Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Maya (1989)

Carlos Castaneda is quoted at the opening of Marcello Avallone’s Maya with “Twilight is the fracture between two worlds” (I couldn’t verify the actuality of this quote, though it could just as easily refer to The Crack Between Worlds, the lost manuscript he wrote about Don Juan as it could to his belief that sorcery is the reprogramming of our senses to perceive and enter other worlds [both of these bits of information are taken from an interview by Keith Thompson for New Age Journal]).  Either way, we then get the story of evil Mayan king Xibalba (Xibulbai[?]; again, I couldn’t find enough reference to say absolutely which way it should be spelled, so I’m going with my first choice [plus, the fact that Xibalba is a Mayan name for the underworld makes sense in the context of this picture]), who hated one tribe so much that he vowed vengeance on them.  From beyond the grave!  Cut to Saloman Slivak (William Berger) who foresees his own death while gazing into a mirror.  After it comes to pass, his daughter Lisa (Mariella Valentini) and local gadabout Peter (Peter Phelps) join up to get to the bottom of who killed him and has plans on a whole lot of other folks.

This film is very much an odd duck.  It has strong ideas behind it (how many horror films employ theories from Carlos Castaneda?), and it reinforces its ideas with consistent visual motifs.  Its built like a horror novel of its time (a la Stephen King or maybe Guy N. Smith or Dean Koontz), and we get multiple subplots that don’t tie directly into the main narrative.  They’re only present to flesh out future victims of Xibalba.  Still, a smaller film needs to be lean (usually, and certainly in terms of budget), and the time spent with these characters doesn’t move the plot along very much (or even at all).  Do we need to know about Laura’s (Mirella D’Angelo) cuckolding of her husband Sid (Antonello Fassari)?  Do we need to follow Luis and his grandfather tooling around in their boat and chatting about nothing?  Do we need to follow the misadventures of Ugly Americans Chet and Larry (Erich Wildpret) as they drive around getting liquored up (in one of the clearest cases of wasting alcohol I’ve ever witnessed)?  No.  If one had to wonder why, then, these divergences were included, one would have to conclude that they are filler because the screenwriters (Avallone, Maurizio Tedesco, and Andrea Purgatori) either didn’t have enough of a story to sustain the runtime (which I doubt), or more likely, they had complex concepts going on that they couldn’t articulate beyond a certain point, so they fell back on easier (which is not to say that screenwriting is easy [because it isn’t, and I would know], but it’s certainly harder to delineate tricky metaphysical ideas than it is to describe a marriage on the rocks, though both can be equally sticky, to be fair) scripting (likely so as to not alienate their core audience of horror fans).  

Part of the problem with doing this (from the perspective of this particular film and this particular writer) is that there are no characters in this story that we would want to follow (at least I didn’t).  Peter treats his sometime-girlfriend Jahaira (Mariangelica Ayala) like a napkin to be used and discarded at his whim.  Later, she stabs him out of jealousy while making love (justified or not, it’s an extreme reaction, to be sure).  Peter also loves to frequent cockfights (which we don’t see, though we do get a mean bout of finger wrestling [you have to see it to understand]), and he never pays his debts.  The characters are selfish, misanthropic, pathetic inhabitants of a world which exists solely to destroy them.  It makes me wonder if this was the purpose of making us watch these distasteful people for such extensive periods, if it’s a bleak form of fatalism (something in which horror films seem to excel almost as much as films noir) we’re supposed to breathe in (Saloman even states that “the mountain is waiting for me,” further suggesting this predetermination)?  Here, death is inevitable, but even its dark respite is only the surcease of miserable, misled lives, and the methods by which they get snuffed are pretty brutal, as well.  People’s bodies are bashed and split open like sides of beef at a butcher’s, and the lingering of their demises prolongs the agony of their existence.  The realm Xibalba inhabits is likely more Hell than Heaven, but either way, none of the characters who get killed are making it there, and if it’s the sole alternative to living in our world, it’s better to be a smashed up piece of worm food.

The most intriguing facet of the film is also (no shock here) its most obvious.  This idea of passing through realities is fascinating (not particularly original, but fascinating nonetheless).  The fact that Avallone actually maintained his mirror theme throughout the film and not just as the narrative necessitated it heavily impressed me.  It’s not often (in my experience) that low budget horror fare from Italy pays this much attention to its metaphors.  The mirrors also serve a dual purpose (and again, this is spelled out for the viewer in the dialogue, but it still warrants discussion, in my opinion).  They are more than a gateway; they are also a comment on human nature.  The reflection is ourselves reversed, and if human nature is, at its heart (and in a very general sense), good, our mirror image is “the evil that reflects in each one of us.”  This idea, combined with the portal notion, could make for some heady business.  As a matter of fact, the more I write about it, the more I begin to think that maybe, just maybe, the normative world in Maya is not the world you or I consider to be our reality.  It is, instead, the mirror world, the dark world that we’re peering into the whole time.  If that’s the case (and bear with me, I’m on a roll now), then the screens through which we, the fourth wall audience, witness these events is another sort of mirror, another sort of portal.  We are looking at (but not being looked at; the exception to this being something like Skype or video conferencing or whatever, I suppose, but that would also be taking this review into a much broader area for discussion) these events happening in a world that’s ugly and bleak.  In this sense, then, I guess we have to consider which side of the mirror we are actually on.  Thank you, and good night.

MVT:  Despite some of its more nonsensical aspects, the film has a dark, fatalistic streak throughout, and this is the sort of thing out of which I can make a meal (which if you’ve read this review, you already know).

Make or Break:  The shamanic ritual scene is truly disturbing, not for peeling back the veil on any sort of religious ceremony (real or imagined), but for a couple of shots involving snakes.  If you see the film, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Score:  6.75/10           

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