Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Pan's Labyrinth (2006) movie poster

director Guillermo del Toro
viewed: 11/11/2017

It had been a decade since I saw Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth on its initial release in the theater. Like a lot of people, I’ve considered it his best film, certainly a partner to his 2001 The Devil’s Backbone.

I generally enjoy del Toro’s work, though his more commercial stuff seems thin on substance, if aesthetically pleasing and occasionally pretty fun.  I follow him on social media and even got to go see his collection of stuff at the LACMA Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters.

In 2007, my kids were 6 and 3 so I didn’t take them to see Pan’s Labyrinth at the time. I’ve long thought they might enjoy it, but only just now got around to sharing it with them.

I was surprised that my daughter was sort of nonplussed about it. I’d thought she would dig it more. My son, as is his wont, fell asleep early on but wanted to watch it again.

I think it holds up pretty well. The aesthetics and story are nice, the performers solid. It’s a dark fairy tale about childhood, escapism and fantasy. The CGI doesn’t hold up as well, but it never does if you ask me. Maybe it’s not as deep or rich as it could be, but I’d still call it his most complete film.

Night of a Thousand Cats (1972)

Night of a Thousand Cats (1972) movie poster

director René Cardona Jr.
viewed: 10/20/2017

“He’s an excellent butler and as faithful as a cat,” so says star Hugo Stiglitz of his Man Friday, Dorgo. A man that he will eventually feed to his man-eating kittycats after Dorgo manages to beat him at chess. An almost Trumpian faithfulness.

Night of a Thousand Cats is a sleazy thriller about sexual predator (Hugo) flying around Mexico City in a helicopter scoping out victims. It’s got to be said, if all stalkers flew helicopters, they’d be a lot easier to spot. He smokes a wacky collection of pipes between abductions, sexual encounters, and murders. He eventually grinds up folks and feeds them to his cats, keeping victims’ heads in glass bottles for kicks.

It’s actually actually kind of a “roughie”. And it gets added creepy factor for the his tracking of child victims as nastily as adult women.

At 63 minutes, it’s a swift affair, trimmed from its original hour and a half. Add into that creepiness some dodgy treatment of the film’s feline stars, and you’ll probably want a shower afterwards.

Night of the Bloody Apes (1969)

Night of the Bloody Apes (1969) movie poster

director  René Cardona
viewed: 10/01/2017

Night of the bloody rapes, AMIRITE?

Night of the Bloody Apes is such a mashup of early 1960’s style (and lady wrestlers) with gore and nudity all over the place. The gore is indeed heightened by the inserts of actual heart surgery footage including holding a still-beating heart outside of a torso. The other gore might be less convincing, like murdering a guy by ripping off his bloody toupee/scalp, but it’s copious.

In some ways the movie is quite sentimental. The mad doctor’s love for his son is the motivation for his experiment of placing a gorilla heart into a human being. Combining man and an organ from a less evolved primate triggers what is bestial in man, his less evolved instincts/drives, leading him on a campaign of rape and murder.

And turns him into a lumpy faced monster.

Mexican horror films are pretty consistently awesome.

Demonoid (1981)

Demonoid (1981) movie poster

director  Alfredo Zacarías
viewed: 07/24/2017

When a movie poster should have been a pinball machine.

Alfredo Zacarías’s Demonoid is moderate fun. Dull and not too compelling, it leads from Guanajuato, Mexico (and some cool real life mummies) to Las Vegas and beyond. Really, this is a “possessed hand” movie and is at its most entertaining when the hand is doing its thing, squishing faces and attacking people.

Samantha Eggar and Stuart Whitman try to keep plausibility alive, but outside of some decent moments and flashes, Demonoid only achieves mild levels of trash fun. Not utterly unworthy, not fully worthy either.

Hard Breed to Kill (1967)

Hard Breed to Kill (1967) image

director Rafael Portillo
viewed: 05/22/2017

Hard Breed to Kill (Un tipo dificil de matar) is a Mexican Western from 1967 whose biggest named star is Slim Pickens. It seems to be a most obscure picture. It’s also a pretty good one.

The film opens on action as a gang of bandits robs a farmer of horses, wounds him when he tries to fight, kills his friend and kidnaps his pretty blonde wife. When the title rolls, you might even think you’re in for some seriously intensive action.

There you would be wrong. Instead, what ensues is a slow journey towards the Mexican border with the husband in pursuit. What is interesting is how humanized the bandits become, with only young tyro (Paul Heslin) as the eager, trigger-happy youth with a chip on his shoulder. Other members of the crew are friendly men, hoping to settle down a set up a farm of their own. Even the lusty bandit who tries to put some moves on the blonde knows that no means no and only cajoles her.

In the end, the rather taciturn hero hunts down and kills the bandits, one by one, and ultimately almost seems the film’s real villain. I also found it interesting how director Rafael Portillo uses moments by watering holes for reflective flashbacks of the kidnapped woman to earlier, happier moments with her husband.

Hard Breed to Kill is ultimately almost meditative in pace and plot. And features some really decent cinematography on the cheap as well.

 

The Holy Mountain (1973)

The Holy Mountain (1973) movie poster

director Alejandro Jodorowsky
viewed: 02/02/2017

Alejandro Jodorowsky is a cool dude and all, but about a decade ago I finally watched El Topo (1970) and came away seriously appalled. Not shocked by the content but I completely hated the movie. And I like weird movies. It’s taken me 10 years to get around to queuing up another Jodorowsky.

Interestingly, I liked The Holy Mountain almost right off. And eventually all the way through.

The Holy Mountain is a psychedelic, tripped out search for god or some sense of the universal in a chaotic and overwhelming universe. There seems as much sardonic humor as genuine enlightenment, and the pathways are mixed mash-ups of a number of faiths and ideologies. And drugs. Mind-expanding drugs.

The late 1960’s and early 1970’s were almost like a collective cultural point of self-reflection, inward-seeking, of questioning Western culture, experimenting with ideas from the outside, opening up. The individual self-exploration metaphorically expanded to mass culture. And its findings in search for enlightenment and awareness included certain aspects of freedom, but also delusion, dementia, and darkness.

It’s the kind of time and place that allows for a film like The Holy Mountain to be created. It is in some ways almost a necessity of the time.

Jodorowsky’s surrealism here, still very much his own, has a more Buñuelian sensibility, or so it seems. It’s also a kaleidoscopic head-trip of the bizarre and fetishized. So much goes on in moments, it’s impossible to take in in a single viewing.

I still think Jodorowsky’s a cool guy. I still hate El Topo. But I do find The Holy Mountain to be a wholly different ball of wax.

A Monster with a Thousand Heads (2015)

A Monster with a Thousand Heads (2015) movie poster

director Rodrigo Plá
viewed: 12/27/2016

The premise of A Monster with a Thousand Heads is sort of promising.  It’s a thriller in which a wife and mother (Jana Raluy) is driven to extremes to get healthcare for her gravely ill husband. Like a lot of people (in a lot of places), the challenge is the insurance, not wanting to pay for certain treatments, not really caring about the patient or customer.  And frustrations are huge.

Raluy takes a handgun to negotiate. First with her insurance rep and then with the CEO, his attorney, and a board member.

To its credit, it’s a tight little film at 75 minutes.  But to its discredit, the escalation seems too quick.  Access to the executives too easy.  And the ultimate deus ex machina too facile.

Director Rodrigo Plá shoots the film interestingly, often through windows or through odd vantages which made me wonder about the intent of the choices.  Interesting camerawork and good performances can’t ultimately elevate it above its shortcomings.

Attack of the Mayan Mummy (1964)

Attack of the Mayan Mummy (1964) title

directors Rafael Portillo, Jerry Warren
viewed: 11/29/2016

Do I like bad movies?  Yes, I like bad movies.

When you cop to liking bad movies, you watch a lot of bad movies knowing that they’ll be bad.  And when they turn out to be wonderful, amazing bad movies, your little world is justified and you are thrilled.  But then there are bad movies that don’t offer the charming redemptive comedy that you look for in a bad movie.

Sometimes a bad movie is just a bad movie.

Director Jerry Warren picked up Rafael Portillo’s 1957 Mexican flick The Aztec Mummy, selected bits and then shot around it.  What he shot around it is largely a couple of guys talking.  And talking.  And talking.  They even talk in voice-over narration over some of the original Mexican footage.  The story is so incredibly convoluted, I’m certainly your eyes will roll back into your head at several points.

It’s amazingly boring.

Sadly, the original Mexican flick looks like it could be good fun.  From the few Mexican horror films from the 1950’s-1960’s that I’ve seen, I would LOVE LOVE LOVE to see more.  Attack of the Mayan Mummy only dangles those tidbits for you.  Tempting, but not delivering.

One of the rare bad movies that I actually recommend avoiding.

Simon of the Desert (1965)

Simon of the Desert (1965) movie poster

director Luis Buñuel
viewed: 06/08/2016

Though he was the first filmmaker accepted as a member of the Surrealist movement, Luis Buñuel was far more than an artist reduced to such singularity.  With dozens of films made over a 40 year career, produced in Spain, France, and Mexico, the singularity is Buñuel himself, an auteur with a truly sprawling career.  And by now solidified into one of my all-time favorites.

Simon of the Desert is unusual in that it is only 46 minutes long.  There are varying and somewhat conflicting stories as to whether the film was originally to be feature-length and then ran out of funding, or as star Silvia Pinal tells it that it was part of some triptych that included directors Jules Dassin and Federico Fellini. Not that it matters.

It’s a wry and playful telling of the story of saint Simeon Stylites, who lived on top of a column in the desert for some number of years as a sign of religious devotion.  Coming from a director who famously said, “I’m still an atheist, thank God,” this version of events includes the gorgeous Pinal as Satan as coquette, child, even a form of Christ, and takes a sharp turn at the end from the 5th century Syria to 1960’s Manhattan and a very interestingly choreographed rock-and-roll discotheque.

What’s it all mean?  I’ll leave that up to each viewer or more scholarly writers.  Sublimely filmed by cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, it’s another fine work by one of the greatest and most unique of 20th century cinema.

The Vampire’s Coffin (1958)

The Vampire's Coffin (1958) movie poster

director Fernando Méndez
viewed: 10/25/2015

Netflix seems to have abandoned trying to offer more obscure and cult films lately.  At least to my eye.  They’re letting their once robust DVD stock taper and decline and their streaming services have shriveled in the areas that most interest me.

So, when a flick like The Brainiac (1962) or The Vampire’s Coffin (1958) shows up, it pops out on the site.  Both films star Abel Salazar and come from a Mexican film industry with good production values and are both “Spooktacular!”, if you will. I would love to see more 1950’s-1960’s Mexican horror films, if anyone is listening.

Besides sharing Salazar, the two films seem moderately randomly chosen, perhaps more so The Vampire’s Coffin (original title: El ataúd del Vampiro), which turns out to be a sequel for the 1957 El vampiro, also starring Salazar and directed by Fernando Méndez.  Why have the sequel and not the original?

It matters little to figuring out the story, though at the same time, the characters are constantly referencing the events of the first film, in which they uncovered a vampire and apparently killed him.  The Vampire’s Coffin starts out with grave robbers, one of whom is a doctor interested in researching the vampire for science.  What I’m guessing is a seriously convoluted happenstance, this ghoulish doctor’s co-worker is Dr. Enrique Saldívar (Salazar) who happened to have been the one to have killed the vampire in the first place.

The film slues back and forth between eeriness and light comedy.  The vampire, played by Germán Robles, is straight out of central casting, all ready for Halloween, dressed like Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee.  At times, he turns into a very squeaky bat, dancing around on very visible wires.  And to be honest, he’s a pretty ineffectual vampire.  He rarely sinks his teeth into anything that sticks.

The film is actually very effectively shot, with some nice scenes in both a graveyard and later in a wax museum.  It shows signs of a very slick film industry, one which sadly hasn’t been imported nearly enough.  I would love to see more.