After producing Alejandro Jodorowsky’s incendiary first feature Fando y Lis (1968) as well as El topo (1970), Juan López Moctezuma went behind the camera in 1971 to make The Mansion of Madness (released in 1973), which was loosely based on an Edgar Allan Poe story. He followed it up with two vampire stories, Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary, shot in the USA with John Carradine in 1975, and Alucarda in 1978. Like Fernando Méndez and Carlos Enrique Taboada, Moctezuma was one of a handful of well-read Mexican directors who were interested in making horror films infused with cultural references and artistic ambitions. In Mexico, the genre was dominated at the time by populist lucha libre movies such as the Santo series, which pitched heroic costumed wrestlers against monsters, vampires and mummies. However, Chano Urueta’s take on Frankenstein, El monstruo resucitado (1953), and Méndez’s influential El vampiro (1957) had opened the way for a richer vein of horror, and the 50s and 60s were marked by a wave of delirious visions of terror that are still lauded for their visual beauty and atmospheric qualities.
Moctezuma was part of the Panique Theatre, which Jodorowsky had founded in Paris in 1962 with the Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal (on whose play Fando y Lis was based) and the French artist Roland Topor. The name was a reference to the god Pan, and the movement (or anti-movement, as Arrabal would have it) was defined by a combination of terror and humour. Influenced by Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, Panique embraced disorder, madness and excess, the grotesque and the irrational, to create an anarchic celebration of life. From Artaud they also inherited the interest in a magical and ritualistic kind of theatrical spectacle, which used violent sensory assault to open up new perspectives in the audience.
Moctezuma implemented these ideas in The Mansion of Madness, in which the patients of an insane asylum are allowed to run free as their doctor adopts an Aleister Crowley-influenced approach to their treatment. Set in the similarly confined environment of a convent, Alucarda took the director’s interest in strange cults and rituals further. Alucarda’s birth opens the film, her wretched mother, having been impregnated by the devil, delivering the baby in a crypt surrounded by diabolical, horned, half-goat statues. To protect the newborn from her terrible father, she asks a bizarre-looking gypsy to take her daughter to the convent. Fifteen years later, Justine, a young, orphaned ingénue, arrives at the convent to find herself sharing a room with the raven-haired, black-clad, wild-eyed Alucarda.
Alucarda is clearly out of place in the convent and her holy abode has not been able to suppress the devil in her blood. She draws Justine into her world, taking her to the derelict crypt of her birth where she proposes they take a blood oath, so they can be friends forever, ‘even after death’. The ritual is performed in their room at night, which, this being the 70s, involves both of them being naked as the gargoyle-like gypsy from the opening scene magically appears to make cuts on their breasts from which they drink each other’s blood. They find themselves in the forest, where a ritual performed by witches ends in an orgy. Intercut with this are images of Sister Angélica, who welcomed Justine into the convent, praying intensely until her face becomes bloodied and she levitates, apparently able to conjure up some sort of power that strikes down the gypsy witch leading the ceremony.
The clear lesbian undertones of the film come from Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’, on which Alucarda is very loosely based (the other literary reference is obviously Bram Stoker’s Dracula), but Moctezuma and his team of writers have made the story their own. The friendship between Alucarda and Justine has the devouring intensity of first love, but in the enclosed, all-female convent/hothouse, the girls’ repressed desires translate into demonic possession. The figure of Sister Angélica adds an interesting twist, turning the story into a spiritual lesbian love triangle. Her attachment to Justine is as dubiously excessive as Alucarda’s and is sublimated into a frighteningly exalted religious practice. The love triangle is complicated by Alucarda’s satanic nature and Sister Angélica’s self-sacrificial (‘angelic’) Christian figure, meaning that there is a lot more at stake than Justine’s affection: demonic Alucarda and holy Sister Angélica are battling over nothing less than Justine’s soul (the character is named after Sade’s unfortunate heroine, whose virtue is repeatedly assaulted by one group of perverted tormentors after another).
Alucarda has been seen as anticlerical, yet the depiction of religion comes across as very ambivalent, confused even. For a start, the convent is a very unusual religious edifice, a womb-like cave carved inside the rock. The nuns are dressed in off-white, red-stained robes and tight-fitting bonnets that make them look like mummies. Initially, there are intimations that Alucarda may be an adept of a natural religion, a religion of life opposed to the Catholic worship of death. The witches’ orgy contrasts with a later display of self-flagellation among the half-naked nuns and priests. An early, sumptuously sinister, almost painterly sermon takes place against the backdrop of a multitude of crucified Christs, creating an oppressive, macabre atmosphere. This is echoed in a later scene where Alucarda and Justine, naked, are tied to crosses for an exorcism ceremony. The dark, rich colours, the high camera angle and the cruelty of the ritual again conjure a memorable vision of religious maleficence.
And yet, Dr Oszek, who interrupts the exorcism and calls the officiating priest barbaric, is soon confronted with a gruesome supernatural phenomenon that destroys his scientific certainties and validates the priest’s beliefs. In one of the film’s most striking scenes, an undead (and again naked) Justine comes out of a blood-filled coffin to attack the devoted Sister Angélica. Alucarda proves a worthy daughter to her father when she unleashes hell upon the convent, stopped only by the body of the Christic Sister Angélica carried cross-like by the other nuns. All in all, you could say the Christian characters come out of this looking fairly reasonable in the circumstances.
The truth is that Moctezuma seems much more interested in extreme rituals of all kinds than in putting across an anticlerical message. The devil here appears in the form of Pan, as seen in the statues in the crypt and later in the goat’s head that presides over the orgiastic celebration in the forest, which clearly ties in with the ideas underlying Panique Theatre. The same actor, Claudio Brook (a Buñuel regular), plays both Dr Oszek and the gypsy, so that reason’s representative is also our mischievous guide into the occult and spiritual world, further undermining the rational standpoint. The many rituals, whether Christian or satanic, the orgy and the flagellation, the blood oath and the exorcism, are all marked by excess and strangeness, violence and beauty. The contrast between the beliefs that inform them is not what matters here; rather, the overall effect of their juxtaposition as grotesque and startling spectacles may well be designed to shock the audience into a new mode of perception.
Essay first published in the autumn 09 issue of Electric Sheep Magazine.
Picture credit: Alucarda (Dir. Juan López Moctezuma, 1978).