D: Juan López Moctezuma. S: Alexis Arroyo, Juan López Moctezuma. Story: Alexis Arroyo, Tita Arroyo, Juan López Moctezuma, Yolanda López Moctezuma. P: Max Guefen, Juan López Moctezuma, Eduardo Moreno. Cast: Tina Romero, Claudio Brook, Susana Kamini, David Silva, Lily Garza, Tina French, Birgitta Segerskog. US dist (DVD): Mondo Macabro.
Juan López Moctezuma, “cultured maverick” of the Mexican New Wave, had his cultural trial-by-fire in the Sixties as a disciple of Jodorowsky’s Panic Movement, a gonzo blend of Artaud, Dada and whatever in-your-face craziness sprang to mind (e.g. flagellation, naked girls dipped in honey, giant vaginas and, um, tinned apricots). After minor credits on Jodo’s Fando y Lis and El Topo, Moctezuma moved into directing himself in the early Seventies, gleefully seizing the chance to put into practice all he’d learned from his crazed mentor. This, his third film after Mansion of Madness(1973) and the US-shot Mary Mary Bloody Mary (1974), is a uniquely demented entry in the short-lived nunsploitation craze that followed in the wake of Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971). Like Jodorowsky, Moctezuma takes a Buñuelian delight in outraging Catholic sensibilities, though for Alucarda the surrealist content is scarcely in evidence; much of the time it plays like a European horror comic, with the sex and violence ramped up to absurd levels. But if it’s conventional horror you’re after, señor, you’ve come to the wrong place…
Justine (Susana Kamini), an orphaned teenage girl, is taken in by the nuns of a Mexican convent, there to live a life of pious reflection. Her roommate Alucarda (Tina Romero), however – another orphan of similar age – has a far less innocent disposition. Spirited, irreverent, she seems ill-suited to this cloistered world. Justine finds herself strangely drawn to the girl, and the pair become fast friends. [Wiggle your eyebrows suggestively NOW.] But their peaceful idyll can’t last. After an encounter in the woods with a Rumpelstilskin-like gypsy – boasting a set of eyebrows David Hemmings might envy – and a heavy-breathing Evil Spirit in a local crypt, Alucarda and Justine begin to manifest distinct signs of demonic possession. Hardly surprising, given that the gypsy is really a 6th-category heliophobic demon – not to be confused, of course, with 5th-category philatelist demons (a far more sedate bunch). Before long the girls are getting frisky with each other, misplacing their clothes and disrupting holy services with blasphemous heckling. Deciding drastic action is needed, the Mother Superior (Birgitta Segerskog) takes a leaf from the Jess Franco playbook and subjects the girls to prolonged torture – y’know, just to drive out the evil spirits. (Nothing dodgy, honest. All right, so we need to strip Justine naked. It’s WHAT GOD WANTS. Okay?) Long story short, in the annals of big mistakes, this one’s a doozy.
The overheated product of a deranged stew of influences – Huxley, Stoker, Sade, Le Fanu, Mathew Hopkins, Erzsebet Bathory – Alucarda is 90 minutes of sheer pandemonium. Pitched at a level of wild, shrieking hysteria almost from the word go, it makes The Devils seem like a work of Bressonian sobriety. Naked woodland sex orgies! Screaming! Naked crucified girls! More screaming! Torture! Arterial sprays! Lesbianism! Burnt living-dead nun decapitation! Er…did I mention the screaming? Hard to believe, but things get even more hectic in the rip-roaring finale, with a naked girl rising from a coffin of blood and nuns burning up left and right like roman candles. No wonder the Catholic church is so popular.
Though this is not, primarily, a film of subtle shades, some care has been taken with its visual design. Alucarda’s first appearance, sliding into hazy focus behind Justine, suggests she is a materialisation of the goody-goody heroine’s inner desires. The convent interior is striking, decorated in a style that might be called “troglodytic primitivism”; its halls and cells resemble an organic system of caves, festooned with stalactites and looming, ineffably sinister carvings of the crucified Christ. The costumes, too, are highly unusual (when they’re worn at all): the nuns’ habits look more like mummy’s wrappings dipped in blood. (Alucarda, on the other hand, is dressed entirely in black from head to toe – pegging her not just as a non-conformist, but as a Thoroughly Bad Lot.)
A faithful adept of the Panic ethos, Moctezuma whips his cast into a habit-rending frenzy, with all the gusto of Renato Polselli on an unmedicated rampage. Susana Kamini oozes brimstone as the smoking-hot heroine, throwing herself into the more extreme material with a startling lack of inhibition. Claudio Brook (later in Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos) has a double role as the anti-superstition convent doctor, and as the demonic Rumpelstiltskin – well, you can’t say he lacks range. But the film’s real powerhouse is Tina Romero as the devilish Alucarda, whose tiny frame seems to channel all the fury of hell; watching her dole out fiery retribution to all those holier-than-thou matrons, you can’t help but cheer her on. Her performance is far from one-note villainy, though: underneath the rage there’s a frightened girl, terrified by the powers she’s unleashed, and which she cannot control. The best monsters invite our pity, and Alucarda certainly qualifies on that score. Girls just want to have fun, after all – and who can blame them for that?
Alucarda is mind-bogglingly lurid, frequently hilarious and enormous fun – though you may need a quiet lie down afterwards. Sadly, the film was not a hit on its first release – one can only imagine the stunned reaction it provoked in Mexican audiences – and so the planned sequel (Alucarda Rises from the Tomb) was never made. We should thank our lucky stars (and Mondo Macabro) that we have access to this film at all, as it’s hardly the sort of thing Mexican conservationists are likely to prioritise. Mondo’s DVD was one of their first, and firmly set the tone for their subsequent releases: salacious, often crazy, and utterly indispensable. The full-frame (1.33:1) transfer is sharp and colourful, in the main, having been sourced from the original negative. The closing titles look a bit ropey, as does one gory insert shot (presumably culled from a lesser source due to negative damage), but apart from that it’s a fine presentation. MM supplies their usual roster of informative supplements, including an excerpt from their UK documentary on Mexican horror, an interview with Guillermo del Toro, and detailed notes on the film’s director. The disc can be had quite cheaply, and needless to say is a vital addition to any sleazehound’s library.