Hitting a wall on October viewings that aren’t the good old standbys like Halloween or Trick ‘r Treat? How about taking a trip to Mexico, Chile, or Brazil? Our neighbors to the south have a deep and rich culture of horror movies that run the gamut of standard horror fare like vampires, zombies, Satanism, possession, witchcraft, and hauntings that have their own unique flavor. Some of the genre’s most amazing films come from Mexico and points beyond but often go unheralded in the States. Guillermo Del Toro is probably the biggest name from Mexico most American audiences will know, having directed mainstream American films like The Shape of Water, Hellboy, and Mimic. But in his native home he launched his career with beautiful and horrific films like his debut Cronos, shot in Mexico, and The Devil’s Backbone, shot in Spain.
When I think of great countries for horror, Italy and Spain always spring to mind. In Italy, you’ve got guys like Sergio Martino, Dario Argento, Umberto Lenzi, Lucio Fulci, and Mario and Lamberto Bava, just to name a few, who created stylish and nightmarish visions. In Spain, Narciso Ibanez Serrador, Jess Franco, Jose Larraz, and Amando de Ossorio could give the Italians a run for their money in atmosphere and erotic terror. I feel like with the release of Issa Lopez’s critically acclaimed Tigers Are Not Afraid, Gigi Saul Guerrero’s step into the mainstream with the Blumhouse/Hulu co-production of Culture Shock, the hit film based on one of Mexico’s most famous folk tales, The Curse of La Llorona, and Del Toro’s enduring popularity, it’s time that the innovators of Mexican and South American horror start to enjoy the sort of boutique movie label renaissance that the likes of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci have enjoyed from Arrow Video, Blue Underground, and Severin. [Side note: based on critical reception, The Curse of La Llorona isn’t a ‘beloved’ addition to the Conjuring universe of films, but it was shot on a $9 million dollar budget and grossed $122 million. Sorry, that’s a hit. Don’t @ me.]
Horror in Mexico really started in the 1930s with Juan Bustillo Oro’s El Fantasma del Convento (The Ghost of the Convent) and Dos Monjes (The Two Monks). The western dominated movie houses for decades. It wasn’t until the 1950s that Mexican horror films really started to carve out a niche for themselves among audiences, with films like El Vampiro and La Maldicion de la Llorona (aka The Curse of the Crying Woman), not to mention the very popular wrestling/horror crossovers of the Santos and Blue Demon films, like Santo Contra Las Mujeres Vampiro (Samson vs The Vampire Women) and Santo en el Museo de Cera (Samson in the Wax Museum). American distributor K Gordon Murray purchased the rights to roughly thirty Mexican horror films, had them dubbed and retitled in English, and made them international hits. In the 60s, the films started getting a little more racy and violent, with titles like Night of the Bloody Apes and Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon. But unlike in America, where the modern age of horror began with George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1969 and paved the way for more serious and adult cinematic masterpieces in the 70s, like Last House on the Left, The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Mexico’s horror industry slowed way down. It wasn’t without its enduring classics through the next few decades, though. Take the nunsploitation classics Alucarda and Satanico Pandemonium (which was also the name of Salma Hayek’s character in Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn) for example.
The above just barely scratches the surface of the history of Mexican horror and doesn’t even get into any of the history of horror in South America. The below list is in no way definitive or exhaustive. I’m still learning myself. I hope, though, I’m able to turn you on to some new titles and inspire your own search into the numerous amazing horror films of Latin America. Not every film listed below has received American distribution, or if they have, they’ve gone out of print and the only way to see them may be on YouTube. Some are currently streaming on Amazon, Shudder, and Netflix. Happy hunting, and feel free to add your own titles in the comments below.
Alucarda aka Alucarda, The Daughter of Darkness 1977. Directed by Juan Lopez Moctezuma. Notorious for its blasphemous themes and erotic violent content, Alucarda is regarded by fans as one of the greatest nunsploitation films ever made and often draws comparisons to Ken Russell’s The Devils. Full movie available on YouTube.
Santa Sangre (1989), directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Hailing from Chile, Jodorowsky made a number of strange and iconic films like Fando y Lis, Holy Mountain, and El Topo, as well as writing a number of amazing graphic novels, and famously setting up an ambitious take on Dune, which unfortunately died in pre-production. Santa Sangre, in my opinion, is his finest work. A horror movie, wrapped in a fairy tale, wrapped in a melancholic psychological thriller that happens to be both funny and devastating. It is a peerless masterpiece.
At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul aka A Meia-Noite Levarai Sua Alma (1964), directed by Jose Mojica Marins. Marins directed and starred in this, Brazil’s first horror film, as Coffin Joe, a character he would go on to play in various mediums until 2008. At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul follows the devious exploits of an undertaker with no use for religion or superstition. He pursues “the continuation of blood” through the body of a perfect woman, for which he rapes and murders across a trilogy of films including This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse and Embodiment of Evil.
El Vampiro aka The Vampire (1957), directed by Fernando Mendez. Aside from the film being set in Mexico, El Vampiro isn’t a million miles from Tod Browning’s Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi. But German Robles makes a striking Count Karol de Lavud. The film is strikingly stylish at times and never boring. It’s also notable for being the first time we see an onscreen vampire with elongated canine teeth, as we saw no fangs in Dracula. In F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, Count Orlak had elongated incisors. Also, props to this film for having a pretty decent fake bat and transformation.
Here Comes the Devil (2012), directed by Adrian Garcia Bogliano. This is a director from Chile who came to Mexico to make an Italian possession film. I walked into a festival showing of this film having no idea what I was about to watch and I left dragging my jaw on the floor. It not only deals in the demonic, but in the consequences of vigilante justice, sexual abuse, incest, and the cost some secrets may carry. With a fever pitch third act and a devastating ending, Here Comes the Devil is a great achievement, but not for the faint of heart.
Tintorera aka Tintorera: Killer Shark (1977), directed by Rene Cardona Jr. While being one of the numerous Jaws rip-offs to hit in the wake of Spielberg’s classic, it really has more in common with Emmanuelle sex films of the 70s and 80s. But as a huge fan of animal attack movies, I couldn’t leave it off the list. Besides, despite some critical eye rolls, it’s still better than most CGI heavy shark films of the last twenty years.
Mexico Barbaro 1 and 2 (2014/2017), directed by various artists. As with any anthology, these two are a mixed bag. Some of the segments that I really didn’t like were based more on content/story than execution, although between the two films there are probably two really shitty entries. Both films are definitely worth your time for the entries that do work, because the highs are certainly high. Interestingly, in part one, the three best are from filmmakers who were newcomers in the industry: Laurette Flores, Edgar Nitto, and Gigi Saul Guerrero (her “Dia de los Muertos” is a damn masterpiece). Lex Ortega delivers the most disturbing and chilling part with “Lo Que Importa es lo de Adentro,” which had me so shook I stopped the movie for a break. Part two doesn’t quite achieve the same heights as part one, but “La Leyenda de Juan Soldado” and “Paidos Phobos” do a great job adapting two classic folk tales. Michele Garza’s “Vitriol” is worth the price of admission alone. “Ya es Hora” should please fans of splatterpunk and “Exodoncia” is a disturbing slab of body horror.
Somos Lo Que Hay aka We Are What We Are (2010), directed by Jorge Michel Grau. I fell in love with the 2013 film We Are What We Are, directed by Jim Mickle, not realizing he’d simply made an English language remake of a recent Mexican film. Grau’s 2010 original is more visceral and horrifying and less of a stylish art house family drama of the 2013 version. And that’s not a knock to either film. I love them both, but their story connectivity is minimal. Grau has more to say about class division. Grau (who also provides a harrowing segment in Mexico Barbaro) shot the film on location in Mexico City and paints a vivid, yet gritty portrait of a family in extreme crisis.
Mar Negro aka Black Sea (2013), directed by Rodrigo Aragao. Not to be confused with the Jude Law Black Sea, this is a film I found in my research but haven’t watched yet. Apparently, its the third in a trilogy of Aragao’s eco-horror trilogy and looks to be an insane creature feature pushing into young Peter Jackson territory. Just look at this trailer and tell me you’re not intrigued!
Tigers Are Not Afraid (2017), directed by Issa Lopez. I talked about this movie at the top of the article, but I really want to drive home the point that you need to see this movie. It was my favorite film of last year and now it is streaming on Shudder. Following the lives of some young street kids whose lives have all been touched by cartel violence, Lopez weaves a tale of bleak and heartbreaking horror, but does so with a grace and beauty that will hold your heart captive. (You can read my full review HERE.)