Mexico's Horror Films: The Unknown and the Unexpected

In this brief review of the horror genre in Mexico, you will find the convergence of nightmarish beings, the narratives that inhabit the night, the unknown that lies shortly, and the fight against the evil of a saint from Tulancingo.

Mexico's Horror Films: The Unknown and the Unexpected
Horror Cinema in Mexico. Images: Photos: Especial

A brief review of the horror genre in Mexico where nightmare beings, night-dwelling narratives, the unknown that lies shortly, and the fight against the evil of a saint from Tulancingo converge. Let's talk about horror cinema.

Origins of horror cinema in Mexico

Fear is one of the fundamental emotions of the human being, we all fear something, from abstract concepts that haunt us throughout our lives, realities that we find difficult to accept or creatures passed from mouth to mouth, and the unknown that torments us in the solitude of our minds.

This fear has been captured in the seventh art since its beginnings with George Mélies and The Devil's Mansion, passing through German expressionism with the films The Golem, Nosferatu, or The Cabinet of Dr. Calligari, to later cross the ocean to the new world, where Carl Laemmle and Universal Picture established the Hollywood gothic, bringing to life emblematic creatures of literature and legend such as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, The Mummy, The Invisible Man and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, who established horror cinema.

The Story of Mexican Horror
The Story of Mexican Horror

In Mexico, the horror genre entered its popular imaginary, being La Llorona by Ramón Peón in 1933, the film that instituted this genre and established the iconography of the Mexican myth that continues to be portrayed in films such as Kilómetro 31 or the animated film La Leyenda de la Llorona.

But it is with El Fantasma del Convento, directed by Fernando Fuentes in 1934, and Dos monjes, by Juan Bustillo Oro, that this film genre creates the atmospheres seen in North American and European films. At the same time, both films deal with the narrative lines that will be addressed later. On the one hand, we find the fear that comes from the outside, such as paranormal entities, cursed objects, and places, while at the other extreme is the internal fear, that which is gestated in our minds.

From Transylvania to the Mexican province

One of the mythical figures in monster movies is the Vampire, many have been stories that deal with this creature condemned to quench his eternal thirst with the blood of human beings.

Max Schreck was the first vampire in the cinema when he played Count Orlok in Nosferatu, Bela Lugosi was in charge of immortalizing Universal Pictures' classic Count Dracula, Gary Oldman did the same in Francis Ford Coppola's version and Mexico adopted him to the rural environment with El vampire.

A Horror Film of the Transylvanian Wastelands with the Monster
A Horror Film of the Transylvanian Wastelands with the Monster

In 1957 German Robles, under the direction of Fernando Méndez, transferred the monster from the Transylvanian wastelands to the Mexican province, in a film version that is recognized worldwide for its originality in using humorous touches in a terrifying story with a sensual and erotic protagonist, as well as the technical and aesthetic handling provided. Although some special effects have been questioned (in the future they would be a problem for the genre) for their flaws, the film became a worldwide reference.

Two to three falls

Beginning in the 1950s, a new genre emerged in Mexican cinema, in which the gladiators of the ring were transferred to celluloid to fight the most terrifying threats to exercise justice: the cinema of wrestlers.

El Santo, silver-masked and idol of the Mexican people, faced the vampire women in 1962, making him known around the world. The film caused interest by mixing Mexican wrestling with international horror characters and its audacity.

El Santo, silver-masked and idol of the Mexican people.
El Santo, silver-masked and idol of the Mexican people.

Mythical was the confrontation where El Santo and his rival Blue Demon must join forces to fight against classic horror monsters, or that fight with Mil Mascaras against some mummies from Guanajuato under the orders of Satan, the ghost of a wrestler from the past.

Although these films could not provoke fear in the audience, they used their fantastic elements to create a universe of excess where anything is possible for these Mexican heroes.

Between the paranormal and the mortal: Taboada

At the end of the 1960s, theatrical marquees were dominated by films with no form or substance, until the arrival of the Mexican Duke of Horror, Carlos Enrique Taboada. With limited budgets, Taboada focused on strengthening the plots and characters to keep the audience captive; he solved the lack of economic and technical resources by resorting to the presence of subtle images and giving greater weight to that which is outside the scene, but which sows terror.

The Cult Cinematic Universe: Taboada's Theme
The Cult Cinematic Universe: Taboada's Theme

Taboada's stories resort to three constant elements: female characters, tinges of gothic romanticism, and his anti-clerical stance. The horror tetralogy, composed of Hasta el Viento tiene miedo (1968), El Libro de Piedra (1969), Más negro que la Noche (1975), and Veneno para las Hadas (1984) became cult films that marked an entire generation and have been impossible to imitate, despite recent attempts.

A pact with monsters

In the 1990s, Guillermo del Toro arrived from Guadalajara to Mexico City to join the production of the horror series La hora marcada (The Marked Hour), in which Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki also participated.

Influenced by horror films, Mexican magazines Duda and Leyendas tradicionales de México, his family's exacerbated Catholicism, fairy tales, and Frankenstein's monster, he created a pact with monsters to change the way we envision them, creating memorable films in the fantasy genre such as The Invention of Chronos (1993), where he gives us a new vision of vampirism, The Devil's Backbone (2001) or Pan's Labyrinth (2006), which mixes the fantastic and supernatural with a historical context where we question ourselves about who the monsters are, those inhabited in our imaginary or those who look more like us.

Guillermo del Toro and the Monsters
Guillermo del Toro and the Monsters
"When I was a kid, monsters made me feel like I could fit in somewhere, even if it was an imaginary place where the grotesque and the abnormal were celebrated and accepted."

Cronos once again opened the door to the fantastic, but it was in short films and animation where he found fertile ground to realize himself, examples of which are Hasta los huesos, by René Castillo, and El octavo día, the creation of Rita Basulto and Juan José Medina, who through stop-motion created colorful, bizarre and imaginative stories.

A new century, a new horror cinema

In 2001, El espinazo del diablo, a ghost story set during the Spanish Civil War, was released. The success of the co-production between Mexico and Spain allowed the development of new horror feature films such as Kilómetro 31, Somos lo que hay, La región salvaje or México Bárbaro.

This last title is an anthology based on Mexican oral tradition, where Aztec sacrifices were carried out by criminal groups, the relationship between the figure of the "coconut" and organ trafficking, shamanism, goblins, or mythical places such as the island of dolls in Xochimilco converge.

In 2017, screenwriter Issa López took on the role of director and created the film Vuelven, which was acclaimed by specialized critics, director Guillermo del Toro, and writers Stephen King and Neil Gaiman.

"Horror is the ideal genre to confront what happens in our reality, which is already terrifying in itself, we are already full of ghosts," said Issa López.

Vuelven is a fable about a Mexico violated by organized crime and corruption, whose consequences hit children mercilessly, leaving us with a country full of ghosts.

Issa López's horror story accumulated awards at national and international horror film festivals, such as the Fantastic Fest in the United States, where the screenwriter became the first woman and first Mexican to win the award for best director.

The Mexican Ghost Story
The Mexican Ghost Story

That same year saw the premiere of Belzebuth by Emilio Portes, which blends crime thrillers with stories of demonic possession, in the pure style of the exorcist. The film was praised for its special effects, which approached realism and gave credibility to the story; the work of the production earned them six Ariel nominations.

However, the impetus given to the genre in the last two decades is largely due to festivals such as Macabro, which was founded to rescue, revalue, and disseminate independent horror films.

After twenty years, the pioneer horror festival in Latin America has implemented support for filmmaking, such is the case of the documentary Alucardos or with the Macabro Lab, a multidisciplinary laboratory that promotes the production of works and the training of filmmakers.

Almost 90 years after the first horror film in Mexico, there is still much to explore in this genre that has captivated us, frightened us, and made us laugh in our seats because of its excesses, therefore and our need for the occult we will continue to wait for the strange, supernatural, fear and the grotesque to come together in stories that remain latent once the lights are turned on and the frames stop.

Source: Gaceta UAEH, by Alejandra Zamora Canales