Veneno para las hadas / Poison for the Fairies

Veneno para las hadas, or Poison for the Fairies, was Carlos Enrique Taboada's last feature film. Readers who have stuck with me through my reviews of Taboada's previous four horror films — three Gothics and one quasi-giallo — may be relieved to know that this film is actually available, with English subtitles, on an inexpensive commercial Region 1 DVD.

Poison for the Fairies is thematically similar to his other Gothic films, in that the horrific elements of the story arise from simple human failings on the parts of the protagonists. However, the significant difference between this film and its predecessors is this: while belief in the supernatural plays an important part in the plot, nothing even remotely supernatural actually happens in the course of the movie.

The movie begins with a prologue, shot in gorgeous sepia. By the light of a single candle, an angelic-looking little blonde girl makes her way to her mother's bedside. At first we see only the candle flame; then the girl's long golden tresses; then her sweet face — and then the gleaming knife she carries behind her back. When she reaches the bed, her mother sits up. Still groggy from sleep, the woman asks her daughter why she is out of bed so late at night. The little girl responds by cutting her mother's throat — and all at once the gentle sepia tones are joined by splashes of bright red. Rather than focus on the little girl's delighted smile, the camera stares down at the growing puddle of blood on the floor... and the opening titles start.

As the titles roll, we start to realize that the blood is still pouring out onto the floor at an incredible rate. If anything, it's a little too thick — too copious — too red... more like a can of red paint being overturned than a woman's life bleeding away. In fact, there's no denying it: it is red paint. But before we can really register our disappointment, the totally-red screen folds away from us, and the camera pulls back. Where once we saw a pool of stage blood, we now see the crimson cover of a book being shut. Everything we've just seen has been an illusion. The golden-haired little girl is sitting in bed, listening to her nanny tell her a ridiculously inappropriate bedtime story about a witch who took the form of a little girl.

The girl is Verónica, 10 years old, who lives with her invalid grandmother and her intensely superstitious nanny. Verónica's parents were killed many years ago in a car accident, and she no longer remembers them at all. She goes to a school called the Colegio Dublin, where she has few friends. She is acutely aware of the differences between herself and the other children, with their happy homes and full families. Rather than try to fit in where she doesn't belong, Verónica has taken a lesson from her nanny's gruesome stories of witches and monsters. She claims that she's not really a little girl at all, but rather an old and powerful witch in disguise. Naturally,the other children think she's nuts, and give her a wide berth.

Then, one day, a new girl comes to the Colegio Dublin. Her name is Flavia; she comes from a rich family, but in spite of (or maybe even because of) her comfortable and privileged upbringing, she's very sensitive and shy. She is as dark as Verónica is fair. Predictably, it is the vacant seat next to Verónica to which Flavia is assigned in class. "What is your name again?" asks Verónica. Flavia responds, but the blonde girl shakes her head dismissively. "That's not a name," she says. Or, she qualifies later, at least it's not a human name. That's what she's named her spider — the big scary one with the yellow streak.

The two girls begin an uneasy friendship. In fact, it's less of a friendship than it is a meeting of master and willing slave. Remember: in Taboada's films, the character of the "witch", whether real or imagined, is someone who has given up some essential part of his or her humanity for the sake of power. To Verónica, who has no real authority figures to look up to in her own life, the idea of power is very attractive. She is a perceptive little girl; it's clear she has learned the lessons of her nanny's witch stories. These stories are very different from fairy tales — witches are almost always the villains in fairy tales, because they are always trying to take what isn't theirs. Thus, witches and fairies are presumed to be deadly enemies, and Verónica (who identifies with the witches) spends the last half of the movie assembling ingredients for a deadly poison she claims she'll use to kill as many fairies as she can. It's power that the witches want, and Verónica has determined that she'll use someone else's belief in witchcraft to get power for herself.

As it happens, Flavia is the ideal target for Verónica's plan.

It's Flavia's upbringing that's made her so receptive. Her parents are in most respects very caring and responsible people (in marked contrast to Verónica's feeble grandmother and permissive nanny). The trouble stems from the fact that they are atheists — not that this is a problem in itself; Taboada was an atheist, too (and for that matter, so am I). But Taboada realized that many people, when they embrace a new and controversial way of looking at the world, tend to lose their sense of proportion. Flavia's parents have tried to raise the girl from early childhood with a totally rational world-view. This is a big problem, because in general, very young children aren't built to handle a totally rational world-view. Magical thinking is natural to them, and to force them into a grown-up's way of thinking may result in either the stunting of their imaginations, or in a reaction against rationality later on. In Flavia's case, she has neither Christ nor Santa Claus to celebrate at Christmas, making the holiday rather drab. When the claw-shaped branch outside her window frightens her at night, she has no magic spell to comfort her — no prayer, nor any made-up incantation against the Monsters Under the Bed — only a stern reminder that there's nothing to be afraid of in the dark. Outwardly, she seems a little overwhelmed by too much maturity forced on her too quickly; while inside, she's desperately anxious for a little of the magic that comes so easily to other children. Verónica seizes on this need, and uses it to begin perverting poor Flavia.

Of course, it's not real magic Verónica is using, and Verónica knows it. As I've already mentioned, she's a very perceptive little girl, and she notices things that even adults often miss. One of the first things she does to convice Flavia of her powers is to say she's cast a spell to drive away a teacher she doesn't like. When the teacher suddenly leaves, Flavia is suitably impressed — she doesn't know that Verónica had overheard the teacher talking with the principal the day before about a family emergency.

But what Flavia really wants is for someone or something to rescue her from her hated piano lessons. If Verónica could get rid of one teacher, surely she could get rid of another? Verónica consents, and dragging Flavia off in the middle of the night, she conducts a disturbingly convincing Satanic ritual.

Verónica's theatrics pay off unexpectedly well: not long afterwards, as Flavia stumbles her way through some Chopin, her teacher suffers a stroke and drops dead. It's only after this shock that we overhear Flavia's parents talking, and we learn that the piano teacher's ill-health was well-known among the adults. It's not the sort of thing that a child like Flavia would notice — but little escapes Verónica's attention. This time, she's used her powers of observation to accomplish three things: she's further convinced Flavia that her powers are real; she's made Flavia indebted to her for supposedly granting her wish; and, because poor Flavia blames herself for the woman's death, she's bound Flavia to her with a terrible secret. Of course, she's also done terrible damage to Flavia's psyche, but that's not something that would concern Verónica very much. In fact, she uses Flavia's guilt shamelessly, even convincing her that only Verónica's power keeps the teacher's ghost from dragging Flavia off to Hell.

You might get the impression from my description so far that Verónica is a monster. Well, yes; that's true, I suppose. Yet no matter how horrible her actions appear when they're described this way, the movie itself never allows us to lose sight of the troubled little girl whose loneliness has driven her to such behavior. We understand why she does the things she does, even if we cringe as she extends her cruel control of Flavia bit by bit. She has learned very well how to manipulate people, and to aquire power over them; but she doesn't understand — couldn't yet understand — the consequences of her actions, and why the witch tales usually end the way they do... in tragedy, despair and death.

There are those who claim that Poison for the Fairies isn't really a horror film — some have even said it's a charming coming-of-age film, up until the very end, when things get very bleak indeed. These people need to have their Freddy-and-Jason watching privileges revoked until their hearts and minds grow back. This film is a study in gradually-escalating horror. The fact that it's taking place among children, or that some of the steps it takes seem relatively harmless, doesn't detract from the overall feeling of doom it manages to create. As I watched it, I realized that it was building to some sort of catastrophe; and by the beginning of the last act, when Verónica goes with Flavia and her family to their sprawling estate for Christmas the winter holiday, I was dreading to find out how the story would end.

Even if I wanted to tell you what that concluding catastrophe was, I doubt that I could. I just don't have the words to describe it (other than, perhaps, "inevitable"). I can describe what leads up to it, though: Verónica decides to brew her ultimate potion, a deadly poison that she will leave in the favorite gathering-places of the fairies. She enlists Flavia's help in assembling the ingredients, some of which lead them to dangerous and difficult places. At one point, gathering dirt from a grave at midnight, they are caught by the church caretaker. When Flavia's parents, who are understandably upset, ask what they could possibly have been doing, Flavia breaks under the pressure and tells her parents about the potion.

Verónica sees this as a betrayal of trust, and becomes icily distant. Flavia is terrified, partly because Verónica is her only friend, and partly because she believes in the girl's dark powers for revenge. Eventually, Verónica tells her that she will forgive her under one condition: that Flavia give her her little black dog, to keep forever and ever.

This puts Flavia in a terrible state. She loves her little dog — but she's afraid of Verónica even more. She's right to be worried: everybody knows what happens to small animals in Satanic rituals... and we have every right to be worried, too, since the death of an animal occurs in all Taboada's previous horror films (in Hasta el viento tiene miedo, it was a little bird; in El Vagabundo en la lluvia and Más negro que la noche it was a cat; and in El Libro de piedra it was a dog). At first, she tries to hide the dog away, but all her attempts come to nothing. Eventually, she has no other choice: she gives the dog to Verónica, even though it breaks her heart.

And the fact of the matter is, no matter how callous Verónica has become as her power over Flavia has increased, Verónica doesn't really want to hurt the dog. It's obvious she wanted a dog of her own, in the normal-little-girl kind of way. The fact that she got the dog in the way she did, and that by doing so she's finally crushed Flavia's spirit, is a different matter. And off she goes, dog in tow, blithely continuing her preparations for the poison for the fairies. But here's what I want you to consider: what has Verónica done by asserting this final control over her virtual slave? Where else can she go? What else can she do to preserve the illusion that she is, in fact, an ancient and terrible witch? And what's left for poor Flavia, as she reaches a state of fear and despair that no ten-year-old girl should ever have to endure?

Let me reassure my fellow animal-lovers that in spite of all the hints to the contrary, the dog does not get killed. Maybe I should rephrase that, to give you all a clearer picture of what I can't even begin to describe: it's not the dog who dies a horrible, lingering death.

What makes Poison for the Fairies all the more effective is that it is shot entirely from the children's point of view. The grown-ups appear infrequently, and when they do, they are generally shot from a child's-eye level. It's not quite to the point of the Peanuts-style wah-wah trombone, but it's close... we see a lot of the grown-ups' legs and backs — quite a bit of their backs, in fact — but very rarely do we see their faces. On those few occasions when we do look the adults in the eye, it comes as something of a shock. This child's-eye perspective extends as well to the story itself. We don't experience the plot as adults watching from a comfortable distance. Everything we see, we see exactly as the children do.

Yet in spite of the way the film identifies so completely with its young protagonists, let me caution you: please, please think very carefully about letting young children see it. They may understand it a little too well. I have a feeling that had I seen this film when I was a child, the ending would have hurt me deeply.

Poison for the Fairies sums up the thematic concerns of all Taboada's other horror films. In all of them, it's simple lack of compassion that invites the horror — not just for those who behave so thoughtlessly, but for everyone around them. As usual, we come to understand and even sympathize with everyone in the film; we understand that their actions are complicated and thoroughly human, no matter what the results may be. Also as usual, the movie ends just as the true horror is becoming apparent to us. In this case, though, the doom that comes to the characters doesn't come from beyond the grave. It's a natural, logical consequence of everything that's happened in the film. If anything, the absence of ghosts and real witches makes the film even more frightening — not frightening in the visceral sense, but on a much deeper and more disturbing level. Taboada ended his career by bringing his ideas out of the metaphorical realm of the ghost story, and into the real world.

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