Bajo la Sal (aka: Under the Salt) (2008) This melancholic, noir-flavored crime thriller from director Mario Muñoz is based on the story "La Venganza del Valle de las Muñecas" (aka: “The Revenge of the Valley of the Dolls”). Comandante Trujillo (Humberto Zurita), a disgraced police detective, is called to a small town to help investigate a series of murders of young women in and around a vast salt harvesting facility. The common link is the victims were all expelled from the local high school. Signs point to Victor (Ricardo Polanco), a troubled young student who works at his father’s funeral parlor. In his spare time, he makes stop-motion horror films and obsesses over Isabel (Irene Azuela), a former student who’s looking for a way out. Serguei Saldívar Tanaka’s exceptional cinematography exploits the town’s unforgiving landscape, exemplified by a vast sea of salt. It’s a fascinating, unrelentingly grim movie that melds style with substance.
Rating: ****. Available on DVD
Darker than Night (1975) In writer/director Carlos Enrique Taboada’s supernatural gothic thriller, Ofelia Escudero (Claudia Islas) inherits her reclusive aunt’s estate. There’s only one request: she must care for her aunt’s beloved cat. Under the watchful eye of disapproving housekeeper Sofia (Alicia Palacios), Ofelia and her pals move in to the spooky old mansion. Almost immediately, strange things begin to occur, with deadly consequences. It’s an atmospheric, unsettling slow burn, relying more on an overwhelming sense of dread, rather than gore and jump scares.
Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray (included in Vinegar Syndrome’s box set, “Mexican Gothic: The Films of Carlos Enrique Taboada) and Tubi
Sombra Verde (aka: Untouched) (1954) Ricardo Montalban stars as Federico Gascón, a young professional sent by a big-city pharmaceutical company to the Mexican jungle to search for source of cortisone. When his guide is killed by a snake, Federico loses direction, eventually stumbling upon a sanctuary owned by the reclusive Don Ignacio Santos (Víctor Parra). Santos is as fiercely protective of his privacy as he is of his young daughter, Yáscara (Ariadne Welter). Sparks fly when the unhappily married Federico falls in love with free-spirited Yáscara. Featuring good performances by Parra, Welter and a young Montalban, Sombra Verde is well worth a look. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
Rating: ***½. Available on DVD
The Untamed (2016) In this fascinating, unnerving horror film from director/co-writer Amat Escalante, a middle-aged couple in rural Mexico harbor a bizarre secret in their cottage: a multi-tentacled alien creature, which arrived in a meteorite. Escalante focuses on young mother Alejandra’s (Ruth Ramos) unhappy marriage. When her path crosses with Verónica (Simone Bucio), they find solace in the creature, but there’s a terrible price. The ambiguous extraterrestrial, which could serve as a metaphor for toxic relationship, fosters a kind of drug-like dependency among everyone that comes into contact with it, providing pleasure and pain in equal measures. The Untamed wears its influences on its sleeve (especially Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 film, Possession and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin), but it has an identity all its own.
Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Kanopy
Cemetery of Terror (1985) Some horny guys try to spice up their party by stealing a body from a morgue (because nothing turns women on more than a pilfered cadaver), and raising the dead through demonic incantations in an ancient book. Before you know it, zombies are running amok in a graveyard scene (with multicolored backlighting) that looks like it’s straight out of the Thriller music video (there’s even a kid with a Michael Jackson jacket). Cemetery of Terror borrows heavily from Halloween with its protagonist, Hugo Stiglitz as Dr. Cardan (a Dr. Loomis type), relentlessly pursuing an unstoppable killer.
Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Santo in the Vengeance of the Mummy (1971) In one of the weaker Santo movies, our titular hero travels to the jungles of Mexico on a research trek* to explore the remnants of an ancient civilization. The local townspeople aren’t thrilled with the appearance of meddling outsiders, who are killed off one by one by a reanimated mummy (a surprisingly large number of people die under Santo’s watch, makings me wonder if they were better off on their own). The movie is surprisingly short on action and more talky than many other Santo movies, and the “Scooby-Doo” climax doesn’t help matters.
* Fake Fact: From 1958 to 1974, all Mexican archaeological expeditions were legally required to include El Santo, for their own protection.
Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray (included in the “Santo: El Enmascarado De Plata” box set, DVD and Midnight Pulp
Santo vs. Infernal Men (1961) Santo’s second cinematic adventure (following Santo vs. Evil Brain) is a bit of a letdown, with the silver-masked wrestler as a supporting character in his own movie. The central plot deals with an undercover police detective, Joaquín (Joaquín Cordero), infiltrating a crime ring, with the help of Santo. In 1959, Joselito Rodríguez and Enrique Zambrano shot two movies back-to-back in Cuba, and compared to its predecessor, Infernal Men seems incomplete, almost as if the filmmakers only had enough footage for one entire film. Santo appears in a few scenes to flesh out the action, but it’s clearly Cordero’s movie. Santo vs. Infernal Men affords an interesting glimpse of pre-Castro Cuba, but the rest of the movie is a bore. While Santo’s first movie is far from perfect, you’re better off seeing that instead.
Rating **½. Available on Blu-ray (available individually, or included in Indicator’s “Enter Santo” boxed set)