Tuesday, July 13, 2010

ALUCARDA (1975) SEEKS TO MESS WITH YOUR MIND. Director Juan Lopez Moctezuma was part of the "new wave" of Mexican directors following in the wake of Alejandro Jodorowski et. al. who specialized in what they liked to call "Panic" cinema; that is, putting enough raw, confrontational emotion up on the screen as to break down the audience's staid reactions. ALUCARDA goes a fair distance towards this goal. However, the well-known quote about the film from Psychotronic's Michael Weldon that the film has "more blood, loud screaming and nudity than any horror film I can think of" is actually quite misleading since it makes one think the film is a trashy exploitation sleazefest when actually it's a quite artfully made trashy exploitation sleazefest. The blood, while there is a lot of it, never became gory and the screaming, while there is also a lot of it, somehow wasn't as annoying as it usually is to me. Perhaps it has something to do with the images on the screen (which were almost lovingly shot by cinematographer Xavier Cruz) or the gothic, very organic sets (nightmarishly realized by Kleomenes Stamatiades). At times, ALUCARDA plays like the bastard child of Jesus Franco and Luis Bunuel. And as for the nudity? Well . . . yeah, there's plenty of that.
ALUCARDA surprised me first of all by not being a vampire film. Despite the "Dracula-spelled-backwards" title and the "story" credit from J. Sheridan LeFanu's "Carmilla", I'd be hard-pressed to point to more than a moment or two in the film where anything "vampiric" seems to be happening. Once or twice, maybe, but most of the film is a "Satanic possession"-type movie; evidence of this being that ALUCARDA is most often compared with Ken Russell's "THE DEVILS" and William Friedkin's "THE EXORCIST". While there are strong parallels with both films, there is also more than a passing resemblance to Brian DePalma's "CARRIE". Lead actress Tina Romero (who plays Alucarda) looks very much like the bastard child of Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. (There's a lot of bastards running around this review, isn't there?). Of course, this similarity is quite interesting since ALUCARDA was made a year before DePalma's film; and knowing DePalma's propensity for . . . I believe the word he uses is "homage" . . . I'd be quite interested to know whether the American director saw this Mexican film before making CARRIE. Be that as it may, ALUCARDA concerns a young lady named Justine (Susana Kamini) who comes to a crumbling gothic convent upon the death of her parents. The nuns who run this convent are dressed in no habits you've ever seen; they resemble nothing less than ecclesiastical mummies whose wrapping have strange pinkish "tie-dye" effects which darken progessively throughout the film until they look quite like blood-splashes. The overly-helpful Sister Angelica (played with subliminal lesbian coding by Tina French) escorts the girl to her room/cell and leaves her with the promise that she can come to her with any of her needs. No sooner does Sister Angelica depart than Alucarda appears in the room. The word "appears" is deliberate because, in the first stunning shot of the film, Alucarda seems to coalesce behind Justine as if a shadow has suddenly taken concrete form. This immediately leads us to suspect that Alucarda is no ordinary girl. In a pre-credit sequence, Alucarda's mother (also played by Tina Romero) gives birth in a barn midwifed by a goatish shepherd. Is the baby's father Satan himself? We are never clued in to her father's identity but the hint is there. Before any time at all, Justine and Alucarda are as close as sisters . . . on the way to becoming even closer. An encounter with the self-same goatish shepherd/magic charm vendor leads the girls into devotion to the devil before one can say "teen spirit". The goaty-guy presides over a nude lesbian scene in which he pierces each girl's breast and feeds the blood to the other. Things quickly spiral towards an all-out satanic orgy (in which the horned one makes his customary appearance). Before long, the two girls are shouting "Praise Satan" in religious classes and tempting a monk with some rumpy-pumpy.
Now, the interesting thing about this film is that we have been shown that Alucarda and now Justine are absolutely worshipping Satan here. However, the following sequence in which both girls are strapped to a cross and subjected to the "ordeal" of the church are so distasteful that we actually root for the Satan-worshipping teens. The anti-clericalism of Moctezuma's film is quite evident; however it's still not that simple because, however much we dislike the self-flagellating nuns and seemingly fanatical monk, the conclusion of the film shows us that they were, in fact, right all along. Claudio Brook's man of science Dr. Oszek bursts in and breaks up this distasteful "religious ritual" and berates them for their medieval torture methods; however after his blind daughter is threatened by Alucarda he quickly backs God's team. Incidentally, another interesting casting choice is that Claudio Brook's also plays the goatish shepherd role as well. Twinning is an ongoing theme in the film with these two double castings as well as the remarkable two red bugs examined by the girls as Alucarda remarks that she and Justine are "alike" as well. Justine, after having been strapped naked to a cross and punctured with knives to find the devil's mark, dies; however, she doesn't stay dead. This is the second instance of vampiric activity in the film (after the nude breast blood party). Towards the film's climax, another of the countless stunning visuals occurs when Sister Angelica opens a coffin to find Justine's animate corpse rising from a literal bath of blood. The film's climax offers plenty of action including Justine biting a chunk out of Sister Angelica's neck, Dr. Oszek splashing Justine with holy water and a very Carrie-esque Alucarda smiting the nuns with fire and brimstone as she mouths the various names of the Devil.
As I've said, ALUCARDA has a sumptuous look (helped indeed by Mondo Macabro's dvd struck from the original negative). The crumbling convent looks as though it literally grew out of the earth and another building is draped with red cloth from every window. The main prayer/teaching room in the convent features a back wall sunken in shadows with vague carved figures (including the crucified Christ -- actually it looks like a MULTITUDE of crucified Christs) hanging as if leviating behind a sea of lighted candles. Actually, this scene looks very much like Tintoretto's painting of the last supper (which had hosts of ghostly angels hovering above as if composed of smoke from the candles). Compare them, children, and you just see if they don't!
Moctezuma does not go overboard towards surrealism but uses it sparingly in service to the film. The same cannot be said for his first film THE MANSION OF MADNESS (based on the Edgar Allan Poe story "The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether") which is something of an incoherent mess with flashes. The director's anticlericalism is pronounced but, as I've said, is undermined by the director's making the point that the church, however distasteful, was actually right all along. Also in contrast to THE MANSION OF MADNESS, ALUCARDA moves along at a fairly nice clip with very few draggy stretches; the earlier film was almost nothing BUT draggy stretches. The final image in the film -- the life-sized Christ on the cross enveloped in flames -- is a suitably enigmatic visual which can be read several different ways. All in all, ALUCARDA was something of a pleasant surprise: offering much more than I expected. A little too arty to be exploitation and a little too exploitative to be a critic's darling, ALUCARDA made little money or impact upon it's initial release and critics virtually ignored it. In recent years, however, it's becoming something of a cult film. Whatever ALUCARDA is, though, it's certainly an interesting and thought-provoking experience.


Weaverman said...

Those Catholics have all the fun!
Twenty years in the Church of England and all we get is tea and biscuits after the service!

They call me Mr. Cheeks said...


Cerpts said...

Ahhh, the vast spectrum of my readers has been demonstrated.

They call me Mr. Cheeks said...

Dat's wut I taut too!