Original Title: Alucarda, la hijas de las tinieblas
Aka: Sisters of Satan
Directed by: Juan López Moctezuma
Satanism / Occult / Possession, 85min
Distributed by: Mondo Macabro
Last week I discussed the heritage of Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta, and the phenomenon of El Santo, but don’t for a second think that Mexican genre cinema is all about Lucha Libre and masked heroes saving the day. Even though that specific niche may be the one most associated with Mexican sub-genres, there is still a goldmine of highly explosive movies come out of Mexico if you know where to search.
I would be wrong to slot this film into the nunsploitation genre even if this would seem fitting: Yes there’s certainly a whole lot of nuns engaging in battle with the evil forces at bay. Also it takes place in an orphanage/church where daily prayers and religious artefacts fill every scene. But there’s none of the backroom sleaze activity from the nuns, which usually characterizes the nunsploitation genre. It’s not the nuns that are sinful, but the poesies young women. (If you feel that taking your kit off and lesbian desires are sinful that is) Instead this is a good old possession movie where the devil corrupts the minds of young innocent women in his quest for world domination, with a healthy dose of exploitation traits at play.
The mood, tone and atmosphere of this movie is firmly set from the very start of the film. A young mother [Tina Romero in a double role as she later plays the grown up Alucarda too] gives birth to a little girl who, after being named Alucarda, is quickly taken by a strange old woman leaving the mother to face the strange entity that obviously is lurking the strange crypt like place she has chosen to give birth in…
Many years later, Justine [Susana Kamini, who starred in all of Moctezuma’s movies but the last one.] arrives at an orphanage where Sister Angélica [Tina French] greets her and shows Justine her new home. Justine is introduced to her roommate Alucarda [Tina Romero again] who comes right out and makes an impression of being quite eccentric and intense as she shows Justine her collection of secrets that she’s found out in the woods surrounding the orphanage. In reality it’s all pieces of twigs, dead beetles’ and small pebbles, but it set’s a naïve character trait that will be necessary to build the Alucarda persona. We understand that our impression of this peculiar young girl is the same as the other girls in the orphanage and realise that Alucarda is a loner without friends, which is why she so early on attaches herself to Justine, the new girl, so instantly. The new girl is a clean slate and holds no prejudice towards Alucarda.
They two friends run out into the woods to find more secrets and meet a hunchbacked Gypsy [Claudio Brook who you may recall from Guillermo Del Toro’s Cronos 1993, Robert Fuest’s satanic turkey The Devil’s Rain 1975 or one of the many Luis Buñuel movies he starred in. He also held the lead role in Moctezuma’s The Mansion of Madness (La mansión de la locura) 1973, and just like Romero holds double roles in Alucarda, as you soon will see.] Anyhow, the gypsy hunchback tries to sell the girls more “Secrets”, but his secrets are much more sinister than simple woodland titbits, and after running away from the creepy hunchback they find themselves in the crypt, or abandoned chapel from the opening birth sequence. Filled with adolescent curiosity they initiate a blood rite promising to be BFF’s and open one of the graves that they find there (possibly Alucarda’s mothers?) and the demonic forces start to arise. The audio is exhilarating here as the feeling is almost as if the sound producer has grabbed a mike and started growling and snarling into it right on top of the soundtrack. At first it is quite annoying, but the longer it goes on for the more profoundly it disturbed me. This trick is used throughout the rest of the movie, acting as a haunting audio key to indicate that the satanic forces at work are even larger than the movies narrative.
From here on the movie definitely goes into psychotronic land, safely back at the orphanage the girls undress and engage in a blood pact to stay friends for ever and never to walk the earth with out each other, and guess who shows up to interfere and lure them further into the darkness, yes it’s the hunchback. Inducting them into the pleasures of Satanism and blood rituals the heavens open up and blood pours from the skies. The Hunchback takes the girls with him out to the gypsy camp where a full-fledged satanic ritual is in progress. Nothing is held back as the naked participants engage in a huge orgy as Justine and Alucarda watch on in anticipation until the horned one makes his impressive entrance welcoming the girls into his dark world. At the same time Sister Angelica prays for her ward Justine, call upon the saviour the hardest she can, crying blood, sweating blood, levitating and begging the lord for Justine’s salvation. And would you believe it, in some kind of synchronized dance/possession Sister Angelica and the gypsy high priestess fight it out ever so elegantly, leaving Sister Angelica a crying mess, but successful and the high priestess dead in a pool of blood. The entire sequence is further propelled in surrealism as the before mentioned growling and snarling right in the front of the audio is right there adding to the visual wildness on screen.
The local doctor, Dr. Oszek [Brook in his second part] arrives just in time to witness Justine die at the hands of the Father Lázaro, or is it the evil forces that take her life as they have other plans for Justine… He damns Father Lázaro and the church for this outrageous act, but Father Lázaro defends himself by claiming that the girls are possessed by the devil and need to be set free, hence drastic action is demanded. Dr. Oszek takes Alucarda and his blind daughter out of the school and back to the safety of his own home. But have no fear for the movie is defiantly not over yet... As Sister Angelica prays by Justine’s body it starts to twitch, and the movie cranks it up to a higher level as it begins the build towards the coming fifteen minutes of climax that makes this one of the most amazing movies of cult cinema. Demons are fought, Justine bathes in blood, Nuns have their throats torn out, Fireballs are thrown, Monks are engulfed in flames, crucifixes burn, Alucarda brings hell to the ordinary world in an inferno of damnation. It’s good vs. evil in a battle older than mankind, and it is stuff that will blow your mind.
Upon watching Alucarda one could easily feel that this movie, in many ways like the Italian nunsploitation flicks, is anti clerical and a protest against the church, therefore choosing exposing their sinister sides and dark secrets, but I feel that the movie actually is more pro than against. For even though the clergy do kill Justine (in some ways she’s all ready lost due to the possession) Father Làzaro is right. The girls are possessed by the devil, and even the goody two shoes Dr. Oszek joins the church in the fight against the demons once his daughter is threatened. It’s splendid to see how easily lead on we are as an audience, and just how easy we are to manipulate. As Moctezuma has built the characters of Justine and Alucarda as young, naïve and innocent, we obviously take sides with them during the movie, hence directing us to root for the antagonists if you like. Yes antagonists. Justine and Alucarda are the evil forces of the movie, and the church; Sister Angelica, Father Lázaro and Dr. Oszek are the protagonists. It’s a wonderful trick when it works and Moctezuma pulls it off with bravura, as we don’t want the girls to be punished and want them to come out victorious against the forces of the church.
Finding his inspiration in Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla text, Moctezuma and his co writers, among them his wife Yolanda, come up with a splendid story. It’s safe to say that Moctezuma makes the source material his own and uses the source material as an inspiration not a template. Although the gothic setting is preserved, the vampire element of Carmilla is abandoned; keeping the core - yearning for companionship and the extent you will go to for this camaraderie. Not to forget the controversial, well at least in 1872 when Fanu wrote it, homoeroticism especially the lesbian girl on girl elements. Exploring daring themes and using them in your text isn’t simply a ploy of seventies - eighties exploitation cinema; it’s been used since mankind started putting words on paper, and for some unexplained reason it provokes e heck out of certain people. Also Justine's name is a reference to De Sade’s Justine text, where the themes of good and evil, opposing oneself against accepted tradition, the corruption of the church and a young woman's coming of age are key elements.
Alucarda is a fascinating movie, the acting is splendid, the story is highly entertaining, Xavier Cruz's cinematography is marvellous, the compositions are stunning and at some times it’s almost like watching a theatrical presentation of the material. The movie is disturbing in many ways, one of the most effective is reminiscent of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and that’s the deafening audio track, screaming girls and growling demons make up a truly disturbing soundtrack. It’s a bold and innovative gamble that the sound crew and editors have taken, but in it’s own strange way it works in favour of the movie. Romero and Kamini scream as if their lives really where on the line, and the demonic growling placed up front make it impossible to escape the threat presented.
I’d say that the movie feels theatrical because of Moctezuma’s background in the theatre and radio. After working with radio, creating Panoama de Jazz in 1959, a show which aired for almost 35 years, Moctezuma set his eyes on the area that had always inspired and enticed him, Cinema. His road there went via several TV shows, a number of short movies and his assistant work with theatre legend Seki Sano.
Seki Sano was an exiled Japanese director and writer of theatre who spent time in prison after being accused of spreading socialist ideas through his work. Sano spent some years in the then USSR where he associated and worked with the likes of Stanislavski and Meyerhold, before moving on to America. But even there his “radical and socialist” ideas where criticized and he ventured further south ending up in Mexico during 1939. Here he would become somewhat of a key figure for the next generation of belligerent players on the Mexican scene. It is probably during his time as an assistant to Sano that Moctezuma picked up his method of writing, acting, directing and the theatrical grandeur that comes with his movies. It's also during this time that he befriended the Chilean multiartist and creative shaman Alejandro Jodorowsky.
Teaming up with his new friend Jodorowsky, Moctezuma worked with him on Fando y lis 1967 and the midnight classic El Topo 1970, for which he both received producer credits on. It was only a question of time before Moctezuma himself would direct his own full length features, and in 1973 Moctezuma wrote and directed The Mansion of Madness loosely based on Edgar Allen Poe’s The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether. Just like Jodorowsky, Moctezuma regarded his art passionately and held it close to himself on a personal level which had him refuse compromising with his principles and, again just like Jodorowsky, he was quite rigid, which is one of the reasons why he only directed a few movies during his career. It’s all about quality and not quantity for visual directors of Mocetezuma's stature.
But those five movies still hold up today as the surreal art house horror crossovers that they where intended to be. Themes, style and elements of the fantastic played for real in some of the most fascinating movies you will ever see.
Full screen 4:3, which presumably is the OAR.
Dolby Digital Stereo with English or Spanish dialogue options.
Juan Lopez Moctezuma – A Cultured Maverick: A short documentary on the director and his movies, Theatrical Trailer, a gallery of stills and photos. Interview with Guillermo del Toro on the legacy of Moctezuma. There’s also a text interview with Moctezuma and cast and crew biographies.