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October 30, 2008

Top 15 Mexican Horror Films

Last year around this date, here at W-Cinema I posted a brief list of horror films that I considered were often overlooked despite being masterpieces of the genre. This time I decided to make a similar exercise, yet different exercise (and one that I hope won't be relegated only to the days around Halloween): picking 15 horror films from a certain country that were, in my humble opinion, the best from said country's national filmography. In this first attempt, I picked Mexico as the country to explore.

There are three main reasons I picked Mexico, the first and most obvious one was that it is my country of origin, the second was the renovated interest Mexican horror is experiencing (with new Mexican films produced and new releases of excellent DVDs of old classics), and the third and most important was the reading of Saul Rosas Rodriguez' book "El Cine De Horror en Mexico" ("Horror Cinema in Mexico"), where the author seems to conclude that very few good horror films have been done in the country. While I won't detail the many disagreements I have with the book (hopefully, one day I'll write my own), I'll just say that my main intention with this list was to recommend 15 films that to me are the proof that Mexican horror has true gems in its history and that there's more in it beyond the films of Carlos Enrique Taboada (definitely a master, but he wasn't the only one) and the occasional lucky strike.

I wouldn't consider myself an expert of the genre, and there are many films I have not seen (including several classics, such as "Dos Monjes", "La Bruja" and "El Monstruo Resusitado"), but I hope to have made a good, albeit shallow, coverage of the history of horror cinema in Mexico. I also hope to be able of making this exercise in the future for other genres besides horror and of course other countries. In the meantime, here are W-Cinema's Top 15 Mexican Horror Films of all time.

15) Cronos (1993, Guillermo Del Toro)

In his feature length debut, director Guillermo Del Toro gave a fresh twist to vampires in this story about immortality and the price one has to pay for it. Starring Federico Luppi, Claudio Brook and Ron Pearlman, "Cronos" is the tale of an antiquarian (Luppi) who finds an artifact that reinvigorates him and makes him strong and confident again, but also gives him a bizarre need of blood. Claudio Brook is a dying industrialist who has been tracking down the artifact as he sees in it the chance to cheat death and become immortal, so he decides to do whatever's necessary to get it. A great debut that already showed the talent of Del Toro for horror and fantasy.
Buy "Cronos" (1993)

14) Terror y Encajes Negros (1985, Luis Alcoriza)

Directed by Buñuel's frequent collaborator Luis Alcoriza, "Terror y Encajes Negros" ("Terror and Black Lace") is an odd beast in Mexican horror, as it's a film that fuses the very Mexican style of social melodrama with the Italian Giallo, in a very black comedy that satirize the often contradictory modern Mexican urban life: machismo, paranoia, jealousy, infidelity and the paradoxical feeling of isolation while living in a big city. A psycho stalks a young woman in her apartment while her jealous husband is away. Gonzalo Vega is wonderful as the stubborn, chauvinist husband and Maribel Guardia is very good as his beautiful wife.
Buy "Terror Y Encajes Negros" (1985)

13) El Escapulario (1968, Servando González)

An often forgotten gem of magical realism on film set in the time of the Mexican Revolution. A dying woman (Ofelia Guilmáin) calls a priest (Enrique Aguilar), and proceeds to tell him about the effects a scapular has had in the life of her sons. An anthology of sorts (each of the mother's stories is a segment), "El Escapulario" ("The Scapular") is a story that begins firmly grounded in realism but then enters slowly into the realm of horror. Directed by documentary filmmaker Servando González, it features many interesting elements such as an odd bit of animation, and great use of sound and the cinematography by the legendary Gabriel Figueroa.
eMULE: "El Escapulario" (1968) - No Subtitles

12) El Espinazo del Diablo (2001, Guillermo Del Toro)

I was in doubt about counting Del Toro's "El Espinazo Del Diablo" ("The Devil's Backbone") as a Mexican film, mainly because it was a co-production with Spain, shot there with a Spaniard cast. Still, unlike "El Laberinto del Fauno", this movie has a very Mexican atmosphere and sometimes it recalls the Mexican Gothic horror of the 60s. Set in an orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, it's the story of a group of kids who not only have to put up with the harsh consequences war has on their lives, but also with the discovery of an unseen, supernatural presence deeply grounded in the orphanage.
Buy "El Espinazo del Diablo" (2001)

11) Vagabundo en la Lluvia (1968, Carlos Enrique Taboada)

One of the most consistent creators of horror in Mexico was without a doubt Carlos Enrique Taboada, director of several key films in Mexican horror and writer of many more. While most of his films deal with the supernatural, "Vagabundo en la Lluvia" ("Vagabond in the Rain") was his attempt at a more realistic style of psychological horror, and while not without shortcomings, he succeeds in creating a haunting story of horror and suspense. During a storm, two women spend the night alone in the country house of one of them. Stalked by a mysterious man who's outside in the woods, they'll have to face their own demons to survive the night.
Buy "Vagabundo En La Lluvia" (1968)

10) El Vampiro (1957, Fernando Méndez)

In the film that started the Mexican "Golden Age of Horror", director Fernando Méndez successfully adapts Gothic horror to a Mexican setting in the story of an European vampire decided to establish his reign of terror in a Mexican hacienda. Adding a good dose of sensuality and classy eroticism to the vampire myth (coincidentally, Hammer Studios would do the same in the U.K. the following year) in the persons of Carmen Montejo and specially Germán Robles, Méndez created a thrilling story that would become iconic. The beautiful cinematography by Rosalío Solano shaped the visual look that Mexican horror would follow in the near future.
Buy "El Vampiro" (1957)

9) El Espejo De la Bruja (1962, Chano Urueta)

Director Chano Urueta and writer Carlos Enrique Taboada conceived here one of the most original stories in Mexican horror: a powerful witch (Isabela Corona) faces a mad scientist (Armando Calvo) in order to avenge her godchild (Dina de Marco), who was married to the scientist. What makes the film really interesting is not only its unusual storyline (which could be read in many ways, the most obvious one, as women's fight against oppressive machismo and excessive male control), but the fact that it's practically a homage to Gothic horror cinema with clear nods to movies like "Eyes without a face" (1960), "Mad Love" (1935) and many more.
Buy "El Espejo de la Bruja" (1962)

8) El Fantasma del Convento (1934, Fernando De Fuentes)

Years before the Mexican "Golden Age of Horror", the genre flourished in the 30s, during a brief period that produced several good films. Amongst them, De Fuentes' "El Fantasma del Convento" ("The Ghost of the Convent") was the best, as it perfectly adapted the classic Mexican style of horror legends about ancient monasteries to cinema, in a very atmospheric movie that explored the theme of adultery in a quite interesting fashion. Director of many classics of Mexican cinema, De Fuentes showcases an excellent use of Max Urban's music and Ross Fisher's cinematography to achieve the movie's haunting mood. The surreal climax is definitely a highlight of Mexican horror.
Watch "El Fantasma del Concento" (1934)

7) Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo (1968, Carlos Enrique Taboada)

Probably the most famous Mexican horror film of all time (and not without a reason), Taboada's movie about the haunting of an exclusive girl's school is still a powerful tale of horror. Forced to remain in school during vacations as a punishment, a group of girls will discover the secrets that the walls of their school has hidden when the ghost of a deceased student begins to manifest. With a remarkable use of atmosphere (naturally, the wind has the main role) and a great script (with subtle lesbian undertones), Taboada handles mystery, horror and suspense wonderfully, creating a timeless classic.
Buy "Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo" (1968)

6) Misterios De Ultratumba (1959, Fernando Méndez)

Also known as "The Black Pit of Dr. M", this remarkable tale of mystery and horror is, in my opinion, the crowning achievement of director Fernando Méndez. Two doctors make a pact, that the first one to die will return to prove that life after death exists. Naturally, things go awfully wrong when men try to discover what's beyond their understanding. Filled with an ominous atmosphere of dread, "Misterios De Ultratumba" is a powerful horror film that mixes Gothic horror and film noir with a noticeable touch of Lovecraft. It is also one of the most beautifully shot horror films of all time, in my humble opinion.
Buy "Misterios de Ultratumba (1959)

5) El Esqueleto De la Señora Morales (1960, Rogelio A. González)

One of the best black comedies ever made, this movie tales the story of a taxidermist (a terrific Arturo De Córdova) who has lived 15 years of tortuous marriage with his wife (Amparo Rivelles). While he loved her very much, her annoying antics and general lack of love and respect for his person have finally made him to be tired of all. So he begins to plan the "perfect crime". Weird and insanely funny, this very original comedy with touches of horror is enormously enjoyable due to the witty and irreverent script (by Luis Alcoriza) and Arturo De Córdova's unforgettable performance.
Buy "El Esqueleto de la Sra. Morales" (1960)

4) La Tía Alejandra (1979, Arturo Ripstein)

While the 70s weren't the best decade for Mexican horror, Ripstein's "La Tía Alejandra" ("Aunt Alejandra") appeared as an oasis in the desert, being a terrific film that explored horror coming from the dearest of all institutions: family. A middle class family receives aunt Alejandra (Isabela Corona), who has arrived to live with them after the death of her mother. At first everything looks promising, as the old lady has decided to help with the family's financial troubles, but under her apparently harmless exterior is hidden a powerful witch who won't hesitate to kill anyone who tries to stop her plans. Including her own family.
Buy "La Tia Alejandra" (1979)

3) El Libro De Piedra (1969, Carlos Enrique Taboada)
While many regard "Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo" ("Even the wind is Afraid") as Taboada's best horror film, I find "El Libro De Piedra" ("The Book of Stone") to be his ultimate masterpiece. In the film, Marga López plays a governess hired to teach a young girl (Lucy Buj) in a country-house. The girl always talks about her imaginary friend Hugo, who is actually a statue she found in the woods, but this makes her family think she's losing her mind. However, the governess will soon discover that probably there's more in Hugo than just an imaginary friend. While low on production values, the movie is filled with suspense, something that Taboada handles masterfully through the film.
Buy "El Libro De Piedra" (1969)

2) Pedro Páramo (1967, Carlos Velo)
Based on Juan Rulfo's celebrated novel, "Pedro Páramo" is a very dark and poetic film of magical realism about a young man (Carlos Fernández) who travels to the forgotten town of Comala to find his father, Pedro Páramo (John Gavin). What he discovers is a ghost town, where the spirits of those who lived there tell him the story about the downfall of Pedro Páramo and the town as a whole. With a beautifully haunting photography by Gabriel Figueroa, director Carlos Velo recreates the nightmarish town of Comala and brings to life the very human emotions that fill the novel: cruelty, despair, passion, nostalgia. "Pedro Páramo" may not be a horror film in the strict sense of the word, but it's definitely a powerful experience.
Buy "Pedro Páramo" (1967)

1) El Hombre Sin Rostro (1950, Juan Bustillo Oro)
The years from the late 40s to early 50s are not really a strong period for horror in general (although they were great years for cinema as a whole), but in 1950 Mexican cinema produced what in my opinion is the best Mexican horror film of all time. Written and directed by Bustillo Oro (responsible of a wide variety of classics), "El Hombre Sin Rostro" ("The Man Without a Face") is a crime drama that mixes perfectly horror and film noir, in a tale about a detective (Arturo De Córdova) obsessed with a serial killer that he has been unable to identify and tortured by nightmares where he sees the killer as a man without a face. Very stylish in its visual look, the film finds the equilibrium between the realism of urban drama and the surreal nightmares the detective has. It's very unusual and beautiful look together with its intelligent and original (for its time) storyline make this psychological thriller one of the best Mexican movies of all time.
eMULE: "El Hombre Sin Rostro" (1950) - No Subtitles

14 comments:

jriddle said...

After having read about them for many years, I only got to see the Abel Salazar-produced horrors of the '50s and '60s last year. They're a truly remarkable batch of films, and certainly earn their slots on any list such as the one you've compiled.

Hammer's gothic horrors from that same period are much-hyped, but are, quality-wise, often vastly inferior to the work on the sub-genre going on in other countries. The ABSA films are a perfect example of this. EL VAMPIRO is a magnificent film; as good as anything Hammer ever produced. Photographically speaking, Hammer doesn't have anything that can touch it. Even better is MISTERIOS DE ULTRATUMBA, a genuine classic, and a great deal better than anything that ever came out of Hammer. It would, in fact, rank among the greatest gothic horrors ever made. I'm impressed that it only finishes in 5th place on your list. I don't think I've seen a single one of the films you rank higher, but just the thought of there being four horror films from Mexico alone that are better than this one has me salivating.

Zuazua said...

An excellent post as always pal, Aside from Taboada's films, El Esqueleto and the unforgettable German Robles performance in El Vampiro i don't recall having seen the other movies in the list. It's great to know there are such horror gems among the numerous folklore productions.

Didn't know there was a Pedro Paramo film, i'm looking forward to get it since i loved the book.

While i don't think El Esqueleto de la Señora Morales belongs to the horror genre it's definitely a masterpiece even surpassing several American films of the same genre.

Don't know if you have seen it, but there is a mexican vigilante movie called R15 Comando Implacable (at least that was the name shown on Galavision, i guess) , basically a Death Wish ripoff that contains some of the creepiest scenes i have ever seen (perhaps because the general low productions of the movie makes everything look much more crude), involving the protagonist dining, partying and conversating with the stiff corpses of its recently murdered family, while he allucinates they are still alive. A moment i recall fondly is when he carries his son (Armando Araiza i think) to bed, of course he's already in rigor mortis and still in the seating position from the dinning table, the protagonist (I don't recall his name) stretches his legs on the matress with a loud bone cracking sound. I'll try to dig some info about the movie.

Zuazua said...

Just found some info on the vigilante movie, the title is 'AR-15 Comando Implacable' the protagonist is Hugo Stiglitz and it's directed by Alejandro Tood.

Here is the poster
http://www.antiqbook.com/boox/witt/55-2419.shtml

If you can get your hands on it, do it, it's a good movie, specially if you liked Death Wish (as i do) or even if it's just to see the scenes i mentioned. And lend me a copy hehe.

Paxton Hernandez said...

No Veneno para las hadas? Shame on you, man!!!

:(

J Luis Rivera said...

jriddle: It's awesoem that Cas aNegra has made the ABSA films easier to find, as even in Mexico it was hard to give them a try. "Misterios de Ultratumba" is my favourite of them, and easily it could have reached post #3... its too damn hard to beat "Pedro Páramo" and "El Hombre Sin Rostro". I hope one day you can give those two a shot. Cheers!

Zuazua: I think you'll love "Pedro Páramo", as impossible as it sounds, it follows th enovel to the letter and really captures the whole atmosphere of Comala. While John Gavin is weird in the lead role (and speaks with American accent), I found it nice, as Pedro Páramo is suppoused to be someone different, larger than life. I specially love the ending. I'll try to find "AR-15", sounds like my kind of film, as I love those Mexican "Death Wish" clones like "Siete en la Mira" and "Cazador de Asesinos" (probably my favourite).

Paxton: Sorry man! I just thought that three Taboada films in the list were enough, that "Vagabundo en la Lluvia" deserves more attention, and that... you'll kill me... "Veneno para las Hadas" was just not THAT good. Saludos!

Champy said...

Too interesting your list..... but, it's not clear some issues... Pedro Paramo horror movie???

I love "The wolfwoman", I was catched by it, and til now i enjoy it a lot.

I agree with Paxtón, Veneno para las hadas is great!

Enjoyable post.

posterazzi said...

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Laura aka Lorax Moondog said...

I really liked your list. I wish I was able to get a hold of these films though. Even though I live in California, it's just so hard to find Mexican films here. Sigh, but thank you so much for making the list.

kelkane said...

Anyone able to recommend some more recent mexican horror? I have seen [REC] 1 and 2 and am looking to find some others. My walmart has a really big latin film section and there are lots of horror but heck if I know if they are any good. I know I can netflix but I love buying movies still. Thanks for any help! love the recommendations that you gave!

Aaron Soto said...

Great list, I din't want to comment before cause is a pretty fair list, but people keep asking me about it, so I guess I should add something to the party.

With all due respect, my humble opinion. the Taboada films are present in the conscious of mexican cinema because they where really popular to PG audiences, but in no way they reflect the very best of mexican cinema craftsmanship, sure they are important mexican horror films but most of the times they do not brought something fresh or innovate to the genre. In fact, Veneno Para Las Hadas is a much richer and interesting film that do not look to satisfied everyone.

Stuff like La Tía Alejandra and other "horror" ventures from respected "artsy" directors show that even the most important productions where done by people who din't new horror or the history of horror films. La Tía Alejandra is a good film, done by one of Mexico's most respected filmmakers, an author and dramatist, but not a horror artist by heart, that movie is to horror genre what Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is to the martial arts genre.

To made a mexican horror movie list without Rene Cardona, Juan Lopez Moctezuma and Rogelio A. González is sacrilegious. Moctezuma was a horror historian, a important figure who brought the genre and sub-genre knowledge to Mexican cinema.

I like that you include none mexican filmmakers like Spain's director Luis Alcoriza, but may be you should include Jodorowsly or Bunuel too. Santa Sangre is scarier and creepier then most of the films on the list and is a very good film, sure is 90% in English, but Cronos has lost of English too.

Is a good list and a great blog, congrats, I imagine that you haven't seen it all, but who's seen it all?, if you need any help or info on titles, let me know.

Guy Budziak said...

El Fantasma del convento can be found here on Youtube in its entirety (without subtitles though): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aPbdNMRm5DE

I just finished watching it for the first time. I enjoyed it, I just hope a better print exists out there somewhere, and it finds release on DVD with subtitles one day.

J Luis Rivera said...

Thanks Guy! I'm sure many will apretiate the link!

Marin Mandir said...

Do you by any chance know where to find links for these films online, with English subtitles? At least some of them.

The youtube link for "El Fantasma del convento" has been removed, by the way.

J Luis Rivera said...

I'm sure there are links for most, I'll have to check.

Sadly, "El Fantasma del Convento" may not be one of them. I've never seen it subtitled.

I'll let you know what can I find.