Mondo Macabro: Two Films by Juan Lopez Moctezuma (1972-1977) - Reviewed

Most within dedicated and adventurous cinema circles have heard the name of Chilean avant-garde surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky at some point or another.  Frequently abstract, experimental, confrontational, transgressive and pure in expression as well as form, Jodorowsky’s work caused as much celebration as well as controversy in Mexican cinemas and are now regarded as timeless works of modern cinematic art.  Few, however, are familiar with producer of Jodorowsky’s first two feature films: actor/writer/director/producer Juan Lopez Moctezuma. 

Despite having a smaller following and resume than Jodorowsky’s, the maverick filmmaker Moctezuma left behind his own indelible contribution to what Jodorowsky, Fernando Arrabal and Roland Topor termed the Panic Movement, a form of frenzied and provocative surrealist performance art intended to affront and shock.  Neither a commercial nor prolific movie director with only six features under his belt including one which never received theatrical distribution, Moctezuma’s short-lived career in film nevertheless saw the creation of two of Mexican cinema’s strangest and wildest offerings of the 1970s: The Mansion of Madness and Alucarda. 

Clearly influenced by his collaborations with Jodorowsky as well as drawing heavily from Federico Fellini, Luis Bunuel and of course Ken Russell, Moctezuma with his carnivalesque, hallucinatory and often shocking exercises in gothic horror as sensory overload remain all but virtually unseen by modern horror moviegoers.  That is until the dedicated efforts of home video label Mondo Macabro took great pains to bring these overlooked gems to a whole new generation of viewers ready and waiting to have their expectations defied as well as their senses deranged by the berserk onslaught of exploitative and Satanic imagery.  Though Moctezuma isn’t necessarily a household name in most cinema circles, once his The Mansion of Madness and especially his Alucarda are seen, they are far from easily forgotten.

The Mansion of Madness (1972)

Loosely based upon Edgar Allen Poe’s The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Feather with less emphasis on storytelling than establishing a madcap mise-en-scène, The Mansion of Madness (retitled Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon for American grindhouse consumption) follows Gaston (Arthur Hansel) into the bizarre and destructive exploits within a remote insane asylum deep inside the woods run by Dr. Maillard (Claudio Brook from Guillermo Del Toro’s Cronos).  In reality, the inmates have run amok and locked up the orderlies in glass cages, leaving behind a kind of disfigured human zoo devoid of law and order with violent perversions gone awry.  Less of a narrative feature with conventional plot developments, The Mansion of Madness plays rather like the director’s collaborative effort with Jodorowsky on El Topo, unfolding as a series of seemingly disconnected set pieces and vignettes that gradually converge.

Though sold as an exploitation horror costumed period feature, set sometime around the 19th century, The Mansion of Madness is anything but mere pure shock and awe.  Handsomely photographed in Academy Ratio by Rafael Corkidi, the film makes frequent use of the wide angled lens to distort the sides of the screen and augment the already grandiose look of the archaic set pieces.  Tracking and dolly shots are also elegant and graceful in their movement, allowing viewers to savor as much of the eccentric and provocative imagery as possible.  Adding to the film’s manic tone is the soundtrack by Nacho Méndez, shifting about rapidly from comic farce to abject horror not dissimilar from Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ iconic atonal score for The Devils.  The film also sports a delightfully over-the-top performance by Claudio Brook as the nefarious Dr. Maillard who himself might be as crazy as his patients. 

Despite the ample amounts of violence and nudity, Moctezuma’s feature plays less like a standard exploitation horror film and more like an abstract art installation intent on establishing a headspace rather than tell a by-the-numbers story.  The groundwork laid by Poe’s tale of terror serves as a springboard for Moctezuma’s wild scenery and it doesn’t disappoint in that regard, but as a narrative there are times when it tends to meander.  Fans of drive-in exploitation may be disappointed in Moctezuma’s artier, headier endeavor, yet those keen on experimental avant-garde gothic horror will find much to enjoy in The Mansion of Madness. 


Alucarda (1977)

After his English-language drive-in vampire horror film Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary, Moctezuma returned to Mexico to create inarguably his most celebrated and controversial picture to date, the Satanic nunsploitation masterpiece Alucarda.  A loose re-interpretation to Carmilla, Moctezuma’s wild and transgressive blood and gore soaked shocker set in the 19th century tells the tale of two friends, Justine (Susana Kamini) and Alucarda (Tina Romero) who inadvertently unleash evil spirits upon a repressive convent.  Initially a meticulous and methodically paced chiller of clerical transgressions, the film soon erupts into a full-blown phantasmagoria of naked nuns, brutally violent exorcisms, blood rites, Satanic orgies, inexplicable spiritual forces and sensory assault which seems to intensify without relent.  If The Mansion of Madness tended to saunter from one strange set piece to the next, Alucarda proceeds to fire on all four cylinders with a manic, explosive energy!

A true embodiment of the Panic Movement with full throated screaming and nudity aplenty, increasingly abrasive imagery evoking classical elements of gothic horror amid the Satanic and occult, Alucarda is at once unhinged and grounded in carefully constructed technique.  Teaming up this time around with The Evil That Men Do cinematographer Xavier Cruz who provides colorful, often blood red soaked vistas of nuns whose bandaged religious habits barely cloak their open wounds of penance, visually Alucarda is hyperkinetic, confrontational and overwhelming.  Many of the film’s most striking sequences of characters in a mad frenzy involve actors looking directly into the camera, implicating the viewer in the strange and perverse phenomena onscreen.  We’re also treated to some truly wild special effects sequences thanks to Abel Contreras including but not limited to levitation, decapitation, human characters dissolving into ashes and spontaneous combustion.

Moctezuma also shifts gears with composer Anthony Guefen whose ethereal and moody electronic score signals dread and unease as the opening credits unfold and the sound design from El Topo and The Exorcist sound effects engineer Gonzalo Gavira though in mono is genuinely hair raising.  Take for instance a moment where a coffin housing an evil spirit is opened and a strange spectral hissing sound fills the soundtrack, signaling the presence of demonic forces entirely and only through the ears.  Later still as the film gradually descends into outright pandemonium, the soundtrack littered with thunder, screaming and metaphysical sounds.  In other words, it’s as chaotic of a watch as it is a listen.  Performances with Tina Romero and, again, Claudio Brook playing dual roles range from subdued to flamboyantly overplayed as the film’s manic energy reaches an apex.  

While deliberately over the top to the point where some may find the overacting campy, in the case of Alucarda the intensity of the performances is warranted and entirely appropriate to this kind of mad manifestation.  Alucarda also sports one of the more realistic performances of so-called “demonic possession” where a character acts out and says things against their will while wide tearful eyes speak to the trapped soul no longer in control of their own body.  In one sequence as two naked women engage in a Satanic blood rite, the performances drift in and out of lustily indulging in sin to being appalled by their own actions.  It’s a tricky feat to evoke both sides of the emotional spectrum in one breath but Moctezuma and his cast members pull it off admirably with conviction.

As with The Mansion of Madness, tragically Moctezuma’s hyperactive jaunt failed to find audiences upon initial release.  Despite the director continuing to work until 1993 when he began experiencing Alzheimer’s Disease, Moctezuma remained an underground cult figure overshadowed by his co-collaborator Alejandro Jodorowsky.  His films also didn’t begin receiving attention until recently thanks to the efforts of Mondo Macabro video and director Guillermo Del Toro’s own retrospective reappraisal of the director including the casting of Claudio Brook in one of his own works. 

Seen today, Alucarda doesn’t quite reach the artistic heights of, say, Ken Russell’s The Devils but it soars high above the typical Italian nunsploitation fare littering drive-in theaters at the time.  Visually and sonically the film is a powerhouse of creative energies all going off at once and while the film’s landing might be shaky, the intensity of the piece is undeniable.  Mexican horror recently found resurgence with the release of the explicit art-house shocker We Are The Flesh and Guillermo Del Toro’s own Best Picture win for The Shape of Water, making now as good a time as any for modern moviegoers to dive into Moctezuma’s wicked, wild and wonderful gothic horror gem, Alucarda. 


- Andrew Kotwicki