Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Halloween Havoc: FANGS - THE WOLF MAN (1991)

Thanks to Jerry Warren and K. Gordon Murray, most of the exposure that the English speaking world has had to Mexican cinema has been the campy kind. Made even more so by terrible dub jobs, chainsaw editing and sometimes reshot inserts. I'm not saying that these patchwork releases are deserving of ire or even not entertaining, I'm just saying that not all Mexican horror cinema falls in the much over-used "so bad it's good" category. Sometimes in spite of budgetary shortcomings, they are solidly crafted entertainment.

A lowly race horse trainer, Cristobal (Miguel Angel Rodriguez), has nightmares of crawling through underground tunnels, a girl in a white gown and being bitten by something. In his miserable real life, he has to deal with the nightmare of a rich, sneering horse owner Roman (Jose Elias Moreno) who treats him like dirt any chance he gets because he is jealous of his girlfriend, Susana (Olivia Collins), engaging in idle chat with the lower classes. Adding to his troubles is the fact that he desperately wants to be with Susana, and his snobby ex, who has moved up in social circles, wants to get back together with him.

The next night he sees the woman in white from his dreams near the stables and he chases her through fog into underground tunnels where he finds a jewel encrusted idol. You'd think this would be where a giant boulder would roll out of nowhere to crush him, but instead the girl in white tells him that he can keep it. It is the key to unlock his soul and has the power to release his ancestors, the only catch is if he misuses its power, he will pay an ambiguous price. Suddenly Cristobal wakes up from the dream, but sees that the idol is sitting on his dresser. Was it real after all? Who cares because he's now rich! One by one he sells off the jewels to buyers who seem hypnotized by their beauty.

Flush with cash, Cristobal starts getting cocky and some weird things start happening to him, including tearing into a chunk of raw meat with animal frenzy. When Roman sets his thugs on Cristobal out of jealousy, Cristobal savagely beats them, breaking one of their arms to the point where the bone sticks through the skin. Can't say they weren't asking for it though. With each jewel things get stranger and stranger until he finally finds himself transforming into a wolf-like creature who is running around at night, retrieving the stones by tearing the new owners to pieces.

That description really doesn't do this film justice. This low-budget outing was directed by Rene Cardona III and written by veteran exploitation writer/producer/director Ruben Galindo Aguilar (credited as Ruben Galindo) the man responsible for 1973s SANTO VS. THE KILLERS FROM OTHER WORLDS, and produced Raul Galindo Ubierna (credited as Raul Galindo) who has a much smaller resume, but includes such classics as CEMETERY OF TERROR (1985) and GRAVE ROBBERS (1990), both directed by Ruben's son Ruben Galindo Jr. (aka Ruben Galindo Ubierna) Got all that? Good because I'm confused as hell. Sorting out the Galindo's is incredibly difficult, even in Spanish.

The first thing that becomes clear is that Cardona III and Galindo Sr. were genuinely trying to make a serious horror film, complete with dream sequences, surreal moments, expressionistic camera set-ups and the all-important fog. This is not a slam-bang quickie for the home video market, this is clearly meant to be a major release in the Spanish-speaking world.

During Cristobal's meltdown after selling all of the jewels, we get a major transformation sequence at the race track, Cristobal sprouts hair, fangs and his back arches and his face pushes out. Sound familiar? Yep, it's like Rick Baker on a budget, sort of a MEXICAN WEREWOLF IN... err.. MEXICO! The movie is just like AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981), aside from the lack of Nazis, nurses, porno theaters, and sarcastic walking dead. Oh, and no exotic local, or soft-drink spokesperson. Ok, actually it's nothing like AMERICAN WEREWOLF aside from a few key elements. When Cristobal starts really going nutso and slaughtering people in the stables, he wakes up naked, no not in a zoo with a bunch of live animals, but in a stable with a horse that ripped apart. Another tip of the hat comes when Susana, who is realizing that something strange is going on, finds Cristobal's clothes on the floor with some strange goo, ala CAT PEOPLE (1982). There's also a bit of JAWS (1975), when Roman tells the police chief that he will hunt the animal for a fee. If the plot had been a carbon copy of one or the other, I would have probably enjoyed it anyway, but as it was, I think you might be able to legitimately call that an hommage. Or maybe that's bullshit and it was just a bit of plagerism. Either way, it's a hell of a lot of fun.

The acting may be a bit "enthusiastic" in places; the tragic romance is punctuated the latin penchant for high emotions, but for what it is, the actors do an excellent job of not leaning into hamming it up. Rodriguez' sweaty, tortured transformation scenes may echo David Naughton's in AMERICAN WEREWOLF, but he is definitely giving it his all.

Cardona III was born too late to get the world-wide exposure that his grandfather and father benefited from during the '70s and even the '80s when the English speaking theatrical market was far more interested in distributing culturally diverse cinema. It's a far cry from these days where the only foreign film you are likely to see in a US cinema is a Michael Bay film that has been partially financed by the Chinese. It's a shame too, because with some solid backing, I'd love to see what he could do for the same $10 million that AMERICAN WEREWOLF cost.

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