Monday, March 11, 2019

Alucarda, la hija de las tinieblas (1977)

... aka: Alucarda
... aka: Alucarda: The Daughter of Darkness
... aka: Inferno, The
... aka: Innocents from Hell
... aka: Mark of the Devil 3
... aka: Mark of the Devil Part 3: Innocence from Hell
... aka: Pieklo (Hell)
... aka: Sisters of Satan

Directed by:
Juan López Moctezuma

After the death of both of her parents, the pretty, fair-haired Justine (Susana Kamini) is sent to live at a convent / orphanage with some nuns. Though the Mother Superior (Birgitta Segerskog), her compassionate, motherly novice Sister Angelica (Tina French) and the others all seem pleasant enough at first, something seems a little off about this place. For starters, the nuns aren't much for non-religious decor and the uncommonly drab, dark and primitive convent seems little better than a cave. And then there's the choice of nun attire, which sees them wrapped from head to toe in what appears to be dirty bandages that are stained brown and red. We're left to use our imagination as to where all those stains came from. Justine is taken to the nearly barren bedroom (two beds and a cross) where she'll have to live out the rest of her teenage years and meets her new roommate Alucarda (Tina Romero), who we're first introduced to emerging out of the shadows Dracula-style.

Alucarda is a friendly and inquisitive, though intense, clingy and death-obsessed, girl who always dresses in black and likes to venture out in the forest to find "secrets." She doesn't have much use for the nuns or the church and just happens to be at the convent because her mother died shortly after giving birth to her. Despite her bizarre behavior, the lonely Justine quickly grows close to her. On an outing in the forest, the two run away from their group and meet a hunchback gypsy (Claudio Brook), who warns them that demons haunt the woods and then tries to sell them amulets to ward off the evil. After running away, the two end up at a large, abandoned temple / crypt. Venturing inside, Alucarda is struck by the feeling she's already been there before. She unwisely opens a coffin, hears voices "coming from the past" and then all hell breaks loose.

Upon returning to the convent, Justine passes out during a brimstone and hellfire sermon. Alucarda keeps hearing those deep demonic voices, becomes hysterical, spins around, pulls her hair, starts screaming about Beelzebub and Asteroth and vows to get revenge on the church for all she feels they've taken away from her. Next thing we know, the hunchback is appearing in their room, stripping the girls naked, cutting their breasts and making them lick each other's blood. They're then whisked off to some kind of Satanic orgy with the gypsies where a goat-headed demon makes an appearance. Sister Angelica has visions of what's going on, attempts to intervene with prayer, sweats blood and levitates but it doesn't seem to do much good.

Alucarda and Justine only get worse; interrupting bible class with blasphemous proclamations about doing as many evil deeds as they can and chants of "Satan! Satan! Our lord and master!" Afterward, Justine grows seriously ill and inconsolable, and goes into hysterics at the mere sight of a cross, while Alucarda verbally and physically assaults Father Lazaro (David Silva) and talks of her blood pact with her friend. After a group flagellation and consulting a book on similar incidents compiled by the Vatican, Lazaro becomes convinced the girls are possessed by either a demon or by Satan himself. He orders an exorcism which, in this film, requires more than constant prayer and bible readings. Both girls are chained to crosses, Justine is stripped naked and then poked repeatedly with a metal needle in various spots until she bleeds to death.

Before they can move on to Alucarda, widower Dr. Oszek (Brook again) barges in and rescues her. He takes her back to his home, where she quickly becomes attached to his blind teenage daughter Daniela (Lili Garza). Back at the convent, Justine's body disappears and the nun who was in charge of watching over her body is found burned to a crisp and then miraculously returns to life and must be decapitated. Bearing witness to this, Dr. Oszek has a change of heart about what occurred there. He joins the priests and nuns in trying to locate both Justine and Alucarda, who's run off somewhere with Daniela.

What surprised me most about this one is that underneath all of the blood, incessant screaming and full frontal nudity lies a curiously conservative film. The doctor outsider, a man of reason and science, looks down upon the superstitious nuns and priests and finds their customs "pure rubbish" and "a primitive expression of ignorance" yet his interruption of their holy ritual and lack of spiritual belief leads to wholesale death and destruction plus manages to put his own daughter's life in danger. The convent's inability to exorcise (i.e. immediately kill) the two wayward girls who go against tradition ultimately leads to the fiery destruction of the entire convent.

Can't say I agree with the common sentiment that this film is making some kind of anti-religious statement or is a negative critique on religious extremism. In fact, it appears to be quite the opposite. Sure, the nuns are portrayed as seemingly unhinged fanatics prone to bug-eyed hysteria but, ultimately, their hyper sensitivity to evil and paranoia is completely justified. And, sure, the priest scares a bunch of little girls into crying fits with threats of "burning in hell forever" and "everlasting torture" and warns Alucarda that "liars rot in hell for eternity," but seeing how the Satanic evil is real and he's merely trying to protect them, why shouldn't he scare them straight? Even the convent's decision to kill both girls is proven to be the correct option seeing how both are murderous and irredeemably evil, even beyond the grave in one case. If anything, this film condones such extreme behavior from religious sects.

This got me thinking: Is it even possible for a film to be both pro and anti religion? It's certainly possible for a movie to be anti organized religion yet pro spirituality, or for a film to be pro religion and still highlight its flaws and hypocrisies, or how easy it is to abuse for personal gain. But if you're going to present things like Satan, demonic possession, miracles and the supernatural power of religious iconography as real, and position an educated man of science, two young lesbians and non-Christian gypsies as destructive threats, it seems to me that you've already picked your side. So does it even really matter that these hyper-religious folk are weird and repressed, traumatize kids and whip themselves bloody? Not really. It's pretty much all for show and shock.

Regardless of how one feels about the religious aspects, the film has atmosphere and visual merit and is still worth seeing for those reasons, plus a few others. There's strong (histrionic) acting from the leads, bizarre costume design, atmospheric sets (particularly creepy / cool is a wall with a crucified Christ set in front of a bunch of creepy stone faces), a great synth-heavy score and the occasional potent religious-horror imagery. References to both Stoker's Dracula (the girls swear their oath of loyalty next to a casket containing the body of Lucy Westenra) and Le Fanu's Carmilla (the whole lesbian angle) are also thrown in, though this certainly doesn't qualify as an adaptation of either.

Alucarda slowly gained a following in the U.S. thanks to multiple VHS releases (under new titles like Innocents from Hell and Sisters of Satan) and enthusiastic reviews in genre publications like Fangoria (who deemed it a "lost horror classic") and Psychotronic (who called it the best film of this type since Ken Russell's The Devils [1971]). It garnered additional attention after a 2003 DVD release from Mondo Macabro and when a few famous fans, like Quentin Tarantino and Guillermo Del Toro, came forward to sings its praises.

Moctezuma also made the Poe-inspired The Mansion of Madness aka Dr. Tarr's Torture Dungeon (1973), Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary (1975) and To Kill a Stranger (1982); each of which was filmed in Mexico but shot in English and received a U.S. release (something really not all that common). Prior to directing, helped to produce Fando and Lis (1968) and El Topo (1970) for Alejandro Jodorowsky.

The company Fame Home Video released this on VHS as the bogus sequel Mark of the Devil Part 3 to follow their releases of MARK OF THE DEVIL (1970) and MARK OF THE DEVIL PART II (1973). They followed that up with Mark of the Devil Part 4, actually the Paul Naschy film Horror Rises from the Tomb (1973), and Mark of the Devil Part 5, which is Tombs of the Blind Dead (1971). All of the tapes falsely boasted that they were banned in either 19 or 31 countries and several of them feature scantily-clad American Scream Queen Michelle Bauer on the front cover. The unrelated Mark of the Devil 666 (1995) was an ultra-low budget, shot-on-video American film.

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