I had the opportunity to attend San Diego’s Horrible Imaginings Film Festival on Friday, September 11, 2015, where I was able to see the Mexican anthology film “Mexico Barbaro.” Horror House Party extends sincere thanks to Horrible Imaginings’ director, Beloved Party Guest Miguel Rodriguez, for access to the Festival and its programming.
Spoiler Alert: This review contains spoilers. Read at your own risk. A “spoiler-free” look at “Mexico Barbaro” can be found in the news section.
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The featured film presented was “Mexico Barbaro,” which presented eight films based on the legends and traditions of Mexico.
Segment 1: “Tzompantli” directed by Laurette Flores Bornn
“Tzompantli,” the opening segment written and directed by Laurette Flores Bornn, tells a powerful story which connects modern-day drug-tracking gangs with Aztec history. In this segment, a journalist risks his life to get an interview with a “narco,” a drug trafficker, to talk about the notorious Moctezuma bar case, where young men at the bar were rounded up and sacrificed by outlaws with Aztec tattoos. He learns that the youths were the children of an enemy gang of narcos, and that the youths had been sacrificed to honor the gods as part of a ritual designed to grant them victory over their enemies. It is intimated that similar rites have been going on continuously in Mexico since Aztec times, but that they are not discussed with outsiders. A horrifying reveal at the end of this segment proves that the narco knew what he was talking about.
Bornn’s “Tzompantli,” is startling, and sets the theme for the entire film: the meeting of the old and new, the supernatural and the natural, in contemporary Mexico. This segment may be most notable for the innovative costumes covering the neo-Aztecs: a set of specially-designed bandana masks covering the killers’ noses and mouths during the sacrifice.
Segment 2: “Jaral de Berrios” directed by Edgar Nito
The film’s second segment is “Jaral de Berrios,” written and directed by Edgar Nito. The film is a mystical, period western in which two Mexican runaway charros take shelter in a structure (perhaps once a mansion, perhaps once a mission) haunted by the spirit of a woman. The first charro is dying and soon succumbs to a deadly kiss from the mystery woman. The second charro continues to explore the structure looking for gold. Before he finds it, however, he is struck by a painting of a mysterious, beautiful woman above what appears to be a shrine, but he is chased away by birds before he can study it too closely. After he finds the gold, but before he can leave with it, he, too, makes love to the beautiful woman, who reveals herself as a deadly spirit and leaves him hanging from a tree.
“Jaral de Berrios” features some of the most striking imagery in “Mexico Barbero,” with extravagant special effects amping up the sense of the mystical with startling and vivid artistry. Having never seen a mystical Mexican western (surely a genre all to itself!), I relished this film as a counterpoint to mundane American western fare.
Segment 3: “Drena” directed by Aaron Soto
The third segment is “Drena,” written and directed by Aaron Soto, who participated in the “Rise of Mexican Horror” panel at Horrible Imaginings. This segment has been called “so bonkers it’s automatically brilliant.” “Drena” puts a horrific slant on the modern tragedy of dead bodies found abandoned. The film focuses on two sisters (played by Lorena Gonzalez and Barbara Perrin Rivemar), one of whom finds a dead body – holding a well-stuffed herbal cigarette no less! – in a drainage ditch. The herb apparently looks too good to pass up, so she steals it right from the corpse’s hand, and takes it back to her apartment to smoke. The resulting monstrous hallucination (or is it a visitation?) gives the girl instructions to procure a bowl of her sister’s blood, which she fulfills (I will not say how; it’s the first twist in the film). And right when you think she has walked the fine line between not harming her sister and satisfying the instructions . . . there’s a twist ending.
This segment played less on longstanding Mexican traditions than it did on taking “straight-from-the-headlines” news and adding a horrific gloss to it. The effects were both well done and disorienting, and with all the twists in the plot, one never knew what might happen next. An entirely original tale, “Drena” proved that horror may still be found in modern Mexico.
Segment 4: “La cosa mas preciada (The Most Precious Thing)” directed by Isaac Ezban
“La cosa mas preciada (The Most Precious Thing)” features traditional Mexican woodland creatures known as “Alushes.” Although Alushes are not usually known for being evil, this grindhouse creature feature, written and directed by Isaac Ezban and produced by Yellow Films, places a horrific overlay on the Mexican legend.
Valeria (played by Sara Camacho) and her boyfriend Javier (played by Rubén Zerecero) skip school for a midweek tryst in an isolated vacation cabin in the woods. An old groundskeeper attempts to warn them off, but young hormones being what they are, the couple ignores multiple warnings and plans a sexy, romantic evening. Things turn very, very bad very, very fast when the Alushes graphically rape – and ultimately kill – Valeria, stealing the couple’s most precious thing. Unfortunately, the woman’s terrifying ordeal is played as comedy, turning what could have been an over-the-top exercise in creature horror into over-the-top misogynistic bad taste.
Segment 5: “Lo que importa es lo de adentro (What Matters Is What’s Inside),” directed by Lex Ortega
The fifth segment, “Lo que importa es lo de adentro (What Matters Is What’s Inside),” written and directed by Lex Ortega, easily has the most layered title in the film. Filmed in Tlatelolco in Mexico City, the film features a series of reveals about the relationship between an apparently homeless man and a family who lives in a nearby condominium. We first see a very young girl who is afraid of the homeless man; she refers to him as the boogeyman. Her Mother, of course, has no time for this nonsense, as she is busy readying the doted-upon son for school. As the family leaves the house, the mother condescendingly pays the man a few coins to undertake a menial task. Later, we learn that the little girl is truly the one who could “see inside” the man, when he abducts the doted-upon son.
While the film would benefit from a little more time to explore the contrast between the family’s reality and that of the homeless man, the story is tautly told and extremely revealing. Character – good and bad – is explored mercilessly. The twist ending (the part I didn’t give away) gives yet another meaning to the apt title while playing on tourist fears of Mexico.
Segment 6: “Muñecas (Dolls),” directed by Jorge Michel Grau
“Muñecas (Dolls),” written and directed by Jorge Michel Grau, takes slowly creeping creepiness to a new degree of . . . well, creepy. For those of you who may not be familiar with Mexico, there is a small island (actually a floating garden) just south of Mexico City, between the canals of Xochimico, known as Isla de las Munecas (Island of the Dolls). Even without Grau’s embellishment with a fictional narrative, the story of Isla de las Munecas raises shivers, concerning as it does a drowned girl, possessed dolls, and a caretaker who devoted his life to them. In Grau’s version, the island’s new caretaker (the actual caretaker of legend, Don Julian Santana Barrera, died in 2001) is abducting the tourist women who travel by boat to see what is now considered a tourist attraction.
Grau’s “Muñecas” was filmed in black-and-white, and the film’s striking imagery has captured the tone and general disturbing air of the island. While the images of the captured women are heart-breaking, the standard abducted tourist story does not make full use of the legend of the dolls (or of the creepy dolls themselves).
Segment 7: “Siete veces siete (Seven Times Seven),” directed by Ulises Guzman
As usual, the best (or in this case the two best) were saved for last. Ulises Guzman’s “Siete veces siete (Seven Times Seven)” is a brilliant and unconventional revenge narrative. Where some filmmakers ponder the futility of violent revenge, Guzman crows, “Revenge is fun! Let’s do it again!”
“Siete veces siete,” follows a brujo who first removes a corpse from a mortuary, then takes it out to the desert to magically revive it. The desert scenes are wonderful and full of exciting visual effects, with (among other things) disturbing magical creatures attacking the pair during the revival. The film sustains its mystery throughout – just when you think you know what’s happening, you discover you had it backward. This is a brilliant segment and is not to be missed.
Segment 8: “Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead),” directed by Gigi Saul Guerrero
What does it say about me that both of my favorite segments are revenge narratives? Gigi Saul Guerrero’s “Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)” is a beautifully-filmed narrative combining traditional Day of the Dead celebratory imagery with a story about the strength of Mexican women.
The film starts with an act of violence against a woman who we later discover is a dancer in a strip club. The female owner of the club gives her beautiful ladies a pep talk, then sends them out on the floor, made up in full Día de los Muertos make-up. As disconcerting as it may be to see a beautiful skeletal tribute bumping and grinding on a pole, things get even more surreal when these same beauties are given the go-ahead to engage in their own version of fun!
The majority of the film is set in the club where the sordid but somewhat festive atmosphere acts as contrast to the grand guignol-esque violence that follows. If you are looking for buckets of blood and severed limbs, this is the segment that answers your wishes. A nod goes to the make-up designer and artists for this segment, for giving us some of the most beautiful Día de los Muertos make-up I have ever seen. All in all, this segment provides a beautiful contemporary ending to the film.
You know you want to see it. Here’s the description by Amazon: “Eight Mexican directors unite to bring tales of the most brutally terrifying Mexican traditions and legends to vividly shocking life. “Mexico Barbaro” presents haunting stories that have been woven into the fabric of a nation’s culture, some passed down through the centuries and some new, but all equally frightening. Stories of boogeymen, trolls, ghosts, monsters, Aztec sacrifices, and, of course, the Day of the Dead all come together in urban and rural settings to create an anthology that is as original as it is familiar and as important as it is horrifying.” – McC
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