POISON FOR THE FAIRIES
Color, 1985, 89 mins. 58 secs.
Directed by Carlos Enrique Taboada
Starring Ana Patricia Rojo, Elsa María Gutiérrez, Leonor Llausás
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Desert Mountain Media (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1)
DARKER THAN NIGHT
Color, 1975, 102 mins. 13 secs.
Directed by Carlos Enrique Taboada
Starring Claudia Islas, Susana Dosamantes, Lucía Méndez, Helena Rojo, Pedro Armendáriz Jr.
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Zima (DVD) (Mexico R0 NTSC)
Color, 1975, 113 mins. 26 secs.
Directed by Carlos Enrique Taboada
Ignacio López Tarso, Germán Robles, Norma Lazareno, Rosenda Monteros
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD),(US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
While Mexico was busy exporting plenty of pulp-style horror films from the 1960s onward involving wrestlers, robots, bloody apes, and brain-eating beasts, other local filmmakers were drawing on other influences like the giallo and suggestive Gothic horror with less international exposure. Though he didn't direct a large number of genre films, Carlos Enrique Taboada made his mark with an intermittent string of masterpieces highlighted by the legendary 1968 supernatural classic Even the Wind Is Afraid (Hasta el viento tiene miedo), which was remade in 2007 and given a very disappointing, substandard Blu-ray release in the U.S. by VCI. A far more satisfying salute to the director can be found in Vinegar Syndrome's two disc Blu-ray set from 2023, Mexican Gothic: The Films of Carlos Enrique Taboada, compiling two horror films and a twisted crime drama for a nice overview of his variety as a filmmaker.
First up is the most recent of the bunch, 1985's Poison for the Fairies (Veneno para las hadas), the only one to get a previous English-subtitled legit release (on DVD in 2005). A variation on the kids gone bad horror formula, it begins with the introduction of Veronica (Rojo), a blonde-haired orphan who is deeply impacted by her nanny's tales of powerful witches who can do anything they want. Veronica claims she is an actual witch (and not really a child) to a new, wealthier student at school, Flavia (Gutiérrez), and says she can pass powerful spells with agents like her pet spider. Despite her parents telling her that witches aren't real, Flavia comes to believe Veronica and has bizarre dreams in which her young friend becomes a terrifying crone. Veronica claims she can help Flavia out by getting rid of her pesky piano lessons, but the ramifications soon become sinister and quite deadly with the purported sorceress using the situation for extortion and manipulation.
Almost entirely unfolding from the perspective of its two young main characters, Poison for the Fairies is a potent study in shared psychosis a la Don't Deliver Us from Evil, here introducing elements of religious belief and class conflict. The ambiguous supernatural elements and depiction of the dark side of childhood definitely anticipate some of the much later work by Guillermo del Toro, and both of the young leads do a fine job in their tricky roles. It's also a solid example of Taboada's effective but unassuming approach to atmosphere, with colorful but mundane daylight scenes alternating with darker nocturnal moments that seem to come out of nowhere. As the first title on disc one, it's a good place to start and looks excellent here with an impressive scan from a 4K restoration of the camera negative. A disclaimer notes that all three films had been left as true to the source as possible despite some audio issues in the elements (all DTS-HD MA Spanish 2.0 mono with optional English subs), but it's so much better here than any prior presentation that you're unlikely to notice.
Also on the first disc is the one film that absolutely fits the Gothic category, Darker Than Night (Más Negro que la Noche), also known as Blacker Than the Night and remade (badly) in 2014. This deliciously flamboyant, E.C. Comics-style yarn starts off with an elderly woman, Susana, doting on her beloved pet black cat, Bequer (or Becker in prior translations), while creepy music churns on the soundtrack. When said woman passes away, her home passes on to her nearest heir, niece Ofelia (Islas), who decides to move in with three roomies: Aurora (Dosamantes), Marta (Méndez), and Pilar (Rojo), none of whom are cat fans. That turns out to be a problem given the one stipulation for Ofelia: she has to take good care of Bequer for the rest of his natural life. Of course that turns out to be easier said than done, and soon the new inhabitants are being terrorized by a homicidal presence.
Packed with familiar faces who would become fixtures in Mexican film and TV (including Pedro Armendáriz Jr. hot off of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark and Chosen Survivors), Darker Than Night is a more overt supernatural horror film than usual for Taboada (along with his brilliant The Stone Book, which is crying out for a good Blu-ray release). It's just the thing to pop on for some Halloween-style viewing thanks to its spooky settings and moody stalking sequences. Several bits are reminiscent of Japanese ghost story films, and while this isn't a gorefest by any means, it does pack in some macabre chills including an effective library attack and a grisly little stinger at the end. Released on DVD in Mexico in 2007, this one has made the custom subtitled rounds for ages but gets its first official English-friendly release here looking excellent apart from some age-related damage during the main titles. Framing, color saturation, and detail all look wonderful, and the numerous dark scenes are much more legible now than ever.
On disc two you get film number three, and the one that veers far off from the Gothic category but is still one of the director's best. Released in 1975, Rapiña is a variation on the noir trope of a small group of people who stumble on a valuable stash only for it to tear them apart (carried on well into the '90s with films like Shallow Grave and A Simple Plan). Here the parties in question are lumberjack Porfirio (Tarso) and co-worker Evodio (Robles), who live next to each other and team up when the former spies a plane crash out in the wilderness. The duo decide to loot the planeload of dead, wealthy passengers for all they can before it's discovered, roping in their wives as well, Fina (Lazareno) and pregnant Rita (Monteros). What they think is a way out of their impoverished existence turns into a nightmare as greed and treachery erupt between them -- with Porfirio in particular taking drastic, violent measures that could be their downfall.
This grim but engrossing morality play is definitely a case of the singer not the song making the difference here, with Taboada and his strong cast of actors delivering a unique, gritty, and affecting thriller that will leave you feeling wrung out by the end. The plane wreckage itself is an effective central idea that doesn't shy away from the more gruesome aspects of its aftermath, making the scavenger instincts of its characters even more dramatic and unsettling. What really makes the film work is the fact that it maintains sympathy for everyone even when their actions become completely beyond the pale; you can understand why everything happens even when it takes a horrifying turn. This one doesn't seem to have gotten around in English at all until the Vinegar Syndrome release (and even the Mexican VHS has been pretty scarce for a long time), so this will be a fresh discovery for most buyers. The restoration here looks just as strong as the others, leaving in some baked-in anomalies like a few scenes where one of the cameras was clearly malfunctioning and leaving some damage on the right side in a few alternating shots. The second disc also features the video extras, namely a trio of informative video essays by Valeria Villegas (14m, 14m31s, 14m46s) covering the reinvigoration of Mexican cinema in the '70s, the social movements and political climate at the time, the director's extreme care with living creatures of all stripes, the significance of several actors and their connections to Taboada's other work, and the different aspects of the horror genre threaded throughout his filmography.
Reviewed on April 19, 2023.