Sunday, October 4, 2015

Haloween Havoc: SHRIEK OF TERROR (1991)

The illustrious Rene Cardona (born Rene Cardona Andre) is arguably the godfather of Mexican genre cinema, in more ways than one. A member of the 1924 Cuban Olympic Fencing Team, Cardona broke off his medical studies in his homeland of Cuba due to the political and economic turmoil and like so many others, Cardona transplanted himself in the US. While continuing his studies in New York in his early 20s, Cardona's dashing good looks got him cast in the first film production of GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1928), which was remade in 1953 by Howard Hawks, but sadly did not include Cardona.

After moving from New York to Hollywood, Cardona quickly began writing, directing, producing and acting in films, including the first Spanish language film shot in Hollywood, HAVANA SHADOWS (1929). He was in fact the first person to make a film in multiple language formats; silent, English and Spanish, with the same cast, and was the youngest film executive at the time. Following this minor triumph in Hollywood, Cardona moved to Mexico to become almost an instant success, ushering in the Golden Age of Mexican cinema and fathering the equally prolific Rene Cardona Jr. Cardona Sr's efforts include comedy, drama, science fiction, wrestling, horror, adventure, westerns and pretty much any other genre you can think of. His films inspired his son, Cardona Jr., to continue in his footsteps making some of the best genre films to come out of Mexico during the '70s and '80s. Cardona Jr. in turn fathered Rene Cardona III who also continued in his father and grandfather's footsteps, and has made a slew of entertaining genre films, including this one; SHRIEK OF TERROR (1991).

Posing as an outing for his family, Class A jackass Roberto (Hugo Stiglitz) drives out to an old Aztec temple to meet his brother Carlos and his buddy Eladio (Rojo Grau). After sending his wife Laura (Edna Bolkan) and 5 year old daughter Gabby off to have a picnic in the woods, Roberto and the boys don their fedoras for some good, old fashioned tomb raiding. After walking in and busting up one wall, they find nothing but trinkets and bones. Roberto, furious, stomps off after grabbing a piece of bone. Thinking that the bones might be worth something, Carlos and Eladio grab some too, only to find themselves under a barrage of fire from the local yokels who don't care too much for them grave robbin' city folk. Of course this doesn't stop a few of them from stealing a few, possibly magic, bones for themselves. As soon as they grab the bones, something awakes and roars.

After high-tailing it out of the temple, the leader of the posse reports this news to the local shaman, Colibri (Roberto Ballesteros), who realizes that bad things are about to go down and only he can stop them.

As it turns out the creature from the temple is a pan-dimensional spirit creature called a Chaneque who is (I think) brought to this world by the remains of a possessed monk. The script is a little muddled on what exactly it is as it is a creature well-steeped in Mexican folklore dating back to the Aztec era. Stealing the bones from the monk's skeleton has marked the intruders and the Chaneque wants them back and maybe a few children's trinkets along the way (apparently it likes "pretty things").

Colibri consults another shaman, who informs him that the Chaneque is looking to possess one of the offenders, most likely a child, who will be cursed for all generations and that the monk's skeleton must be reassembled and burned. After this urgent warning of impending doom, the shaman then tells Colibri that he is on his own. Thanks buddy. Yeah, I'll just go track down the deadly, evil, immortal, soul-stealing monster by myself, that's fine.

The Chaneque, slashing his way through the cast to complete his bone collection, tracks Gabby down by following her to school where her teacher is very concerned about the pictures of monsters that she has been drawing. As to put a fine point on the horror that awaits her, while playing at school the Chaneque causes her volleyball to catch on fire and melt. If I had a nickel for every time I got send to the principal's office for that.

Naturally the Chaneque finally catches up with Gabby and possesses her turning the film upside down into a sort of bizarre riff on POLTERGEIST (1982) and POLTERGEIST II (1986), where Gabby's parents can hear her voice in the house and Colibri (who can communicate telepathically with the child) must pull a Zelda Rubenstein and get their daughter back.

I have to say that even that description barely conveys the schizophrenic nature of this movie. Cardona III and co-writer Honorato Magaloni (the token latino actor in dozens of Hollywood films), are bursting with ideas, and while they often seem to be running in different directions, it is at no point predictable. In once scene near the end (spoiler alert), the Chaneque uses the painting of a unicorn to blow a hole in the wall of Gabby's bedroom creating a portal to a jungle dimension in which Roberto is attacked by blazing rubber balls. The moment is almost an acid-trip in 20 seconds.

The film also features some interesting monster POV shots that appear to be cribbed from EVIL DEAD (1981) and a few other stylistic moments that almost clash with the slightly pedestrian shooting technique of the rest of the film. Also interesting is the fact that Roberto is a complete dick to his family, at one point he flies into a rage when he discovers that someone set some Mexican troops in with the French troops in his diorama of the French intervention of 1862. Granted that subject is a bit prickly for Mexicanos as this battle is the exact reason that Cinco de Mayo is celebrated, though I don't think they had dollar Corona beer specials at the time.

In addition to a couple rather surprising Hollywood-taboo busting moments, this outing is loco enough to make you forgive the low budget and the fact that we only really see the Chaneque in extreme close-up or in silhouette.

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