Movie Mondays: Belzebuth

Belzebuth-posterSynopsis: The story opens with happy parents and quickly moves into tragedy and horror. Officer Ritter (Joaquin Cosio) and his wife Marina (Aurora Gil) welcome their new son into the world; unfortunately, Ritter is called away from the hospital before a blank-eyed nurse enters the neonate area and begins butchering children. Five years later, a blank-eyed twelve year old comes to school, armed to the teeth and ready to shoot a kindergartner class dead before putting the barrel of a shotgun in his mouth and ending his own existence. Then, a blank-eyed janitor electrocutes a pool of children. Something terrible is happening, and it might have something to do with single mom Beatriz (Yunuen Pardo) and her boy Isa (Liam Villa) who happened to be born in the same hospital at the time Ritter’s son was murdered. Perhaps it has something to do with Ivan Franco (Tate Ellington), an American scientist specializing in Paranormal Forensics, a man who has been able to link terrible crimes to supernatural resonance and marks. Perhaps it has something to do with the mad priest Vasilio Canetti (Tobin Bell), who has been excommunicated for performing Satanic Rites in the Vatican. Perhaps it has something to do with demons or is that only mad rationalizations. Ritter is an atheist after the horrors he alone has survived. However, his beliefs in the rational world will be pushed to the limits as he plumbs mystery for answers. Only director/co-writer Emilio Portes knows all those answers for sure, and his hand is as steady as his eye is infatuated with gloriously bizarre imagery in his intense, religious-themed horror film Belzebuth (2019).

DANIEL’S TAKE

The Friday before Christmas, audiences of the Graveyard Shift series, a weekly program dedicated to showing horror flicks in the Houston area, were treated to a double feature of Portes’s works. First up was the gory comedy Pastorela (2011), which we reviewed last week. After that minor masterwork of mayhem and comedy, audiences were treated to this film. I cannot speak for anyone else, but for me this pairing cemented Emilio Portes as a director of note, someone to watch. I might not agree with his subject matter—this film in particular hinges on religion in ways that do not typically work for me in horror entertainments—but I can appreciate his eye for memorable image, his knack for suspense, and his ability to get right under the skin through subject matter and approach.

As mentioned last week, Pastorela was an amazing stew of comedy and scares, finding ways to meld demonic horror with a rivalry between a priest and the corrupt cop who was willing to do anything to play the Devil in the annual Nativity Play. For Belzebuth, the laughs are far fewer, what humor is to be found is often subtle, and the plotting goes for the throat. The film’s story is just as savage a satire as the previous piece, but unlike common misapprehension might suggest, satire does not require a sense of humor. Laughter is the emotional byproduct of comedy, whereas the emotional byproduct of satire should be unease. In that regard, Belzebuth is just as powerful as Pastorela, though the specific targets it focuses its satiric eye upon are a little different than Christmas pageants and simple rivalries. The sin of pride, however, is pretty much right there in the forefront of both features. Pride goeth before falls, and in these films it precedes and perhaps causes quite a high body count before the fall terminates in a bone crunching final crash landing.

Right from the get go, we are dragged into a horrifying situation. After a brief prologue featuring a dark man walking on the road and the image of a man bearing black magic tattoos stumbling out of a dark tunnel with brilliant scarlet drenched hands and a voiceover telling us something terrible is coming, we arrive on the scene of the hospital, that fateful day. Bliss is soon followed by shocking violence, and the impact of newborns being snuffed out does not require the sight of a madwoman’s scalpel slamming down into their tiny bodies. It’s done with nurse’s body language and effective sound effects. The scene is numbing. With a locked door and a crowd protesting her deeds on the other side, the nurse moves about her grim task quickly, snuffing out as many of the children as possible before cutting her own throat. This sequence is brief and stunning, and the outcome is telegraphed in such a way that the audience gets to dread the situation before the first life is ended. I squirmed in my seat. I squeezed Trista’s hand pretty hard, hoping we did not have to see one of those giggling little pudgy kids we saw in the establishing shots leaking scarlet liquid like some sundered wine sack.

You see, I can cope with the freaky stuff, but I have a low tolerance for kids in jeopardy and pain. Ever since our daughter was born, I just can’t deal with this element quite as easily as I could pre-parenthood. It cuts far too close to the bone, now. These sequences are difficult to watch at best, and from a savvy director like Portes in a film like Belzebuth, I found them to be almost unbearable. Would I have found it this way three or five years ago? Maybe I would not have squirmed so hard, but I would certainly have appreciated Emilio Portes’s craft.

The opening half of the film abounds with seemingly senseless acts of brutality aimed at kids and the ramifications on the adults left behind. It is also a supernatural mystery, a sort of whodunit where the answer is not necessarily The Devil who never quite manifests in the comfortable cloven hoofed vision that has become rather comfortable and therefore more than a little silly. Perhaps it is only one demon, but the agenda remains uncertain.

Even a trip to a local bruja (witch/fortune teller), Leonor (Giovanna Zacarias), does not give the characters the answers they really wish for. She knows the mad priest not by name or face but by the tattoos he has adorned his flesh with. They are the blackest magic, stuff she dares not truck with. The witch has worked with the police before and for her troubles she was arrested on trumped up charges. All because the inspector in charge hates the superstitious nonsense. Still, she tries to warn Ritter off the path he walks. He is offering to erase her record if she will assist, and she begrudgingly agrees, giving them a tarot reading. However, forces outside their control and sight adjust the cards and then arrives to threaten the fortune teller’s own child. This sequence is played for laughs at first and becomes more deadly serious, the human drama takes on supernatural overtones, finally being subsumed by the ever present world of spirits and demons.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate this scene for how far it deviates from the established traditions used in American religious horror. The characters don’t go to a male psychiatrist to be told they are nuts, they don’t then end up with a male priest who is hesitant to believe them at first and then starts to come to the realization that maybe they are correct. Count the number of movies where cops will go to a witch for help with demons out of the gate and you will not likely use up the fingers on even one of your hands. It’s a neat touch, utterly subversive to expectations, and it never calls great attention to itself. That is this movie in a nutshell. It is loud, it is crass, it is sometimes cruel, but the real transgressions it is responsible for are never trumpeted as being oh so revolutionary. This blend of subtlety and extreme horror is exhilarating in retrospect.

The film offers us a Rashomon sort of approach to its mystery, giving us information from unreliable sources. The mad priest first appears to be a Satanic servant and child killer, but is he perhaps something else altogether? The demonic forces (the titular Belzebuth, which I take to be Spanish for Beelzebub, demonic Lord of Flies) tempts strong men and possesses the weak, but can it weave truth with the lies it tells and the offers it makes to bring back Ritter’s lost wife and son?

Unlike Pastorela, the script for Belzebuth is a collaborative effort between Portes and Louis Carlos Fuentes. The film definitely has the feel of multiple hands, but the overall tone and thematic obsessions driving the film are Portes’s. Images and ideas from Pastorela echo here, percolating through the text and subtext. This is not to suggest this film is simply that earlier one redone. It is a separate story, a separate take on unrelated characters, and it has plot points and beats all its own. However, it might be a story told from another corner of that same universe. The religious aspects are almost identical, and casting Joaquin Cosio in leading roles for both features gives them a similar relationship to the features that gave us such pairings as Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro or David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen. Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Casino are not really related stories, but they echo one another regardless. The same goes for A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. The directors have their artistic fingerprints, their personal touches; the actors bring their gravitas and personal touches as well; a good pairing makes something memorable.

In Belzebuth, some of the effects are practical, some of CGI. One of the more impressive of the latter involves the animation of a crucified Christ sculpture, which writhes on its cross and chatters in demonic growls and snarls, actor Conde Fabregat delivering lies and truths intended to wound its interrogators. All the while, it tries to wrench itself from the cross to do a little physical harm. This sequence is mirrored in an exorcism later in the feature—of course there’s an exorcism; don’t all Catholic horror pictures ever since William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) need one? Though the specific Christ animation effect might not have a long shelf life (sadly, some blood bursts emphasized by CGI are a little on the clunky side), the broken masonry and the red meat underneath are just gruesome enough for right now.

Belzebuth perhaps loses a bit of steam for me in its final quarter. As the attention shifts from the mystery into a more straight ahead suspenseful cat and mouse game between Ritter, a free-floating demon, Isa and his mother, and Canetti the mad priest, the piece finds its way into territory that is a bit too familiar for me. The story retains some fantastic imagery, some disgusting horror as well as well-rendered suspense thriller sequences, but the tone shifts just enough that I was less on the edge of my seat than sitting back and appreciating the craft of the ride itself.

Make no mistake: There is a high level of craft in the picture. It is not easy to make Devil Horror all that scary for a viewer like me, anymore. The key is in zeroing in on crafting characters I can care about and then throwing them into a meat grinder, which features images and ideas that scare not because they are blasphemies against a specific religious tenet or two but because they speak to the degradation of the human body, mind and spirit as well as the breakdown of humane communities.

As we saw in Pastorela, Portes again delivers a second helping of horror at the powers of seemingly ubiquitous demonic powers who are looking for even the smallest foothold to use in asserting their influence over their targets. That is perhaps one of the more chilling aspects of the tale, how easily mankind is used. Of course, as one character remarks late in the proceedings: Human beings are not the warriors, they are the battleground.

The final sequences are given a wonderful claustrophobic quality in their settings: a tunnel running across the border between Mexico and the US. It is a path used by villains to transport saleable items—drugs, weapons, human beings—and it does a fairly good job of taking shots at the folks in power in the US. The satire is broad, no names are named, but the implications are there. Since victory for the forces of good involves getting one or more individuals across the border, then doesn’t that suggest anyone who makes such an activity difficult is, perhaps, a tool of the Adversary? There need be no mention of border walls or enhanced checkpoints or rejected asylum cases for the target of that little jab to be identified, amIright?

Whereas a movie like Machete (2010) makes its politics pretty plain, leaving nothing to the imagination and very little to interpretation, Belzebuth uses the template of a religious horror picture to get its audience’s interest and then leavens the experience with occasional lines and subtle implications to provide talking points. Sadly, the real people who could benefit from this aspect will miss it completely. Satire often only preaches to the already converted choir.

Belzebuth is a masterfully made picture, a collaboration between Mexican and American production companies. One hopes it is not the last such collaboration to appear. I love to see a meeting of the minds that gives us such powerful explorations of the horrifying and the wondrous, the mystical and the malefic. Director Portes has an playfulness to his horror that I find infinitely appealing. I look forward to seeing future explorations into the horrific, the humorous or the satiric. Hell, why not all three?

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Belzebuth is a Shudder Exclusive, which means it is streaming as part of that service. I don’t believe it’s available in a region 1 DVD or Blu-ray. This needs to be corrected, and hopefully soon.

If you have not yet grabbed a Shudder membership (Trista and I only got ours in the last week) there are plenty of ways to get a 30-day trial upgrade. We used the phrase HORRORHOUND to do so. Be like us, whydon’tcha?

Next week, we return to our love of Asian horror movies with a mashup of two classic J-horror properties. Sadako vs. Kayako brings together the spectal girl from Ringu and the creaky horrors of Ju-On for a showdown that asks: Which curse is stronger? Sadako vs. Kayako is available in a Blu-ray edition. Like Belzebuth, it is also a Shudder exclusive, so subscribers to that service can stream it as part of their regular subscription. Doesn’t Shudder sound even more interesting?

“Movie Mondays: Belzebuth” is copyright © 2020 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Poster and still image are taken from IMDB.

Disclosure: Considering Stories is part of the Amazon Associates program. Qualifying purchases made using the product links can result in us getting paid. This is done at no additional cost to you; we get to raid amazon’s coffers for nickels, basically.

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