This week, we revisit another of the columns Trista and I wrote for the CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT site back in 2016-2018. In March of 2017, we caught an anthology flick of horror and horrific crime tales set in Mexico. As fans of world horror, we were stoked to see the thing and it balanced the grisly with the gratuitous pretty well.
The thing about anthology films (and, by extension, fiction anthologies) is this: The stories are short enough that even if one or two don’t ring with you, they will be over and another will come along worth seeing. This is true for just about every anthology pictures I have seen whether we’re talking V/H/S (2012) or an old Amicus Productions release such as FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1974). MEXICO BARBARO is one of those flicks that really worked for us, and though a couple of story resolutions might not be what one or the other (or both) of us hoped for, the filmmaking itself was generally pretty good.
Horror is a genre with many hats. Sometimes it offers us the funny shocks found in horror comic books, sometimes it presents a photorealistic view of the evils human beings are capable of doing to one another, sometimes it explores philosophical truths, and sometimes it grapples with social ills in a more digestible form. MEXICO BARBARO easily hands us all of these, though quantities of ingredients vary from tale to tale. It’s a ripping good time with some goofy CGI transitions that maybe didn’t quite need to be there.
I hope you enjoy this revisit to our old column, and if you are new to the world of Mexican horror films, perhaps films like this (as well as WE ARE THE FLESH or THE UNTAMED) will give you cause to seek out more. At its best, Mexican horror opens a vein to show us the rot, the fears, and the anxieties of a nation that viewers don’t have to be fluent in Spanish to appreciate. Fears, despite the aesthetic differences, are truly universal.
The Alamo Cinema Massacre Presents: México Bárbaro
By: Trista K. and Daniel R. Robichaud
Synopsis: In this south of the border horror anthology film, viewers get eight slices of scares. A reporter investigating missing teens is swept up in unbelievable atrocities. A pair of banditos staying in a haunted hacienda learn that curses can have many spectral faces and hungers. A young woman snatches the cigarette from a corpse’s fingers, and pays a weird, high price for her theft. A couple take holiday in a remote cabin for their first sexual encounter, only to learn they should have heeded the creepy caretaker’s warnings about little thieves in the woods outside. A little girl’s mother and brother laugh at her fears that the neighborhood homeless man is the boogeyman, but the truth is far more savage than any of them suspect. An island of trees decorated with filthy, melted dolls gives new, dangerous meaning to the phrase tourist trap. A man engages in a mad, lonely rite to combat death, but for what purpose? A strip club popular with gringos becomes a new kind of warzone in the battle of the sexes. Powerful visual storytelling makes all of these shorts horrifying and visceral entertainments.
MÉXICO BÁRBARO (2014) delivers a smorgasbord of self-contained horror stories tackling terrors from both supernatural and human origins. The movie feels like a small indie film festival, united by the simple theme of love for horror flicks and Mexican legends. As expected, some pieces work better than others, but all of the films have some interesting visuals and some inspired story elements. They are slick, professional looking things. And with running times on the order of eight to fifteen minutes, it is not difficult to sit through the pieces that are difficult to connect with. However, the short running times do not equate to a shyness for disturbing material. Many are splatterpunk extremism turned up to eleven, though a few offer subtler takes on their material. All of them present us with new voices, giving writes and directors a chance to shine in the international market. Many of the pieces have the tonal complexity of haiku, seemingly simple on the surface but covering a lot of ground in their brief durations. My list of directors to watch has grown from this piece, and I look forward to seeing what some of these filmmakers do with larger canvases. Even the title cards for the individual films are fun and surprising: not only do they appear after each film, but they are set atop animations of bodily traumas unrelated to the films themselves (for example, a hammer strikes an unknown individual’s scalp for one, while a drillbit gouges free of meat and bone in another).
What are your opening thoughts, Trista?
Any regular readers of our column know we love foreign and subtitled films, and MÉXICO BÁRBAROS is no exception. Even if you don’t read fast, the visual storytelling in these pieces is top-notch. In many cases, the viewer can tell what is going on just fine with minimal reading – so don’t let the subtitling put you off!
As you’ve said, Daniel, my list of directors to watch for has grown also. These films carry us into dark universes with surety and confidence, giving us unsettling glimpses into a world that might be. The effects are superb and serve the stories, rather than the other way around. (Putting you on notice, THE CURSE OF THE SLEEPING BEAUTY 2015!) I also appreciated the window into spooky stories that were Mexican, with a love and appreciation for regional Mexican cultures and dark fairy tales. Most excellent.
I will first focus on Director Aaron Soto’s “Drain” (“Drena”) not because it is my favorite of the eight, but because it managed to give me a scenario that took so many unexpected turns and built to an effective WTF conclusion that left me grinning at its audacity and otherwise staring with slack-jawed surprise.
The film opens with tracking shots following a young woman walking home. En route, she encounters a naked male corpse in a ditch, hand raised as though offering the cigarette clenched between death frozen fingers. What’s a girl to do but take it? Later, the young woman lights up the dead man’s coffin stick, takes a drag, and is then visited by a hallucinogenic presence. A weird and bent little male figure oozes from the darkness of her hall, telling her not to be afraid, but that she has a choice: Either she can drain the blood from her mother’s vagina, or it will suck the young woman’s soul from her anus. What follows involves sensual camera angles, disturbing events, an unexpected turn of events, and a visually stunning conclusion.
There is no death on screen or otherwise, but the film tackles taboo topics and delvers a sobering dose of cosmic horror that is downright Lovecraftian without any of that author’s tentacles. Are the unpleasant events random or inevitable? It is difficult to say.
Though “Drain” ultimately does not go as graphically far as a film like WE ARE THE FLESH (2016) or some of the other pieces in MEXICO BARBARO, it still manages to keep an edge.
Which film do you want to tackle first, Trista.
Ulises Guzman directs “Seven Times Seven” (“Siete Veces Siete”), a sparse and chilling tale with a deliciously twisted end. On the coast of a lake in a mountainous, desert-like area a desperate man sets up a fire and strange ritual sticks, biting a mandrake root to begin strange black magic. The color palette is near grayscale as we see him focusing this ritual around a corpse. We catch glimpses of the corpse in life, and learn the two men were friends or partners. We see the corpse reanimate, apparently possessed by a demon, and we see the shaman physically restrain his friend over the course of days. Death visits the shaman, towing behind him ghosts of the shaman’s wife and child, but the shaman remains dedicated to resurrecting his friend despite temptations to stop… but why? And will he be successful casting out the demon?
This slow-burn piece caught my attention not only for the ending (which I’m attempting not to spoil) but also because of the classic camera work employed. There is a love for wide shots which include huge amounts of natural scenery, emphasizing how isolated the shaman and his corpse are. Guzman clearly shows influences from John Ford (STAGECOACH, 1939 and THE SEARCHERS, 1956) as well as Akira Kurosawa’s RASHOMON (1950) and THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (1958) for shots like these. (Young ‘uns might recognize some HIDDEN FORTRESS shots in George Lucas’s 1976 blockbuster STAR WARS, to go for less esoteric references.) We go from this distant camera to intimate closeups of the two actors as they fight and magic their way through the intense ritual in an austere, unfriendly land. This combination left me feeling the action was momentous in some way, yet savagely, intimately close. Well done.
DANIEL, did you want to talk about one more selection?
Actually, I do. I’d like to give a mention to the very first piece, a moody little slice of horror called “Tzompantli”. Readers unfamiliar with the term might be tempted to Google it, but I would advise not doing so until after the film. Even the little image on Wikipedia is a spoiler. I had initially assumed the word was a name for some ancient and likely bloodthirsty Aztec god. In fact, it is a name for something both simple and deliciously macabre. The fact that tzompantli were a real thing in central and south American history gives the piece a timeless quality.
Directed with spare but fascinating visuals by Laurette Flores Bornn, “Tzompantli” is both a memory and a confession. An older man’s gruff narration (Antonio Monroi) plays over the fresh-faced Jose Luis Guevara playing a fragile, young reporter. The short film presents a reporter’s terrible recollection of a kidnapping case he investigated years before. Several teenagers went missing from a nightclub. All fingers point toward the Narcos, of course. The reporter meets an informer (played with equal doses swagger and nervous energy by Guillermo Villegas) who claims to know both what happened to the unlucky teens as well as why. As the story unravels, barbarous deeds are recalled or imagined, and the tale builds to a final revelation that is both striking and shocking.
This story is more than a macabre folk tale. It is informed by a particular school of journalism called nota roja or red note. The term came about in the 19th century as a description for news stories about violent crimes. If legends are to be believed, at least one of Guadalajara, Mexico’s newspapers actually printed the headlines of murder pieces in red as either a warning or titillation. Accompanied by gruesome pictures and featuring salacious language, they shared some qualities with the “yellow dog journalism” appearing in American papers at around the same time. These were that era’s form of click bait. “Tzompantli” takes a nota roja type story and transforms it into the Mexican equivalent of an Italian giallo. Imagine Dario Argento during his PROFUNDO ROSSO aka DEEP RED (1979) period, but skillfully compressed into about fifteen minutes, and you get an idea of the mood and execution of this particular piece. It’s memorable.
My inner feminist wants me to mention “The Most Precious Thing” (La Cosa Mas Preciada), directed by Isaac Ezban. A warning for squeamish types: there’s rape in this tale, and it ends badly. Assault survivors might want to skip this short.
In “The Most Precious Thing”, a college-aged girl is excited to give up her virginity to her boyfriend, and they have planned to celebrate this part of their relationship at the remote Wolf Cabins. When the story opens, we meet Valeria (Sara Camacho) outside a gas station waiting on her boyfriend Javier (Rubén Zerecero). Three male workers catcall out to Valeria, unsettling her. The camera hugs Valeria’s figure as she grows more anxious, suggesting a lascivious male gaze. When Javier returns, she chastises him, complaining that she doesn’t like giving up her virginity to a man who cannot protect her.
Later at the cabins, an older man (gardener?) tries to warn Javier and Valeria away from the spot. Then he cautions them not to leave anything valuable outside, else thieves may take it. The creepy herald is a classic horror trope, but it plays well here, scaring both young lovers. Demonic imp/thieves do show up, and they do indeed steal Javier’s most precious thing – Valeria herself, who is brutally (and somewhat comedically) assaulted by the imps in the most unsexy way possible.
What piqued my inner feminist is that Javier and Valeria arguably did nothing to ‘deserve’ this. Many horror films punish transgressive behavior, such as sex or drinking. While our young folks clearly intended to get to fornicating, they haven’t yet done anything wrong when the imps show up. The rape is played to be horrifying rather than titillating, and I really appreciated that. What happens to Valeria was horrible and hard to watch, yet it reminded me more of classic horror where bad things happen to good people rather than ‘We’ve seen your breasts, now you must die’ moral police pictures. Upon afterthought, this was a welcome change. (During the picture I was way too busy being grossed out.)
Disgusting imps acting like the savage horrors from Richard Layman’s Beast House series of novels? Yuck and wow! I could not believe what I was watching. It was depraved, but also kind of funny. Overall, an impressive shocker.
That’s kind of my summation of MEXICO BARBARO as a whole: often brutal, sometimes cruel, and emotionally rich. Afterward, I thought: I need to see more of these types of movies!
I hope you enjoy this slice of Mexican horror! Both effective and awesome. A solid “A” in my book.
Next week, we will check in with the new thriller/dark comedy VILLAINS, starring Bill Skarsgard, Maika Monroe, Jeffrey Donovan, and Kyra Sedgewick. That one will be coming to theaters in a few weeks, so no editions to buy for now.
“Movie Mondays: Mexico Barbaro” is copyright © 2019 by Trista K. and Daniel R. Robichaud. It incorporates material from “Alamo Cinema Massacre Presents: Mexico Barbaro” which appeared on the Cinema Knife Fight sight and is © 2017 by Trista K. and Daniel R. Robichaud. Poster and still image are taken from IMDB.