Tribute to Mexican Horror

Over the past few years, nostalgia has been a key element behind the drive and continuous success of the horror genre. The surge of remakes, sequels, and the newly coined term “requels” is par for the course at this rate, and even most original projects can’t help but openly reference the works that inspired it. Many of us were introduced to these inspirational classics at very young ages, from A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, and Child’s Play, just to name a few. These are often great conversation starters and they continue to stand the test of time. However, there is a particular collection of horror films that I find to be incredibly overlooked online but have sparked many unexpected conversations locally. As the title of this article suggests, I’m referring to a specific catalog of Mexican horror films that I am equally or even more nostalgic for than the aforementioned classics.

Like many of you, I’m sure, late-night television and video stores were responsible for exposing me to an array of horror films from the early 70’s to the late 80’s. I remember Mexican television stations being a bit more lenient with their censorship, too, and a lot of the films in this list were aired annually around Halloween time. Most of my online friends are unfamiliar with these flicks because they simply weren’t available in their region, but I’ve been able to bond over them with local Hispanic peers, typically those older than me, and their enthusiasm towards the topic never fails to excite me. Even my veterinarian was able to recognize my cat’s name from one of the films listed below, so my desire to pay tribute to them in hopes of either taking you down a nostalgic trip or exposing you to something new became palpable. Please note, this is not an extensive list of all of the great Mexican horror films out there, but rather a condensed compilation of my personal favorites.

The Films of Carlos Enrique Taboada

Carlos Enrique Taboada was an award winning Mexican film director and writer, most notable for contributing most of his work within the horror genre. A large majority of his horror films lean into the spectrum of gothic horror, relying heavily on atmosphere and fear of the unknown as opposed to in-your-face scares. Many have compared him to the likes of William Castle (House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler), but I think that comparing the two de-emphasizes their personal contributions to the world of cinema. Other filmmakers such as Guillermo del Toro, Quentin Tarantino, and Leopoldo Laborde have cited Taboada as an influence on their work, and I hope (but have no doubt) that many more up and coming directors will continue to be influenced by him as well. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, you won’t be after reading this!

Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo/Even the Wind is Afraid (1968)

Possibly Taboada’s most popular film, Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo takes place in an exclusive all-girl school that practices harsh discipline and tight control. Claudia, played by Alicia Bonet, suffers from recurring nightmares where a mysterious girl calls out her name. After trespassing into a forbidden tower with a group of friends, their headmistress Miss Bernarda punishes them by confining them to the school during spring break. Incidentally, another student received the same punishment five years prior, which resulted in tragic consequences. Is the girl in Claudia’s dreams the student from five years ago and is calling out to her in order to warn her?

I actually didn’t watch this film until I was in my teens, and by then I was already very familiar with the Korean horror franchise Whispering Corridors. If you’re a fan of that series, or even the more recent Fatal Frame live action adaptation titled Zero, I would highly recommend Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo. Keep in mind that this is very much a film of its time, so while it may not be up to par with those other films production-wise, it’s fascinating to see the sub-genre at such an early stage. Haunted all-girl schools are a setting that I have yet to grow tired of, and if you also enjoy extremely subtle horror elements, over the top 60’s hairdos, and moderately sleazy strip tease dance sequences, this film has all of that in store for you!

El Libro de Piedra/The Book of Stone (1969)

The film follows a governess named Julia as she goes to work for a middle class family at their new home. Julia’s job is to take care of Silvia, the young daughter of her new employers, and assess her increasingly strange behavior. You see, ever since the family moved into this new house, Silvia has become infatuated with her new friend Hugo, which may seem innocent enough, right? Hugo is actually a ten thousand year old statue of a smiling little boy holding a book, and he reputedly talks to Silvia and tells her what to do. Things only get progressively peculiar when unexplained occurrences begin to make Julia question whether this is all just a fantasy fabricated by Silvia or there are metaphysical elements at work. Run, Julia, run!

Many of you might have already noted the plot similarities to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and its beloved 1961 adaptation The Innocents. Like Salvador Dalí once said, “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.” With El Libro de Piedra, Taboada manages to take a familiar premise and truly make it his own. The tenuous scares are few and far between, but they’re effective thanks to the storytelling and anticipation. I’m a big fan of the ending, which some viewers may predict some time during the third act, but I personally didn’t see it coming and it stuck with me for years. It has less in common with the grand finales of the Hollywood variety, and more in common with the low-key somber ending found in classic Japanese horror. 

Más Negro Que La Noche/Blacker Than the Night (1975)

After inheriting an old house from her deceased aunt, Ofelia and three of her friends move in and are instructed by the dour housekeeper, who they didn’t expect to find living there still, to take care of the aunt’s black cat, Becker. One day, due to initially unknown circumstances, Becker is found dead on the floor, urging Ofelia to provide him with a proper burial. There is a pronounced shift in the house’s atmosphere after this unfortunate event, and eventually some of the girls begin to see what appears to be the ghost of Ofelia’s aunt wandering the dark halls of her former home. Things escalate even further when the ghostly sightings turn out to be lethal, making the remaining girls wish they had never moved in.

“Becker” is the name that I gave to my cat, which, as I mentioned earlier, our veterinarian instantly recognized. At first he was unsure if it was just a coincidence, stating that I appeared too young to have seen the film. He then proceeded to tell me that he still remembers seeing the film at the cinema as a child and feeling absolutely terrified! I’ve had numerous interactions like this with other local folk, which is part of the reason why I wanted to create this list! The film pretty much checks all the boxes for everything you want out of a gothic horror flick; an inheritance, an old house, a creepy old lady with her black cat, and four beautiful women caught in the middle of it all!

Veneno Para las Hadas/Poison for the Fairies (1984)

Set in 1965, Veneno Para las Hadas follows Flavia, a shy and lonely aristocratic girl who is a new student at a parochial school. Shortly after her arrival, she befriends an orphaned girl named Veronica who has a reputation for being a bit strange. Veronica openly claims to be a real witch, and asserts that she can make anything she wants happen. Flavia is skeptical at first, but when Veronica begins to take credit for a series of strange coincidences, including the death of their piano teacher, she begins to fear that her claims are in fact true, and her own life may be at stake if she fails to adhere to Veronica’s increasingly selfish demands. Is she really a witch? Or is there a logical explanation for these twists of fate?

Veneno Para las Hadas is Taboada’s most celebrated work and won a number of Ariel Awards for Best Film, Best Director, and Best Cinematography. Interestingly, the film was shot almost entirely from the point of view of the two young leads; the camera position often remains at the level of their eyes which prevents the audience from clearly seeing the adult characters. This makes for an exceedingly intimate experience and subconsciously adds to the level of immersion. This is also Taboada’s most psychological work by far, playing out more as a character study and devoid of any conventional scares. Those who appreciate the likes of The Bad Seed and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane are perhaps the best audience for this, and I would personally rank it as being of the same caliber.

The Films Starring Pedro Fernández

If you grew up in a Hispanic household from the late-70’s to the mid-90’s, you are no doubt familiar with “Pedrito Fernández”. For those unfamiliar, Pedro Fernández is a famous singer, songwriter, actor, and television host. Born as “Jose Martin Cuevas Cobos, his stage name was composed of the names of his two favorite singers: Pedro Infante and Vicente Fernández. Having entered the entertainment world at a young age, I guess you can say that Pedro was Mexico’s sweetheart. Among his extensive filmography are a number of films that, as mentioned above, I frequently re-watched as a kid when they aired on late night television:

Vacaciones de Terror/Vacations of Terror (1988)

Pedro plays a character named Julio, who joins his girlfriend Paulina on a trip to a recently inherited vacation house with her wealthy family. The house is mostly in disrepair, and it doesn’t take long before strange phenomena begin to occur. Exploding eggs, an electrical system with a mind of its own, sudden hallucinations, you know, the works. While Paulina’s younger siblings are playing outside the house, Gaby, her little sister, falls into a pit where she finds a sinister looking doll that she keeps as her new toy. Things only get worse from there, as I’m sure you’ve surmised, because the doll turns out to be possessed by the lethal spirit of a witch who was burned at the stake.

Though mostly conventional, Vacaciones de Terror is a solid cursed doll film that became a cult classic due to Pedro Fernández’s involvement and the design of the doll itself. Her snow white skin, ebony hair, and soul piercing eyes make her both incredibly uncanny and undeniably memorable. If Living Dead Dolls ever made a replica of this doll, I would jump at the opportunity to own one and would most likely be forced to hide her whenever family members came to visit. The doll remains static throughout the film, moving only her eyes as she telepathically manipulates Gaby and wreaks havoc on those around her. She’s more Annabelle than Dolly Dearest in that regard, but much smaller in size compared to them both.

Pánico en la Montaña/Panic on the Mountain (1989)

Falling into the comedic sub-genre of horror, Pánico en la Montaña follows a group of three treasure hunters as they traverse a mine that the locals believe to be cursed. Pedro Fernández plays a character also named Pedro, and is accompanied by his uncle Beto, played by Adalberto Martinez, better known in the entertainment world as Resortes, and a local girl named Rebeca, played by María Rebeca. I imagine that the character names purposely mimic those of the actors portraying them for the purpose of satire, but I was unable to find concrete confirmation. Satire is actually the perfect word to describe this film, since it never truly tries to scare the audience.

The constant bickering between Pedro and Beto serves as the main source of humor throughout, but situational humor comes into play once the paranormal events begin to occur. As mentioned above, Pánico en la Montaña doesn’t really try to scare the audience, but instead plays with some of the tropes seen in films from the era. I wouldn’t say that it makes fun of said tropes, but has fun with them instead. Some of the kookiness of the film reminds me of Nobuhiko Obayashi (Hausu, Hanagatami), except toned down a couple of notches. For example, there are about two instances where the leads are running from the ‘big bad’ and the time lapse makes them look like cartoon characters. I guess you can think of this as a long episode of Goosebumps!

Trampa Infernal/Hell’s Trap (1989)

A resume with horror films from the 80’s would not be complete without a slasher! Trampa Infernal follows two rivaling groups of teenagers as they compete to find and hunt down a bear that wanders a nearby forest. These hunters quickly become the hunted after catching the eye of a masked Vietnam Veteran with an array of murder weapons at his disposal; the most notable being a Freddy Krueger-like glove. My family didn’t own a lot of VHS tapes but we did have a copy of Trampa Infernal, which of course means I was able to watch it over and over again. Unfortunately I have no clue what happened to this VHS tape, but the box art will live rent free in my head till the day I die.

Pedro Fernández‘s character is named Nacho this time, and I still giggle at the memory of his co-star Edith González, who plays Alejandra, repeatedly yelling his name in the third act. I don’t know about you, but the word “nacho” alone is enough to make me hungry. Interestingly enough, “Nacho” is actually the common short form of the Spanish name “Ignacio”, which happens to be the name of the man who invented the beloved Tex-Mex food! But I digress; anyone who loves obscure slashers will find plenty to enjoy here, including but not limited to adept death sequences, beautiful babes, and a killer with a cool distinct look, i.e. a pale white mask, eyes obscured by darkness, similar to Micheal Myers but not at all identical, saggy blond hair and forest green attire.

Vacaciones de Terror 2/Vacations of Terror 2 (1991) 

We haven’t seen the last of Julio yet! He returns in this sequel as a trench-coat wearing paranormal investigator, something he must have taken up shortly after the diabolical events of the first film. After meeting Mayra, an antique shop worker played by famous singer Tatiana, he is invited to her little sister’s Halloween birthday party, which is to be held at a closed movie studio. While attending said party, he notices that the sister is in possession of a doll that closely resembles the one from the first film, and realizes that this birthday party will turn into a birthday massacre if he doesn’t put an end to the doll’s wrath once and for all.

Of all of the films in this list, Vacaciones de Terror 2 is the one I am most nostalgic for. Not only does it feature the absolute best Halloween birthday cake ever (of which I was incredibly jealous of, being born in October myself), but it’s also much more over the top than the first film. The doll actually moves around this time, eager to feast on the accidental bloodletting that occurs at the party and morphing into a grotesque-looking demon as a result. This demon spends a large portion of the film walking around the closed movie studio, looking for victims to kill. Tatiana, who you may or may not know from El Espacio de Tatiana, even has her own musical number in the first act, which I completely ate up as a queer, pop singer-loving child! I still aspire to one day obtain or create a birthday cake identical to the one presented here.

Epilogue

While there are still a number of Spanish speaking films being released today, the amount of Mexican horror being produced has undeniably dwindled. We Are What We Are (2010), Mexico Barbaro (2014), and Los Parecidos (2015) are among the few that have been released more recently, and three of Taboada’s films were actually remade. There is a 2007 version of Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo, a 2009 version of El Libro de Piedra, and a 2014 version of Mas Negro Que La Noche. So far I have only seen the latter, which I found to be sufficiently enjoyable aside from some unnecessary jump scare sound effects. Many of the scenes that included them would have actually worked better personally without! Getting the opportunity to see it in a movie theater with my father definitely elevated my overall experience though, which is why I still revisit it often.

My goal with this list, aside from exorcising my desire to write it and taking some readers down a nostalgic trip, is to expose a new audience to these titles and hopefully spark some newfound interest in them. Unfortunately a lot of these films are hard to find nowadays, and even if you manage to grab a physical copy or watch one online, the quality of the picture is not up to par with what we’re used to today. I’m personally not at all fazed by the grainy VHS look, it certainly adds to the nostalgia, but I’ve witnessed enough complaints from others to know that it may be a problem to most. I would bend over backwards to one day assist in getting these flicks restored and re-released through a willing distributor, but until then I will happily settle for my current physical copies and the grainy uploads online! If any of these titles have piqued your interest, I hope that you enjoy them if you get a chance to check them out.

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