Mexico Barbaro (2014)

mexico-barbaroAnthology films can be a great way to showcase the talents of under-represented filmmakers and provide an avenue for short films to actually be commercially distributed. Typically, they will feature a common theme or wraparound story and in this case, Mexico Barbaro uses Mexican folklore as a unifying factor for the segments. As with any anthology some entries will outshine others, but what’s most important is the overall quality of the collection itself.

There are a total of eight entries, half incorporating supernatural elements into the stories and half focusing on themes of real-world horror. The first segment, Tzompantli, is an example of the latter and tells the story of a journalist who takes a dangerous meeting with a member of the Narcos to get information about the disappearance of a group of youths. This entry has particular real-world resonance as 43 Mexican college students did in fact go missing the same year this film was released. As far as the entry itself, it is not only well done and effectively bloody, but also draws interesting parallels between modern day cartel activity and ancient Aztec sacrifices. My chief complaint would actually be that it ends too abruptly and feels more like the beginning of a feature-length film than a stand-alone short.

On the supernatural side, the segment Jaral de Berrios delivers the most effective paranormal chills with a story of two old west bandits who hide out in a cursed building. This is the one entry that is most likely to instill you with a genuine sense of fear and is helped tremendously by excellent sound design and some very creepy atmosphere. Drain, on the other hand, does provide a decent amount of dread but falls a little short on delivering legitimate fear with it’s story about a teenage girl who’s blackmailed by a demon into doing an unsavory task.

Dolls was the only segment I felt an actual sense of disappointment with. It lacked creativity and originality compared with the other entries and brought up weird questions in the process. For instance, “Why cook a severed arm with a rubber doll? Are you eating the doll too? What the fuck is happening here!?” That being said, the fact that the filmmakers incorporated an incredibly creepy real-world location from Mexico, Island of the Dolls, for the short was very cool to see. On the flip side, the segment That Precious Thing delivers a very well-structured story about a teenage girl who goes to a cabin in the woods with her boyfriend to lose her virginity. It also incorporates some great 80’s style goo effects with some surprisingly dark subject matter.

What’s not surprising was the fact that the stand-out entry was from none other than Lex Ortega, who would unleash his gloriously brutal feature-length debut Atroz the following year. His segment about a little girl who’s scared of a local homeless man titled What’s Important is Inside is not only brilliantly conceived but also definitively plunges the entire collection deep into Extreme Cinema territory. But in addition to brutal gore effects and a storyline that couldn’t possibly be more disturbing, the segment also features some excellent social commentary, the real-world implications of which are far more horrifying than the short itself.

As far interesting concepts go, the segment Seven Times Seven delivers in a big way with it’s story about a man who goes to extreme supernatural lengths to seek his revenge. A truly fascinating entry with a well-crafted story that works perfectly as a stand-alone short. The final segment, Day of the Dead, may not be heavy on subtext but nonetheless closes out the film with a pitch-perfect blood-bath that is immensely cathartic and satisfying.

Despite the fact that Mexico Barbaro delivers a well-crafted anthology that utilizes many different styles of horror, it has been frequently maligned by many viewers and maintains a pretty mediocre overall rating online. I could spend time speculating on theories of inherent cultural bias and the impatience that Western audiences have for subtitles but I think there is a more fundamental reason for the lack of enthusiasm. This is, at times, an incredibly disturbing film and far more extreme than what you generally find browsing through Netflix. This can be a problem for casual genre fans that are unable to handle it when horror movies are truly horrifying. But if you have the cajones, do yourself a favor and strap the fuck in for this twisted pleasure from south of the border.


Romeo’s Distress (2016)

romeoRomeo’s Distress is a film that isn’t easy to classify as it does not fit neatly into a single genre. It’s not horror but more of a drama that’s heavily laden with dread and intrigue but also does get into more horrifying territory as it approaches the climax. As with any micro-budget film it’s success is going to be dependent on the level of innovation and creativity it brings to the table rather than high production values. So, is this film that was made for the shockingly low price tag of approximately $2,500 and shot well outside the studio system in New York state create an experience worthy of devoting eighty minutes of your time to? Well, let’s discuss.

The story follows James, (Anthony Malchar) an eccentric young man that spends his time taking pictures in graveyards, playing his ukulele and trying to dodge ass beatings from an angry jock named Bobby (Adam Stordy). When he isn’t going to court-mandated therapy or taking care of his senile grandmother, he gratefully escapes into his idyllic dreams of Jane (Kimberely Peterson) the girl he professes to love. Is he just a nice, misunderstood outsider….or is there something more sinister going on?

That’s about as much as I want to reveal of the plot because this is truly a film that is best viewed through fresh eyes. From very early on, writer/director Jeff Frumess establishes a sense of underlying menace and the feeling that there is much more to these characters than initially meets the eye. Indeed, the real fun here comes from seeing where the story will go as more and more information about who these people really are and the true nature of their relationships is slowly revealed.

Romeo also succeeds where many indie films fail by virtue of the fact that it doesn’t feel cheap. In fact, Frumess’ clever use of camera technique and color palette show an advanced sensibility and serve the story very well. The film is primarily shot in black and white with a few choice scenes, such as the dreams, bursting into vibrant color. Using black and white is certainly an artistic gamble but in this case it pays off beautifully and the film would not have worked nearly as well without it. The same can be said about the camerawork which utilizes close-ups and occasional high-contrast lighting to effectively give the film a tone that is subtly surreal.

Despite one or two weak links in the casting, the performances are generally very solid and well beyond what can normally be expected from a film of this budget. Malchar, for one, does an excellent job embodying a character that is quirky and eccentric while simultaneously being filled with sad desperation and rage. The real standout in this film however is Jeffrey Solomon who brings tremendous gravitas to the role of Jane’s father, Dale. He subtly and effectively communicates a genuine sense of menace and repressed emotional anguish that is simply mesmerizing to watch.

Now, despite the numerous positive aspects of this film, it does also have the unfortunate distinction of being one of those movies that continues past the point where it should have simply stopped. I of course won’t spoil it for you with the details but suffice to say the ending only works to the detriment of the overall story. It’s not a deal breaker by any means, but if the film had simply faded out two minutes sooner it would have immensely strengthened the overall production. But don’t let that deter you because, if you can find it, this is a cinematic journey worth taking and an experience that is well worth your time.


New Feature: Extreme Cinema

I have created a new Extreme Cinema category under the main menu where you will now be able to find the reviews of the darkest, weirdest and most fucked up films that I’ve reviewed.  New films that fit this criteria will go directly to this category from now on rather than the regular Reviews category.  

My Bloody Valentine (1981) vs My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009)


What better way to celebrate Hallmark’s manufactured love holiday than with the heart-ripping fun of the My Bloody Valentine films! In the same way that films like Black Christmas, Halloween (and yes even Uncle Sam) fully embraced their respective holidays, the MBV films truly own February 14th and integrate it as a central part of the story. The original is undoubtedly a significant early slasher but does it still hold up after thirty-six years? Conversely, the remake has the advantage of treading down a well-worn path with a story already laid out, but is it a worthy update? Well, let’s discuss.

The original takes place twenty years after Harry Warden, the lone survivor of a mining accident, takes his bloody vengeance on those he deemed responsible for causing it. He also blames the Valentines Day dance the men were hurrying to get to and demands that it never be held again. However, after two decades the incident has been relegated to the status of an urban legend and the townspeople no longer heed the warning as they prepare to resurrect the dance once again. As you can imagine, bloody mayhem ensues.

The remake follows the plot of the original pretty faithfully in some ways but also makes some significant changes in others. In this version we see Harry wake from a year-long coma following the accident to go on a bloody rampage that culminates with an attack on a large group of teens partying in the opening of the mine. After he is shot and believed to be dead the film then jumps to ten years later and focuses primarily on the survivors of the attack as the killings begin once again.

The original was not only known for being a landmark film in what many consider the golden age of slashers but also an infamous casualty of the censorship from the morality police known as the MPAA. After being severely cut for content an “extended” version was released in 2009 to coincide with the remake but bafflingly only has three of the nine excised minutes restored. Still, what was put back in was good and we are treated to a much gorier version than the previous R release. Being that the remake was released almost thirty years later, it naturally has slicker visuals and more graphic violence. However, the filmmakers also opted to present the remake in 3D which may have been an interesting novelty if watched in theaters or on a 3D TV but on a standard screen simply draws more attention to some unrealistic CGI effects. Those shots aside though, the remake does deliver copious amounts of blood and a lot of nice, gory kills.

Now, blood and gore is all well and good but when it comes to determining the quality of a film it really comes down to the story, the characters and the acting. Both films features characters returning to the town after a long absence, TJ (Paul Kelman) in the original because he couldn’t hack it in the “real world” and Tom (Jensen Ackles) in the remake, a survivor of the attack that inherited the mine from his recently deceased father. In both cases, their return is the source of significant tension for the characters as they reconnect with their ex-girlfriend (named Sarah, in both versions) who is now in another relationship. However, it is also a source of a melodramatic low point for both films as the men take a lengthy scene to have a heart-to-heart with Sarah and not the kind that involves it being torn from someone’s chest and put in a candy box like it does in so many other scenes. Overall though, the acting in both films falls into the realm of serviceable for the story but nothing particularly spectacular.

One difference between the versions is that the original features a few more scenes of grating comic relief which, thankfully, were absent from the remake. More significantly, the fact that while the original does present a solid, straightforward slasher, the remake is actually able to keep the plot more tense and engaging. This goes beyond gore and production value and really comes down to twists, red herrings and questions about who is really behind the killing that keep you wondering until the climax.

Being a Hollywood remake coming out decades after the original (and presented in 3D no less) everything about this screamed “cheap cash-in” to me at first. But in this case, director Patrick Lussier actually took the time to make sure the remake was done effectively, and it shows. So, if you are going by historical significance (as well as the nostalgia factor) then of course the original would take it, but in reality, that is always the case when comparing remakes and originals. Remakes tend to have the advantage visually with modern techniques and sleeker production values but usually fuck up the story and end up being worse overall. That didn’t happen in this case and if it comes down to a question of which delivers a better experience when you put it on today, I would have to go with the remake, and yes I’m as surprised as you.


Atroz (2015)

atrozAtroz, the Spanish word for atrocious and certainly an indication to the viewer that this experience is going to be anything but lighthearted. True to its title, the debut feature from Mexican director Lex Ortega is a harrowing journey indeed. Its style channels August Underground and its violent depravity reaches Human Centipede 2 levels of intensity. Much like A Serbian Film though, this movie plays out as more of a gruesome drama than a horror film but is so horrifying that it more comfortably fits into the Horror category than anywhere else. So, clearly its qualifications as an extreme film are indisputable but still, the most important question remains: “is it any good?”

After two men are arrested at the scene of a car accident that claims the life of a pedestrian, the police find a video camera in the car that contains a horrific video of them torturing a transgender prostitute to death. The film then alternates between the brutal interrogation of the primary suspect Goyo (Lex Ortega) and the graphic crimes on tapes that the police find during the investigation.

What instantly stands out about this film, aside from the extremely disturbing content, is the acting. The amount of commitment and realism that the actors bring to this project would be impressive for any film but the fact that this was a micro-budget production made for the $7,000 that Ortega and the producers crowd-funded really takes it to the next level. Even down to the smallest part, the actors really deliver in this film but Ortega himself truly stands out with his portrayal of the hulking, depraved monster that is Goyo.

Another key part of this film is the gore effects, which are very well done, especially considering the budget. Now, any would-be filmmaker can put gore into a movie but what makes the film so effectively disturbing is the fact that Ortega knows how to work within the limitations of his budget. Instead of attempting to create elaborate scenes and special effects that become laughable when done on the cheap, he wisely sticks to gritty, realistic violence and very upsetting concepts. Graphic genital mutilation, rape, incest, shit eating, bloodplay and various kinds of torture are all presented in unflinching detail.

While I enjoy seeing so much horrific imagery in a film, in this case it does work to its detriment a bit as well. Since the film is a little light on narrative, the extended scenes of violence do have a bit of a numbing effect without a more substantial storyline to support them. Still, the aforementioned acting quality and gore effects do a lot to elevate the overall film beyond the status of a run-of-the-mill Torture Porn making this a relatively minor issue.

A larger issue is the fact that the film falls into the standard found footage trap where characters are recording even at times where it makes no sense to do so. It is logical to think that the killers would be recording their crimes for their own sick pleasure. However, the fact that some of the transitional scenes, as well as large parts of what occurred in Goyo’s old home movie, were recorded is a bit of a stretch. I can certainly understand why Ortega included them as they were essential to the story itself but a bit more justification, like the camera already being on for a different reason, would have helped rationalize the fact that they were being recorded in the first place.

Truly, the only time Ortega completely breaks with the reality he’s created is during a playback of one of the tapes that suddenly cuts to an interior shot of the person’s ass who is being raped with the barbwire dildo (that’s right, you heard me). Certainly a cool effect but doesn’t make sense within the found footage context.

Minor structural criticism aside, this is an incredible film. Not only does it go to levels of darkness rarely achieved in cinema but it also provides powerful social commentary. The film opens with a statistic that 98% of 27,500 murders in Mexico are unsolved which sheds a light on the reality of the real world conditions the filmmakers must contend with. In the behind-the-scenes featurette producer Abigail Bonilla talks about the climate of fear and hopelessness felt by so many residents of Mexico City and how the film represents the violence and horror they see all around them. To properly understand and appreciate this film it is necessary to remove yourself from the initial gut reactions to the horrific images and realize that this is an artistic expression of the rage and fear that so many people feel from living in a dangerous environment. The movie also accurately reflects the fact that monstrous humans aren’t created in a vacuum but in most cases are the result of abuse and a lack of understanding.

A must-see for fans of extreme cinema and those looking for a film that delivers a legitimately hardcore horror experience. Atroz claims to be the most graphic and goriest film ever made in Mexico and ya know what, I would absolutely believe it. But let’s hope that it doesn’t stop there and perhaps this will encourage other daring filmmakers to push the boundaries and create art that resonates on such an intense, visceral level.