I love movies. I’ve loved them for as long as I can remember. But I don’t think I necessarily qualify as a “cinephile” as the term might be used in polite company. My love is profligate rather than judicious – I’ll watch almost anything and try to find something in it that appeals to me. Back in the days when there were a lot of theatres within easy reach, before the multiplexing of exhibition when the same few movies would show up on dozens of screens, back when each theatre offered something different, I’d go two, three, five or more times a week. I’d see three- or four-hundred movies a year on the big screen. And many more on television.
Then, as home video expanded and theatres closed and multiplexes mostly offered blockbusters, the majority of my viewing shifted from public to private and choices changed – as more movies were released on tape (then disk), the range of what was available expanded far beyond what even a dozen or more theatres with shows changing every week or two had been able to offer. By the early ‘oughts I was watching five- or six-hundred movies a year. I couldn’t keep up; my passion was exhausting me, but somehow I just became greedier, scouring store shelves (sadly, no longer an option – the last remaining store easily accessible to me closed the last weekend in March) and increasingly the internet for new releases of movies I’d never heard of or ones I’d seen years ago and remembered.
And so my collection expanded to ridiculous extremes – I long ago ran out of shelf space and now there are piles on every flat surface in my apartment – and my greed remains undiminished. But nothing satisfies me more these days than a box set devoted to some filmmaker I’d never heard of, whose work I can binge immediately rather than waiting perhaps years until the next movie comes along. My latest discovery is a Mexican director named Carlos Enrique Taboada, whose screenwriting career lasted from the mid-’50s until his death in 1997, after which there were a number of remakes based on his scripts (IMDb lists his last credit as 2014), and who turned to directing in the mid-’60s, with nineteen credits up to 1989. It turns out that, although I thought he was completely unknown to me, I had actually seen at least one film he co-wrote, Chano Urueta’s The Witch’s Mirror (1962).
Although the Vinegar Syndrome set is titled Mexican Gothic: The Films of Carlos Enrique Taboada, only two of the three features can legitimately be called horror, although the third is a grimly intense drama of race and class loaded with violence and despair. The latter gets a disk to itself, plus the set’s three brief extras, while the two horror movies share a disk.
The earliest film in the set, Rapiña (1975) is set in a small village where impoverished peasants struggle to survive in ways which haven’t changed in possibly centuries. Every day, indigenous wood-cutter Porfirio (Ignacio López Tarso) leaves the hovel in which he lives with his pregnant wife Rita (Rosenda Monteros) to climb the mountain with his friend Evodio (Germán Robles, who began his career in the very different role of elegant vampire Count Lavud in a pair of movies by Fernando Méndez). Together they cut down trees, split the wood and make bundles which they load onto their weary mules to carry to market. It’s a physically brutal existence and Porfirio is becoming bitter.
When he goes into the village to seek the local doctor’s help for his ailing father, he overhears the doctor (Enrique Pontón ) talking to the new teacher about what a dead end this place is, the people little more than mindless animals. Porfirio doesn’t want his own child to be born into this. By coincidence, one day he’s up on the mountain alone when he sees a plane crash on a ridge above him. After a moment’s hesitation, he makes the precarious climb and finds a grim sight – the plane broken apart and dead, broken bodies scattered among the rocks and scrub. These people, by definition wealthy beyond his dreams (they could afford to fly after all), seem to offer the solution to all his problems.
He returns home and tells Rita about the crash. It seems that no one yet knows where the plane went down and he proposes that he and Evodio return to the site and take as much as they can carry, intending to sell the loot and escape once and for all to the city with their newfound wealth. With his limited experience and naive view of the world, he can’t see any flaws in his plan and he manages to convince his wife, his friend and his friend’s wife Fina (Norma Lazareno) to go along with him. Everything that follows has a bleak inevitability, with echoes of The Treasure of Sierra Madre; Porfirio’s single-minded pursuit of a way to escape his limitations runs up against forces which seem to conspire to keep him in his place.
Things quickly go wrong while he and Evodio are gathering together a pile of luggage and valuables at the site. A pair of charcoal burners from the other side of the mountain show up, having also seen the plane go down. Distrust is immediate, each pair suspicious of the other and resentful of the idea of splitting the booty. With mules weighed down, they begin their descent together, stopping to camp as night falls, though afraid to sleep. At dawn, Porfirio kills the other men, shocking Evodio. Now with four mules, they make their way to a cave where they stow everything to be collected later.
The authorities, meanwhile, have located the crash site and begin to gather all the dead, not immediately aware that the wreck has been looted. But then the bodies of the two charcoal burners are found and the police quickly deduce what has happened. Porfirio and Evodio return to the cave and take some items with them to the nearest sizable town where they try to sell them. This isn’t as simple as they thought; they have no receipts to confirm ownership, making shopkeepers suspicious – because these items are likely stolen, they’re offered very little money for them and they retreat to rethink the plan.
The village is now full of police and with time running out, Porfirio, Evodio and their wives return to the cave and load up with as much as their mules can carry; they’ll cross the mountain and head for the city, a place so large they’ll surely be able to sell what they’ve stolen and establish new lives with all the money. But the journey is hard, water is short, and Rita is close to term and finding it increasingly difficult to maintain the pace Porfirio insists on. As they start across the desert – with the police, who have established their identities, closing in – Porfirio goes full Fred C. Dobbs, succumbing to paranoia and violent distrust. The bonds of friendship, family and community which gave their harsh life a sustaining structure have vanished, to be replaced solely by the illusory wealth of the stolen goods. Shaped by that harsh life, he’s destroyed by the promise of escape.
As bleak as the film is as a depiction of lives crippled by economic limitations, it’s beautifully shot by cinematographer José Ortiz Ramos, who captures with sensitivity both rugged landscapes and faces. As important is Taboada’s work with his cast. Ignacio López Tarso is superb as Porfirio, eliciting sympathy as he dreams of something better and somehow maintaining a connection with the viewer even as that dream leads him to increasingly dark and violent places; we understand why he does the things he does even as they become increasingly unforgivable. He’s well-matched by Robles, Monteros and Lazareno whose characters are persuaded by the intensity of his conviction and trust him at an ultimately catastrophic cost to themselves.
Immediately after Rapiña, Taboada returned to the horror genre to which he had contributed two notable films in the late ’60s. Blacker Than the Night (1975) uses familiar genre elements – an inheritance, a gloomy mansion, a black cat, a vengeful ghost – to explore a generational clash and a shift away from traditional social and religious values to a looser, more materialistic view of the world. Under the opening titles we’re introduced to Becquer, the cat, and his mistress Aunt Susana (Tamara Garina), whom we see only as a lap for the cat and a pair of hands knitting; as the titles end, a hand falls limp beside the chair and we cut to Ofelia (Claudia Islas) arriving home to the apartment she shares with several friends.
Ofelia is a would-be actress, Pilar (Helena Rojo) a divorcee still dealing with conflicted feelings about her failed marriage, Aurora (Susana Dosamantes) a librarian, and Marta (Lucia Méndez) a model. These young women are all “modern”, with relaxed attitudes towards work and sex. Although contrasted with an outmoded propriety, though, Ofelia and her friends seem self-centred and rather obnoxious. When they arrive to take up residence in the inherited house, they make snarky and disparaging comments about not only the “old junk”, but also about the dour housekeeper Sofia (Alicia Palacios), even when she’s obviously within earshot. My dislike of the younger generation was increased when they showed open hostility to Becquer, although Ofelia was willing to accept the responsibility for the cat which was the only condition specified in the will.
Aurora, having arrived with a caged canary, is quite venomous towards the cat, though even Pilar and Marta also seem determined to kick it out of any room where they find it. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but their disrespect for dead Aunt Susana, for her cat and for Sofia makes the new residents pretty unlikable. I’m not sure that this was Taboada’s intention, but I was quite sympathetic to the spirit of Susana when she starts lurking around the house, spying on them. And the ghost’s apparent determination to scare them off, particularly after Becquer turns up dead in the cellar, seems entirely justified even before a late flashback reveals what really happened to the cat.
Aunt Susana becomes increasingly malevolent and begins to pursue and kill the intruders one by one and, frankly, I was on her side. Unable to care about the ghost’s victims, I found Blacker Than the Night the least satisfying of the films in the set.
While Blacker Than the Night is atmospheric, with some nicely rendered scenes of supernatural menace, it’s fairly conventional in conception and execution. Taboada’s final completed feature, however, is much more interesting. Poison for the Fairies (1986) belongs to a subset of fantasy/horror which focuses on children and the ways in which they use imagination to comprehend and exert some kind of control over a world which seems fraught with menace. It belongs with such films as Jaromil Jires’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), Ann Turner’s Celia (1989), Richard Blackburn’s Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973) and Robert Mulligan’s The Other (1972).
Taboada keeps close to the child’s point of view, with adults always kept at the edges of the frame, faces unseen, giving greater weight to the emotions of the two ten-year-old girls at the centre of the narrative. Flavia (Elsa María Gutiérrez) is the daughter of wealthy parents who has just arrived at a new school. In class, she’s seated beside Verónica (Ana Patricia Rojo), an orphan who lives with her elderly grandmother and a governess who reads her stories of witches and fairies. This world of magic and fantasy permeates Verónica‘s reality and she immediately begins drawing Flavia into it.
Verónica claims not to be a little girl at all, but rather a powerful witch, and she uses a number of tricks to convince Flavia of her power. Having overheard a conversation in the school office, she “predicts” that a certain teacher will be leaving the school. When the departure is announced, she explains to Flavia that a large taxidermied owl comes to life at night and visits to tell her things. But the clincher comes when Flavia visits Verónica‘s home and the girl tells her she’ll prove her true identity. She runs upstairs and into her grandmother’s room, with Flavia following. She hides in the closet so when Flavia enters the room all she finds is the old woman sitting in her chair by the window, immediately believing that Verónica has transformed into her real form.
Now convinced, Flavia falls completely under Verónica‘s power, manipulated to do things which go against her own well-brought-up nature, like skipping classes. Verónica also demands that she give her a favourite doll, and much later her beloved puppy. She insists that Flavia’s parents agree to take her along on a family holiday at their place in the country, where she pushes Flavia to break the rules – going out on the lake unsupervised, sneaking out of the house at night. These activities revolve around a magic ritual, the purpose of which is to create a poison to kill fairies, who are the sworn enemies of witches.
Over a period of days, having found a large metal pot which they hide in the hayloft of the barn, they gather the ingredients – toads and spiders and various plants. Finally, they sneak off to a nearby cemetery at midnight to gather some grave dirt and a wooden cross which must be burned so that the ashes can be mixed in with the other ingredients. This latter escapade gets the girls into trouble and, along with being forced to hand over the puppy, makes her enforced subservience intolerable to Flavia. Verónica has pushed too hard and the false reality she has created results in a shocking resolution rooted in the belief in the reality of witchcraft which she has instilled in Flavia.
The power of children’s imaginations, not fully apprehended by the adults around them, makes the world a frightening place. While there are no actual supernatural forces at work, there is genuine horror. Taboada does a remarkable job drawing rich and subtle performances from Gutiérrez and Rojo, the latter a chilling little sociopath whose manipulation of Flavia is rooted in a deep resentment of the other girl’s seemingly perfect life. What initially appears to be friendship is actually an elaborate campaign to destroy all that privilege and comfort, while Verónica‘s fearlessness at first seems liberating to a girl constrained by propriety. But nonetheless still a young child, Verónica doesn’t comprehend the real danger inherent in her game and the consequences of convincing Flavia that she truly is a witch.
Despite occasional signs of damage, the 4K scans from original negative look wonderful, with rich colour and fine detail. The sole extras, all on the Rapiña disk, are three video essays by film scholar Valeria Villegas totalling just over forty minutes, discussing each film separately while filling in details about Taboada’s career. There’s also a booklet with three short essays, which provide more information about the filmmaker.
With this set, Vinegar Syndrome provides an impressive introduction to an unfamiliar filmmaker; hopefully, they’ll follow it up with a second volume.
(1.) I have this on DVD, one of a series released by the short-lived CasaNegra label from Panikhouse Entertainment back in 2006-7. I have seven of these, which may well be all they ever put out before folding; they introduced me to Mexican Gothic cinema from the late-’50s and ’60s, movies which echoed the great Hollywood horrors of the early ’30s, with a touch of Hammer’s revisionist approach to those classics, but all filtered through a distinctly Mexican perspective. Indicator will be releasing four of these movies (including The Witch’s Mirror and Urueta’s wonderfully deranged The Brainiac ) in a box set in May and I’m very much looking forward to the upgrade, though I’ll probably hang onto the DVDs because they’re so attractively designed. (return)