Tuesday, October 11, 2016

ALUCARDA


Alucarda
Original Title: Alucarda, la hijas de las tinieblas
Aka: Sisters of Satan
Directed by: Juan López Moctezuma
Mexico, 1978
Satanism / Occult / Possession, 85min
Distributed by: Mondo Macabro






Contributing pieces on non-mainstream fare for film festivals, magazines, podcasts and other channels of cultural enlightement, like my mini-tour introductions of Cannibal Holocaust in both Gothenburg and Stockholm for the Swedish Film Institute, is partially what I do as I preach the gospel of the alternative history of film. Being part of Stockholm's Monsters of Film Festival, I wrote a piece on Emiliano Rocha Minter's Tenemos de carne (We Are the Flesh)... which got me thinking of stuff that must of, or most likely, inspired and influenced Minter in his murky provocative decent into sex and death. Naturally, Juan López Moctezuma’s movies came to mind. More than others, Alucarda, because Alucarda is one of, if not the best, demonic possession movie ever made. It’s creepy, disturbing, gory, loads of fun and holds extremely high production values that all add up to make it one of the most entertaining movies to come out of Mexico during the seventies.

I would be wrong to slot this film into the nunsploitation genre, even if this would seem fitting. There’s certainly a whole lot of nuns engaging in battle with the evil forces at bay, it also 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 that usually characterize the nunsploitation genre going on. It’s not the nuns that are sinful, but the unfortunate young women it focuses on, if you find taking your kit off and falling to lesbian desires to be sinful that is. What we've got here is a good old possession movie, where the devil corrupts the minds of young innocent women in his quest to dominate and enslave the world, with a healthy dose of exploitation traits along the way.

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 get's named Alucarda. The child is quickly rushed off by a strange old woman, leaving the mother to face the strange entity that's lurking in 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 gives the impression of being quite eccentric and intense as she shows Justine her collection of secrets she’s found out in the woods surrounding the orphanage. In reality it’s all bits of twigs, dead beetles’ and small pebbles, but it sets her naïve character trait that will be necessary to build the Alucarda persona. Our impression of this peculiar young girl, is exactly the same as the other girls in the orphanage have, and we realize that Alucarda is a loner without  any real friends. Which is why she from this first meeting attaches herself to Justine so determinately, 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 run into hunchbacked Gypsy [Claudio Brook who you may recall from Guillermo Del Toro’s Cronos 1993, Robert Fuest’s satanic gem 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, he too 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, looking much like the 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?) freeing the demonic forces that arise. The audio is ferocious, as the feeling it evokes is as if the sound producer 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, the more profoundly it disturbed me, getting under my skin. This trick is used throughout the rest of the movie, acting as a haunting audio key to indicate that satanic forces are at work and with them being overdubbed in this crude way, it's almost indicating that they are even larger than the movies narrative.

From here on the movie goes deep into surreal bizarro land, the dark forces are free and the possessions are rolling in like fog over a bay at night. Safely back at the orphanage, the girls undress and engage in a blood pact, swearing to stay friends for ever, to never 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 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 Justine, calling 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 earlier mentioned growling and snarling on the audio is right there adding to the visual wildness on screen.
 
Back at school the girls taunt their nun teachers and recite long passages of biblical texts only to blaspheme them and evoke the name of Beelzebub. The nuns are terrified and call in Mother Superior [Birgitta Segerskog most probably a Swede who I cant’ find anything more info on] who after talks with Father Lázaro [David Silva who also starred in several Moctezuma and Alejandro Jodorowsky movies] decides that the two girls need to be exorcised. He brings all his religious gusto to the exorcism session where the girls are tied up to crosses and stripped bare. I've never quite understood why the church always have to tear the clothes of the poor women going though exorcisms, but that’s what they always do and it brings a creepy feeling of hypocrisy as the nuns are all wrapped up in their habits whilst the poor young girls are exposed. Finally the monks get to see some skin, but you need that nudity in there or it wouldn’t be called exploitation cinema would it.

The local doctor, Dr. Oszek [Brook in his second part] arrives just in time to witness Justine perish 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 ever. Demons are fought, bathes in blood ar taken, 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 all shown in full visual manifestations that will blow your mind.

 
Watching Alucarda one could easily feel that this movie, kind of like Italian nunsploitation flicks, is anti clerical and a clear protest against the church, exposing their sinister sides and dark secrets, but I feel that the movie really is more for than against when it all comes around. 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 great to see how easily we are lead on, just how easy we are to manipulate, how gullible we really are. As Moctezuma has spent time building 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. The church; Sister Angelica, Father Lázaro and Dr. Oszek are actually the protagonists. Talk about mind-fucking your audience! It’s a wonderful trick when it works and Moctezuma pulls it off with bravura, as we really don’t want the girls to be punished, we want them to come out victorious against the forces of the church, we also turn our cheek to face the dark side.

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.  Moctezuma makes the source material his own in every way possible using it more as an inspiration and 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 forgetting the controversial, 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 the heck out of certain people. Justine's name is also a reference to De Sade’s Justine text, where the themes of good and evil, opposing oneself against the accepted traditions, 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 magnificent. 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'm quite sure that the reason why the movie feels theatrical is because of Moctezuma’s background in 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. He received producer credits on both. It was merely a question of time before Moctezuma would direct his own full length feature, and in 1973 he 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 saw him refuse compromising with his principles and, again just like Jodorowsky, become quite rigid in his filmmaking, which is one of the reasons why he only directed a handfull movies during his career. It’s all about quality and not quantity for visual directors of Mocetezuma's stature.

But those five movies he left us with still hold up 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... Alucarda being at the top of the class!

NOW IF WE ONLY COULD GET IT ON BLURAY SO WE CAN MELT OUR BRAINS WITH SOME MAGNIFICENT MEXICAN PSYCHOTRONICA IN H.D., EVERYTHING WOULD BE GREAT!

Image:
Full screen 4:3, which presumably is the OAR.

Audio:
Dolby Digital Stereo with English or Spanish dialogue options.

Extras:

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.