I don’t know if we’ve gone over this before, but my siblings had a funny way of showing familial love (don’t you fret; it’s all good). As I’m sure you can guess, what I actually mean is they were well-versed in the art of torment. Pop quiz: Who do you think I’m going to say was the target of these attacks? Very good. You get a star by your name for the day. Aside from wet willies, noogies, and wedgies, my brothers had also somehow come upon a “game” which may even have violated the Geneva Convention. It was called a “Panic Moment,” but it was so fiendishly simple, there’s no way it couldn’t have been effective. Basically, you place your hand over someone’s mouth while pinching their nose closed. As your victim struggles to breathe, they experience the eponymous moment, and then you let them go, and everyone laughs because it’s just so damned funny. Game over. Asphyxiation sure is cool, huh, kids?
Anyway, as I was doing some research (sources include the ever-reliable Wikipedia and David Wilt’s The Mexican Film Resource Page) into Juan Lopez Moctezuma for this review (just enough to make me sound more ignorant than usual), I came upon his relationship with Alejandro Jodorowsky and by association the “Mouvement Panique” (see why it sparked my interest?). This was a theater movement founded in 1962 by Jodorowsky, Roland Topor, and Fernando Arrabal. The basic premise was that even the most surreal of theatrical productions had become the norm by this point, so these three felt the need to go beyond that into the realm of transgression (borderline or full-on, I cannot say without some more research). The endgame was a deconstruction and liberation of negative forces in the quest for harmony (again, inner, outer, or both, I cannot say). My guess is it was a form of euphoric exhaustion brought on through extreme physical exertion. At any rate, Moctezuma, who was already established in the Mexican art and theater worlds, became a producer on Jodorowsky’s Fando Y Lis and El Topo. This collaboration certainly seemed to influence the former’s future films, including Alucarda, because they are loaded with images both grotesque and beautiful, reverent and profane.
A young woman (Tina Romero) gives birth to a baby girl while lying in a crypt. She pleads with the deliverer to secrete her daughter to the local convent/orphanage, hoping that “he” never finds her. All of the statuary in the sepulcher moan and yell, and mom screams. Years later, Justine (Susana Kamini) is brought to the same convent following the death of her parents. She is paired up in a room with Alucarda (Romero again), who shows the new girl her jar full of “secrets,” and the two become close, indeed. But dark forces loom on the horizon threatening to destroy not only their lives but their very souls.
The film plays extensively with ideas of duality (as I’ve sort of hinted at above). So, we have the same actress playing Alucarda and her mother. We also have Claudio Brook playing both Dr. Oszek and the humpbacked Gypsy who initiates the girls into the wide world of Satanism (though he’s really nothing more than the Devil, and again, we have the idea that he’s attractive to the girls for what he offers, though physically he’s deformed and cartoonishly monstrous, like the snake in the Garden of Eden story). Oszek is supposed to be the voice of reason, the one who can quantify what’s going on in medical terms. Yet the Gypsy is wholly supernatural, offering Alucarda a knife formed from a woman’s tears and appearing out of thin air at various points, and Oszek eventually admits he’s out of his depth.
By that same token, the film is not, as some may think, a condemnation of Christianity. There are the trappings we may expect from such a film, to be sure. Father Lazaro (David Silva) is a zealot who preaches fire and brimstone. The convent itself is like something carved directly from the stuff of nightmares, with the main chapel being almost as creepy as the solitary statue of Jesus that Carrie White (and the audience of that film) had to stare at for so long. Further, the nuns don’t wear traditional habits, instead donning what appear to be the wrappings of mummies, seemingly stained copper, like dried blood. This of course, leads me to the reason for this coloration: the fact that the priests and nuns of this place are flagellates, whipping themselves while becoming both ecstatic and enraged. And yet, the problem they face is a supernatural one, and the fact remains that normal physical means alone are useless in dispelling it. Later, there is a live-action reenactment not only of the Pietà but also of the Crucifixion itself, the latter providing an actual showing of bloodshed and a statement on self-sacrifice out of faith and love. Still, the lines are blurred enough on both sides of this argument, that rather than decrying one side over the other, it becomes a conflation of the two, and it is the audience which must deliver the final verdict.
We run into this same haziness when talking about the film’s generic aspects. From the title alone, one would think this is a Vampire film, and it has facets of Vampire films in it. One of the characters rises out of a coffin filled with blood and bites another character on the neck. Blessed items (holy water and such) burn and frighten the villains. Justine and Alucarda are transformed by a blood ritual, and they become servants of the Devil. Blood is ever-present, and I honestly don’t know if there are many characters that aren’t awash in it at some point or another. By that same token, the film hews just a bit closer in trappings and feel to a Possession film. There’s the aforementioned Satanic ritual and the damaging of the creatures with blessed items (duality, again). Alucarda has the power of pyrokinesis. Still, both of the girls live in a convent, where they are surrounded by religious icons. Further, the girls will often fly into tantrums, spewing all sorts of nonsensical diatribes and then suddenly act as if they don’t know what’s going on (innocents corrupted and puppeteered by malefic forces). Finally, all of this is begun because Alucarda and Justine love one another more than platonically, and since that goes against the traditional teachings of the Christian church, they are susceptible to being possessed (a chink in the armor of innocence, so to speak). It’s an archaic thought process, to be certain, but it’s there, and it’s the spine of many a Possession film. Nevertheless, even this is never truly delineated in full, and Moctezuma leaves the ultimate decision on what to believe and what to accept about the film up to its viewers, all while delivering one hell of a bloodbath of a Horror film.
MVT: The visual aesthetic of the film is absolutely haunting. Every room in the convent feels like a tomb (like, say, the one a vampire would rise from every night?), and the sculptures etched into the wall would likely give Sir Francis Bacon shivers. The crypt has drapery carved directly into its rock walls, and they are dyed a rusty brown-red. This is mirrored in the rather unusual outfits the characters wear (especially the nuns). Put simply, it’s gorgeous just to take in, even if all you want is blood.
Make Or Break: The ritual that Justine and Alucarda go through is sexy and just a little trippy and altogether eerie (try to not think of the “Addams Family” theme song while reading that). But when the man shows up with the goat mask (is it a mask?), you know some heavy stuff is about to go down.