September 23, 2011

Veneno para las hadas (1984)

One of the most prominent filmmakers in Mexican horror cinema is without a doubt Carlos Enrique Taboada, who thanks to four famous Gothic horror films cemented a reputation as a master of horror. Taboada's body of work extended to other genres, though most of them were less fortunate than his horror output (a notable exception being "La Guerra Santa"). "Veneno para las hadas", released in 1984, is not only the last film in Taboada's Gothic horror cycle, it was also the last film of his career. Unfortunately, it's the less known as well, mainly because it's more than a bit different to his other horror films, being an offbeat story about witchcraft told from the point of view of a child. After a five year hiatus after 1979's "La Guerra Santa", director Carlos Enrique Taboada returned to horror genre with "Veneno para las hadas" (known in English as "Poison for the faeries" and occasionally with the less inspiring title of "The Evil Faeries"), a strong drama with horror elements that closes the career of one of the most important figures in Mexican horror cinema.

Set in the late 50s, "Veneno para las Hadas" is the story of the strange friendship between two little girls. Flavia (Elsa María Gutiérrez) is the daughter of a very wealthy family who have just moved to the city, and in her first day of school becomes good friends with Verónica (Ana Patricia Rojo), a very smart and manipulative girl who is fascinated with witchcraft and claims to be a witch herself. An orphan living with her old grandmother, Verónica spends most of her time under the care of her nanny (Carmen Stein), who tells her stories about witches and magic. These stories find a fertile ground in Verónica's enormous imagination, and she begins to be deeply interested in becoming the most evil witch ever. Flavia, being more innocent and gullible, begins to believe Verónica's claims, specially as strange events start to happen around them. What at first began as an innocent friendship soon becomes a nightmare as Flavia is tortured psychologically by the possessive Verónica and her threats of using her witchcraft against her.

Written by Carlos Enrique Taboada himself (as usual), the film moves far away from the blatantly supernatural horror of his more famous films ("Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo", "El Libro De Piedra" and "Más Negro Que la Noche") and focuses on a subtler and slightly more realistic kind of horror. In this aspect, it could be closer to his other offbeat horror film, "Vagabundo en la Lluvia", but the tone is completely different, as fantasy plays a big role in the story. In a sense, "Veneno para las hadas" brings back the theme of corruption of childhood found in "El Libro de Piedra" and gives it another turn of the screw. Now the darkness does not come from the ghost of a boy, but from a very alive girl. And then, Verónica is not entirely developed as a villainous evil child, but as a complex portrait of a troubled girl. The story unfolds at a very slow pace (at times too slow for its own sake), but it carefully develops the bond between the two girls and the morbid details of their bizarre relationship.

The most notorious feature in "Veneno para las hadas" is certainly the fact that director Carlos Enrique Taboada shots his film entirely from the children's point of view, even to the point of having the adult actors being shot from a child's perspective (Their faces rarely appear at all). This style, while certainly a bit gimmicky, allows a greater emphasis on the two main characters, and actually reflects the reality of their lives in relation with the adult world. While different, both girls share the loneliness of being outsiders in their families: Verónica's grandmother is too old to take care of her, while Flavia's parents are cold and even emotionally distant. The cinematography, by Lupe García, is kind of average but Taboada manages to put it to a very good use in creating haunting Gothic images that once again show a strong influence from Italian filmmakers. In this twisted ode to childhood, Taboada succeeds in crafting a fairy tale for adults that's all the more disturbing in its bleak realism.

Given that the film focuses on only two characters their performances are vital for the success of the film, and while certainly not entirely amazing, the overall result is quite positive. As the manipulative Verónica, Ana Patricia Rojo is an absolute joy to watch, as with great talent she can be both adorable and hateful at the same time. Despite her young age, her performance is remarkable in the complex role of the little girl who claims to be a witch, and it's easily the film's greatest asset. Unfortunately, Elsa María Gutiérrez as Flavia is a lot less fortunate, seeming at times a bit wooden and unprepared. Nevertheless, there are also moments of quite believable realism when her innocence is truthfully transmitted to the screen. As written above, the adult roles are for the most part minor and many times reduced to voice acting. While the work is effective for the most part, sometimes the dubbing is not entirely good, sounding a bit artificial and staged.

Taboada's final Gothic horror film is certainly a quite different kind of beast than his other Gothic set pieces, which could feel initially like a disappointment. It remains decidedly Gothic in atmosphere, yet follows a different kind of horror, subtler than in his previous films, yet somehow more disturbing. A horror that comes not from beyond the grave, but from the logical and inevitable consequences of people's actions (again, in a similar vein as "Vagabundo en la Lluvia"). Unfortunately, "Veneno para las hadas" is marred by an average work of cinematography and a terribly slow pace, which prevent the film from truly being flawless. Lupe García, a veteran camera operator, creates pretty bland images, that are only saved by Taboada's slick sense of visual narrative. However, the slow pace the movie has is probably what hurts the film the most, as at times it makes it drag a bit too much for its good, and gives the film a tone closer to television melodrama than to horror cinema.

Despite its flaws, "Veneno para las hadas" remains as one of director Carlos Enrique Taboada most original and captivating films, offering a profoundly bleak fairy tale for adults. While nowhere near as famous as "Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo", and definitely not as polished as his Gothic masterpiece "El Libro De Piedra", this little gem is still a pretty good, albeit different, entry in the Gothic horror genre. While it was well received by audiences and critics, Taboada never made again a film after "Veneno para las hadas", and focused his career on television. A thematic conjunction of Taboada's usual themes and obsessions, "Veneno para las hadas" is truly a fitting closure to a great director's career.


September 22, 2011

La Guerra Santa (1979)

The Cristero War (or Cristiada) was a conflict that took place from 1926 to 1929, in which Roman Catholics formed an uprising against the Mexican government of President Calles, due to his enforcement of the anticlerical laws. What began with peaceful resistance, soon became a formal rebellion in 1927, and the rebels (known as Cristeros army and formed mainly by rural inhabitants), with the support of the Mexican bishops, began to pose a serious threat to civil order. Peace would only come with the ending of Calles' term as president, and despite grave difficulties (such as the assassination of president-elect Álvaro Obregón by a Catholic radical), an arrangement was reached with he Church and finally the Cristero War ended. The Cristero War left a profound impact in Mexico, as a Civil War in which Mexicans fought against each other instigated by religion. It certainly left a deep sentiment of indignation in filmmaker Carlos Enrique Taboada, as he would portray his vision on the conflict in one of his most accomplished films: 1979's "La Guerra Santa".

"La Guerra Santa" ("The Holy War") chronicles the story of Celso Domínguez (José Carlos Ruiz), a shy and cowardly inhabitant of the poor town of Rincón del Cobre. It all begins when the town's priest, Father Miguel (Víctor Junco), informs at mass that he will close the Church's doors and stop giving mass until the Calles' law is abolished. Father Miguel begins to manipulate the panicked population, convincing the men to join the Cristeros, the rebel army of Catholic loyalists. Celso is afraid of death and doesn't want to go, but seeing how the town begins to shun him, he reluctantly joins the army. Celso enters under the command of Colonel Ursino Valdez (Jorge Luke), a skillful strategist who believes fanatically in his mission and follows the advise of Father Soler (Carlos Cámara). In Ursino's army, Celso will be forced to fight and to kill, joining them in their ventures. The humble peasant will discover the horrors of war and the atrocities committed by both sides in the fratricidal war later known as the Cristero War.

Based on his own research on the subject, "La Guerra Santa" was written by director Carlos Enrique Taboada himself, who took the film as his most personal project. Bleak and full of hopelessness, "La Guerra Santa" is a story about an innocent and calm man being dehumanized and degenerated by the horrors of war. A symbol of the everyman, Celso expresses constantly his unwillingness to join the Cristeros, but does it out of peer pressure. Following the words of the priests, the Cristeros completely believe that their cause is right, and that everything done for the cause is good. However, under the fanatical leadership of Colonel Ursino, soon this "everything" includes raping and pillaging as well. Outspoken about his own anticlerical ideology, Taboada makes no secret about whose side he is on, and portrays the peasant army as the victims of the priests' manipulations who take advantage of their fears and ignorance. Taboada's thesis is that war is always hell, even those justified as "holy". Or better said, specially those justified as holy.

Director Carlos Enrique Taboada translates nicely the bleak tone of his screenplay and makes Celso's descent to hell a visually arresting anti-epic, in which the desert rural landscape reflects the abandon and solitude of the Cristero army. The war is experienced through Celso's eyes, and through him Taboada introduces a series of interesting characters that reflect his pessimism about humanity: the cruel and fanatical Colonel Ursino, the cold and ambitious Father Soler, Celso's amoral friend Jacinto, each one of them enters the conflict with the mission of fighting for God, but Taboada makes clear that God, if exists, has seemingly abandoned his army. A particularly moving scene between Celso and a captured atheist schoolteacher (Claudio Obregón) becomes the focal point in which Taboada centers his vision. Certainly, the film lacks subtlety in its approach and makes no concessions about its ideology, however, Taboada succeeds in crafting a moving portrait of a nation manipulated by its political and religious leaders.

The work done by the cast in "La Guerra Santa" is mostly remarkable, with José Carlos Ruiz delivering the best performance in his career. Certainly, there are moments in which Ruiz overacts a bit, though for the most part his delivery as Celso is of great quality, and his transformation very vivid and haunting. It's remarkable how subtle the change from shy villager to soldier of God is, as Celso looks the same, but something is just different. Equally remarkable is the work of Jorge Luke as the violent colonel Ursino. Luke perfectly portrays the fanatical side of his character without going going for the stereotype. The ruthless colonel is a fanatical, but he is not a caricature, on the contrary, he's vividly dangerous because of how natural Luke's performance is. As Father Soler, Carlos Cámara is pretty effective with his stoic and dignified look, which balances the wilder nature of Luke's Ursino. Nevertheless, Cámara's character is also flawed, and the subtlety of the actor makes the character multidimensional.

Not everyone in the cast is as good as Ruiz and Luke, and some are particularly bad (Roberto Ruy for example), though for the most part is one of the best casts that ever appeared in a Taboada film. In fact, "La Guerra Santa" showcases Taboada's talents at their best, with pretty good use of Miguel Araña's cinematography (which is not exactly special, but does the job right) and his great sense of rhythm resulting in a quite fluid storytelling. As written above, Taboada's film has the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but despite its lack of objectivity, in this ambitious anti-epic Taboada manages to avoid any degree of cheap sentimentalism. It is a tale of defeated people, but it's far from condescending with them. Perhaps its major flaw is once again, a Taboada too enamored with his screenplay to cut it, as there are a couple of vignettes in this war tale that seem either unnecessary or too long. Nevertheless, it's hard to deny that "La Guerra Santa" is one of Taboada's greatest achievements.

To the general public, director Carlos Enrique Taboada is better known as the mastermind behind four classics of Mexican horror: "Hasta el viento tiene miedo" (1968), "El Libro de Piedra" (1969), "Más negro que la noche" (1975) and "Veneno para las Hadas "(1984), his famous horror cycle. And this is not without a reason, as the rest of his varied filmography lacked the spirit and energy of his horror films. The great exception is "La Guerra Santa", an anti-war film in which Taboada was able to fully express his idiosyncrasies regarding religion openly. And this perhaps proves a common trait in Taboada's filmography: the quality of his effort depended on how involved the director felt about the project; and in the case of "La Guerra Santa", that was a lot. "La Guerra Santa" is an unfairly forgotten war film that's not only one of Taboada's best, but one of the best war films in Mexican cinema by its own right.


September 21, 2011

Más negro que la noche (1975)

In Mexican cinema, the name of director Carlos Enrique Taboada is forever linked to the horror genre thanks to four films that made what is nowadays labeled as his "Gothic cycle". Four horror films that quickly earned a cult status due to their high level of craftsmanship and their ominous Gothic atmosphere. Of the four, the first couple, "Hasta el viento tiene miedo" and "El Libro de Piedra" are the better known thanks to their repeated exposure in Mexican television, however, the last two are movies equally as haunting despite not having the same level of fame. The third film in the cycle, titled "Más negro que la noche" (literally "Blacker than the night"), was released in 1975, and meant a return to form for Taboada after having spent the first half of the 70s crafting a series of low budget thrillers with a chiefly commercial goal. In "Más negro que la noche", Taboada returns to supernatural horror in a story about a haunting in an old mansion involving a group of young female friends and a black cat. A cat that's blacker than the night.

The story in "Más negro que la noche" begins with a death. Old Susana (Tamara Galina) is a wealthy rich spinster who lives in a huge mansion with the sole company of her beloved cat Becker, and Sofía (Alicia Palacios) the maid. Susana dies of a heart attack, and the only heir of her vast fortune is her niece Ofelia (Claudia Islas), now a young woman who had almost forgotten about Susana. Ofelia shares an apartment with three of her friends: Aurora (Susana Dosamantes), Marta (Lucía Méndez), and finally Pilar (Helena Rojo), who stays with them as she is considering divorce from her husband Roberto (Pedro Armendáriz Jr.). However, the inheritance has a condition, Ofelia must take care of Becker until his death. While all her housemates dislike cats, they all decide to accept Ofelia's invitation and live in the mansion with her. Soon strange events begin to take place in the house, specially as the girls seem to have little respect for the past. And it all gets worse once Becker is found death.

As usual, the screenplay for "Más negro que la noche" was written by Carlos Enrique Taboada himself, and amongst his horror films, it is perhaps the most "traditional" and straightforward of the bunch. Lacking the ambiguity and the complexities of his other horrors, it is certainly a simpler ghost story; however, this by no means make it any less interesting. "Más negro que la noche" is practically an exercise in developing a horror story at its most classic style, as Taboada plays with all the elements one can find in a typical ghost story: huge mansion, creepy servants, naive young people, black cat, and the darkness of the night. And yet, all the typical obsessions in Taboada's filmography find their place in the story, particularly the major running theme in his films (and not only in his horror ones): selfishness is payed with death. Perhaps the most notable element of "Más negro que la noche" is how as the story unfolds, it borrows some elements from Italian Giallo, as Aunt Susana's vengeance manifests in a quite physical presence.

The story in "Más negro que la noche" may be simplistic, even clichéd; however, Taboada's film seems to be constructed with one single idea in mind: atmosphere. Atmosphere is the key word in "Más negro que la noche", which showcases a masterful use of lighting and camera-work to create an effectively ominous atmosphere of dread that begins to surround the four main characters. Stylish and elegant, Taboada's borrowing of Giallo elements does not limit merely to plot devices, but also to the striking visual style found in "Más negro que la noche", which shows a more than obvious influence from Mario Bava. In the film, Taboada once again excels in his visual narrative, which is fluid and dynamic, developing the story at a nice pace. Certainly, "Más negro que la noche" is a lot more plot-driven than Taboada's usual output, but this is actually beneficial for Taboada's style, which tends to be tedious in more character-driven situations. Ultimately, "Más negro que la noche" is visually, Taboada's triumph of style over substance.

Interestingly, the cast includes several actors who would later become big stars of Mexican cinema or TV (Helena Rojo, Pedro Armendáriz Jr. and Lucía Méndez), and for the most part the work done is effective. Unfortunately and exception is lead actress Claudia Islas, who plays Ofelia, as her turn is considerably weak and unconvincing. Certainly the lack of character development has a hand in this, but Islas' work pales in comparison with her three cast-mates. For example Helena Rojo, who plays Pilar, displaying a strength and passion in her role that Islas lacks. Susana Dosamantes is less fortunate, though she manages to come up as an effective actress that adds more than her natural beauty to the role. Her scene at the library is perhaps one of the film's highlights. Like Dosamantes, it would seem that Lucía Méndez was picked for the role based only on her looks, however, Méndez makes an acceptable role as the young and impressionable Marta. Veteran actress Alicia Palacios is a highlight of the film, as the loyal servant Sofía.

As written above, the film is an exercise of style over substance, and this is like a double-edged sword. On one hand, it's a masterful example of Taboada's brilliance when it comes to purely visual storytelling. But on the other, it's still a somewhat typical ghost story overtly reliant on the clichés of the genre. While this in no way demerits the film's craftsmanship (definitely one of Taboada's best in purely technical aspects), it certainly diminishes it's main impact, as ultimately "Más negro que la noche" can't avoid being a quite predictable movie with some pretty obvious twists and clichéd situations. In the end, this is after all a matter of taste, as certainly, a good classic ghost story never goes out of fashion, and in this way, "Más negro que la noche" certainly delivers the goods. It would only be advisable not to expect a groundbreaking narrative or unexpected twists, not even Taboada's familiar ambiguity or subtle subtexts. "Más negro que la noche" is set to be a traditional ghost story and that's what delivers.

As part of Taboada's thematic tetralogy of Gothic horror, "Más negro que la noche" certainly comes up as the weakest of the four, however, it is by no means a bad movie. As an stylish ghost story, "Más negro que la noche" ranks amongst the best of the 70s, with its striking visual style and its attractive cast, it's still a joy to watch. Despite its thin-layered plot, this gem of Mexican horror cinema is a quite satisfying ride full of thrills, perfect for a creepy night of scary movies. Perhaps Taboada's most accessible and commercial horror film, "Más negro que la noche" is the perfect introduction to the darker side of Taboada's filmography, a side that like Becker the cat, is blacker than the night.


September 20, 2011

Rapiña (1975)

In 1968, Mexican screenwriter turned director Carlos Enrique Taboada earned cult status with the release of a Gothic horror film that quickly became a classic of the genre, "Hasta el viento tiene miedo". The following year's "El Libro de Piedra" had the same luck and cemented Taboada's popularity as a horror filmmaker, but during the 70s, Taboada abandoned horror and began to explore different genres, crafting a series of low budget thrillers during the first half of the decade, in a decidedly more commercial vein. However, thanks to governmental support, Taboada would be able to return to a more personal style of filmmaking. During the seventies, the Mexican government began to have a greater interest in cinema, and decided to generate new ways to support Mexican filmmakers. One of these ways was the creation of Conacine in 1974, a governmental institution that helped the production of new Mexican cinema. With the support of Conacine, Carlos Enrique Taboada crafted a more ambitious story: 1975's "Rapiña".

"Rapiña" (literally "Rapine"), is the story of two humble woodcutters, Porfirio (Ignacio López Tarso) and Ebodio (Germán Robles), who live in a poor community located deep in the high Mexican mountains. One day Porfirio visits the town doctor (Enrique Pontón), and while waiting, he overhears the doctor complaining about his life in the rural community, and his longing for a more "civilized" work. Porfirio feels upset about it, and decides to do whatever he can to move away from his town and become "civilized". His wife Rita (Norma Lazareno) tries to comfort him, but Porfirio is restless about his plans. When a plane crashes near their mountains, Porfirio discovers that everyone in the flight has perished, so he decides to get everything he can from the crashed plane before the authorities come looking for it. Porfirio convinces Ebodio to help him, and the two men plan to become rich with their discovery. However, as Porfirio gets more obsessed with his plan, the darker side of humanity begins to arise.

Written by director Carlos Enrique Taboada himself (as usual in his filmography), "Rapiña" is essentially a study about obsession, and the degeneration of a person, in this case Porfirio, as his obsession begins to take control of him. Interestingly, Porfirio's obsession is actually born from a noble ideal: he wants to improve the financial situation of his family, to discover the world beyond his small town, and to do something more with his life beyond working as a woodcutter. However, this initially noble idea begins to be slowly transformed into a dangerous obsession, bringing out the worst in Porfirio's nature in a similar way to captain Ahab in Herman Melville's novel "Moby-Dick; or, The Whale". If Porfirio is a wild passionate force driven by his obsession, Ebodio is the polar opposite, sharing Porfirio's desire to be rich, but keeping always a more rational approach, which makes him act at times as Porfirio's conscience. However, this also makes Ebodio to be constantly doubting about his actions, while Porfirio' intense personality makes him more active.

Shot mainly in location, Taboada makes great use of veteran cinematographer José Ortíz Ramos' work to capture the natural beauty of the Mexican mountains and at the same time, generate a dark and haunting atmosphere of despair and desolation. Taboada's visual narrative is elegant and subtle, and the story flows at a quiet, slow pace that suits the story's development (though it must be said that at times it does feel a bit too slow for its own good). The upside of this is that Taboada allows his characters to breath and grow, developing nicely the relationship between them and setting up the ground for their conflicts. And while the vast landscape of Mexican countryside is the background, in "Rapiña" Taboada keeps the story focused on the small group made by Porfirio, Ebodio and their respective wives. In "Rapiña", Taboada's pessimism about humanity is more than apparent, perhaps more than in any other of his films. particularly in his view that even the noblest intentions end up degenerated by our own flaws.

Certainly, the acting in most of Carlos Enrique Taboada's films tend to be a mixed bag, with some great performances placed along some truly awful. Fortunately, "Rapiña" is an exception in this aspect, as the four actors in the main roles make a great job in the film. As Porfirio, Ignacio López Tarso is a strong leading presence. While a tad overacted in his representation of an indigenous villager, his handling of Porfirio's descent into darkness is notable. Nevertheless, the film's highlight is without a doubt Germán Robles performance as Ebodio. The legendary actor literally disappears in the role and delivers a work so natural and vivid that gives enormous realism to the film. Another great work of acting is the one by Taboada's regular collaborator, actress Norma Lazareno, whom playing Porfirio's wife gives one of the best performances in her career. As Ebodio's young wife Josefina, actress Rosenda Monteros is truly effective, and rises up to the level of her cast-mates despite having a relatively minor role in the film.

With its great cinematography, beautiful locations and great work of acting, "Rapiña" is certainly one of Taboada's best efforts outside the horror genre. However, there are also several flaws that stop the film from being a real masterpiece, and unfortunately, most are related to Taboada's work as a director. Perhaps the film's greatest problem is that at times it seems to digress around certain plot elements for too long, with some scenes being unnecessarily slow and long. As written above, the slow pace allows a great deal of character development, and that's certainly welcomed; however, Taboada exaggerates a bit in this, resulting in some moments of tedium. It wouldn't be the first time that Taboada seemed to be so fond of his own screenplay that left things that could had been trimmed down. Also, despite the bigger budget Taboada had for "Rapiña", some special effects related to the plane crash look pretty bad, even for its time (being obviously beyond the industry's financial limitations), though this is certainly a much more forgivable flaw.

After his series of commercial low budget films done during the first half of the seventies, "Rapiña" inaugurated a new stage in the career of Carlos Enrique Taboada, a stage that soon proved to be one of more personal and mature filmmaking. Bleak and pessimist (and even a bit patronizing), "Rapiña" is an interesting character study about a man driven by his obsession into the darkest side of the soul. Despite its many flaws, director Carlos Enrique Taboada manages to prove in this ambitious film that his talent extended well beyond the constrains of the horror genre. In the end, "Rapiña" is worth a watch not because of its place in Taboada's filmography, but mainly to enjoy the great performances of actors Germán Robles and Norma Lazareno.


September 19, 2011

El Deseo en Otoño (1972)

While better known for his remarkable output in the horror genre (particularly 1968's "Hasta el viento tiene miedo" and 1969's "El Libro de Piedra"), Mexican filmmaker Carlos Enrique Taboada tackled a wide variety of themes and genres in his several contributions to Mexican cinema, both as a writer and as a director. Nevertheless, these ventures outside of the horror genre were rarely as successful as his famous "Gothic horror cycle", and would make a pretty good argument to state that the quality of Taboada's filmmaking depended on how interested was the director in the movie's theme. Two good examples of this are a couple of films Taboada made for veteran producer Alfonso Rosas Priego in 1972, "El Arte de Engañar" and "El Deseo en Otoño", two dramas with thriller elements that showcase the best and the worst of Taboada's style. Of the two, "El Deseo en Otoño" is the most successful, as even when it wasn't written by Taboada, it contains several common elements in Taboada's filmography: revenge, suspense and a not-so subtle lesbian subtext.

In "El Deseo en Otoño" (literally "The Desire in Autumn"), Maricruz Olivier plays Elena, a high school teacher who has spent the majority of her adult life taking care of her ill mother (Pilar Sen). A victim of her mother's manipulation, Elena has never pursued any romantic relationship, influenced by her mother's distrust towards every male. Her only friend is Clara (Sonia Furió), a fellow teacher who has secret passionate feelings towards Elena. One day Elena's mother dies, leaving Elena the enormous amount of money that she had secretly amassed. Now a millionaire, Elena invites Clara to live with her, hoping to avoid the feeling of loneliness that her mother's dead has brought. Clara delightfully agrees, and promptly moves with her beloved Elena, who remains oblivious to the feelings Clara has for her. The school's principal, Don Esteban (Enrique Pontón), suggest Elena to take a vacation, and she decides to visit Acapulco on her own. To Clara's surprise, Elena returns from Acapulco married to a mysterious man, Víctor (Guillermo Murray), an event that prompts in Clara great feelings of jealousy, worsened by her suspicions about Víctor's true intentions.

"El Deseo en Otoño" is atypical amongst Taboada's films because it wasn't written by him, but instead it was adapted to the screen by writer Toni Sbert from a story by popular soap opera writer Fernanda Villeli. The story does have many elements in common with soap operas, particularly a plot filled with several unexpected twists and a narrative structure that feels a tad episodic. In a quite interesting fashion, the story shifts tone and atmosphere, moving progressively from what initially seems to be a melodramatic character-study to a tragic tale of jealousy, which later ends up transformed into a darker suspense thriller in the vein of Hitchcock's "Suspicion" (an obvious major inspiration for the last third of the film). Writer Toni Sbert unfolds the story slowly, probably too slowly for its own good; though he succeeds in keeping things interesting until the end.

Director Carlos Enrique Taboada helms "El Deseo en Otoño" with his usual fluid narrative style and efficient craftsmanship. As written above, the story enters progressively into darker territories, and certainly the film could be divided in two well-defined segments: first Elena's emancipation and eventual discovery of love, and later Clara's schemes and Elena's growing suspicions about Víctor's past. While during the first half Taboada develops his film in a pretty standard fashion (to the point that it even gets dull at times), it's on the second half where Taboada seems right at home as suspicion, mystery and double crossing become the focal point of the film. If Taboada's take on romance is dull and passionless, his take on suspense is undoubtedly powerful and chilling. It's clear where Taboada's interests are, he handles the mystery about Víctor's intentions with great care and tact. Despite the poor job cinematographer Raúl Domínguez does in the film, Taboada manages to create a pretty good oppressive atmosphere inside Elena's house, reflecting the oppressive life that Elena seems to choose for herself. First under her mother's influence, and later under Clara's and Víctor's.

The cast is for the most part good, and at least the actors in the lead roles make great jobs in their performances. Actress Maricruz Olivier, who had previously worked with Taboada in "Hasta el viento tienemiedo", creates an interesting and vivid character in Elena. Certainly, the role is thinly-developed as an archetypal victim, but Olivier adds a good mix of sweetness and strength that benefits her character a lot, particularly in the last half. As the suave and mysterious Víctor, Guillermo Murray is pretty effective, and manages to keep a good balance between genuinely charming and disturbingly annoying, which make perfectly believable the suspicions that Clara and Elena have about his role. Finally, Sonia Furió is remarkable as Clara, the jealous friend of Elena who secretly longs for her in a romantic way. The way she handles Clara's romantic disappointment is a classy display of subtlety.

The rest of the cast is unfortunately pretty poor, with the worst offenders being young cast members Silvia Mariscal and Juan Peláez, who play Elena's worst students in a films' subplot. Their performances are truly weak, looking artificial and forced in their roles. Along Raúl Domínguez' already mentioned work of cinematography, Mariscal and Peláez' work ranks high amongst the film's biggest problems. However, the main problem in "El Deseo en Otoño" is perhaps the director's apparent lack of interest in the initial half of the story. While the second half is filled with interesting twists and culminates in one of Taboada's grimmest finales, the whole build up for this is done in a terribly dull and boring way that's closer to the worst vices of Mexican television of the time, only saved from its tedium by the quite interesting addition of Clara as a complex lesbian figure. The abysmal difference between both halves is unfortunate, as while the second half is truly a masterful display of a director handling suspense at its most Hitchcocknian, one has to endure the terrible dullness of the first half to enjoy it.

Certainly "El Deseo en Otoño", or "The Desire in Autumn" is far from being one of Taboada's best films but, despite its notorious problems (made worse by the obvious low production values), the film has enough elements of interest to be worth a look. The last half of the film alone is a nicely constructed piece of suspense, and a pretty good homage to Hitchcock. If one forgives the staggering dullness of its first half, "El Deseo en Otoño" proves to be an actually intense and rewarding thriller that showcases the visual talents of Taboada. While not Taboada's best work, "El Deseo en Otoño" isn't really a bad film after all.


September 17, 2011

El Arte de Engañar (1972)

In the late 60s, director Carlos Enrique Taboada directed two of the most popular Mexican horror films ever, "Hasta el viento tiene miedo" in 1968 and "El libro de piedra" the following year. Great examples of Gothic horror, the films quickly earned a cult status amongst fans as two gems of Mexican horror. Taboada would return to Gothic horror later in his career, finishing what later would be known as his "Gothic cycle", a thematic tetralogy of horror quite popular amongst Mexican audiences. However, Taboada's career was not limited to the horror genre, as he tackled war films, thrillers and most commonly, drama films. Starting with a popular adaptation of Yolanda Vargas Dulché's "Rubí" in 1970, Taboada began to craft a series of drama films concerning personal relationships with tragic consequences. 1972's "El Arte de Engañar" is one of those films, though one that seems to try to be more of an erotic thriller. Unfortunately, Taboada's skill for Gothic horror did not work that well in other genres.

Literally translated as "The Art of Cheating", "El Arte de Engañar" is the story of a couple of con artists, Fabián (Julio Alemán) and Estela (Anel), who dedicate themselves to blackmail wealthy married women. The scheme begins with Estela locating a target, which is seduced by Fabián while Estela chronicles the affair in photographs, which then become the material for the blackmail. Their business goes well, until one of their victims, Ana (Sonia Furió), commits suicide out of guilt and shame. Fabián is somewhat affected by this, though he keeps going as Estela has a new target for him, Teresa (Queta Lavat), whom he meets at a party. However, he also meets Teresa's young daughter Rebeca (Verónica Castro) and falls in love with her for real. Wishing to start a new life with Rebeca, Fabián wants to stop his business, but Estela doesn't take too well Fabián's new relationship, since she has feelings for him as well. To complicate things, Ana's husband Mario (Rafael Baledón) is determined to discover the identity of Ana's lover in order to take revenge.

The screenplay for "El Arte de Engañar" was written by director Carlos Enrique Taboada himself and several of his usual themes appear in the film. Guilt, obsession and vengeance play a big role in the story, as well as the theme of past actions returning to haunt the characters. In "El Arte de Engañar", Taboada explores the idea of redemption in the character of Fabián, who tries to find peace with Rebeca after his crimes. Nevertheless, Taboada's somewhat bleak and sombre vision about mankind permeates the film, as things get increasingly complicated for his protagonist as time goes by. Interestingly, the overall tone is not exactly moralistic, but pessimist. However, this pessimism is not based on the idea of his characters as victims of an inevitable fate, but instead as victims of each other's ambitions. In "El Arte de Engañar", Taboada sets up a strong drama with complex characters and a good dose of eroticism. Unfortunately, the result film is less than stellar.

Both the best and the worst elements of Carlos Enrique Taboada's directing style can be appreciated in "El Arte de Engañar". On one hand, his great domain of the purely visual elements of cinema shine in his narrative. When the story moves only via images, the film really gets going and, as in his Gothic horror films, atmosphere plays an important role in the film. The work of cinematographer Raúl Domingez is a tad subpar, with some scenes being either too dark or too bright, and pretty trivial compositions; however, Taboada manages to achieve some pretty good moments in the film, moments that showcase an interesting use of color (akin to Italian cinema of the time). Taboada's weak side is perhaps the excessive importance given to the dialogs, as if the writer/director had been too enamored with his text (a common trait in Taboada's films, but particularly obvious in "El Arte de Engañar"), too determined to have everything said, despite having the skill to say it with images rather than with words.

It doesn't help to the end result the fact that the performances are pretty average for the most part. As Fabián, Julio Alemán is stiff, wooden, lacking the charm that his character requires to be believable. His change of heart when he falls in love with Rebeca lacks some verisimilitude due to this, seeming forced and without chemistry. Young Verónica Castro (later a star of Mexican TV) is equally guilty of this, as her turn as the innocent Rebeca is hammy and over the top, with a style better suited to soap operas. As Estela, Anel fares slightly better, though her performance is just average and uninspired. Perhaps the saving grace is Rafael Baledón as Rebeca's father Mario. While better known as a director, Rafael Baledón delivers a strong performance that puts to shame the rest of the cast members. Though perhaps this is more a testament about the poor performances of the main cast than about Baledon's acting skills. Sonia Furió is another exception, displaying her talent as the aging rich lady Ana.

In the end, "El Arte de Engañar" is built over a promising screenplay with a premise of redemption, betrayal and passion, but director Carlos Enrique Taboada fails at delivering such promise, and the result is just an slightly better than average thriller with poor acting and a careless production. Interestingly, it is when the movie gets into the more sleazy thriller aspects when "El Arte de Engañar" improves, as in the chronicling of Fabián and Estela's business or later Mario's determination in his manhunt. It is only when the story focuses on the romantic angle when it somehow falls flat. As if Taboada wasn't really interested in the romantic relationships, and had his mind in the darker areas of the human mind. In fact, it could be said that "El Arte de Engañar" doesn't show any interest on Taboada's side, with its careless production and lack of emotion. This great contrast between this movie and the director's Gothic horror films point not to a lack of skill, but to a lack of interest.

"El Arte de Engañar", or "The Art of Cheating" is not exactly a terribly bad film, it's actually just a slightly better than average one. However, it's certainly a big disappointment considering the level excellence achieved by Taboada's horror output. Slow, tedious, and even ultimately uninteresting, "El Arte de Engañar" is an average film that lacks the energy and dynamism of Taboada's horror films, and that far from being the erotic thriller it attempted to be, results being a badly crafted drama closer in tone and style to the Mexican soap operas of the time. Sadly, a dull and disappointing film, "El Arte de Engañar" is definitely not the best place to find the usual stylish vision of director Carlos Enrique Taboada.


September 14, 2011

El Libro de Piedra (1969)

Easily one of the best known horror filmmakers of Mexican cinema, director Carlos Enrique Taboada cemented his status with four horror films that constitute a thematic tetralogy of sorts. "Hasta el viento tiene miedo" (1968), "El Libro de Piedra" (1969), "Más negro que la noche" (1975) and "Veneno para las Hadas" (1984) form what could be called a Gothic horror cycle in which Taboada explored supernatural horror in themes such as ghosts and witchcraft. The first two films are probably the most famous of the four amongst Mexican audiences, mainly due to the great exposure they received in TV; and amongst those, 1969's "El Libro de Piedra" is the most critically acclaimed of the pair. Produced merely a year after "Hasta el viento tiene miedo", this second venture into Gothic horror adds a new and pretty interesting theme to Taboada's obsessions: childhood. Drawing some inspiration from Henry James' classic "The Turn of the Screw", Carlos Enrique Taboada crafts in "El Libro de Piedra" his very own twisted ode to childhood.

In "El Libro de Piedra" (literally "The Book of Stone"), the wealthy industrialist Eugenio Ruvalcaba (Joaquín Cordero) hires governess Julia Septién (Marga López) to take care of Ruvalcaba's young daughter, Silvia (Lucy Buj). The girl has been ill lately and thus she doesn't attend school with the other children. Also, Eugenio warns Julia that his daughter's behavior is more than a tad odd, and he suggests that she may have mental problems. Things have been complicated for Eugenio's relationship with his daughter, specially now that he has married again, to young Mariana (Norma Lazareno). When Julia meets Silvia, she finds a withdrawn girl that distrusts adults and prefers loneliness, specially to play with her friend Hugo. However, Hugo is nowhere to be seen. Julia discovers that Hugo is Silvia's imaginary friend, he is the life-size statue of a little boy holding a book deep in the nearby woods. Soon strange events begin to take place, and soon Julia will discover the true nature of Silvia's obsession with Hugo.

As usual, "El Libro de Piedra" was written by director Carlos Enrique Taboada himself and, as in his previous "Hasta el viento tiene miedo", the story showcases the enormous influence that Gothic novels, particularly "The Turn of the Screw", had in Taboada. As in James' novel, a governess deals with a ghost haunting a child; however, in Taboada's film, the effect of the relationship between the ghost and the child is all the more perverse. Corruption of innocence becomes the main theme of "El Libro de Piedra" as Julia slowly discovers the origins of Hugo and the way he affects Silvia. The way Taboada develops the menace of Hugo is also remarkable, with him initially being just mentioned in talk and later, as the film progress, his presence begins to grow as he takes action. In "El Libro de Piedra", Taboada constructs some of his most memorable and complex characters, taking Gothic archetypes as basis to develop a supernatural family tragedy to which Julia is an unwilling witness.

After the visually expressive "Hasta el viento tiene miedo" and the more character-driven "Vagabundo en la lluvia", Taboada crafts a horror film that showcases him as a more mature filmmaker and that could be seen as the spiritual offspring of those two previous ventures in the genre. "El Libro de Piedra" is subtle and slow, yet enormously atmospheric thanks to the remarkable work of cinematographer Ignacio Torres. Many scenes in the film take place outdoors in daylight, yet even when nature's color is a strong presence, Taboada keeps an unnerving tone of dread constantly through the film. In "El Libro de Piedra", the woods is where evil lives, as a wild force of nature that slowly enters the lives of the characters (pretty much akin to Jacques Tourneur's films, particularly 1957's "Night of the Demon"). As written above, the presence of Hugo in the story grows slow but consistently, and Taboada reflects this on the screen with subtle touches that, though apparently simple, become increasingly unsettling as the film progresses.

As a whole, the cast does a reasonably good job, though it certainly could had been much better. As the governess Julia, Marga López is simply terrific, leading the cast with a strong presence and developing her character with remarkable talent. López conveys a powerful mix of natural delivery and subtly repressed eroticism that adds a lot to her role as Julia, a woman who seems to have sacrificed many things in life to her dedication to educating children. Young Lucy Buj is exceptional as the emotionally withdrawn Silvia, delivering quite a strong performance for a child her age. Unfortunately, Joaquín Cordero feels wooden and stiff in the role of Silvia's cold father Eugenio, and truly feels uncomfortable in the role. Taboada's regular Norma Lazareno is also weak in her performance as Eugenio's new wife Mariana, overacting through the film, as if she was in a whole different tone than the rest of the cast (an oddity, given that she delivered some of her best performances in Taboada's films).

Perhaps the biggest problem of "El Libro de Piedra" is again, the low production values Taboada had for its making, which are even more notorious in this case than in his previous horror films. The art direction, the costume design and particularly the special effects departments look unfortunately cheap, and the overall result feels as if Taboada had been determined to tell the story as he wanted despite his limitations. And certainly, "El Libro de Piedra" is a way more ambitious film than his previous two, which is why these limitations are all the more notorious. Nevertheless, it is Taboada's determination and respect for his story and the horror genre what ultimately helps to overcome the flaws, as the strength of Taboada's vision manages to shine through the movie's flaws. Unlike his previous films, "El Libro de Piedra" is almost void of comic relief, and instead displays Taboada's desire for a truer Gothic horror film that reflected his vision of the genre: horror is supposed to be scary, and evil is supposed to be powerful.

Amongst the four films that make up Taboada's "Gothic cycle", this gem from the sixties is often considered as the best. In all fairness, "El Libro de Piedra"'s status is rightfully deserved, as despite the limitations, director Carlos Enrique Taboada constructs a powerful tragic story of Gothic horror that remains as disturbing as when initially released. Focusing more on the story and its characters, Taboada builds up an ominous atmosphere of dread and delivers in "El Libro de Piedra" a haunting film in which the horror does not come from what's seen, but from the unseen. From an evil hidden deep in the woods, in the stone, in the soul. Truly a classic, and a high point of Mexican horror cinema.


September 09, 2011

Vagabundo en la lluvia (1968)

Through the history of Mexican horror cinema, the name of director Carlos Enrique Taboada remains as one of the most renown filmmakers in the genre. And his reputation is well cemented on his famous Gothic horror cycle of four films: "Hasta el viento tiene miedo" (1968), "El Libro de Piedra" (1969), "Más negro que la noche" (1975) and "Veneno para las Hadas" (1984). While Taboada worked in a wide variety of genres, it was his work in the horror genre what made him famous. Nevertheless, there is more in Taboada's horror filmography than his tetralogy of supernatural horror; immediately after the production of "Hasta el viento tiene miedo", Taboada began working in another tale of horror and suspense for producer Raúl de Anda. Released barely a week after "Hasta el viento tiene miedo", the new movie was "Vagabundo en la lluvia", a horror tale on a quite different vein than his better known films. Void of the supernatural horror and closer in spirit to psychological thrillers, "Vagabundo en la lluvia" is one flick that certainly deserves to be better known.

In "Vagabundo en la lluvia" (literally "Vagabond in the Rain"), young socialité Angela (Christa Linder) sneaks away from a costume party and rushes to her husband's lakeside vacation house. Angela is nervous, her husband is in the U.S. and she is expecting a visit, though what she finds at her house is something else. She discovers that the back door has been forced and that someone has taken food from the kitchen. Scared, Angela gets her husband's rifle and begins to search the house, finally finding a mysterious drifter (Rodolfo de Anda) hiding in the wine cellar. The drifter only asks for food and wine, but Angela orders him to leave. It's raining outside, and he asks for some shelter, but Angela refuses, and the drifter leaves the house. When he is gone, Angela returns to her car to get some things and discovers that someone else is in the back seat. It turns out to be Monica (Ana Luisa Peluffo), a wealthy woman from the party who passed out in the wrong car. Later, the arrival of Raquel (Normal Lazareno) will change everything, and the vagabond waits outside in the rain.

Written by director Carlos Enrique Taboada himself, "Vagabundo en la lluvia" is at its core a piece of psychological horror with the basic premise of the three women trapped in an isolated place being hunted by the mysterious stranger who stalks them from the outside. However, Taboada takes the premise beyond and what is constructed is a powerful drama between the three women inside. The three are very different between them, and the clash of their points of view about love, ethics, and life in general make up for a powerfully interesting conflict between the three women. Taboada builds up such a set of very well-defined characters whose passions, grudges and motivations alone would make for a quite interesting thriller; but on top of that there is the horror element of the drifter outside, which acts like a catalyst in the already tense environment inside the house. Taboada balances both story lines with care, although certainly the intricate chain of secrets surrounding his three complex female characters at times overshadows the drifter's plot line.

As a director, Taboada keeps a slow, retrained rhythm during most part of the film, letting the mysteries unfold with each new revelation, and only increasing the pace as the plot unfolds. Playing with the genre, he seems to shift gears every time a character is introduced, enhancing suspense and tension in every plot twist. As in his Gothic horror films, Taboada showcases a masterful use of cinematic elements in his narrative, particularly sound and cinematography to create an ominous atmosphere of dread. Cinematographer Raúl Domínguez, former camera operator of many B-movies, actually makes an more than effective job in bringing to life Taboada's claustrophobic nightmare. If in "Hasta el viento tiene miedo" Taboada had as dominant element the wind, in "Vagabundo en la lluvia" the director employs the heavy rain of its title to great effect, using the rain to symbolize that dangerous force of nature that surrounds the women, the drifter. The film also contains a certain dose of eroticism, an element that Taboada knew how to handle well in horror films.

The cast is particularly good in "Vagabundo en la lluvia", or at least the three main characters. As the young housewife Angela, Austrian actress Christa Linder delivers a very good job, effectively carrying the film and making a convincing portrait of a troubled woman trying to survive. However, it is Ana Luisa Peluffo who steals the show as Mónica, in a role that could had been easily a stereotype, but that Peluffo transforms into a more vivid and real character. With perhaps the most interesting character of the film, Norma Lazareno delivers a terrific performance as Raquel, whose twisted sense of ethics is set to judge the lives of both Mónica and Angela. Without spoiling too much, I'll just mention that Lazareno makes of the rage inside of her character something more than an emotion, she makes it her role's personality. As the drifter, Rodolfo de Anda is perhaps the weakest link in the cast, as not only he seems miscast, he also plays the part in such a wooden, stiff fashion that seems almost uninterested in the film at all.

Perhaps it is because of this last thing that ultimately, the menace of the drifter outside seems to take the backseat as the conflict between the three women becomes more interesting. As a writer, Taboada was prone to experiment with genres and narrative structures, and in "Vagabundo en la lluvia" he makes one of his most interesting screenplays by having the whole horror setting to serve as frame for this clash of points of view. Through the film, Taboada seems to make a statement about social classes, with every character representing some of the most negative aspects of their social condition. And yet, even when probably none is entirely "good" in the classic sense, Taboada manages to make them truly sympathetic, as he exposes each character's side with equal degree of care. "Vagabundo en la lluvia" is less about jump scares, and more about getting drawn to the lives of its three main characters, three women from different walks in life that perhaps are not so different once the true nature of their personal struggles is shown.

The fact that the horror elements are downplayed in favor of the characters' personal drama may be one of the reasons behind the oblivion in which "Vagabundo en la lluvia" is. Nevertheless, while lesser known than Taboada's famous tetralogy of Gothic horror, this complex piece of psychological horror ranks easily amongst the best work produced by this legendary director. With its set of complex characters, heavy emphasis on psychological horror and ultimately raw realism, "Vagabundo en la lluvia" is a true rarity in Mexican horror cinema, so fond of supernatural or fantastical elements for its horror. However, Taboada succeeds in crafting a suspenseful film in which it's demonstrated that there was more in him than Gothic horror.


September 08, 2011

Hasta el viento tiene miedo (1968)

From its expressionist roots to the modern Asian-influenced movies, the history of Mexican horror cinema has had many ups and downs, and its relationship with the general public has been a troubled one to say the least. Often underestimated by both critics and audiences, this state of oblivion in which Mexican horror used to be resulted in many gems being forgotten or underrated. With one particular and quite outstanding exception: the work of director Carlos Enrique Taboada. Thanks to television, many generations of Mexicans were exposed to the two remarkable horror films that Taboada crafted during the 60s: "Hasta el viento tiene miedo" and "El Libro de Piedra", making them the first (and often only) exposure many had to the greatness of Mexican horror that was hidden behind the big amount of cheap wrestler films and schlocky science fiction movies. Released on 1968, "Hasta el viento tiene miedo" was the first horror film directed by Taboada, and the first in his thematic tetralogy of supernatural Gothic horror.

"Hasta el viento tiene miedo" (literally "Even the wind is afraid") takes place in a private all-girls boarding school, where young student Claudia (Alicia Bonet) begins to listen a mysterious female voice calling her in dreams, a voice that leads her to the school's clock tower. After one particularly frightening nightmare, Claudia's friends Kitty (Norma Lazareno), Ivetter (Renata Seydel), Liliana (Rita Marroquín), Marina (Irma Castillón) and Verónica (Lourdes Baledón) decide to enter the clock tower and discover what's inside. The tower is forbidden for students, but the six frightened girls enter anyways. Unfortunately for them, they are discovered by the strict headmistress Miss Bernarda (Marga López). Their punishment will be to remain at school during the summer, much to the displeasure of Kitty. And so, the gang remains in school with Miss Bernarda, the good-hearted teacher Lucía (Maricruz Olivier) and Josefina (Elizabeth Duperyón), a shy girl who prefers school to her troubled home. But the ghost still roams the place, and even the wind is afraid.

Long before writing "Haste el viento tiene miedo", Taboada had been a prolific author of serials and b-movies, many of them of the horror genre. However, while those films had a style akin to pulp fiction ("Orlak, el infierno de Frankenstein" and the "Nostradamus" films for example), in "Hasta el viento tiene miedo" Taboada takes a deeper, more serious approach to supernatural horror, closer in tone and structure to the Gothic literature of the 19th century. And so, classic elements of Gothic horror appear in the film, such as huge mansions in the dark, supernatural voices from the other world, vengeful ghosts, and a decidedly irreligious subtext. In "Hasta el viento tiene miedo", Taboada builds up a rich set of characters with remarkably well crafted dialogs that feel natural and appropriate, avoiding the artificial lines often given to teenage roles. However, the best thing about Taboada's screenplay is how it moves ambiguously creepy until the film's climatic turn of the screw, which paves the way for a superb finale.

However, the real magic of "Hasta el viento tiene miedo" lays on its craftsmanship, as Taboada achieves an ominous atmosphere of impending doom in every frame, that truly captures the very essence of the concept of "Gothic ghost story". Comparisons to Argento's "Suspiria" would be valid in terms of tone and atmosphere. Veteran cinematographer Agustín Jiménez achieves an ethereal atmosphere, giving life to Taboada's nightmare with a sobriety and class rarely seen in Mexican 60s cinema. In "Hasta el viento tiene miedo", Taboada unfolds the story with a slow pace, letting the mystery involve the characters, as the forces hidden in the school surround them. The wind blowing, as its title implies, plays an instrumental role in the overall effect, and tension is risen as the wind carries the words of the wailing ghost. And yet, the film is not without its soft side, and Taboada allows himself to explore the silliness, naiveté and cruelty of adolescence in several scenes that, while apparently trivial, actually serve to establish and strengthen the bond between the girls.

And of course, given that a lot of weight is placed on the building up of the characters, effective performances become important for the success of the film. Fortunately, "Hasta el viento tiene miedo" doesn't disappoint in this aspect, as the main roles are superbly played by the cast. As the hated headmistress Bernarda, actress Marga López showcases her strong presence and domain of the stage. López goes beyond the strict teacher stereotype and constructs a complex character who becomes the central piece of the film's climax. As her opposite, Maricruz Olivier plays the benevolent teacher Lucía with a touching subtlety that adds a lot of emphasis to the films' subtexts. Amongst the girls, Norma Lazareno is marvelous as the rebellious, stubborn Kitty, being the highlight of the young cast. As Claudia, Alicia Bonet is good, though certainly overshadowed by the imposing presence of Lazareno. The rest of the cast is just effective, and while a tad of hammy overacting can be felt at times, it's worthy to point out how natural the performances are for the most part.

Perhaps there is one exception, and that would be Elizabeth Duperyón's turn as the meek Josefina, whose performance is a bit weak, and fails to take advantage of the possibilities offered by her potentially interesting character. Nevertheless, perhaps the biggest problem "Hasta el viento tiene miedo" had was the low production values that Taboada had for its making. The evident limitations seem to hurt Taboada's ambitions, particularly when it comes to its location (everything looks and probably was done in a studio), though as written above, it is commendable the level of artistry that was achieved despite the obvious deficiencies. A highly idiosyncratic (though at times pretentious) author, Carlos Enrique Taboada was keen to include hidden subtexts in his works, and a film as personal as "Hasta el viento tiene miedo" is sure to have plenty. The most obvious one is the lesbian sexual innuendo that takes place in occasions, though Taboada handles the theme with great skill and ambiguity that it just adds to the overall tension felt through the film.

Perhaps the most famous Mexican horror film, "Hasta el viento tiene miedo" has remained popular amongst Mexican audiences through the years, and not just because of its exposition on TV. The reason of its fame is simply because it's a actually a remarkably good horror film by its own right. Owner of a haunting atmosphere, unforgettable characters and classy direction, Carlos Enrique Taboada's "Hasta el viento tiene miedo" is a superb introduction to the cream of the crop of Mexican horror cinema (the work of director Fernando Méndez would be a fitting next step). "Hasta el viento tiene miedo" was Taboada's first entry in his thematic tetralogy, which would be followed by the superior "El Libro de Piedra" (1969) and later "Más negro que la noche" (1975) and "Veneno para las Hadas" (1984). A Mexican Gothic classic.


September 07, 2011

Podslon (2010)

The fall of communism in Eastern Europe, beginning with the Revolutions of 1989, is certainly one of the most significant events of recent history. The most obvious effect of this event was the end of the Cold War and the final dissolution of the Soviet Union, however, it was not the only one, as it was only the beginning of deep and complex social changes in the European countries that abandoned communism, and the effects of those changes can still be felt today. Bulgaria was one of those countries, and the fall of Todor Zhivkov's regime brought a difficult time of poor economic growth. More than 20 years after the end of communism, life is certainly different now, and this difference often leads to a difficult communication between the old and the new generations of Bulgarians. This topic is tackled by director Dragormir Sholov in his debut film "подслон " or "Podslon", a black comedy penned by Sholov himself along Dutch writer Melissa de Raaf and one of the stars of the "Romanian New Wave": Razvan Radulescu (of "Moartea domnului Lazarescu" fame).

In "Podslon" (literally "Shelter"), Tzvetan Daskalov plays Emil Stoychev, a water-polo coach who arrives home one morning after an away game only to find out that his 12 years old son Radostin (Kaloian Siriiski) is lost. His wife (Yanina Kasheva) informs him that Radostin went to a party two days ago and never returned. Alarmed by this, the Stoychevs report the case to the police, and when they return home from the police station, they find Radostin in his room, but he is not alone: a young punk girl who calls herself Courtney (Silvia Gerina) is taking a shower. Emil is shocked and angry about Radostin's notorious lack of interest in explaining his disappearance, but his mother, confused by the disappearance but happy to see her son back, decides that the best thing would be to prepare a family meal. To this chaos enters Tenx (Irena Hristoskova in a male role), Radostin's new punk friend, sporting a Mohawk and a great disdain for every symbol of authority (including Emil's). The Stoychev family will never be the same after having meal with Radostin's new friends.

As written above, the screenplay for "Podslon" is the result of a collaborative work between Melissa de Raaf, Razvan Radulescu and director Dragomir Sholov himself. Partially autobiographical, Sholov builds up a sharp black comedy that plays with the often abysmal differences between generations of Bulgarians, and specially, the lack of communication between them. In fact, lack of communication in general seems to be the film's main topic, as in "Podslon" it goes beyond affecting just different generations, but also tackles lack of communication between different social classes and even between male and female. Centered around the five characters, "Podslon" centers its comedy on the inability of everyone to listen to each other, and the unavoidable brutal clash of everyone's conflicting points of view. To this effect, the dialog owns a naturalness so vivid that gifts the film's with a great degree of verisimilitude. Divided in three "episodes" full of irony and an apparently bleakness, "Podslon" has a certain dry optimism subtly hidden in its anarchic chaos.

After a career crafting commercial and music videos, director Dragomir Sholov debuts in "Podslon" with a highly dynamic visual style that suits nicely the film's tone. Following his characters through the apartment in long fluid takes, Sholov gives "Podslon" a sleek visual narrative and achieves an almost intimate look at the lives of the Stoychevs, and succeeds in avoiding to have his film trapped in a stagebound atmosphere. This is instrumental, as given its screenplay, "Podslon" could had easily ended up looking like a taped play; instead, Sholov manages to use the work of cinematography by Krum Rodriguez as a voyeuristic intruder to the family's conflict, floating smoothly through the apartment, with carefully devised movements in which fortunately, Sholov avoids the temptation of the frenetic overuse of steady-cam. With one notable exception: the meal's scene, where the two couples (Radostin's parents and his punk friends) gather at the table to eat and discuss, as if Radostin's loyalty was the prize to win.

Given that the focus is on its characters, the actors' performances become an decisive element in "Podslon". Fortunately, the main cast delivers a remarkable work of acting, that's easily the best thing about the film. As the angry patriarch Emil Stoychev, Tzvetan Daskalov is a strong presence that can easily be both sympathetic and ridiculous. Daskalov gives his character a certain dignity and melancholy that can't help but imagine him (as punk Tenx does) as a tired and sad authority figure. A remarkable performance indeed, and equally remarkable is the one by actress Irena Hristoskova as the intransigent punk Tenx. Playing a male role, Irena captures the complex mix of angst, indifference and carefree attitude that her anarchic character displays. Tenx claims to not care about anything, though Irina manages to transmit that deep down, he does. Yanina Kasheva is quite funny in her role as Radostin's mother, whose way to cope with the conflict is trying to win back her son by inviting his punk friends to eat. Her scenes at the computer are great.

The rest of the cast is good, though nowhere near Dasakalov, Hristoskova or Kasheva. Silvia Gerina has occasional shining moments, though he role gets overshadowed once Tenx arrives to the apartment. Young actor Kaloian Siriinski, playing Radostin, also has several good moments, though most of the times he doesn't stand on the same level of his fellow castmates, though the potential for great things is certainly there. And that's maybe the same that could be said about Dragomir Sholov's debut "Podslon": has several great moments of brilliance, but fails to keep consistently on that level, though for a debut film, it truly showcases Sholov's potential to achieve greatness. "Podslon" is stylish, but often gets lost in its visual narrative style, as if it was digressing instead of directly making a point. Certainly, the comedy is there, and for the most part it works. Sholov's collaboration with de Raaf and Radulescu results in an often poignant story that despite its bleakness, keeps that naive view of life that a 12 years old kid still has.

Despite its problems, "Podslon", or "Shelter", is a remarkable and very entertaining film, and a more than terrific debut for Bulgarian filmmaker Dragomir Sholov. Giving a glimpse about life in post-communism Bulgaria, and perhaps most importantly, about out very human difficulties to communicate (or better said, to relate) with each other, it's truly a film with a lot of heart in it. Bleak, anarchic, and to a certain extent angsty, "Podslon" also has a soft side, and oddly optimistic, though dry view of life. As one lovely scene with Yanina Kesheva implies, there may be a great lack of communication in every family, but there is also the willpower to attempt to overcome it. Sometimes it'll succeed, sometimes it won't, but such is life.


September 06, 2011

The Stepford Wives (1975)

American playwright and novelist Ira Levin earned himself a place of honor in the pantheon of the horror genre when in 1967, his novel "Rosemary's Baby" was published. Masterfully made into a film by director Roman Polanski in 1968, this story of modern day Satanism is now forever engraved in the collective conscious as a classic of horror, and of cinema in general. However, there was more in Ira Levin than just "Rosemary's Baby", and the early seventies, the author returned to horror with the novel "The Stepford Wives". While again telling the story of a young woman facing a dangerous conspiracy that surrounds her world, and again exploring the sensations of loneliness and paranoia; the tone that Levin used in "The Stepford Wives" was one more of a satire than mystery, though not less horrific. As in the case of "Rosemary's Baby", soon there were talks of making Levin's new thriller a movie, and the man set to helm it was British filmmaker Bryan Forbes, fresh from the success of his romance drama "The Raging Moon".

"The Stepford Wives" revolves around Joanna (Katherine Ross) and Walter Eberhart (Peter Masterson), a young couple from New York City, who move to the Connecticut suburb of Stepford, hoping for a new life in a calm environment. Joanna, an aspiring photographer and free spirit, finds herself at odds with the neighborhood, as most of the Stepford wives are submissive, docile and servile women dedicated solely to keep everything perfect, while their husbands spend most of the time at the Stepford Men's Association. Nevertheless, Joanna finds a kindred spirit in Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss), another newcomer to Stepford who seems as out of place there as Joanna. Together they join trophy wife Charmaine Wimperis (Tina Louise of "Gilligan's Island" fame) and create a women's association, though to their dismay, all that the Stepford wives discuss are trivial and shallow activities. When Charmain suddenly appears transformed into a "perfect housewife" in the Stepfrod way, Joanna and Bobbie decide that something is seriously wrong with the town of Stepford.

Adapted to the screen by novelist and scriptwriter William Goldlman (though Forbes rewrote a lot of the material himself), "The Stepford Wives" is an interesting mix of horror and science fiction that explores genre conflict in a satirical, yet still haunting way. Like the novel, the film showcases a liberal woman being trapped in a dystopian world where a chauvinist idealization of the concept of "perfect housewife" is the norm. Written at a time when women's liberation was seeing the first fruits of the movement, "The Stepford Wives" is a powerful reflection of the social issues of its time, as a sharp criticism to the still-implicit chauvinism of the era, and the idea of subservient women dedicated to please the husband. As a horror thriller, "The Stepford Wives" is a marvelously conceived tale of conspiracy and paranoia. Like in "Rosemary's Baby", paranoia plays a key role, though Joanna is a very different character than Rosemary. Stronger and less passive, her role perfectly defines the film's theme: a firm stand against conformism.

In "The Stepford Wives", director Bryan Forbes builds up a thriller that twists the idea of the perfectly beautiful suburban environment and transforms it into a nightmarish place. And interestingly, to achieve this horror atmosphere Forbes doesn't use the traditional elements of scary movies: there is no decay nor darkness in Stepford, but sunshine and perfection. And Forbes takes this homely perfection to a grotesque exaggeration that ultimately makes it creepy, disturbing and unnerving. With this increased emphasis on the suburban theme, Forbes makes his Stepford take another subtext beyond its gender conflict, it becomes a tale of oppressive conservative values against the liberated individual. This subtext increases the sensation of paranoia, perfectly achieved by Forbes carefully constructed narrative as Joanna finds herself alone struggling against an evil that seems greater than herself. The film's pace is slow, yet never tiring, unfolding the plot with care as the secrets of Stepford begin to bare their teeth.

The acting is for the most part pretty effective, though not without its shortcomings. Leading the cast is Katharine Ross, playing Joanna Eberhart, the young woman in the middle of the conspiracy. As Joanna, Katharine showcases a strong presence that allows her to carry the film without problem. With a natural beauty and great charm, Ross skillfully portrays the strong willed Joanna as a modern everywoman: intelligent, inquisitive, witty and sexy. Nevertheless, the highlight of the film is Nanette Newman's performance as Carol, the archetypal Stepford wife. It is in Newman's character where the satire of the film is most perfectly conveyed, with her Carol being a caricature of the idealized perfect housewife. Newman's character, in all her exaggeratedly perfect sunshine happiness, goes from oddly annoying to bizarrely creepy through the development of the film. As Joanna's friend Bobbie, Paula Prentiss is a tad less successful, though not really bad, she just simply pales in comparison to Ross and Newman.

The male side of the cast is considerably less successful in their performances. Granted, their screen time is minor, but that's not a justification. Peter Masterson is the worst offender, and it's a shame given that his is the main male role in the film. His performance is weak and uninspired, and pales in comparison with Ross, who plays his wife. A slightly bigger problem than the male cast is perhaps the sad fact that "The Stepford Wives" has not aged well with time. The production design and Owen Roizman's work of cinematography (bright, and with a slightly excessive use of soft focus) feel so decidedly 70s that has left the film as basically a product of its time. Nevetrheless, despite this "The Stepford Wives" remains a quirky piece of horror and science fiction that, even when its twist ending is probably too well known by now, it's still a haunting tale of conspiracies that also toys with interesting themes regarding gender equality. Interestingly, Forbes (and Levin's) satiric point seems to still be grossly misunderstood.

In its initial conception, Ira Levin (and scriptwriter Goldman) had envisioned the Stepford wives as a more sexualized concept (akin to Playboy bunnies). Forbes decision of changing the concept towards the idealization of housewives that was common in the more conservative 1950s brought the film closer to suburban horror, and ultimately gave the film an edgier social commentary, considering the women's liberation and gender equality movements that had took place in the 60s and 70s (against what several critics have pointed out, it can be argued that "The Stepford Wives" is pro-feminist. Of course, within the constrains of its genre). While far from a milestone of the genre, Bryan Forbes' adaptation of Ira Levin's classic "The Stepford Wives" is still a quite interesting and offbeat entry in the horror genre.


September 02, 2011

Le pacte des loups (2001)

The Beast of Gévaudan is the name of a legendary creature that, according to history, terrorized the former province of Gévaudan, France, killing nearly 100 people from 1764 to 1767. The mysterious Beast was described as a huge wolf-like creature with reddish tinge and a long tail, gifted with sharp teeth and jaws powerful enough to crush and remove the heads of its victims; and the Beast was said to prefer humans over other preys. Many attempts of hunting the beast were organized, all without luck, until according to tradition, a local hunter killed the Beast. Since the origin of the Beast was never completely cleared (and the story of its death has more the tone of legend instead of history), the monster quickly became the source of many rumors, legends and conspiracy theories. The legendary Beast soon became part of folklore and subsequently has appeared in numerous works of fiction. Director Christophe Gans' film "Le pacte des loups" is one of them, a modern retelling of the legend of la Bête du Gévaudan.

"Le pacte des loups" (literally "The pact of the wolves", but known in English as "Brotherhood of the Wolf") is the story of Grégoire De Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan), the royal taxidermist of King Louis XV of France, who is sent to Gévaudan with his Native American friend Mani (Mark Dacascos), in an attempt to capture and study the Beast that has been terrorizing the people of Gévaudan. A skeptic of the stories about the Beast, Fronsac prefers to dedicate his efforts to romance Marianne De Morangais (Émilie Dequenne), much to the displeasure of Marianne's brother Jean-François (Vincent Cassel); however, as the killings continue happening, Fronsac begins to take his assignation more seriously, though he concludes that no normal wolf could be the responsible of the attacks. Is it a werewolf? Is it a demon?. As the story of Gévaudan reaches Paris, it begins to get used to mock the King, so the Government demands Fronsac a quick solution to the Beast problem. Soon Fronsac and Mani discover clues that point out to something bigger than any Beast they have met before.

The story of the film was written by Stéphane Cabel and Christophe Gans himself, and while it is an entirely fictional story built around the case, the plot follows somewhat closely the recorded history of the Beast's legend, particularly the one recorded on Michel Louis' book "L'Innocence des loups". Cabel and Gans' screenplay is a highly energetic mix of period drama, mystery and adventure under an ever present theme of horror. All in all being pretty much like an updated version of the period films that the legendary Hammer Films used to produce during the 60s and 70s ("Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter" comes to mind). One should not expect a rigorous historical accuracy in "Le pacte des loups", as the film works as a historical fantasy more concerned about delivering stylish entertainment than a history lesson. Filled with intrigue, secrets and conspiracy theories, the plot at times gets a bit too confusing for its own good, and Cabel and Gans' attempt to build up a complicated mystery ends up leaving some noticeable plot holes that ultimately hurt the film a bit.

As written above, despite its convoluted storyline, "Le pacte des loups" is ultimately all about style over substance, and director Christophe Gans follows this approach displaying an amazing, fresh and vibrant visual narrative with a style that's both exciting and ominously atmospheric. In "Le pacte des loups", Gans mixes Gothic horror with the action of martial arts films, a combination that may sound odd for a film set on 18th century France, however, it actually works surprisingly well despite its obviously anachronism. Part of the success of this atypical combination is due to the sumptuous work by production designer Guy-Claude François, whom brings to life Gans vision with a sharp eye for detail. Danish cinematographer Dan Laustsen is also integral part of the lavish look the film has, as the seasoned photographer creates a colorful, yet undoubtedly Gothic visual imagery of a haunting beauty and ominous atmosphere. In a manner similar to director Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow", Christophe Gans resurrects the Gothic horror adventures with very good results.

French actor Samuel Le Bihan takes the lead role and gives life to taxidermist Grégorie De Fronsac, making of the role the portrait of an 18th century libertine. As Fronsac, Le Bihan is charming and witty, although his role is not a character without flaws, and Le Bihan gives his character enough emotional depth to avoid the simple caricature. Mark Dacascos plays Fronsac's best friend, the Iroquois Indian Mani, who unlike Fronsac, is of a very focused and responsible nature. Known mainly for his action films, Dacascos shows a surprising dramatic talent that coupled with his strong presence, allows him to steal the scene anytime he's on screen (Gans previously worked with him in the underrated "Crying Freeman"). Émilie Dequenne plays Marianne, Fronsac's love interest, though her weak performance makes her being often overshadowed by other members of the cast. The film's highlight is Vincent Cassel, as the bizarre Jean-François De Morangias, who creates an interesting and complex character where he can allow himself to go appropriately over-the-top.

An odd beast in its anachronism and mixture of genres, "Le pacte des loups" is an ambitious exercise, but one that ultimately succeeds in creating a captivating tale of mystery and intrigue. Closer to comic books and pulp fiction than to historical fiction, "Le pacte des loups" is a remarkable story of Gothic adventures that feels slick, stylish, and despite its Hollywood vibe, remains distinctively French. Nevertheless, as wonderful as it is, the movie is not without flaws, some related to the script itself. As mentioned before, Cabel and Gans craft a convoluted plot for the mystery, however, the last third of the film feels rushed and simplistic, as if they had not been forced to give a quick solution to their already too long story. It is a bit of a letdown after the strong built up of the first two thirds. Another quibble is the poor work of CG effects that the movie has, which are definitely not up to the standards set by the rest of the production, and cheapen an otherwise lavish visual style.

Director Christophe Gans has created in "Le pacte des loups" an enjoyable genre piece that is actually very good in its own terms. Against all odds, the fusion of Gothic horror, detective fiction and martial arts films works out seamlessly, and the result is a fresh and inventive tale of horror and adventure that's ultimately satisfying. While "Le pacte des loups" is certainly not a redefinition of cinema or its genres, it is a thrilling adventure that fully delivers good entertainment. Like the movies by Hammer Films used to do in their heyday, "Le Pacte Des Loups", or "Brotherhood of the Wolf", is a full fledged roller-coaster of action and horror. In "Le pacte des loups" director Christophe Gans brings back the sense of awe that used to be part of adventure films.