Cinema Literacy COMMENTARY: Mexican Horror

Opinion, The Arts

By: Roisin Casey

Horror is one of America’s most popular genres, with its overall box office revenue between 1995-2023 tying (ironically) with comedy at 34.3 billion dollars. 

Huge horror franchises like Scream and Saw have both released additions to their sagas in 2023. 

However, the general genre of horror has spanned beyond jump-scares and serial killers. The last few decades have seen swaths of experimental, psychological, and folk horror, and has gradually developed into a diverse umbrella term for several different subgenres. 

So, in honor of Halloween season and Hispanic Heritage Month, I decided to zero in on one of these subgenres: Mexican horror. 

Mexican horror, both individual in its plotlines and simultaneously influenced by foreign cinema, rose in popularity between 1930 and 1950. 

In its beginnings, films in this genre saw well-known villains such as vampires and werewolves, but also creatures traditional to Mexican folklore, such as La Llorona.

More recent Mexican horror films have more interpretive villains, many pertaining to current events and issues. 

While many American viewers might see these more poignant plotlines as mere derivations of more well-known American films, Mexican horror is individually influential to the point that certain Mexican directors are regarded as masters of the genre. 

This month I picked three Mexican horror films to focus on, their release dates spanning over a period of about 80 years- Phantom of the Monastery (1934), Cronos (1993), and Tigers are Not Afraid (2017). 

Phantom of the Monastery (1934) – directed by Fernando de Fuentes 

Starring: Marta Roel, Carlos Villatoro, Enrique del Campo

Plot: Three companions find themselves lost in the woods far from home. When a mysterious apparition of a shadowy monk directs them to the nearby abandoned monastery for shelter, they soon find that the ruins contain something much more sinister than empty rooms and mice. 

Plenty of sinful romance, eerie visual effects, and noir suspense.

My rating: ★★

My review: Though it had its merits, Phantom of the Monastery is definitely not for everyone. The pacing is very slow, and its payoff and ending feel rushed and anticlimactic. 

The style is very different from what modern horror has evolved into, which is to be expected, and the viewer should not expect an action-packed slasher. 

However, I was really impressed by many of the visual effects and shadow/lighting work, especially since effects of the time period are exclusively practical allowing less room for nonrealism. Despite the slowness, the creepy parts were decidedly creepy. 

Though I would not exactly recommend this movie to the casual horror enjoyer, I am very glad I had the opportunity to add it to my watched list. 

Where to watch: Criterion Collection

Cronos (1993) – directed by Guillermo del Toro

Starring: Federico Luppi, Ron Perlman, Tamara Shanath

Plot: An elderly man and his granddaughter stumble upon a mysterious golden device within an antique in their family-owned shop. Their discovery unleashes a domino effect of revenge, destruction, death, and…undeath? 

My rating: ★★★

My review: The art house horror film that essentially launched del Toro’s career, Cronos,  is considered by some to be Part 1 in an unofficial trilogy, in tandem with The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Practical effects went pretty wild in this one as well. Had me buggin’ (ha, ha). 

Every scene had a distinguishable and unique feel, and the sheer distinction between the tones of the beginning and the end of the movie is almost jarring. 

Again, the pacing was rather slow, but the underlying themes of the story and potential interpretations of the Cronos device were really intriguing. 

I would tentatively recommend this movie to those who are interested in expanding their knowledge of traditional horror but want to try something new.

Where to watch: Stream on Criterion Channel or Max

Tigers are Not Afraid (2017) – directed by Issa López

Starring: Paola Lara, Juan Ramón López

Plot: A group of orphaned children armed with three wishes band together in efforts to evade both the cartel that killed their parents and the lingering shadows of their pasts. 

When one of the children obtains a phone that contains incriminating evidence of the leader of the cartel, the lines between reality and the supernatural blur, and things get much more complicated. 

My rating: ★★★★

My review: A beautiful movie, both from a visual and contextual perspective. The main body of the film’s story is acted almost exclusively by amateur child actors, which is often seen as a sentence of death to quality. 

But in this case, the acting was actually quite good- the dialogue played to the actors’ strengths and was often paired with handheld camera shots, which I felt added to the uncertain and childlike tone of the film. 

López also intertwines the harsh reality of the cartel and their influence over Mexican society and masterfully intersperses heartwarming scenes with jarringly tense ones, which are still further intertwined with more traditional horror elements.

I really enjoyed it and I think this is a movie that everyone should consider adding to their watchlists. 

Where to watch: Rent this movie on Amazon, Apple TV, or Vudu, or stream on AMC+.

**Please check trigger warnings for Cronos and Tigers are Not Afraid (especially the latter) before watching.

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Featured images curtesy of Wikipedia (Phantom of the Monastery), The Criterion Collection (Cronos), and Wikipedia (Tigers are Not Afraid).