Monday, January 30, 2012

Skew

Skew
Directed by: Sevé Schelenz
Canada, 83min
Drama/Horror, 2011

I try to stay away from watching titles that people request me to watch’n’review, because of the obvious risk of getting into something that I don’t enjoy, hence making for a terrible review. But when I was approached by Schelenz to check out his flick – an effective Canadian Indie flick, currently doing great on the festival circuit – and during the same period of time seeing the trailer for Skew, I felt that this was a movie I really wanted to see… and as soon as possible!

Three mates, Rick [Richard Olak], Eva [Amber Lewis] and Simon [Rob Scattergood] who spends the most of the movie hiding behind his small dv camera, take to the road with a friends wedding set as the final destination. But what at first seems to be a fun filled road trip soon becomes a tension-building ordeal when Simon starts seeing eerie omens of things to come, through the viewfinder of his camera.

Skew has got me all excited. This is an impressive little movie which definitely play’s ball with the big boys. Taking a spin on the “Found footage” niche can be one of the most risky approaches to take today, as that’s a genre rapidly becoming watered down, for each day that goes. But Skew has something that manages to keep it above the many imitators that came in the wake of the phenomenal The Blair Witch Project 1999. Yes I love The Blair Witch Project, as it came right at the correct time in my opinion. When genre was becoming mainstream and repetitive, Blair Witch came with its low-key approach, presented its story in a new way, and scared the pants off its audience. But that was thirteen years ago, and god knows that the imitators have had a struggle taping into the innovation of that movie.

It’s not really fair to compare Skew to this early entry, but at the same time, any movie that takes the found footage approach will be compared to it – and the later movies that take the same approach. Although it should be mentioned that Schelenz did actually script and start shooting the movie way back in 2005, years before the success of Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield and Spanish success franchise Rec.

The main ingredient that Skew shares with them, is the first person narrative, everything we see is what Simon sees through the viewfinder of his camera. And this is where it really delivers the goods. I found that I was falling for the gimmicks and scares a lot easier in Skew than with others in the niche.

Right from the start an effective subplot is set in motion. It’s the morning of departure and where Eva and Rick are all giddy to set off, there’s an apparent schism between Simon and his girlfriend Laura [Taneal Cutting]. I get the feeling that she was supposed to come along on the trip, but something has happened that makes her skip the road trip. It’s all kept secret from the viewer, which makes for a splendid subplot that returns through out the movie, and culminates in the climax of the film. “What happened between Simon and Laura to make her bail out?”

Schelenz has complete control of the universe his characters live in and he knows exactly where they are coming from. This is evident in the backstories, which slowly seep out through the narrative. I hate when movies stop dead in their tracks due to tedious exposition. Schelenz weaves just enough backstory and dimension into his characters through camera observations and well-scripted dialogue to keep the interest alive and the intrigue flowing. I easily pick up that Rick and Simon have been pals a long time, that Rick may be a guy who likes his beer’s and that there’s a two sided tension between Simon and Eva due to her loyalty to Laura – where that subplot again comes into play. It’s an ordinary world that the audience can relate to and problems we all know form everyday life.

The Simon and Eva angle brings a tension to the movie in more than one way. Not only is Eva obviously Laura’s mate and holds some kind of grudge – as Laura didn’t tell Eva either why she decided to skip the trip – but there’s something brewing there. There’s more going on that first meets the eye.

I’m a big fan of the slow build. I don’t always find that an initial attack is necessary, as I choose movies in the genre I like. I don’t really need an initial attack to tell me what genre this is. But the slow build is the shit, when it’s done in the correct way. This is where you bring me into the characters world and spill exposition along the way, giving me something to hang onto, characters to understand and empathize with. David Moreau & Xavier Palud’s masterpiece Ils (Them) 2006, takes a whopping 35 minutes to establish the ordinary world before unleashing the terror that it’s main characters Clémentine and Lucas go through, and it never get’s tedious. Instead I get to know the characters, which makes me feel so much more the moment their fate is sealed. This is similar to the path taken by Schelenz in Skew. A slow build that slowly brings me into the world of Simon, Rick and Eva, so that I know them, I understand the constellation before the freaky shit starts to happen. And when talking about the freaky shit, I once again have to point out that Skew got me with it's shock moments on more than one occasion, and I've chosen to avoid using images of those moments here in this review.

When the strange events start happening on Simon’s footage it happens in various ways, sometimes sublime with an effective eeriness, and sometimes with a classic jump scare approach. But these jump-scares and shock moments not only affect me as the audience – as they naturally build tension for the next scare to come - but they also affect Simon. He is forced to question his sanity, and this in turn affects the constellation. Paranoia starts to run rampant as Simon’s anxiety starts to rub off on Rick and Eve. Not only have they indirectly witnessed a series of gruesome deaths, but also Simon claims that the images of the affected he shot previous to the deaths, where distorted when he initially saw them. This is where the stern reception of this reveal comes into play. If anything bugged me with Paranormal Activity it was the lead male characters nudge-nudge, wink-wink approach to the subject matter. Rick and Eva are obviously freaked by Simon’s strange behaviour and don’t believe a word he says. Simon becomes even more alienated from his friends and with no allies left on his side – an emotion also created through the complex Laura subplot – his only companion becomes the audience.
Now if you are a frequent reader then you will already know where I’m going here… yes I‘m playing the sceptic card. Unlike something like Ti West’s The Innkeepers where we need to move a lead character into the unreal realm with the use of her scepticism, Skew put’s a spin on it as the audience see the same things Simon sees. Whilst the others, Eva and Rick, don’t believe the truth, a truth that we know is real, we tend to empathise with Simon. It works similar to the classic child protagonist who nobody believes when he says there’s a monster in the closet. Instead the supporting actors scepticism strengthen the position of Simon, and we can relate through emotional recognition to the frustration and fear he feels when he finally tells them of the strange things his camera is registering.

One final note on Skew would have to be that I undoubtedly stand by the choice of never explaining the reason why Simon sees the things he sees. I’m certain that some explanatory moment that explained whether Simon is going insane, or that the camera is haunted due to some weird reason would have culminated in ridicule. It’s a wise choice to leave the audience with their own thoughts on this, and it makes the movie linger on longer in their minds. Sometimes an explanation can topple a really good narrative where scares have done their job and mystery is diminished. This is one of the reasons why the last part of James Wan’s Insidious 2010 becomes such an anti-climax. All that magnificent tension building is wasted when the reason behind the hauntings is explained, hence loosing the magic and mystery of the road there. Luckily Schelenz skipped the scripted bookend segments showing the camera in it’s pawnshop habitat, and instead stuck to the mystery and never let’s us in on what is really going on, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m certain that Skew is destined to become someewhat of modern horror cult classic. This is a movie that will find it's audience.

Right now you can catch Skew streaming on NetFlix in the US, but being patient pays off as the film will premiere on England’s The Horror Channel later this year and there’s a German DVD slated for a May release. You can also catch the movie on one of the many festivals that it’s currently playing at.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Rabies


Rabies
Original Title: Kalevet
Directed by: Ahron Keshales & Navot Papushado
Israel, 2010
Horror, 90min

With Keshales & Papushado's Rabies, I was expecting to see “the First Israeli slasher”. I don’t really know why, but that how I’ve understood it to be reviewed/categorised in certain circuits. But they are all wrong. This isn’t a slasher film at all. There’s no single antagonist stalking prey in the woods. There’s no escaping the slashing knives of the maniac. No, Rabies most certainly isn’t a slasher, it’s something much more sophisticated, complex and damned right fascinating.

A brother and sister hiding their secret love affair, four twenty-something friends on their way to a tennis match, two police officers with way to much time on their hands and two forest wardens tending to the Fox Reserve all get caught up in a violent nightmare when something in the small woodland area brings out the worst in them.

Rabies is an impressive flick and the duo of Keshales and Papushado obviously know what they are doing, and this is possibly where Kashales previous occupation as a movie journalist comes in handy. Knowing what works and doesn’t is a fucking great place to start off at. Because when you know what convention brings in its wake, you know exactly what path’s you want to stay safely away from. There’s more than one unexpected twist to the narrative that completely rockets the movie into new terrain and this brings a fresh vibe with it.

This is a movie where the filmmakers take time to establish the characters, setting up their world and their ever-important traits. Character releations are explored, the relationship between Menashe [Menashe Noy] and Rona [Efrat Boimold] and their growing secret, the raging hormones and repressed desires of preppy lads Mikey [Ran Danker] and Pini [Ofer Schecter] contrasted by the suave chicks Adi [Ania Bukstein, who I definitely want to see more of] and Shir [Yael Grobglas], the lurking fear and frustrations of the two policemen, Danny [Lior Ashkenazi] and Yuval [Danny Geva who gives one hell of a great performance, bringing his sleazebag cop to life]. Familiar characters types, but with depth and several surprises up their sleeves…. and I simply love the way taboo’s are shattered from the very first lines of dialogue, that of Tali [Liat Har Lev] and Ofer [Henry David] as they reveal their secret love affair. This opening sequence also set’s a great tone for the movie as Tali starts the movie deep inside a damp underground trap set by the mysterious man who roams the woodlands. Generic horror would have designated “the man in the overalls” [Yaron Motola] as the main antagonist. It’s familiar stalkers/horror turf, a one-man killing machine tormenting the protagonists. But Rabies merely uses this as a tool to present a threat, an obstacle to start up the drama. It’s an effective one and it also leads the narrative forth to a possible opening for a sequel. This conventional archetype is also used in one of the movies most distressing scenes where identities are mixed up and unfortunate events lead to a shocking violent climax to one of the many subplots.

Rabies is almost like a genre version of Robert Altman’s Shortcuts 1993 or even Paul Haggis' Crash 2004, where a series of subplots with active story arcs always end in effective cliffhangers, before switching over to a new group of protagonists/antagonists. Again, the character we initially think to be the antagonist works merely as a stimulus for the events that take place. It’s a splendid twist on convention and an inventive way of using the old to create new.

Rabies sticks it’s neck out and proves that an ensemble piece can actually have multiple protagonists. Where the generic horror film rarely takes time to establish characters, and showcases familiar stereotypes instead, hence declaring a use of the “final female” formula that’s been done to death since Carpenter’s Halloween 1978. Instead we are introduced to an ensemble of complex characters with their own secrets and hidden agendas. Almost all of the characters have backstories that come into play during the course of the movie. It’s these backstories that also drive the series of events that take place. With the help of “the overalled man”, let’s call him the conventional antagonist, the characters themselves become their own antagonists at the same time they are protagonists.

One could look at the movie as a kind of “the evil that men/women do” when faced with extreme situations. In my take the forest possesses some dark force that becomes something of a catalyst for ill deeds. This is where the name rabies makes sense. Something in that woodland twists the judgments of the characters, transforming them into rabid animals instead. Now I’m not talking about frothy mouthed monsters, but more on an intellectual level, as their moral grounds are tested and that mental restraint that keeps us from reacting in normal life is repressed. Here it’s instinct without moral reasoning.

At the same time, in this rather bleak and violent world portrayed, there are some very sensitive and emotional moments. Several of the subplots have tender motifs for the arcs, which obviously help us to empathise with certain characters. There’s also some great character twists where empathetic characters suddenly, due to the circumstances they find themselves in turn to the dark side and commit some atrocious acts. It’s becomes a violent roller-coaster ride where you never really get the chance to catch your breath. You never really know whom you can trust or where their characters will take you, which creates a haunting edge throughout the movie.

Be prepared for the unexpected in this impressive debut film, which will jerk your imagination and take you on a murky ride beyond prediction.


Friday, January 06, 2012

The Bunny Game

The Bunny Game
Directed by: Adam Rehmeier
USA 2010
Horror/Thriller, 76min

Out of the frying pan into the fire. That’s a pretty good way to sum up Adam Rehmeier’s intriguing and provocative debut feature The Bunny Game. There’s a fistful of flicks that come around each year with a buzz from their festival circuit reputation. Movies alleged to be more than the average horror flick, movies that dig deeper than the usual genre fare, movies that leave an aching pain of seeing something disturbing, beautiful and important at the same time. Movies that stay in your head after the end credits have rolled… and if you are a regular reader, you know just how much I enjoy these kinds of movies. These are the specks of gold amongst the black sand we sift through on a regular basis.

Bunny [Rodleen Getsic] is a prostitute taking it day by day. One day she encounters an elderly trucker called Hog [Jeff F. Renfro]. Hog abducts Bunny and drives far into the desert where he begins a series of sadistic games. Games where Bunny’s life is at stake. This is the basic synopsis of The Bunny Game. A movie that causes controversy when watched by people who do not understand what they are seeing.

The Bunny Game has already been banned in the UK, or rather refused a certificate, which may be a gratuitous tool to present distributors outside of Great Britain with. A movie rejected due to it’s sadistic and sexual content will certainly find it’s audience – after all we do live in 2012, and banned discs are only a click away on foreign online stores. But despite a great promotional tool, keep in mind that the BBFC have previously “banned” movies on grounds that they obviously lack the insight to understanding movies. Such as Kôji Shiraishi’s Gurotesuku (Grotesque 2009), a movie I’ve previously explained how the BBFC completely misunderstood. It's a unfortunate day when one has to point out that they have made the same kind of misinterpretation of The Bunny Game as they did with Grotesque.

This isn’t a movie about what is going on on-screen, this is a movie that pushes deeper than the screen images. A movie that burrows into the mind of its audience, taking them on a dark and captivating ride. I am dead serious when I say that this movie isn’t about exploitation or cheap thrills. This is a really dark trip with mesmerizing performances and a captivating narrative brought to life through it’s part improvised, part scripted – if only in the easiest form – and part therapy. Getsic and Rehmeier based the foundation story on Getsic's personal experiences and the line between performance, acting and realism is very vague with this one. Nothing feels fake here, it all feels real, because it is real, and Getsic gives such a powerful performance I doubt she will ever top it.

Whist watching, I frequently found myself thinking of the short anarchistic works of Richard Kern, Lydia Lunch and Nick Zedd that seeped up from the underground art circuit during the eighties. Undoubtedly, The Bunny Game could be seen as the Cinema of Transgression maturing into a potent art form. The movies share certain themes, imagery and have a similar aura of authenticity to them. But I also find myself thinking of grand classics like Carl T. Dreyer’s Le passion de Jean d'Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc 1928… Perhaps Bunny becomes the Patron Saints of all Women of the Night. The associations are not to farfetched, as The Bunny Game is a mystic combination of improvisation and performance, channelling some very dark places, and there are at least two instances of religious imagery to be found. One subtle in a characters name, the other deliberate image that brought the mentioned film above to mind.
From here on out, I think a spoiler warning should be issued. Yeah, a rare thing on this site, but to be able to discuss The Bunny Game seriously some details may slip out that could harm your initial viewing. So if you haven’t seen the movie ye, then you may want to do that before we go on. If not, you have been warned slight spoilers ahead.

OK so if we break it down it could go something like this.

Setting an ordinary world is of importance in any genre, I ramble on about this frequently so it should come as no shock that I do so here too. Rehmeier establishes it quickly and effective with a pre-title shot of a face being suffocated inside a plastic bag, then hard cut to the titles. I’d actually call this the initial attack, the moment that establishes what genre we are in and what we may come to expect of the film. The image is not only a disturbing one, but also a symbolic description of the movie, because there will be more terror to come, and it also works as a metaphor for the feeling of asphyxia, which the film brings on. Following the titles, we are presented with the ordinary world of Bunny. A graphic depiction of Bunny giving oral sex, a variation of customers, drug abuse, aimlessly wandering the streets in search of the next john, and this is where the BBFC miss their first cue. In this establishment of Bunny’s ordinary world she’s given dimension through small actions she takes during this establishing act. She says No to a customer’s request, she has flashbacks to happier times – I’ll return to the flashbacks later, as they also hold an important key to the movies climax - she resists certain acts, she makes a telephone call somewhere which makes her cry – we can only suppose that it’s to some long gone safety zone which no longer exists such as family or friends or such. Then there’s two final defining moments in establishing Bunny’s character. After one encounter with a john she cries in the shower, and after a second customer steals her backpack she breaks down. There’s a complexity to the character. When she reacts to the stolen bag, we realize that despite only owning a few possessions, these items are of value to Bunny. She does care about things, which help us to connect with her. The crying in the shower scene is important as Bunny’s rueful reactions help us empathize with her. This signifies that walking the streets isn’t her occupation of choice; it is something she’s forced into by circumstance. It’s her fight for survival. This brings dimension to the character. We gain insight, we empathize with her as she’s already a victim… and she hasn’t even met Hog yet.

Staying with the characters, Hog is a fascinating one indeed. Almost everything I have read about this movie after watching it describe Hog as the most evil serial killer in a long time… I’m not going to back that statement. Hog isn’t the most evil serial killer in a long time, although he is perhaps one of the most complex and sadistic antagonists that I’ve encountered in a long time, but a serial killer. Nah.

I think that anyone who watches The Bunny Game and doesn’t become fascinated by the Hog character – and the stunning performance Jeff F Renfro gives, is probably blind and emotionally shut down. Because the thing that fascinates with Hog is that he too, just like Bunny is filled with dimension. He’s not just a coldblooded killer, he’s much more. There are several things that point to this. The first is that he doesn’t jump Bunny straight away. There’s a shared moment of time before he attacks. Like a cat playing with its prey, Hog tauntingly pokes, tugs and gropes Bunny whilst she’s unconscious. He videotapes her – which in a larger perspective reminds me of Hisayasu Sato’s use of voyeuristic themes – and then walks away. He could have started the game there already, but he doesn’t. When he does initiate the game, he’s almost reluctant, and wanders back and forth before setting the game in motion. Following the bursts of insanity Hog frequently sits in the cabin of his rig with something of a remorseful look on his face. There’s no giggling and indulging in past or current trophies, instead there’s almost a regretful tone to his persona. Hog isn’t a dark hearted serial killer but a complex man with dark sexual deviations that torment him. He knows he’s doing wrong, but can’t constrain himself from indulging in the pleasure of his sadistic games. This if obvious in the scene where he stands smoking at the back of the truck and his entire body language is that of guilt. He wanders back and forth, frustrated and restless. There’s no pride in his actions. That’s complexity within a character, which makes him so much more than a plain old generic serial killer.
With the characters explored, let’s take a look at the dramatic structure of the movie. Again, this is where the BBFC prove their ignorance and lack of understanding movies, because if you choose to judge this movie by what you see at a first glimpse, then it will be lost on you.

There’s a fine thread of images that seep through the film telling more about the characters than the images up front are showing. It’s important to point out that the entire movie thrives on expectations. From the first screen… no really before that, from the moment you started reading this text, well actually from the first second you made the conscious decision to read or watch The Bunny Game, it starts building expectations. From the first scene it starts building anticipation, what was that scene, who was it, where is it. What part does it fill? It’s an initial attack and we know that they present the threat to come during the movie’s course. Every scene builds tension. Up to moment when Bunny enters hog’s rig, the music, with the exception of one early Death Metal track, shifts from the mellow atmospherically ambient style of score to a dronish growl. A dronevilish growl that will seep through the most of the coming events that when the music stops and the soundtrack only consists of diegetic sound it amplifies the moment on screen and helps set the audience in the realism of the moment. When music is used, it helps build the tension, and I know it’s going to snap at any given moment. Every encounter between Bunny and Hog builds tension. When Hog approaches the back of the truck armed with his razor sharp army knife, the editing taunts us, Hog walks back and forth, he slowly approaches the makeshift torture chamber, and Rehmeier teases the audience by keeping Hog from approaching his destination as long as possible… building tension.

This is where the videotape flashbacks come into play. Don’t confuse these with the narrative flashbacks, they are of a completely different fashion, and I’ll get back to them in a moment. The videotape flashbacks are moments of torture, bondage and sadism from Hog’s previous victim, fittingly named Martyr [Dretti Page] in the credits. These more or less act as videotape segue ways into the next session between Hog and Bunny and with them in mind, we obviously become intrigued to see what will happen. What will Hog do that he hasn’t done before, and knowing that he has committed similar acts earlier, is there anything that can stop him.

Looking at the style and form of The Bunny Game, I really like the retrained dialogue, the lingering shots that contrast with the hard rapid bursts of fast edits, the feeling of spontaneity found in the cinematography which captures some highly intense moments. It’s here that the bursts of rapid edits from a seemingly happier past create an eclectic narrative filled with questions and answers. Because the flashbacks are not only flashbacks, they are non-linear time capsules. If you pay attention upon repeated viewing you will see the past, and future, of Bunny.
This is how The Bunny Game works. We want to know where it’s going to go, how far will Hog push the envelope this time, how much will Bunny be able to take… fragmented short inserts which we take in and try to put into some context – we do this compulsively weather we choose to or not, it’s in our human nature all add to building tension. Even the final scene works in the same way, who, what, why… Tension is built to a maximum. More questions are posed and not a single answer is given… or is there?

Ok, remember that warning earlier on. Well for real, this is where I crack it wide open. If you haven’t seen the movie think twice before progressing, this is spoiler turf.

In the early flashback scenes whilst still in Bunny’s ordinary world you will see images of Bunny with her shaven head. She’s lying on what is obviously a mortician’s table. So yes Bunny does die. Although I’m not certain that it’s Hog who is the killer. Again looking at the videotape flashbacks these work as a blue print for Hog’s torture games. If you take time to think about it, there’s a structure to Hog’s atrocities. Each moment from previous victims is repeated with Bunny. There’s really nothing that says that Hog actually murders his victims. Also, Hog gives Bunny the chance to live with the last game, the age-old straws game. He gives no indication of deception here, instead he calls out to his buddy Jonas [Gregg Gilmore] who in the last long, almost tedious shot arrives in his pickup van and takes off with Bunny. The mystery of Jonas is wide open. Is he some kind of cleaner, taking care of Hog’s mess? An accomplice perhaps who takes the torture to a whole new level from where Hog left off. This scene open the door to a whole new devastating world, and from the flash forward moments, it’s fair to suspect that Jonas is the real killer, although the world and games he plays with Bunny are seemingly too dark for the audience to participate in.

This is why I constantly claim that movies like Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs, Simon Rumley’s Red White and Blue, Lucky McKee’s The Woman, Miguel Ángel Viva’s Kidnapped, Srdjan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film, Eric Stanze’s Ratline, even something like Gareth Edwards Monsters are much more rewarding than the common closed book movies that we constantly watch. Perhaps movies of this specific kind loose the repeated viewings they deserve, as their key moments of suspense are bust. Although these movie do stand up to the tests of time, and do indeed deserve a second or third viewing, as you will discover more dimensions to the movie, and you will see more detail that has been hidden away from you the first time around. The possibility of Hog’s Bunny game only being the first in a circle of many isn’t quite the climax we are expecting. Of course anyone who watches cutting edge genre flicks knows that the nihilistic climax is a common one. But at the same time convention teaches us that villains are to be captured and punished, justice must be served. Be it the law, a chance rescue or Bunny herself we crave justice. Instead we get yet another layer of hell, and we wanted that too. We stuck with the movie as our morbid curiosity drove us to see how far Hog would go... How much will Bunny take? A certain part of us chooses to watch the sadistic games, which also discloses uncomfortable truths about us as an audience… why are we watching? In more than one metaphorical way we are Hog. We also want to know where will this lead us. Well, it takes us to a dark place and a climax where we neither see Bunny survive nor die. We see her vanish into the light of the horizon and what we presume is further degradation and torture. It poses disturbing and uncomfortable questions that we most certainly will be thinking about when the movie is ended.

Keep your inhaler close at hand, The Bunny Game will leave you gasping for breath…


Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Living Coffin

The Living Coffin.
Original Title: El Grito de la Muerte
Directed by: Fernando Méndez
Mexico, 1959
Western/horror, 72min.


Normally I would have written some dorky ingress about how I first was introduced to Mexican genre movies via Santo & Blue Demon and the Something Wild/Klub Super8 festival I went to with my wife over a decade ago, or the hundreds of thousands of characters I’ve written on current Spanish/Mexican movies… but I don't want to waste time with that...

Instead let’s just agree that Mexican Cinema is fucking grand, the now defunct Panik House, Casa Negra releases are required viewing and some damned fine examples of a time when Mexican Horror was at the top of it’s game.

A cowboy [Gaston Santos], part time sheriff, and also self proclaimed archaeology buff, arrives at the remote Hacienda de la Ciènega, with a strange statue that he’s been given. He asks inhabitant Maria Elena Garcia [María Duval] about the strange item and learns that it’s one of two statues her recently deceased Aunt Clotide [Carolina Barret] had made after her children died in the quicksand surrounding. Dõna Maria [Hortensia Santoveña] is mishandling the ranch due to her profound superstitions, and it’s on its last legs, much to everyone’s despair. With the rumour of the Weeping Woman who walks the casa at night, even the roughest bandit choses to sleep under the stars instead of spending the night in the house. Fast exposition set’s up the hauntings and the curse of the “weeping woman” is established – yes, it’s Clotide who mourns the death of her kids. A big knife is stuck in the face of the grandfather clock in the hallway. A knife that freezes the time of Clotide’s death hence prohibiting her from returning from the dead again. Maria Elena yanks it out and the terror begins. Ghosts rise from their tombs, rotten bandits shoot unfortunate ranch hands in the back, Gaston is chased into the swamp facing a certain death -only to be saved by his horse – more ghosts come back from the dead, and the truth is finally revealed… only those alive at the end will know what really is going on at the Hacienda de la Clènega.

The Living Coffin is very much a classic western with strong seasoning of Ghost story, But the main motor of the movie is the mystery of a secret plot to take over the mansion and exploit the land it lies on as it’s said to hold a vein of gold beneath it’s foundation. A good old western film trait - Greed. There’s nothing Greedy men won’t do, even if it concerns trickery, deceit and grave robbery.

Being a sucker for themes, iconography and reoccurring traits, these movies fit me like hand in glove. Only minutes into The Living Coffin Gaston asks about the strange statues that have brought him to the Hacienda. The statues are obviously referred to as Weeping Woman, a recurrent icon in Mexican genre film.

One of the most familiar Mexican “genre” themes is “La Llorona”, the curse of the crying woman. This dates back way back to Aztec times, and tells the legend of a woman drowning her two children so that she can be with her lover. When he doesn’t want her, she takes her own life. Her punishment becomes to walk the earth for the rest of time and remorsefully she cries for the loss of her children. Being a cautionary tale, the use of the legend in genre movies is somewhat self-explanatory and in The Living Coffin it’s dealt a nice twist through the subplot concerning the statues and the past relationship between Clotide and the village Doctor [Antonio Raxel], a characteristic semi drunk who has been hitting the bottle since Clotide passed away. The legend was first put on screen by Ramón Peón in the movie La Llorona back in 1933, and has been immortalised numerous amounts of times since then.

Good looking playboy matador Gaston Santos step into movies and especially Westerns is something of a natural step from the bullfighting arenas he’d been competing on as he used to fight in the style of Rejonador, the matador who rides a horse. So using his boyish charm, and his riding skills, he set course on a career in movies after Alameda Films signed him to star in a series of movies. Taking on a Rob Roy-ish kind of character in three movies directed by Rafael Baledón, with a comedic sidekick in the shape of Pedro de Aguillón (who performed the voice of Sylvester the Cat in the Spanish version of Looney Tunes). Even in later movies such as The Living Coffin, Augillón acts as a comedic sidekick to Gaston’s straight guy. Here we find Aguillón constantly yearning for sleep and being goofy in the fight sequences.

Mexican Westerns have always had an off niche where the genre is mixed perfectly with the forces of supernatural. In no other country was it as common as Mexico, and in no other place does it work as grand as it does there. I’ve seen other horror themed westerns, but none manage to bring the weird off kilter atmosphere of the Mexican flicks.

Several red herrings are laid about through the narrative, which keeps it intriguing. We obviously know that Gaston will solve the case and all will be revealed before the ending comes – and it certainly is a Scooby Doo one, but the journey there is worthwhile and it works swell with the overall tone of the film. It’s not full horror we’re dealing with but more horror light, familiar themes and the odd comedic element here and there, such as goofy sound effects. Aguillón’s character is focus for the comedy, Gaston the detective work and Maria Elena the ghost story.

Where I found the cinematography of Victor Herrera on The Black Pit of Dr. M to be visually stunning, The Living Coffin unfortunately doesn’t really live up to the previous one. It looks good enough, but the skilful use of shadows, contrasts and effective lighting seem to do nothing when the movie is shot in colour. This is odd as both movies where shot in the same year. Although something that does keep up standards is the script by Ramón Obón, and the effectively haunting soundtrack by Gustavo César Carrión. I wish that I could find some of his music available on CD. Mexico would be a grand venture for a future mixtape.

Don’t go to The Living Coffin expecting a horrific tale of ghost and superstitions in a western setting, you may get your hopes up to high. But if you want an entertaining and fun movie that really is easy to take in, demands nothing from it’s audience – only because it’s half a century old, and we are accustomed to the tricks it plays on the audience - then this is something you want to check out.

Gaston Santos in action!