The New Wave Horror Films of Mexico
For a few years now, Mexico has been the country to watch when it comes to horror and sci-fi movies. With sci-fi, Mexico has come out with great conceptual pieces that allow for lots of discussion between characters. With horror, there are allusions to the gorgeous colors and compositions of the ‘60s Italian giallo movies, combined with the palpable fear we’re all marinating in during this modern age. Whether it’s because they are less censored by the MPAA or because they have a more ruthless approach to subject matter, Mexican directors and their movies have all the substance of underground movies with the style and flair of more mainstream cinema. These movies are gorgeously made and art-directed, while covering uncomfortable or odious topics such as cannibalism, incest, existential crises, and medical insurance fraud.
A lot of people who are interested in international films are already familiar with the works of Mexican directors and movies in the past, from Luis Buñuel to more recent directors Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Alejandro Jodorowsky, though Chilean, filmed and released some of his most famous works in Mexico, and Mexican audiences were receptive to his strange and experimental works. Guillermo Del Toro has discussed the differences between how movies are received in America versus how they are received in Mexico: such as John Carpenter’s The Thing being quite beloved when it was released in his country, yet panned and ignored in the US. This willingness to be open to a story that requires a lot of interpretation or doesn’t conform to the guidelines of traditional narratives may be what’s feeding the new wave of films being released. We are seeing similar trends in more indie American movies but often times the ones that stray that far from the rules of stories and pay-offs are considered underground movies and don’t receive the same distribution options or the same amount of money behind them.
To start, we’ll cover a movie that isn’t really horror or sci-fi but is most certainly upsetting and is horrific because its topic hits very close to home for a lot of people. A Monster With a Thousand Heads / Un Monstruo de Mil Cabezas (2015), directed and produced by Rodrigo Plá and written by Laura Santullo, is more of a dramatic thriller (I guess? What I love about these movies is their unwillingness to be neatly categorized) about a woman whose husband has cancer. He’s already not doing great (ya’ know, cancer) and then the insurance company decides that they’re no longer covering his treatment. His wife, Sonia (Jana Raluy), takes it upon herself to fix this problem but that doesn’t mean filling out paperwork or talking to lawyers. She goes on a rampage, unwilling to rest until her loved one is taken care of. It’s a tense movie that gives a lot of space to the characters, as well as the actors playing them; nobody’s morality is painted in black and white. Even as Sonia is attempting to fix how she and her family have been wronged, she’s not seen as blameless once she herself starts committing crimes. It’s complicated and doesn’t give easy answers, which is how a good movie should play out.
In the bizarre corner, we have We Are the Flesh / Tenemos La Carne (2016), directed by Emiliano Rocha Minter. This movie has been labeled as experimental horror since we as humans need to put things into categories even when there isn’t one that works. The less said about We Are the Flesh the better but it isn’t for everyone and it shouldn’t be read as anything literal. There is a narrative running through it in the loosest sense of the word: two siblings come across a hermit in what appears to be a bombed out urban wasteland. He offers them food and shelter while slowly pulling them into a world of depravity. Beyond that, it’s an immersive and unnerving collection of scenes and images featuring explicit sex, menstrual fluid dripped straight from the source into someone’s mouth, and a crazy man being reborn out of a homemade womb that share the looming theme of “what would we do if we could?” If we were given the chance to have no inhibitions and no one to answer to, how depraved would we get?
What’s interesting about seeing We Are the Flesh in America is how many critics and theaters alike were issuing warnings about the graphic nature of the movie, yet the graphic nature had to do with sexual content. There were a few small moments of violence, nothing compared to most mainstream action movies, and the rest was unsimulated sexual acts and two long-held shots of the siblings’ genitalia. It’s funny to see the hoopla being made over body parts and sex to the point of warnings when violence or gore is shrugged off. Perhaps this is another aspect of what makes Mexican movies so powerful to American audiences.
Though many of the films coming out of Mexico would be considered low budget by mainstream American standards, they are in fact receiving money and support from production companies. This is not like John Waters shooting freaks with an old camera; these are produced and well-crafted works and there is no better example than Isaac Ezban.
Ezban is the director of 2014's The Incident / El Incidente and 2015’s The Similars / Los Parecidos. El Incidente is about moments that change the trajectories of our lives and what happens, in a metaphysical scene at least, when someone allows themselves to be trapped by a choice they made. Los Parecidos is about a group of people in a train station on a rainy night that slowly change into the same person as the night goes on and no matter how much they try to stop the transformation, there’s nothing they can do.
Both movies require a character towards the end to basically explain what is going on, in one case because he’s just figured it out and in the other because he has been the one causing the problems. They are both science fiction in some ways, Los Parecidos moreso, but it would be misleading to simply label them as such. Ezban seems unconcerned with what the audience is thinking in some ways, as he traps characters in nightmares with no real explanation. Even the ones you might get don’t seem like the full story, but it’s not unsatisfying. Rather, it’s a step into your own exploration of the movie and the topics approached. What is especially interesting about Ezban’s work is how he commits to a premise and the art direction he employs. El Incidente traps characters in a Möbius strip of their own making for years on end, while Los Parecidos traps characters for one nightmarish night. The world he makes for them and how they interact with it becomes almost as interesting as the high-minded concepts he’s offering.
It’s difficult, as well as dangerous, to classify or group a whole country together. There are most certainly movies coming out in Mexico that are full of sweetness and pretty people falling in love with each other. However, it’s the underground movie topics being crafted and filmed with the financing and attention of arthouse movies that is really causing people to take notice of a country whose contribution they may have overlooked. Like a lot of non-traditional films these are not for everyone, but those who do connect with them will find a whole catalogue of gorgeous, grisly options that promise to show you the best and the worst of this funny little group known as humans.
Veronica’s favorite Mexican movies: We Are the Flesh (2015), Los Parecidos (2015), El Incidente (2014), Monster with a Thousand Heads (2015), Post Tenebras Lux (2012), Año Bisiesto (2010), Timecrimes (2007), Mai Morire (2012), Narco Cultura (2013)