Last Friday Americans got blitzed celebrating the short-lived victory of Mexican forces against the invading French army on 5 May 1862 at the First Battle of Puebla. Cinco de Mayo enjoys greater observance here in the United States than in Mexico due to a.) the strong ties between the United States and Mexico dating back to the nineteenth-century (ties that are increasingly fraying as Mexico becomes a failed state) and b.) major marketing campaigns by American alcohol manufacturers. Now we invoke the spirit of the Puebla and General Ignacio Zaragoza with tequila and tacos, a sort of Mex-American Independence Day.
To commemorate the occasion, streaming service Shudder has uploaded some Mexican horror films to their lineup, and I managed to squeeze a couple of them in over the weekend between The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023; review coming soon), a second screening of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. III (2023; I enjoyed it more the second time), Mother’s Day, and recovering from last week.
I’d never heard of the two films before, but both were enjoyable. The first was Darker than Night (1975; sometimes “Blacker than Night” or “Blacker Than the Night“; Más Negro que la Noche in Mexico); the second—my favorite of the two was Poison for the Fairies (1984; Veneno para las hadas in Mexico).
Darker than Night (1975)
This films involves four beautiful señoritas who move into a house stuffed with antiques and an old maid, whom they derisively call a “mummy.” One of the girls, Ofelia, inherited the house from her late aunt, an old, Victorian Mexican woman with a a black cat, Bequar. Part of the stipulation for living in the house is that Ofelia must take care of Bequar.
While Ofelia immediately feels a connection to the cat, her three roommates treat the animal with disgust. Ofelia (correctly) feels grateful for the opportunity to live in an amazing house packed to the rafters with priceless artifacts, and takes her obligations seriously. The old maid is creepy but dutiful, and reminded me of the maid and her husband in The Haunting of Hill House (the book, not the film).
It becomes clear that the spirit of the old aunt is not quite gone, and isn’t exactly pleased with how the girls are treating her pampered cat. When the cat turns up dead—allegedly starving to death in the locked basement—the girls start dying, one by one.
As the characters slowly realize that the deceased aunt’s spirit is taking revenge for her dead cat, Ofelia denounces her aunt as a cruel, arbitrary woman. Then the only other surviving girl, Marta, confesses that she and the other three girls killed Bequar after that cat scratched Aurora. That drove Aurora into a classic, hot-blooded, Latin rage, and when the cat fought back, Marta and Pilar jumped in to help finish the job.
Ofelia realizes that she will be spared, and Marta is impaled on the late aunt’s knitting needles not long afterwards.
What makes this fairly simple story so interesting is the setting. The house is exactly what I’d think the home of an aging Victorian dowager to look like in 1970s upper class Mexico: basically, the set of a Hammer horror film. It’s overflowing with knick-knacks and furniture that looks somehow both overstuffed and uncomfortable. Watching the four “modern” Mexican women try to cope with the supernatural—which almost all of them seem to scoff at instinctively—was fun.
That’s a classic horror trope—the secular humanist who comes face-to-face with the supernatural, often in a lethal way (as if the film is saying, “Ah ha! Now you’ve learned the hard way, unbeliever!”)—but being in Mexico somehow makes it even more poignant. I knew that there was a strong anticlerical strain in Mexican (and most Latin American) politics, but I always figured they were mostly good, devout little mestizo Catholics, with a few wacky pre-Christian beliefs tossed in for some local color. Apparently, our friends south of the border were going through the same cultural revolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s as we did, complete with rising divorce rates and rising hem lines.
Darker than Night is a fun supernatural slasher (although “slasher” might be a bit of an overstatement) and worth a watch.
Poison for the Fairies (1984)
Now this film is a hidden gem of Mexican cinema. The story involves two girls, the orphaned Veronica and the wealthy but shy Flavia. Veronica is obsessed with witches, which her nanny insists are real, and makes it her mission to befriend and beguile Flavia.
Flavia is impressionable and looking for a friend, and Veronica’s insistence that she is actually an ancient witch titillate the sheltered girl. Flavia is a decent and obedient schoolgirl who, over the course of the film, goes further and further along with Veronica’s outrageous claims.
The film does a good job of casting doubt on Veronica’s alleged powers while still leaving open the possibility that she’s engaging in actual black magic. Even if she isn’t, she’s an emotionally manipulative bully who strongarms Flavia into bringing her along on a family trip, where the two gather the ingredients to concoct a potion, the titular “poison for the fairies,” the sworn enemies of witches.
Flavia is legitimately terrified by her friend and her “powers,” to the point that she suffers from strange nightmares. The fear stems from the untimely death of Flavia’s piano teacher. Flavia and Veronica perform a ritual to get Flavia out of piano lessons; at Flavia’s next lesson, her piano teacher collapses and dies (that part really got to me—how many of my students are performing Satanic rituals right now to get out of piano lessons?—gulp!).
The scene establishes that the piano teacher had already suffered from two strokes, smoked heavily, and was in poor health, but Flavia is totally convinced that she and Veronica have committed murder via black magic. The fear that Veronica might turn that power on her is what keeps Flavia compliant.
On the family trip to Flavia’s father’s farm, the two traipse around the countryside, gathering up frogs and snakeskins and all manner of nasty things in order to brew their potion. The film scores these scenes with light music, as the two girls are, essentially, two little girls enjoying a fun romp through the countryside.
However, there’s a sinister darkness to every scene, as even when Flavia is having fun, she’s under the coercion—the “spell,” as it were—of Veronica. Veronica’s obsession with maintaining dominion over Flavia grows more intense, almost mimicking demonic possession.
The “supernatural” elements are ambiguous, but the film heavily implies that there’s nothing magical taking place—Veronica is just a sociopath and outcast who wants a wealthy friend under her thumb. That she’s in the package of a twelve-year-old girl makes it even creepier.
As for the ending, let’s just say Veronica faces the fate of all witches, real or imagined.
Both of these flicks are worth watching, but Poison for the Fairies really ramps up the creep factor. It’s chilling, even though most of the key events of the film take place in broad daylight, under the guise of two children playing make-believe.
Watching these flicks also made me realize how far Mexico has fallen. Sure, it’s suffered from many of the problems that plague the former Spanish colonies—corruption, crime, strongman rule, etc.—but it was always a proud country, and actually quite prosperous.
Let’s hope it can get back to that—for their sake and ours.
One thought on “Monday Morning Movie Review: Two Mexican Horror Films”
Fun reviews! Thanks, Port!
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