Juan López Moctezuma is an interesting side-trip in the world of genre filmmaking. A compatriot of Alejandro Jodorowsky in his Mexico City days, he was a producer on Fando y Lys as well as El Topo. Moctezuma is most widely known for three movies made in the 70s – The Mansion of Madness (73) which is loosely based on Poe’s “The Method of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Feather” and was indeed re-titled Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon in the US,’cuz them Poe movies always made serious coin (though audiences expecting gothic horror were not prepared for what is actually pretty dark farce); 1975’s Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary which we’ll be visiting eventually; and this remarkably straightforward, though still weird, occult thriller.
The teenaged, recently orphaned Justine (Susana Kamini) is remanded to the care of the sisters at a convent, where she meets the similarly orphaned Alucarda (Tina Romero), who you know is going to be trouble because she’s the only one who dresses in black. We also know she’s going to be trouble because immediately after her birth, her mother (also played by Romero) was claimed by something dark and scary before the opening titles.
The friendship between the two girls deepens quickly to a nearly sexual intensity. One day while capering in the woods, they run into a sinister hunchbacked gypsy (Claudio Brook) who offers them enlightenment, even as one of the other gypsies reads Justine’s palm and blanches. Soon after, Justine falls ill and the hunchback appears in the girl’s chamber, making their clothes vanish and signing their souls over to Satan, as one does.
The girls start doing disruptive things like hailing Satan during classes, and things continue to deteriorate until Justine is hanging nude from a St. Andrew’s Cross, being stabbed to find her Witch’s Mark while being exorcised. This scene is interrupted by the local Dr. Oszek (also Claudio Brook), who has no time for such superstitious rubbish. He’s too late to save Justine’s life, but he carries the sobbing Alucarda away to his home, where his blind daughter Daniela (Lili Garza) will keep her company.
Oszek returns to the convent to find it in a panic – the nun tending to Justine’s body has mysteriously burned to death and Justine’s body is missing. Soon after Oszek is lead to the chapel by screams, because Father Lázaro (David Silva) is hacking off the head of the dead nun, returned to demonic life. This where the horror movie really kicks into high gear, as Oszek realizes that his book learning is useless against the forces of darkness, and what’s more, he’s put his daughter in mortal danger, because both she and Alucarda have vanished.
The first order of business is to find all these missing girls, of course, and Sister Angélica (Tina French) leads them to the ruins where Alucarda’s mom had her opening scene and the girls liked to hang out and get hallucinations. Angélica also lends another forgetful sister her crucifix, which means when she discovers the naked Justine in a coffin filled with bubbling blood, she’s pretty much doomed.
This leads to a major confrontation in the convent, where all Alucarda has to do is say the name of a devil and somebody else bursts into flames. It all looks pretty bad for anybody not named Alucarda, until the girl’s humanity kicks in when she sees Daniela, who was nice to her, injured by all her wild devil-calling and destruction. The end.
Alucarda has a reputation for being a bit of an undiscovered gem, and that holds true, by and large.There is some wild imagery left over from His Jodo days – the convent’s chapel looks like it grew organically out of the walls of a deep cave grotto, and the nuns’ habits are the farthest you can find from the traditional black-and-white – they’re dressed in odd white fabric with a red wash that is not uniform, making the sisters look like they’re dressed in bloody bandages. Quite striking, and in my experience, unique. This being the Internet, someone will let me know if I’m wrong.
It’s definitely a 70s, movie, though, which means some time spent before you get to the truly weird stuff, though quite a bit of nudity livens up the wait. Should you seek it out? Well, Guillermo del Toro is an admirer of Moctezuma and his films, so let how you feel about one director’s work be your guide as to how you’ll feel about another.
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