Starting in television and ending in film, Carlos Enrique Taboada carved out a creatively fruitful career in Mexican entertainment across 30-plus years as a writer-director. Taboada’s third film, Hasta el Viento Tiene Miedo (Even the Wind is Afraid), is often regarded as rejuvenating Mexico’s horror genre beyond pulpy and purposefully provocative exports. Taboada’s final film, 1984’s Veneno para las Hadas (Poison for the Fairies), won him an Ariel Award (Mexico’s Oscar equivalent) for direction as the film itself won Best Picture.
That said: Most who know of Taboada’s work are either in the 99th percentile of cult connoisseurs or employees at the boutique Blu-ray label Vinegar Syndrome. The latter has released Mexican Gothic: The Films of Carlos Enrique Taboada, a two-disc region-free Blu-ray set that celebrates the filmmaker by introducing a wider audience to three of his films: Más Negro Que la Noche (Blacker Than the Night), Rapiña (Robbery) and Hadas. All three convey Taboada’s steady command of formalism and classic-chiller techniques, but only two live up to the reputation this filmmaker earned before his death in 1997.
Más Negro Que la Noche (Blacker Than the Night)
Bequer is a black cat who receives light admonishment for mischief from his master, Susana (Tamara Garina), before she suddenly croaks. Along with its “many valuable objects,” Susana wills her palatial estate to her college-aged niece, Ofelia (Claudia Islas).
Ofelia is no fool. She knows “these things always have strange terms and conditions like marrying someone you don’t know or adopting a child.” In this case, all Ofelia has to do is look after Bequer. She’s not really a cat person, but hey, the mansion is a major upgrade from the tiny apartment she shares with fellow students Aurora (Susana Dosamantes), Marta (Lucia Méndez) and Pilar (Helena Rojo) — whom she invites to join her there. Caring for a cat seems like a simple covenant … but there would, of course, be no film unless it were somehow broken.
Released in 1975, Noche showcases exceptional reaction shots from Bequer, cheeky-cheesecake bits meant to tastefully show off bodies, a strong turn from Alicia Palacios as the mansion’s cantankerous caretaker, and an unexpected appearance from the late, great character actor Pedro Armendáriz, Jr. — through whose character Taboada briefly flirts with distinctive commentary on toxic relationships.
However, aside from ominous two-tone color freeze-frames and flashbacks involving Bequer, there’s not enough style to stand apart from an obvious story. And while it might percolate as part of an anthology, it’s pokey about proceeding to its pecking order at feature length.
Veneno para las Hadas (Poison for the Fairies)
Meanwhile, Hadas is almost immediately transfixing — with a prologue that infuses bruja (witch) culture into something like the ice-veined introduction of Halloween. What follows doesn’t disappoint on that suggestion of a strong tale of terror, and only the use of Spanish language distinguishes this from the most diabolically effective films from the Hammer heyday.
Flavia (Elsa María) is a rich new girl in town eager to make a friend. With an imagination stoked by her grandma’s stories about the Sabbath (the Satan-and-witch-party kind, not the holy day), Verónica (Ana Patricia Rojo) has come to believe she’s a witch. Naturally, Verónica struggles to connect with her peers. But she senses a kindred curiosity in Flavia — forming a friendship and eventually conscripting her into concepts of witchcraft, which balloon into very, very bad things.
Taboada’s decision to largely obscure adult faces forces viewers even further into the misguided mindset of these two young women. He’s also careful to provide a shorthand that Verónica and Flavia enjoy perfectly normal little-girl activities offscreen. Best of all, he elicits an appropriately remorseless performance from Rojo, whose veil-piercing persistence resembles nothing less than grade-school Isabelle Huppert. María’s role as Flavia is nowhere near as showy, but Taboada also coaxes from her both a consideration of social minefields … and a cutting class commentary that renders the ending unforgettable. For all of its more supernatural shenanigans, this is the horrible moment you’ll remember most about Hadas.
1973’s Rapiña pushes its parable further, forgoing traditional horror for a blend of The Banshees of Inisherin and A Simple Plan.
Porfirio (Ignacio López Tarso) is a lifelong laborer in a remote Mexican village — performing hard, but plentiful, work chopping trees with his pal Evodio (Germán Robles) and providing as he can for his pregnant wife, Fina (Norma Lazareno). He leads an unambitious but untroubled life … until he overhears some remarks from the town’s doctor (Enrique Pontón), who has allowed the rural apathy to rub off on him.
“These people are beasts … animals,” the doctor remarks. Porfirio admits that he doesn’t understand everything the doctor has said, but there is no mistaking the disdain and disgust in his voice. So begins Porfirio’s existential crisis and escalating, perilous problems of feeling that those he loves and cares about are somehow limiting his life rather than enriching it. He even confronts the doctor about it, who tells him: “Don’t think about it or you’ll wind up like me.”
This Herzogian meditation on near-religious acts of getting mired in self-perpetuated misery proves key to Rapiña’s power. It’s a straightforward and powerful cautionary tale more concerned with people than plot turns, and a pervasive corrosion of Porfirio’s conscience powers its descent into greed, mistrust and violence.
“What does God think of us?” Evodio asks Porfirio after one fateful decision. “He has other people to watch besides us,” responds a newly, disturbingly empowered Porfirio. Tarso’s performance renders this transformation as transfixing as it is tragic, and he’s matched by expressive, emotionally shattering work from Robles, Lazareno and Rosenda Monteros (as Evodio’s wife) along with a sweeping, saturnine score from composer Raul Lavista.
Taboada and cinematographer Jose Ortiz Ramos’s wonderful location shooting permeates Rapiña — particularly when Porfirio and Evodio are perfectly oblivious to oncoming traffic as they visit a nearby city. It’s a patient film that allows its devastations and decimations to resonate across the desert in which it concludes, with an ambiguous ending during which one aspect remains unmistakable: God has not taken, and never will take, his eye off Porfirio.
All three films are presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, newly restored in 4K by Vinegar Syndrome from their original 35mm camera negatives. Like many Vinegar Syndrome releases, Mexican Gothic carries an onscreen warning about the spotty condition of these remasters. Such voluminous apologia makes it sound like five hours staring through a filmy trailer window. There are a few scuffs and scratches, and the occasional banding at the farthest edge of the frame. But these films have otherwise been as lovingly restored as any recognizable classic.
The original Spanish-language mono tracks are front-focused and clear. If there’s any complaint, it’s the grammatical errors found across the board on this set in newly created subtitles.
As always, Vinegar Syndrome’s packaging is outstanding — housing the film in a spot-gloss hard slipcase and slipcover combination designed by Tony Stella, which also contains a 40-page perfect bound book about Taboada’s career. The case also includes reversible artwork, and genre scholar Valeria Villegas contributes a roughly 15-minute video essay for each film.