Mexican horror is a genre of contradictions. The campy and tragic, horrific and humorous, are often found side by side in these colorful faerie tales of monsters and madmen. This should come as no surprise, as Mexican horror cinema, similar to much of this hardy people's art, celebrates tragedy as lustily as it embraces love. The very process of death, both as symbol and natural conclusion to life, was mocked by traditional Mexican society as surely as it was mourned, reflecting the socially complex view with which this culture views itself and both the hardships and pleasures of the world. Perhaps the most elegant yet simplistic embodiment of this principle are the smiling skulls seen decorating newspapers, food-stalls, and homes every Day of the Dead. The skeletons and grinning masks of the dead are trotted out with all the fanfare and frivolity of a carnival; which, in a symbolic we well as practical manner, it is -- a time to remember, honor, and celebrate the dead. This penchant to play with death, to 'play' with its grinning face and our fear of it, suggests the primal and poetic aesthetic of Mexican culture. It is with similar enthusiasm and delight that Mexican cinema embraces its cinematic frights, both those steeped in traditional folklore and the distinctly urban. Take a look behind the leering rubber masks of some of even the campiest horror movies south of the Rio Grande and you detect a sheen of darker intent behind the immediate humor, a shock of horror oozing from the broad mannerisms of masked wrestlers, cackling witches, and brooding vampires. Likewise, it is just as common to see (and often in the same film) that death's head's leering grin winking at the audience from even the most morose subject matter, the most malicious specter. This marriage of enjoyment and apprehension, delight and deviltry remains one of the chief pleasures of Mexican horror, keeping us on our toes, never quite sure when the nightmarish is going to spill over into hilarity or the absurd may become tragically profound.
The evolution of Mexico's dark and fantastic cinema is as uneven and bathed in contradictions as the films themselves. In the 1950s Mexico moviegoers were fond of Westerns, Comedies, and the Lucha Libre genres. This last, featuring popular masked wrestlers, was most pleasing to the masses, offering average people storylines that were broad and escapist enough to remove them from some of their worries. The color, spectacle, and larger than life figure of the wrestler spoke intimately to the poor, hungry for sensationalism to compensate for poverty, oppression, and violence. A medicine for melancholy, these simplistic and formulaic crowd pleasers began to feature archetypes from traditional folklore, including vampires, ghouls, mummies, and mad scientists; they were already establishing that strange, wonderful orgy of camp and terror that would later become so essential to the genre. Straight horror films were fairly rare. Occasional success like La Bruja (1954) began to introduce terrifying new possibilities of gothic dread but it wasn't until legendary Fernando Mendez made El Vampiro (1958) that horror as a serious and economically viable genre unto itself took off. This remarkable, atmospherically mature adaptation of Dracula led to a Golden Age of Mexican monster cinema that rivalled some of Universal's triumphs, making do with ingenuity and enthusiasm. A people who had been raised on macabre folklore and religious symbolism found their fears and desires reflected on the silver screen, and proved hungry for the dark miracles that Black Pit of Dr. M (1959), Baron of Terror (1960), and Curse of the Crying Woman (1963) offered. These films, bathed in splendidly evocative mood and subversive storylines, merged conservative Catholic moral 'values' with shockingly explicit and controversial themes. Already entrenched in these stories of Faustian explorers, unrepentant heretics, and La Llorna herself was the characteristic paradoxical nature of Mexican horror, merging age-old nightmares with characteristically modern violence and social criticisms. No more were the witches, monsters, and vengeful wraiths from Mexico's unstable history the sole property of legends whispered by leathery skinned grandmothers rolling tortillas. Now they were larger than life, promising the popular entertainment of the Lucha Libre with subversive jabs at government and the status quo (albeit the monster/outsider figure is most often defeated by a character representing the system). This made the aesthetic terror more intimate and understandable, and as a consequence more effective.
Rich in imagery and startlingly poetic photography, the best classic Mexican horror movies were also notable for treating their subjects seriously. This may come as a surprise to many, as for years the only widely available versions of monster movies from the Mexican Golden Age were those cobbled together by famed American K. Gordon Murray. A born salesman and innovator, Murray approached the business of marketing horror movies to the masses -- primarily children and teens at matinees -- with all the showmanship and hype of a circus performer. It is interesting to note that Circuses and carnivals were indeed lifelong infatuations for Murray. This, along with the fact that he was intimate with death (his father was an undertaker), tempts one to see an analogy between the films he favored and his personal life. Murray had a penchant for finding movies that married the grim realism of mortality dressed in the colorful costumes of fun and fantasy. It was natural that he should find himself enamoured with Mexican horror, which made a celebration of darkness. Unfortunately, Murray is as often reviled as revered for the role he played in establishing a mainstream perception of Mexi-horror. Importing around 30 horror movies from Mexico, Murray perhaps did more than any other one man to popularize the lurid characters and macabre plots of these films, but he also prejudiced the manner in which the Western world viewed both Mexican filmmakers and their worth.
Murray may have made it possible for an entire generation to see The Brainiac, Curse Of The Doll People, The Robot Vs. The Aztec Mummy, Wrestling Women Vs. The Aztec Mummy, and others, but he also burned in the mass consciousness the idea that these films were void of serious artistic achievement, to be enjoyed for their cheesy FX and poor dubbing rather than the quality of their storytelling prowess. Operating his own dubbing facilities, Murray tampered with both dialogue and content, making some of the finer Mexican titles appear fragmented and ludicrous, when in their original native conditions they were often poetic and beautifully shot. BCI has labored to restore works like Curse of the Doll People and Night of the Bloody Apes to a more refined technical condition, but many fans remain enamoured with the Murray catalogue, unaware or unconcerned with precisely how evocative and challenging, both emotionally and philosophically, some of these films can be.
This, along with changing attitudes in the 1960s and 1970s, effectively brought a close to the once golden period of Mexican horror. As chainsaws replaced vampires and movie screens that once couldn't get away with showing a nipple began showing Deep Throat, it was clear that the horror movie was reflecting the population's changing acceptance of sex and violence. During this period, not many genre films of note were produced in Mexico, and a culture whose very history was bathed in blood and superstition was largely ignored by fans. Thankfully, the rise of a handful of new Mexican filmmakers, and such hits as Pan's Labyrinth, Devil's Backbone, and The Orphanage have paralleled a new interest among home viewers and historians in Mexican terror. New articles and books are being written on the subject, and, most importantly for our purpose, a wave of new DVD companies are releasing many of these films on special edition home video, with restored prints, historical supplements, and what one may hope is a new respect for this disturbing and enjoyable brand of movie making. If the newest collection form BCI is any indication, the future of Mexican Horror looks promising indeed. An 8 film set, Crypt of Terror: Horror From South of the Border, is a celebration of modern Mexican macabre in an affordable package that is as educational for the differences it reveals between classic Mexi-horror and contemporary takes as it is simply fun shlock. While no true classics are featured, there is only one dud. What we receive are a handful of relatively rare glimpses into personal and cultural nightmares, from a time when not many Mexican horror films were being crafted. A blend of the campy and carnal, horrifying and exhilarating, this moving feast of 1980s chillers is still fairly unknown to modern fans, and for this alone the collection is essential.
The box set is also generous in its variety of horrific characters and approaches. A cauldron of fright favorites are featured in these eclectic, sometimes crass but always intriguing films. Practically every symbol of macabre folklore and horror movie history is trotted out at some point, from vengeful witches and possessed dolls to psycho killers, that old black magic, and, yes, the undead. While there is nothing to rival the cinematic quality, attention to detail, or careful characterization that characterized classics like The Vampire or The Witch's Mirror, these films are from a vastly different period of taste and temper. Aside from their immediate entertainment value, each title is a time capsule, suggesting in its joyfully exploitative manner the predominant aesthetic principles driving 80's horror in Mexico. Dedicated to simplistic logic, irrational behaviour, and gory violence instead of carefully realized characters or artful photography, these disturbing if uneven splatter fests make up for in enthusiasm and unparalleled gusto what they lack in elegance. The collection reveals an impressive degree of gusto, an infectious devotion to the art of spectacle and shock. And amidst the gore (much of which is celebrated with a profoundly Latin intensity) is the more impressive attention paid to small details, particularly atmosphere. From fog and mist enshrouded homes to dark winding passages under the earth, these exploitation quickies somehow manage to triumph over their limitations, reaffirming the aforementioned Mexican relationship between decay and vitality, death and sexual love, malignance and innocence. In the end we're left with a crash course in modern Mexican exploitation and horror b-pictures -- a provocative geography of curses, debauchery, greed, and sin wrapped lovingly in modern reinterpretations of the supernatural traditions that distinguished Mexico's earlier, more prestigious era. Death, forbidden desires, and the mysteries of the unknown reign supreme, and despite striking differences in approach (exchanging subtlety for extreme viscera), that wonderful, wacky union of Death and the Clown is preserved. The skull's leer is terrifying but can't resist a wink.
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The same supernatural lore that informs much of the average Mexican citizen's familial traditions and storytelling tradition also colors the nation's horror movies. While styles and approaches towards such controversial issues as violence and the family unit may have drastically changed between the release of El Vampiro and the more brazen (and often less stylized) horrors of the 1980s, a debt to the nation's great storehouse of occult lore had not. Aside from the visiting revenant or ghost, the witch is the most telling and persistent macabre archetype/figure of Mexican supernaturalism. A crucial aspect of family spun folklore, this symbol of malevolence and unrestrained freedom was also at the forefront of such influential classics Mexi-horror films as The Witch's Mirror and Curse of the Crying Woman. Decades later, the awe and terror of occult forces and those hardy or foolish enough to play with them continues to fascinate, and provides the aesthetic backbone of Vacation of Terror, an odd if strangely endearing potboiler. Directed by Rene Cardona, III, this is an uneven but worthwhile stew of ancient supernatural beliefs and a distinctly modern attitude -- an erratic but colorful salute to fears of old that captures something of the atmospheric excellence of its ancestors.
The plot borrows not only from various other Mexican horror movies but also international fare. One can see the influence of European films, particularly in the chaotic storyline and look of the sets. The plot and themes are evocative of Italian horror pieces, with an emphasis on Mask of the Demon, Long Hair of Death, and the various possession titles of the 70s and early 80s. When a witch is burnt in age old (and cliché) tradition, she vows vengeance. The doll that serves as her source of power is buried in a well. Years later, a scavenger tells the story to a young man interested in the occult sciences, recounting how an amulet he discovered had played an instrumental part in identifying the witch, glowing when in the presence of evil. We then turn to a traditional family preparing to share the evening meal. The Father, clearly the head of the household, reveals that he has just inherited a home from a deceased Aunt. Conveniently, it happens to be on the land where the witch and her doll were destroyed. He invites his niece to accompany them, who bring along her boyfriend, Julio (the man with the amulet). In no time at all, a weekend of relaxation turns into a tour of hell. Increasingly dangerous and inexplicable events plague them, leading to the discovery of the doll by the youngest daughter, who is possessed by the witch's spirit. Will the source of her horrible new powers be discovered before the entire family is destroyed by remorseless wraith?
Vacation of Terror is a flawed movie that, despite its lapses of logic and meandering pace, evokes a truly impressive atmosphere of tension and occultism. Weather is depended on to convey a sense of apprehension and mystery. Creeping fog and mists encircle the dilapidated vacation home with the same stealth and decay as the events imprisoning this likeable (if ignorant) family. Crumbling stone passages and interiors reeking of age poison the air. Atmosphere is as easily as much a character as any of the family members, responsible for much of what works. The storyline depends on a subject that was cliché already in the 60s -- a witch's smoldering rage and the possession of an innocent. While the script brings nothing original to this hoary conceit, the look injects it with interest and a creeping sense of malevolence. Most notably the film reaffirms the intimate relationship between the culture and its legends.
Cosmic forces are made intimate by focusing on the destruction of the family unit. The spectral evil that attacks the security of the family may be said to resemble the effect that much 80s horror had on the more reserved terrors of the cinematic past, attacking what was safe and traditional -- although that may be stretching it a bit. On the downside, lapses of believability and strained coincidences occur as often as the story's creepy doll shifts its beady little eyeballs. The strain on our belief lessons the emotional shocks. The doll itself is a simplistic yet effective prop, resonating with an unreasoning, childlike rage that knows no bounds or sympathy. While scenes of its shifting eyes wear on the nerves, the overall impression evokes child-like fear. Overall, this is a modern take on possession and witchcraft that overcomes its defects of plotting through sheer mood and use of place to evoke horror. It depends more on look and feel than the violence and gore that would characterize so much of the genre later in the decade. It is as easy to enjoy as for its defects as for its merits.
Vacation of Terror doesn't look to be restored or re-mastered. This is obviously an economical print, perhaps taken from VHS. There are grain and scratches. When one considers the extremely affordable price of this entire DVD set, it seems redundant to focus overly much on this. You're not paying $20.00 for one title, so you're not getting a film meticulously cleaned and loaded with extras. You ARE getting a fairly rare and obscure title at a ridiculously cheap price. Know this before going in and you have nothing to complain about. Audio is acceptable if not crystal clear, with occasional minor background noise. Again, nothing you can't live with. While no extras are available, the rarity of the movie should be enticement enough.
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A loosely related, erratic and often ridiculous sequel, Vacation of Terror (2) also happens to be one hell of a fun ghost-train ride. Taking itself less seriously than its namesake, this hyper and chaotic orgy of Halloween imagery, scampering goblins, and cheap gore effects is easy to compare with the crass but enthusiastic trappings of neighbour's backyard Halloween 'haunt.' You know it's fake, but the creator's heart was so obviously in the right place, and the results are so deliciously campy, you find yourself an active participant in the fun, willing to look past the flaws in order to add to the essence of make believe. You, in part, help the illusions do their job. A good degree of willingness to meet the filmmaker's halfway will be required to truly enjoy this insane effort, but if you're truly a fan of the bizarre -- a monster kid perhaps -- you should find something to enjoy in its horrific hodgepodge of gory creatures, loopy logic, and dedication to illusion.
After Julio Aragon scores an invitation to a birthday/Halloween party from an attractive pop singer, he notices a little girl holding a sinister doll. From his reaction, we assume that Julio is the same character from the first film, although this is never confirmed. Nor is the arrival of a screaming old man who warns him of the doll's evil intentions ever explained as Julio prepares to face his destiny. Meanwhile, Don Roberto prepares for his daughter Tania's birthday party, giving his FX man the fateful doll for their next movie. Dedicated to all things spooky, the party is decorated with jack-o-lanterns, vampires, and other symbols of All Hallows, and as the guests arrive perhaps they, like we, may be curious if the subtitles forgot to mention that Tania's birthday fell on Halloween; either that, or this is just more sloppy writing. When the cake -- a monster fan's dream decked out with witches and shambling zombies -- is eaten, a ridiculous looking doll's hand twice as big as it should be reaches out for a witch cookie. We see the doll, or rather an actor decked out as the doll, eating the confection, and transforming into a goblin. Soon people are dying. Later that night, forgetting her coins, a gift from her father, Tania and her older sister return to the haunted movie lot, where they are tormented by the goblin.
A movie of glaring inconsistencies and absurd plot points, Vacation of Terror (2): Diabolical Birthday is by no means a great or even good story. Its storytelling is too loosely knit to satisfy what little dramatic expectations it manages to build. Characters are never fleshed out, refusing the intimacy needed to emphasize with them. Another glaring error of the film is to never really establish which characters and/or themes are connected to the previous film. The doll itself, so crucial to the unsettling effects of the first movie, is completely different in appearance. And whereas gradual possession and the 'slow burn' of occult manifestation was the chief dramatic lure in the original story, here there is very little mention of possession, the plot's construction resembling a cat-and-mouse Slasher more than the slower paced delights of a supernatural thriller. Perhaps the biggest difference is the introduction of a huge goblin lurking around the movie set -- a figure both ridiculous yet strangely enticing, bringing to mind the childhood fantasies of Halloween past, when we all KNEW it wasn't only possible but probable that trolls and Bogeymen were hiding under the bed and in the closets. This same mentality, this similar suspension of disbelief, is required to truly enjoy this carnival barker's wet dream of sucker coincidences and inexplicable nightmares. But much like the demented and delightful Halloween Goblin clawing through flesh and wading through the delightfully placed shadows and lit pumpkin eyes of the sound stage, this tasty morsel of childhood fantasy is worthwhile even with flaws. The limitation of key to the studio creates a sense of claustrophobia despite an obviously sparse budget, and the characters, while not really believable, are common enough to at least retain our interest . . . As long as it takes, at least, for them to be attacked by the goblin, who is the true star of the film. Not a great film, this is surely an exciting one, providing the chills and thrills of a crowd pleaser. It also displays the changing styles and attitudes of Mexi-horror. Plot integrity and characterization, stylish photography and pacing, are less important, replaced by a love for graphic effects and action. The results are interesting to note.
Vacation of Terror (2) is in much the same shape as its predecessor. Lines, pops, and grain appear throughout, and colors are not as clear as one would wish. Yet, again, this isn't the crime that many will claim. Do you expect visual perfection from a set of films that don't even come out to $3.00 a feature? For sterling visuals and audio, and a wealth of supplements, I recommend you check out BCI's Spanish titles, particularly the lovingly crafted Naschy prints. Those each run about $15-$20.00 per DVD, a price justified by the detail and expense that obviously went in to their production. The titles included in Horror From South of the Border, on the other hand, should be accepted for what they are -- obscure shriek shows of chills/exploitation whose main draw is that they were even put onto DVD. A carnival of freaks, Vacation of Terror (2) is an intoxicating genre pleasure as much for its faults as for what little it does right.
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While gothic horror and supernatural stories soaked with the cultural blood of traditional folklore make up the major portion of Mexican horror, the 80s and early 90s of American and European cinema didn't forget to leave the mark of its slasher film theatrics on its cousins. A sub-genre as often reviled by politically correct critics and special interest groups as it is loved by its devotees, the Slasher film emphasizes highly stylized acts of violent death, exploitative sex, and sensationalism over traditional story elements. An art form devoted to vicious visual effects and immediate, visceral horror over subtle atmosphere, this unsocial, mean-spirited type of movie itself occupies a complex position in the aesthetics/history of the genre. Influenced by early murder and crime films, but more particularly by the Italian Giallo, the Slasher proper also contains nuances of the general mainstream Thriller and the more sophisticated Psychological horror film. But whereas both the Giallo focuses more on complex storylines and red herrings, merging intellectually satisfying psycho-sexual symbolism with its grand operas of death and desire, and the British/American Psychological thrillers of Hitchcock or Polanski are more concerned with emotional deviance and obsession than the act of murder, Slasher films make violence the star -- the means and end -- of story.
A bastard step-child, the Slasher itself can be further divided into specialized areas, from the Body Count pleasures of the Friday the 13 variety to the morally apathetic grimness of Henry and William Lustig's Maniac (with a half dozen or more variations in between). One of these intriguing side steps is the Survival Slasher, which merges a macho gung-ho attitude and wildlife/survivalist trappings with the basic conceit of the Body Count. Taking their cue from more mainstream and slightly respectable films like Deliverance and Southern Comfort, these killer/survivalist hybrids combine the best of two exploitation staples: the sweat drenched appeal of men battling the elements and each other for life and the symbols of the stalker. Hell's Trap, the third offering from this package, fits squarely in this tradition, distinguishing it from the other titles as the only plot not concerned with the supernatural or pseudo-science. Emphasizing rough blood-shed violence and the grim struggle for survival in a wild territory rather than the fantastical imagery of folklore, this is a fine example of popular horror trends filtering into Mexico. It is interesting to see the similarities/differences between this wildlife slasher and homegrown efforts. This rough diamond offers a contrasting mood and style of photography from the occult inspired titles, darker in realism and without the escapist wonder and philosophical underpinnings of more traditional fare.
Bad boys Nacho and Mauricio are fierce competitors, whether it be a game or running their mouths. Mauricio, the resident jerk of the crew, is a sore loser, and in order to save face after his recent defeat at paintball, dares Nacho and his friends to join him on a hunting trip at Filo de Caballo. Whoever bags the bear thought to be killing people in the woods will win the bet. This flimsy plot is a catalyst to the bloody squibs, booby traps, and gut-stabbing fun to come. Ignoring the warnings of a local gun seller, the friends discover too late that they have trespassed on the hunting ground of a demented madman. Jesse, an unstable Vietnam vet who went mad and still thinks he's fighting the war, is practicing the fine art of slice-and-dice, using inventive methods while keeping strictly to the MO of US slasher fiends. A battle for survival ensues as, one by one, the group is subjected to throat cuttings and gun shots.
Hell's Trap is a surprisingly entertaining if not very original entry in the Slasher sweepstakes, featuring enough brutality and suspense in its primordial woods setting to satisfy fans of body count films and such survivalist gems as Rituals. The mood ranges from goofy to nail-biting. The shocks are delivered with impressive gusto and believable effects. While this looks to be a cut version, a decent amount of on-screen viscera reminds us of the decade we're in, and which horror hits were used as its creative template. This obscure slice of 'terror in the woods' is content to engage on a purely physical level as an adventure story for adults weaned on Jason and Leatherface, with a particular nod to Nightmare on Elm Street in the nasty finger-bladed glove that the killer sports. This sense of homage is part of the charm, and in no small manner responsible for the movie's effectiveness. Jesse is a throwback to the hoary serial killers of the 80s, a point emphasized by his stealthily methods of stalking victims, his gimmick of hiding beneath a mask, and the gusto with which he meets out violent death to people who have done him no harm save for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
A subsequent lack of logic and believability also rears its head from time to time, as does asinine dialogue and unbelievable character reactions -- all keeping true to the Slasher template. While these flaws are a detriment in any story, they are more or less expected in this sub-genre, which unfortunately is as known for sloppy plotting and character as for the loving attention it spends on planning a character's demise. In this case, the illogical circumstances and laughable performances don't harm a thing, as we're here for Jesse's attacks, not subtle nuances of theme. Simply put, this is a quick paced, messy, and rather gritty modern fable of man against man. While this could have been milked too far better effect in terms of theme and character than it is, the resulting set pieces are remarkable for such a cheap production, and offer a different perspective on Mexican horror, showing us what their own crews could do with stories seeped in warped versions of reality rather than in the dreamscapes of the dark fantastic.
Hell's Trap looks better than the previous two films. While there is still grain and occasional splotches, and the picture doesn't seem to be re-mastered, there are no real problems with the print, which is featured in pan-and-scan. Audio is clean if not remarkable, with the track simply doing its job. There are no extras.
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Entrenched in the soil of a native land whose cultural heritage is seeped in formidable civil strife and bloodshed, Mexican horror celebrates supernatural terrors from without and the monsters that lurk deep within everyman, blending lusty sensationalism with surprisingly introspective themes of morality and spirituality. Its fog-laden, blood-drenched images terrify and titillate even as they suggest archetypes of more universal significance -- terrors rooted in the psyche. Despite the surface gloss, technological superiority, and intellectual snobbism with which we arm ourselves, seeking to convince one another that we no longer fear that which we can't see or explain, we're all still very much children afraid of the dark. These same fears and anxieties, lusts and fantasies, are the meat and blood of Mexican horror cinema. These movies are as fun to watch for their innovation and gusto as they are for unintentional humor, scaring as often with atmospheric subtlety as with graphic violence. This is particularly true in Cemetery of Terror, a rarely seen yet incredibly effective example of the genre.
Moody and horrifying, wreathed in shadows of funeral finery, this feature was originally paired with Grave Robbers on a single disc and was the second instalment of BCIs Crypt of Terror. Enthusiastically (if not carefully) plotted, this story is emotionally intense and evocative in its use of both Halloween imagery and emotional reactions to fear. Particularly emphasized is people's innate terror of the unknown, and the manners in which we either flee or struggle against the supernatural when it invades. While filmed in the 80s, this film, in heart, more closely resembles the stories and moods of the classic Mexican horror era than many of the other titles in the collection. Atmosphere is everything, and even with its gory effects and cynicism, we fell we're clearly entombed in that familiar and beloved territory where terror and awe intersect.
In a plot as sensationally contrived as it is disturbing, medical students finding a satanic book at a deserted mansion decide to evoke the corpse of a serial killer. Stealing Devlon, a recently murdered madman from the local morgue, the students perform a black magic ritual at a cemetery on Halloween night. Meanwhile, Devlon's doctor, Camilio Cardan attempts to convince the town sheriff to burn the corpse, believing that Devlon was a devil in human guise. When the ritual seems to have no effect on the corpse, the students abandon Devlon's body, and in characteristically B-movie logic decide to party at a nearby house. Children travelling to the cemetery for some rural Halloween fun discover, to their horror, that Devlin has risen from the gates of hell, and he is eager to bring death to those who disturbed his sleep. Trick-or-treaters aren't the only monsters walking the streets, and the trick for these students will to be to stay alive . . .
This film is supported by professional production design, deliciously decrepit settings, and engaging characters. Sharp, inspired direction by Ruben Galindo, jr. moves the action along at a relatively quick pace without sacrificing a suitably horrific mood, creating with the help of first-rate technicians an undeniable sense of dream logic. Proving that Mex-horror is more intelligent than often claimed, Cemetery of Terror combines unashamed supernatural shocks with themes that encourage contemplation. Don't get me wrong -- this isn't an intellectual exercise or profound philosophical speculation via The Exorcist or Session 8. Exploitation is clearly the name of the game here, but a poetic use of atmosphere and mood lends additional substance to characters who are fairly realistic. In a genre pregnant with heavily muscled men and sensuous snake-like women, these uncut, re-mastered nightmare appeals to both the kid and the adult in our skins, satisfying the internal hunger for the horrific. Someone once made the astute comment that horror movies are fairy tales for adults. And this is precisely one of the levels in which Cemetery Of Terror -- a movie of insanity, sexual sadism, and crippled perception -- succeeds.
This enjoyably campy if sombrely intended ménage of satanic ritual, boys behaving badly, and surprisingly gory violence is both a trick and a treat, merging contemporary viscera and full-color havoc similar to European horror films of the period while, at the same time, suggesting a haunting atmosphere similar to the suggestive chills of Universal and Hammer fare. The story asks us to enjoy the very elements that it uses to disturb us. At the same time, its subversive story, careful direction, and commendable performances make it an unflinching expose of corruption - breakdowns of mind and spirit reflected by ravishments of the flesh. While gothic in atmosphere (approaching the surreal in terms of a lush, decrepit setting), a rush of amazing brutality throbs beneath the surface of quieter moments. Undeniably frightening, intensely sexual, and unsettlingly beautiful in its depiction of behaviours that should make us queasy, Cemetery of Terror exhibits an impressive ability to make the terrible desirable and the repulsive feel seductive. Further, the direction and slow pace questions the nature of reality, unfolding in the hazy distortion of a dream. Like the best examples of surrealism or expressionistic theater, the plot, while occasionally lacking believability, evokes a sense of hidden reality.
Cemetery of Terror is presented in a Full Screen print that spills the rolling fog, bleeding corpses, and stalking nightmares right in your lap. Colors are bright and vivid. Unfortunately the movie is full of surface grain, lines and occasional speckling. Not half as clear as Night of the Bloody apes or Curse of the Doll People, (which comprised volume one of the Crypt of Terror line), one suspects that the visual fault with these titles may be found with damaged source prints, not the responsibility of BCI. Nor do these surface defects seriously hamper the viewing experience. This is probably as good as this films has ever looked, and while someone may come along in five years or so with better prints (which I doubt), for now, these editions are the ones to own. Demented candy-coated nightmares of sweat, blood, and skin, these uncut and re-mastered prints clean up the battered images of the originals while retaining the steamy, doom-haunted feeling of their initial cinematography. Audio is for the most clean, with English subtitles.
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Demon Rat is a unique but unsuccessful attempt at mimicking classic science fiction principles. An awkward marriage of pseudo-science and heavy handed social criticism, the film wears its politically correct agenda on its sleeve, batting viewers over the head with a warning against pollution. Whereas classic creature features would strive to make the monstrous threat stem organically from science or mankind gone awry, ensuring that both the political message and horror element were closely bound, this uneven and lacklustre affair seems to use its monster as an afterthought, and the pollution supposedly responsible for it as simply a handy backdrop. All of this would be forgivable if either the premise or the creature was exciting, which, alas, isn't the case. While the film is trying to capture the wonder of an classic Mexican horror, reinforcing it with conventions of science fiction, the end result is boring save for the unintentionally funny effects.
In a depressing future Earth the air is unfit to breath, several exotic and household animals are extinct, and folks walk around with gas masks until safely inside uncontaminated interiors. Irinia and Robereto, co-owners of Romo Industries, a company that plays with chemicals, are in the midst of a messy divorce, with the later trying to steal the company. In a ho-hum yawn of soap opera theatrics, unnaturally large flies and rats are discovered at a toxic dumpsite. Soon Irinia and her romantic interest are knee deep in trouble, uncovering a big business conspiracy and perhaps the worst monster suit ever conceived. Will they be able to give Roberto his just desserts? Will the monster rat leave its foul droppings in our kitchen cabinets? Is it possible to feel either fear or sympathy for a movie monster without any defining characteristics?
This limpid homage appears to have had its heart in the right place but proves unable to live up to even its own meagre expectations. Instead of thrills we get loooong lapses of story movement and character indecision, frames where characters seem to be simply staring into space or perhaps getting lost in the chemically induced fog that covers everything. Rather than provoke us into caring, the unsympathetic gloss of the characters and self righteous babble of the script makes us route for the demon rat -- until we see it. This is, regrettably, the type of film that makes muck from Troma and Full Moon look good! The least effective or well made feature in this otherwise enjoyable set, the only real reason to watch this film is the occasional absurdity of character's illogic and ridiculous monster attacks. On an Ed Wood level, this is a contender. It is also slightly historically important as one of the few Mexican productions that attempted to work within the science-fiction genre, and failed.
Featured in full frame that is marred with jumping pictures, scratches and pops, this may be one of the worst looking prints of the collection. Colors are largely washed out and devoid of any real life. Audio, likewise, is muffled with background hissing.
* * *
Grave Robbers is next. An unassuming little fear fable drenched in menacing atmosphere, Galindo's direction creates an atmosphere of palpable dread in what can easily be seen as a Mexican addition to the teens-in-peril cycle of films so popular in the United States and Europe during the 70's and 80's -- albeit with greater heights of suspense and an admirable aura of malignance surrounding the characters and bleeding from the deteriorating sets. Believability and psychological tension are heightened by the organic reactions of a talented cast whose facial expressions express sheer terror when facing the demonic -- authentic without being forced, resisting the parody so often employed in this genre.
Grave Robbers is a midnight movie that centers around the cliché if well handled themes of arrogance and retribution as a group of rebellious adolescent thieves discover a hidden torture chamber from the days of the Inquisition, and in a bad stroke of luck, release an undead satanic priest from the chains of death. The tomb, once a place of unconsecrated evil, host to unholy rituals and torture, is rich with gold and precious jewels. Celebrating new-found wealth, the teenagers realize too late that they have unleashed a corpse with unholy power who now wants both his treasure . . . and their lives! Fleeing from the scene (but not before a number of peasants are murdered in deliciously graphic ways), the grave robbers are blamed for the murders and hauled off to jail. Meanwhile, four adolescents enjoying a camping trip are attacked by this hatchet wielding zombie. Can the local sheriff put this undead evil to rest with the help of a nearby priest or will they all surrender their lives to the sharp end of a hatchet blade?
Every bit as pulpy as it sounds, this minor masterpiece of the modern macabre is drenched in atmosphere and strained coincidence. The former lends believability and the grand resonance of a traditional grand gothic, playing upon our collective terror of the unknown, and using this awe of the supernatural to lend power to the characterization that the script develops amidst shocking bloodshed. The coincidences in the story, and the foolish reactions of the cast, do no great damage to a story played primarily for adventure.
Not surprisingly, generous amounts of sensationalistic grue are emphasized. What does surprise is how this celebration of raw sensation achieves moments of serious drama. Fear, the universal language, is well represented by settings whose occult imagery and physical deterioration mirror the emotional corruption of the youth/new world so apparent in the youngsters. The camera makes love to monuments of funeral finery, taking time to capture secluded country landscapes, foreboding graves, and lonely interiors. Dread and beauty are merged, creating a disturbing hybrid of charnel house and decadent splendor. When the movie's shocks come, they are intense and quickly paced. These 'Boo!' moments are every bit as effective today, I suspect, as when first filmed.
Grave Robbers proves that emotion and ambition are compensation for lack of CGI FX, million-dollar budgets, and high cocaine bills. If the narrative occasionally leans close to shlock, this too is part of its charm. After all, part of the enjoyment we get from watching a magic act is figuring out how the illusionist 'does' it, and if we can see behind the rubber and plastic -- past the 'seams' -- where reality and fantasy briefly untangle, this adds to our pleasure.
When watching Grave Robberss, you feel like a child listening to a scary story in the dark. Not that its all fun. No, beneath the fearful frolic and ghoulish games lurks a sense of honesty -- a belief in some of the supernatural shenanigans, rooted deep in the culture itself. This relationship with the uncanny lends further authenticity to the themes, and helps patch up any bleeding lapses of logic. Creepy classics of lumbering zombies, satanic ritual, and the grimly beautiful, the torrid treasures within this crypt are reason for monster fans -- and devotees of fantastic cinema in general -- to rejoice!
Grave Robbers is treated respectfully with a print that captures its atmospheric vitality but which, it must be admitted, could have been cleaned up. While colors are bright, vivid, and spectral in their use, grain and scratches are frequent. Thankfully, the problem isn't severe enough to significantly distract from viewing. Audio is for the most part clear and concise, presented in original Spanish language tracks with English subtitles.
* * *
Despite the occasional slap-dash production qualities and admittedly inferior special effects of Mexican horror (which themselves instil them with a nostalgic charm), a strong sense of cultural identity and belief strengthens these celluloid representations of wonder. Raw emotional torrents of grand gothic imagery, supernatural themes, and cultural beliefs derived from a folk tradition still alive in rural Mexico lend the following picture an excitement and deeper thematic sub-text, with questions of faith vs. non-belief, Faustian compacts, adolescence vulnerability, and personal culpability mirroring the more sensationalistic elements of supernatural vengeance. A chaotic bit of campy sleaze, Don't Panic compensates for a defective plot and production mistakes by the intensity of its few memorable shock scenes. Barely.
Don't Panic is a confused cobbling together of various ideas, mingling so many ideas together without a clear unifying focus that it comes across as a series of inventive set-pieces rather than a story proper. The dangers of playing the Ouija board are connected by director Ruben Galindo, Jr. with evil spirit possession, and devil worship. If that isn't enough, these elements are further convoluted with a Slasher mentality, as many of the gory murders are filmed with the gusto of a Body Count movie. Appearing to use as its inspiration both the possession films sparked off by The Exorcist and the surrealism of A Nightmare On Elm Street, the plot introduces Michael, the son of a broken home recently moved to Mexico. On the night that his friends celebrate his seventeenth birthday, Michael's best friend brings over an Ouija. In just one of many unresolved plot points it is suggested that Michael has sworn off these fortune telling devices after a bad experience. (We never learn what happened, which is how we feel at the end of the movie as well). But peer pressure wins out and they play with the infernal toy, summoning a spirit called Virgil (no, not the poet), who -- gasp! -- is really the Devil. How do we know? Why, because Michael tells us so?! Soon after the party breaks up, it becomes apparent that Michael's friend has become possessed by Virgil, and is happily bumping off locals. Michael is plagued by spectral warnings, which run him afoul of local teenagers and the law. Everyone at the birthday party is a target, including Michael's girlfriend, who he struggles desperately to save. After a series of meaty throat slittings and other chunk-blowing treats, love saves the day (gag!) in an obvious pandering to popular mentality, diluting terror with a Hallmark sentiment both sloppily conveyed and intellectually lazy.
With several flaws in character and a meandering pace, Don't Panic merges teen drama with the occult in a manner occasionally chilling but most often embarrassing. Unleashing supernatural images amidst a marvellously detailed backdrop of realism, the more sensationalistic horrific elements of the film are lent emotional power and context by setting and atmosphere. If only it didn't take so very long for the characters to accomplish anything, or for the supernatural wonders to occur. A sense of impending doom is achieved, at least, which is much more intriguing than any of the characters. The picture is bathed in moody, blue-lit colors, which manage to cover up some of the more painful over-acting. Hardly a masterpiece of gothic terror, this variation on the possession sub-genre surrounds shocking explosions of violence with subtle moments of suggestive supernatural menace, making itself sort of enjoyable in the simplistic manner of a firelight camp tale.
Two versions of this film are included here, but the only difference between the two appears to be in the audio tracks. The first version is dubbed into English, giving us the unintentional hilarity of misplaced lips and other verbal goofups. The audio itself is fair, with a bit of background hissing but nothing truly harmful. The second version, on the flip side of the disc, is superior for a better appreciation of the story, featuring the Spanish audio track with optional English subtitles. Visually, both pictures are presented full screen, and despite occasional surface scratches and grain, the picture is decent.
* * *
To conclude, although this set suffers from varying visual and audio flaws, none of these are major, and in no way do they severely harm the viewing experience. This is a forgivable sin, considering the number of hard-to-find films available -- and the very affordable price. BCI has proven itself a friend of the genre before with the Spanish Collection (featuring Paul Naschy), displaying their dedication in not only securing the best elements and picture/sound quality, but also packing their discs with exclusive extras. These Mexi-horror treats are a different monster, though, dedicated to economy. When all is said and done, this is a wonderful way to see films that otherwise would be circulating almost exclusively in the grey market, on disc, and an educational introduction to 1980s and 90s Mexican horror, all for less than a night out on the town.
Review by William P Simmons
|Released by BCI/Eclipse|
|Region 1 - NTSC|
|see main review|