Sunday, November 25, 2012

Alucarda (1977) dir. Juan López Moctezuma

a.k.a. Alucarda, la hija de las tinieblas 

Logline: Fresh-faced orphan Justine (Susana Kamini) arrives at an orphanage run by a Mexican convent. While there, she makes fast friends with her spooky and easily attached new roommate, Alucarda (Tina Romero). Not long after a jaunt through the forest, in which the pair encountered a hunchbacked gypsy and broke open a sacred crypt, both girls start hissing at crucifixes.

A cursory search reveals that between the beginning of the 1950s and the close of the 1970s Mexico developed a comparatively small but rather rich horror cinema tradition, of which I remain mostly ignorant. Viewing Juan López Moctezuma's Alucarda was my first step towards a corrective, and while it may only be unearthing the topsoil of the country's deeper filmography, what a way to begin digging myself into the hole. Alucarda is a film quite unlike any other I've seen. It bears traces of the religious hysterics and sacrilege of Ken Russell's The Devils (1971) and the surreality of Alejando Jordorowsky's films (which is appropriate considering Moctezuma was a producer on Fando y Lis (1968) and El Topo (1970) before embarking on his own brief directorial career), but neither of those basic attributes suffices to describe all of the bold, dreamy, gory, histrionic, and excessive levels that Alucarda operates on. What opens as a whimsical period fairytale devolves over the film's condensed duration into inspired bits of madness and bloodshed, accompanied by the wailing of banshees. I'd marvelled at the intensity of Alain Robak's Baby Blood (1990) earlier in the month, but I suppose that was because I hadn't yet seen Alucarda. Moctezuma's film is as much an experience as it is a piece of cinema or a coherent narrative, and it's for this reason that it fits comfortably alongside similarly abstract and sensory  horror productions from the Continent during this same period.

The film centers itself on the taboo relationship between the titular Alucarda and the orphanage/convent's latest recruit, Justine. While Justine is the typical wide-eyed innocent, Tina Romero plays Alucarda as an eccentric and singular oddity. With her flowing brown mane and long black dress, she's the happy goth prancing around the forest, playing with insects, and conspiratorially declaring "every day I find a new secret." The ingratiating extrovert that she is, Alucarda forces her eternal friendship onto Justine, her new roommate. After the two embark on an afternoon's journey to discover some "new secrets," Alucarda confesses her undying love for Justine. Her quite sudden and exaggerated affections take on more of a sexual than a schoolgirl connotation-- she commands that Justine "must love [her] to death," and urges her towards agreeing to a suicide pact sealed with blood. When the girls arrive at Lucy Westenra's tomb (how she arrived in Mexico is beyond me) and crack open her coffin, they unleash demons that possess Alucarda, who goes into a hysterical fit (the word "Satan!" is bandied about quite a lot) and, with the help of a magical hunchbacked goat gypsy and his magic storm of raining blood, possesses Justine as well during an eroticized nude blood sharing ceremony (in which they suck the blood from wounds on each other's breasts). Henceforth Satanically influenced, the girls then fall deeper in love and participate in a kinky and perhaps hallucinatory Satanic orgy led by a goat-headed man. By this point the subtext reveals itself: the perception of lesbianism in society is that it is an anomalous and morally corrupt lifestyle, and its appeal to young girls can only be explained through Satanic and demonic forces. Moreover, lesbians breed lesbianism, as the perverting influence of the aggressive and deranged lesbian Alucarda seduces the helpless innocent Justine into her newfound wicked ways.

But to claim that the film is totally in accordance with this societal perception of the "horrors" of lesbianism would be to overlook the film's overt criticisms of religious moralism. Alucarda makes the religious hypocrisy plain when speaking to Father Lázaro (David Silva) in confession: "I worship life. You worship death. You are afraid of life, afraid of your strong body." She's not wrong. Alucarda and Justine's whimsical lesbianism (and specifically the Satanic orgy that they participate in) is contrasted with the activities of Father Lázaro and his nuns, who in one scene submit themselves to brutal, bloody, and sexually charged flagellation to atone for their sins. As their exposed flesh gleams with sweat and blood and as the nuns writhe in commingled agony/ecstasy, this scene appears to mirror the eroticism of the Satanic orgy but with one key difference: only the participants of one of these gatherings violently denies their own sexual desires. Vowing to protect the religious repression of sexuality and its physical expression by any means, Father Lázaro decides that he and his nuns must destroy the girls in order to set them "free." He surmises that if lesbianism is akin to Satanic possession, then non-heteronormative behavior can be exorcized. They abduct the two girls, and in a perverse ceremony straight out of the 15th century, they repeatedly stab Justine to death while she's strapped to a crucifix-- the violent introduction of the phallic knife into the body in order to cure her of lesbian possession. It's a horrifying and barbaric act, tearing apart two lovers for no valid reason. (The worst they'd done was declare their mutual allegiance to Satan during Bible study, which, sure, was a misapprehension of the situation and audience, but was far less than evil).

Somewhat complicating the above reading of the film is that both demonic and heavenly forces are clearly real in the film (we have levitating nuns and firestarting demons, after all), but neither force is obviously deemed the moral superior. We'd lean towards the demonic side if it weren't for the fact that they start killing the clergy. (But then, one supposes this treatment isn't totally undeserved). After the ceremony in which Justine "dies," the final act begins in earnest, with Alucarda launching into an all out revenge-fueled Carrie rampage, setting nuns and crucifixes on fire with her brain and tearing down the convent's foundations through sheer force of will and a handful of menacing glances. The finale is a frantically paced Grand Guignol, which may distract from the fact that though Alucarda and Justine lay vanquished at the conclusion, this is no moral victory.* The film closes on a shot of the figure of Jesus Christ in flames on a burning crucifix. I suppose one could claim that Alucarda and Justine's sacrilege had led to this defilement of religious imagery, but I'd hazard that the film's sentiments argue that the Church brought such destruction upon itself through the appropriation of that same imagery while committing some very bad deeds.

*Perhaps the surface level victory of "good" over "evil" was just misleading enough to let the film slip past censors and the general public's outrage without too much controversy.

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