAMcinématek

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