VACATION OF TERROR
Color, 1989, 81 mins. 3 secs.
Directed by René Cardona III
Starring Julio Alemán, Pedro Fernández, Gabriela Hassel, Nuria Bages, Carlos East, Gianella Hassel
VACATION OF TERROR II: DIABOLICAL BIRTHDAY
Color, 1990, 85 mins. 57 secs.
Directed by Pedro Galindo III
Starring Pedro Fernández, Tatiana,
Joaquin Cordero, Renata del Río
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), BCI Eclipse
When U.S. indie horror films were mostly being relegated to the straight-to-video market at the end of the '80s, some pretty wild offerings elsewhere were constantly falling through the cracks. For example, look no further than Mexico where the idiosyncratic take on the old killer doll idea, Vacation of Terror (Vacaciones de terror), which became a cult hit at home (especially on VHS) and went on to astound a few lucky viewers when it finally hit subtitled DVD in 2008 from BCI Eclipse. At least superficially it might sound like an attempt to ride the coattails of the previous year's Child's Play, but the execution is very different and tons of fun. The film is also part of Mexican genre royalty thanks to director René Cardona III, whose father and grandfather stunned the world with films like Tintorera, Night of 1000 Cats, Survive!, Night of the Bloody Apes, and The Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy.
In an opening sequence completely different from any horror movie ever made before, a fearsome witch is about to be burned at the stake but calls upon the powers of darkness to help her. However, her executioners are a step ahead of her and take possession of a doll used as a hub for her magic, so they end up tossing all of her earthly possessions down a well as she dies. Flash forward a hundred years when the witch's medallion ends up being swapped by a junk man to young Julio (Fernández) in exchange for a Walkman. Julio ends up joining his girlfriend, Paulina (Don't Panic's Gabriela Hassel), on a getaway with her family to country house where they're staying with her uncle Fernando (Alemán), his pregnant wife Lorena (Bages), their Ziggy-loving twin sons, and creepy young daughter, Gaby (Gianella Hassel). Soon their holiday turns into a nightmare after Gaby falls into an underground cave, the site of the former well, where she finds that creepy doll and takes it home. Soon the doll is making Gaby act even creepier and causing all kinds of pandemonium around the house.
Though it keeps the gore fairly low, this is a spirited supernatural tale with a random grab bag of elements like a magic mirror, flying kitchen implements a la Carrie, spooky kids staring at the camera, and that unforgettable doll messing with everything in sight (even an unborn baby) just by clicking its eyes left and right. The acting is all serviceable if unexceptional, but that hardly matters when something is either shattering or flying around every couple of minutes.
Of course, the door is also left open for a sequel which led to the following year's Vacation of Terror II: Diabolical Birthday (Vacaciones de terror: Cumpleaños Diabolico), which brings back the doll trauma for the first act but ramps up the insanity by magnitudes with a lot of Halloween atmosphere, bloodshed, and Mexican pop star Tatiana performing the infectious song "Chicos, Chicos." Here Tatiana gets to act as well as Mayra, the older sister of Tanya (del Toro) whose birthday (apparently at the end of October) is being celebrated on a movie set with a big party thrown by their movie director dad. Returning here, Julio (Fernández) doesn't react well when he first meets the sisters at his shop and sees Tanya has a suspiciously familiar doll. (Well, actually it looks more like a Cabbage Patch Doll now, but just go with it.) When death strikes outside the shop, Julio does some quick dark magic research at the local library and, after vandalizing a handy ancient spell book, heads over to the party. Of course, he couldn't anticipate that dad plans to make the doll a big star in his next film, something the toy decides to put into motion early by eating a witch cake topper and turning the bash into a bloodbath full of rampaging witchy pandemonium. When Tanya leaves behind her very valuable birthday present of some precious coins at the studio, the stage is set for a confrontation with the witch in her new, intimidating guise.
A great party movie any time of year but especially at Halloween, this one delivers the goods if you love practical effects and relentless monster insanity. It also features the most baffling use of a Tom Cruise movie poster this side of Aenigma, and the variety of horror vignettes here is impressive including a wild doll morph / birthday cake beast sequence. This time the directorial reins were handed over to Pedro Galindo III, who had just come off of the crazy Hell's Trap, and he doesn't hold back on the blood or hairspray. Like its companion film, this one was issued on DVD from BCI Eclipse as part of its Crypt of Terror: Horror from South of the Border Vol. 1 set along with Hell's Trap, Cemetery of Terror, Grave Robbers, The Demon Rat, and Don't Panic. That release didn't get the traction it deserved, but as with Don't Panic, this film in particular should get a bigger fan following now that both films have been issued on Blu-ray by Vinegar Syndrome in 2023.
The presentations here are comparable to the other Mexican horror titles from Vinegar Syndrome, retaining their natural film grain and the first film faring better thanks to a 4K restoration from the original camera negative. The second film is from a 35mm archival positive and has some intermittent speckling throughout, but it's still a massive upgrade over the DVD. Both films have optional, newly translated English subtitles and come with DTS-HD MA Spanish 1.0 mono tracks. On the extras side you get four new video interview featurettes starting with actors Gianella Hassel and Gabriella Hassel(11m36s) talking about working on the first film (originally entitled The Doll from Hell), their careers before and after, and their thoughts on the film's following even among younger viewers. Then composer Eugenio Castillo (9m49s) talks about exploring the tools available at the time to create the score, the process of writing the music to a VHS rough cut of the film over a three-week period, and the textures he was going after with his choices of electronics. In "Backlot Rats" (18m55s), actors Carlos East Jr. and Ernesto East are interviewed in English about playing the twins in the first film, working with Cardona, and going on to work on Marvel films behind the scenes after being inspired by the effects they saw on this production. Finally Jorge Farfán (12m56s) explains how he got involved doing the special effects on the first film, including the creation of the medallion, and his family's overlapping history with the Cardonas and the Galindos.
Reviewed on May 28, 2023