by Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone
Image by Daniela Attard
I have just watched the short film El Gigante (dir. Gigi Saul Guerrero, 2015) by Luchagore Productions, a production team committed to the horror genre. El Gigante is a gory splatterfest, which cleverly combines the familiar ‘backwoods cannibal’ subgenre with that tradition distinct to Mexican film – masked wrestling – making ‘Luchagore’ an aptly descriptive term. This makes for an entertaining mix, and El Gigante has some glorious fun with it.
With its playful awareness of traditions, El Gigante also provides an excellent starting-point for looking at Mexican horror more generally. The Luchadores were central figures in Mexican popular culture in the 50s-70s, rising within the Época de oro in Mexican cinema. El Santo (Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta), with his silver mask, became one of the most iconic masked wrestlers, recognisable to international audiences. El Santo’s hero persona would fight crime, supervillains, and the occasional horror monster. One remarkable feature of these films is that there would usually be space for a wrestling match to occur at some length, not always related to plot. Two such horror films were Santo vs. las Mujeres Vampiro (Santo vs. the Vampire Women, 1962), and Santo en el museo de cera (Santo in the Wax Museum, 1963), both directed by Alfonso Corona Blake. The latter features wrestling bouts against ‘classic’ monsters, led by Claudio Brook’s scheming villain.
Claudio Brook also stars in Dr Tarr’s Torture Dungeon (1973), and Alucarda (1977), both directed by Juan López Moctezuma. Alucarda (1977) draws upon a number of elements – coming-of-age tensions in a convent environment, erupting in nunsploitation, religious paranoia, possession and devil worship. It’s more or less consistent in its atmosphere, and is perhaps the better of the two films. Dr Tarr’s Torture Dungeon/Mansion of Madness is, however, my favourite. It moves from a Hammer-esque gothic, into flamboyant erotica, into Marat/Sade territory, into an old-fashioned ‘inmates-overrun-asylum’ horror. And presiding over all the madness is Claudio Brook’s maniacal villain, who alternately marches and capers/prances through his prison-kingdom in gleefully deranged fashion, often on the verge of erupting into unrestrained laughter – like a vaudevillian Marquis de Sade (an image not outside the spirit of Sade’s writings). Pace sometimes sags, and the film’s own lack of restraint does sometimes get in the way of cohesion, as it tends towards self-indulgence. But it does ultimately find a winning and distinctive voice of its own – like a Fellini-inspired surreal nightmare, but one which doesn’t take itself at all seriously.
Another Mexican director with an impressive horror filmography, who warrants greater international interest and acclaim than he currently receives, is Carlos Enrique Taboada. I haven’t watched all of his horror output, but the little I have watched continues to haunt me. The horror in El Libro de Piedra (1969) is pervasive, as a statue’s indeterminable influence slowly creeps over the lives isolated at its centre. Veneno para las hadas (Poison for the Fairies, 1984) sustains a fairytale charm and childhood sense of magic right through its brutal end. Hasta el viento tiene miedo (Even the Wind is Afraid, 1968), a ghost story set in a girls’ boarding school, is probably Taboada’s best-known horror film, and it too is a lesson in brooding atmosphere, and a landmark film in its line. Más negro que la noche (Blacker than the Night, 1975) is another ‘ghost’ story (revenge for the death of a cat), but with more than a hint of the slasher about it. The dead cat’s miaow hovers over the end of the film.
Another lingering sound haunts Mexican horror – the cry of the weeping woman, the Llorona. In the most common version of the tale, she is a mother weeping by lake or river for the loss of her children, drowned at her hands. The Llorona is possibly one of the most frequently referenced folk legends in Mexican horror film. A few films which work with this legend are: The Crying Woman (Ramón Peón, 1933), The Llorona (René Cardona, 1960), La Maldicion de la Llorona (Rafael Baledón, 1963), The Wailer Andrés Navia, 2006), La Leyenda de la Llorona (Alberto Rodriguez, 2011).
In terms of the supernatural, there is the creeping foreboding one finds in some of Taboada’s films (e.g. El Libro), and the Llorona encountered in varying degrees of spectrality. However, there is yet another kind of ghost which leaves an earth-scattering trail of deep footprints through Mexican horror. This is the ghost that is, quite simply, unambiguously there. A physical presence even – embodied. This is a ghost which seems capable of direct touch as well as apparition – just as in another of Taboada’s films (Más negro), the ghost is capable of wielding enough force to ram two knitting needles into someone’s chest. Or a ghost that is – quite simply, matter-of-factly – present. One long-running and popular established Mexican radio programme (1995-) is called La Mano Peluda (‘The Hairy Hand’): a radio-terror show, where listeners phone in their paranormal experiences. There is something uncomfortably physical about the uncompromising bodily image of a ‘hairy hand’. Juan Rulfo’s novel Pedro Páramo (1955) tells the story/-ies of a town of the dead, a town literally occupied by the dead, who walk the streets like the living. Though there is some ambiguity here, this recedes, to give room – spatially configured – to the dead. Conversation carries on in the coffins, as decomposing bodies carry on with the business of life in death and form a network of communication also structured like a town – with neighbouring bodies, gossip, storytelling, and overheard voices offering up fragments of intersecting stories.
I will close this for now with a return to more recent horror. We Are What We Are (Jorge Michel Grau, 2010) mixes family drama, cannibal horror, and commentary on ‘hidden’ social conditions and urban survival in Mexico City. It directs its commentary towards a specific social context, self-consciously and with harrowing clarity, almost in the manner of a satirical autopsy.
Guillermo del Toro’s influences on the other hand are less explicitly bound to the idea of ‘Mexico’ – his influences stem from other traditions, although his debt to Mexican horror does not go unacknowledged. Indeed, he cast Claudio Brook as aging billionaire Dieter de la Guardia in Cronos (1993).
This has only been a handful of fragments – a brief glimpse, rather than an overview. There is so much more that can be said – I have only watched a fraction of the Mexican horror films out there – there is so much I long to explore. So, I write this as an enthusiastic fan, rather than any kind of expert, sharing some of my favourites in the hope that they might serve as recommendations to others who, like me, are seeking to discover more.
I’d like to thank Arturo Sanchez Garcia, for bringing La Mano Peluda to my attention, reading this piece, and proof-reading some of the Mexican terms.
Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone is an Assistant Lecturer at the University of Kent, Canterbury, where she has just completed her AHRC-funded PhD on the interrelationship between punk and alternative comedy. She obtained her BA in Law and Literature, and her postgraduate diploma of Notary Public, from the University of Malta, going on to an MA in Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Institute (Stratford-upon-Avon). Her academic interests include critical theory, Early Modern Drama, horror films, and videogames.
Daniela ‘iella’ Attard is creature with an uncontrollable tendency to draw on things. Based in London, it dabbles in illustration, sequential art, doodling people on the tube and some traditional fine art. She currently works for Cartoon Network Europe.