This coming Friday is Cinco de Mayo (Spanish for “5th of May”). The holiday originated as a celebration over the Mexican army winning an unlikely battle against the French on May 5th, 1862. According to Wikipedia, “In the United States, Cinco de Mayo has taken on a significance beyond that in Mexico. In the U.S. the date has become associated with the celebration of Mexican-American culture.” As horror fans we’re always looking for special occasions to dust off some old classics and celebrate. Who among us doesn’t watch Halloween every October or Silent Night, Deadly Night or Black Christmas come December 25th? Well, in honor of Cinco de Mayo I’ve gathered up 5 under-celebrated Mexican horror films for you to enjoy as you kick back and begin polishing off that pitcher of margarita.
‘Cemetery of Terror’ (1985)
Original Title: Cementerio del terror
Directed by Rubén Galindo Jr., Cemetery of Terror is a uber low budget affair. The story takes place on Halloween night and plays like a mashup of John Carpenter’s classic with dashes of Evil Dead and George Romero’s filmography thrown in for good measure. It centers around a satanic psycho who is gunned down by the police. His doctor is convinced the man isn’t truly dead and as soon as you can say “Dr. Loomis”, he’s off to make sure the crazed killer is put down for good. And wouldn’t you know it? A group of randy teens decide it’d be a fun Halloween prank to smuggle a corpse out of the local morgue. Which one do you think they choose?
Things escalate quickly as the kids wind up at a creepy old house and come into possession of a creepy old book and chant some creepy old words that manage to reanimate the hulking creeper. Multiple murder is on the menu for the evening and director, Galindo (remember that name for later), delivers a fast paced, gory effects laden thrill ride. The plot quickly progresses from unstoppable Michael Myers-esque stalk n’ slash to hordes of the living dead rising from their graves to join in on the carnage. Cemetery of Terror is the perfect silly B movie to enjoy with a group of friends.
Original Title: Alucarda, la hija de las tinieblas
A hysterical performance from Tina Romero in the title role of Alucarda (film pictured at the top of the article) helps elevate this tale of demonic possession taking control of a convent in the 1800’s. Alucarda is born under dire circumstances, orphaned, and sent to live under the care of nuns with a penchant for self-flagellation. There she meets the alluring Justine. They’re instantly drawn together and become inseparable, eventually bonding themselves to one another…and Satan, of course. Alucarda’s mission is simple: corrupt and destroy as many souls for “her master” as possible.
The film is certainly not for everyone. Despite overflowing with buckets of blood, nudity, and a general sense of unease, the film does slightly overstay its brief 75-minute runtime. Alucarda remains worth seeking out for fans of 70’s satanic panic films. The production design of the cavernous monastery is a gothic masterpiece. The demonic sound design of otherworldly growls and moans create a pervasive sense of unease, while certain images are bold enough to linger in one’s brain long after the credits have rolled. Ultimately with subject matter ranging from religious hysterics, science vs faith, and lesbianism, it’s easy to see how this film has carved itself a place in Mexican cult movie history.
Guillermo del Toro is most certainly not an “under-celebrated” name. The Mexican director has been behind the camera for some of the biggest (Blade 2, Hellboy) and best (Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak) genre films of the past 20 years. I’d easily place him in my top 5 favorite directors of all time and hands down my most favorite modern director. His first feature film, Cronos, still lacks the audience it truly deserves, however. If you’ve ever enjoyed any of the master’s work, I implore you to seek this film out. You won’t be disappointed.
In true del Toro fashion, Cronos is a dark modern day fairy tale that deals with love, loss, and vampirism. Most of the stylistic traits we’ve become accustomed to can be traced back to this debut. The cinematography, story, production design are authentically del Toro. The film even marked the first time the director would work with frequent collaborator, Ron Perlman. In order to bring his vision to life, del Toro actually created his own special effects company as he felt there was no other shop in Mexico that can handle what he’d envisioned. His thumbprint is on every frame of this movie.
The story revolves around the “Cronos device”, a golden mechanical beetle-thing that has the ability to grant its owner youth and eternal life. It’s sting, naturally, comes with a few adverse side effects as well. An aging antique dealer and his granddaughter are roped into its bloody path and discover there are those who will stop at nothing to make the Cronos their own. It truly is one of the best films, not just of del Toro’s filmography – but in general. Seek out the splendid Criterion release pronto.
‘The Witch’s Mirror’ (1962)
Original Title: El Espejo de la bruja
The Witch’s Mirror is a lost classic that went fairly unknown until a stellar release on DVD several years ago brought it into the light. Thankfully, cinephiles were able to finally discover this gem and relish in its bizarre delights. The tale is similar to that of Eyes Without a Face but with a supernatural twist. A witch concerned her god-daughter may be harmed by her conniving scientist husband, enchants a mirror to protect her. The louse eventually gets away with murder only to pay the consequences much later.
When his newer, younger bride becomes terribly burned in a fire, the mad doctor sets about grafting new skin on her body with parts stolen from the dead. Things don’t go so well from there as the witch begins aiding the ghost of the man’s dead wife in seeking revenge on the newly married couple. The film is a delightful gothic horror that brings to mind the stylish early work of Mario Bava. Despite being filmed in 1960 and not released until 63′, The Witch’s Mirror is surprisingly gory with some truly inventive effects work for the time.
‘Grave Robbers’ (1989)
Original Title: Ladrones de tumbas
Rubén Galindo Jr.’s third horror film (the second being the Nightmare on Elm Street riff, Don’t Panic) is very much in the same vein as Cemetery of Terror. Instead of Halloween and Evil Dead, we basically get Galindo’s Jason Voorhees, except way more insane than anything the Crystal Lake stalker ever accomplished. Grave Robbers opens with a group of punks out to make a quick buck by ransacking an ancient tomb. They accidentally awaken another satanic madman (this one’s a monk) with more than just death on his mind.
This film is wild! There are some truly jaw-dropping effects as the killer proves he’s not simply beholden to swinging his giant, jewel-encrusted axe to slay teens. This really is one of the best little-known slashers of the 80’s. What’s even better is for those completist out there wanting to track it down, it’s available on DVD as a double bill with none other than Cemetery of Terror! Have I helped plan your Friday night or what?!
What are some of your favorite horror flicks from south of the border? Sound off below! Be safe and have yourself a happy Cinco de Mayo!