All of this is great stuff, but one very important name is likely to be omitted from the discussion — one figure in Mexican cinema history who is held in very high regard in Latin America, but whose name and work is little known elsewhere. His name was Carlos Enrique Taboada, and his influence can be found in all the disparate aspects of Mexican horror I mentioned above. For example, he got his start writing or co-writing popular films at the time when "serious" Mexican cinema was facing decline, including such near-legendary horror films as Orlak, the Hell of Frankenstein and Chano Urueta's loopy Witch's Mirror. He co-wrote the long-running serial about the vampire Nostradamus, which was edited into no less than 10 feature films in the early sixties. He even wrote scripts for lucha pictures, such as the Santo vehicle Anonimo Mortal. Yet the movies Taboada made on his own as writer/director were entirely different, and had a longer-lasting effect on future generations of Mexican film-makers than the cult films that have now become so popular outside of Mexico.
Taboada's lasting legacy is a series of four distinct but thematically-related horror films he made between 1968 and 1984: Hasta el viento tiene miedo (Even the Wind is Afraid, 1968); El Libro de piedra (The Book of Stone, 1969); Más negro que la noche (Blacker Than the Night, 1975) and Veneno para las hadas (Poison for the Fairies, 1984). A fifth film, El vagabundo en la lluvia (The Drifter in the Rain) from 1968, falls technically in the horror genre, but is much different in character, and is not usually included on the list of his best films. Hasta el viento tiene miedo, El Libro de piedra and Más negro que la noche are particularly unsettling ghost stories, while Veneno para las hadas has a more ambiguous relationship with the supernatural. There is very little blood in any of them — some, but only a little — and absolutely no garish monster makeup. In fact, special effects of any kind are kept to an absolute minimum in his movies. Rather, Taboada uses lighting and sound, together with an instinct for disturbing suggestion, to create a subtle, terrifying atmosphere that's very far removed from the grisly Mexican gothics.
Hasta el viento tiene miedo, the first of Taboada's classic horror films, takes place in a girls' boarding school. A senior student named Claudia has a terrible nightmare, in which she hears a voice calling her name. In her dream, she follows the voice, and imagines herself climbing a tower on the school grounds which is always kept locked and off-limits. At the top of the tower, she finds an unknown girl's corpse hanging from the rafters. When she wakes up in terror, the girl's dangling body is still there, in the room with her. This is enough to send poor Claudia into screaming hysterics.
The next morning, the local doctor has assured the girl's teacher, Señorita Lucía, that Claudia will be all right provided she is allowed to rest. This diagnosis does not sit well with the school's headmistress, Bernarda, who accuses Claudia of malingering. Furthermore, she berates Lucía for coddling the girl, and for questioning the decision of her superior. Bernarda issues orders that Claudia is to go back to classes at once.
Bernarda is a martinet who rules the school with an iron fist. She permits no lapses in discipline, even among the staff. We later find out that she has bent poor Lucía's life to her will: when Lucía wanted to marry, Bernarda forced her to break off the engagement — because the young man's social standing was not up to the standards she wanted her school to exemplify. But as easy as it is to dislike Bernarda (and it is very easy to dislike Bernarda), it should be stressed that she's not a true monster like, say, the vile headmaster Michel Delasalle in Clouzot's Les Diaboliques. When we get a chance to see her in a classroom, we start to realize that she is a capable teacher. However, she is the sort of person who has come to regard compassion and kindness as signs of weakness. She believes she is doing an immensely charitable thing for her students, by introducing them early to the harsh realities of life. And if she breaks them? Well, better that they be broken now, before they go out into the unforgiving adult world.
But our sympathy for Bernarda only goes so far. Regardless how she sees herself, or justifies what she does, she's still a stunted and loveless harridan who takes pleasure in seeing people suffer. She has even manipulated one of the students, the orphaned and insecure Josefina, into being her snitch around the other girls. And naturally, her attempts to wield total control over her charges make them all the more rebellious.
So when Claudia and her friends Kitty, Yvette, Marina, Liliana and Flavia walk by the forbidden tower later that morning... and find it curiously unlocked... who could blame them for wanting to investigate?
Claudia is unnerved to see that the tower looks exactly the way she dreamed it was. The others are unimpressed, since she didn't describe it to them beforehand. They suggest she describe the upper floor to them now. Then they could go up and see for themselves if it looked the way she described. Claudia agrees; the stairs squeak when you step on them, she says, and at the top of the stairs is a door painted red, with an old iron lock. The other girls aren't very convinced by the squeaky staircase; that couldn't have been difficult to guess. But at the top of the shadowy staircase is... a red door. With an old iron lock. "She's inside," murmurs Claudia...
...just as Headmistress Bernarda charges in and catches them.
Trespassing in a forbidden area (particularly this forbidden area, as we will see) is a very serious offense to Bernarda, who refuses to believe Claudia's story that the tower door was left unlocked. As punishment, all the girls involved will be forced to remain on the school premises over the coming vacation. Lucía seems very upset to hear this decision, and tells the stunned girls in private that she'll try to get Bernarda to reconsider. But Bernarda is unbending, even when Lucía reminds her that this is just how things arranged themselves that other time... It's all rubbish, insists Bernarda; the other time was an accident. "As you say," says Lucía. "I hope you don't come to regret it."
To compound the punishment, Bernarda has ordered that the girls will have a full day of classes each day of the ruined vacation. And worse, since the goody-goody Josefina has nowhere else to go, she'll be spending the whole time with them as Bernarda's eyes and ears.
The first night of their ruined vacation, Claudia again hears the voice calling to her. This time, rather than just visiting in her dream, she actually gets up and sleepwalks out to the tower. Kitty and Liliana follow her to keep her from hurting herself. They catch up with her just outside the tower door — which, in spite of all the fuss during the day, is now again unlocked. This would be enough to distress them... but when the girls look up to the top window, they see the unmistakeable form of a young girl with golden hair, staring down at them.
After this, sleep is out of the question. The three frightened girls sit with the others in their dormitory and try to make sense of what they've just experienced. It has to mean something, muses Claudia; the girl in the tower is trying to tell them something that Bernarda doesn't want them to know...
Of course, this is just the moment that Bernarda and Lucía storm into the room, demanding to know why the girls are out of bed.
The girls concoct a story that Claudia has had another nightmare, and the others were merely trying to comfort her. This seems to convince Bernarda, who is much more concerned with Kitty's choice of revealing sleepwear; but Lucía has something else on her mind. "Was it the same nightmare?" she asks. Claudia looks at her carefully and pauses before replying: "No," she says, "It wasn't that one." Lucía remains unconvinced.
The next morning, Bernarda finds Kitty with a forbidden photograph of her boyfriend Armando. Boyfriends themselves are forbidden to the girls, but in Bernarda's view photos are just as bad. Bernarda confiscates the photo, leaving Kitty furious — but not helpless. Kitty knows that Bernarda will probably lock the offending photo in her desk. So at midnight, she intends to sneak back into Bernarda's office and steal it back.
And so she does, much to the distress of the other girls, who wait back at the dormitory biting their fingernails until she returns. But when Kitty gets back, she's got something else besides the picture of Armando. There was another photograph in the drawer — a photograph of the same girl they saw staring at them from the supposedly-empty tower.
There is only one way the girls will ever be able to find out what's really going on, and that is by going to the sympathetic but largely powerless Lucía. Lucía is horrified that Kitty actually broke into the Headmistress's office, but she promises to try to sneak the stolen articles back in before Bernarda notices they are gone. As to the identity of the girl in the picture? Yes, Lucía knows who she was. Her name was Andrea Ferran, and she had been a student at the school several years ago.
"But she's dead now," interrupts Claudia.
Luciía asks her how she could possibly know that. Claudia simply tells her that Andrea Ferran was the girl she saw hanging in the tower in her nightmare. Lucía refuses to hear any more about the subject and stalks away.
The next evening, both teachers are called away to a reception for some academic dignitary. Bernarda leaves poor hapless Josefina as her spy while they are gone, hoping the girl will rat out her classmates for any perceived misbehavior. At first, it looks like the evening will be a dull one: Claudia sits at the school piano, listlessly and talentlessly thumbing out a Chopin prelude. Kitty, Yvette and Flavia interrupt her to beg her to stop with the dreadful noises. Claudia explains that she's been forced to take lessons by her family, though she hates the piano. Yvette orders her to move over and let her have a try. An old boyfriend taught her how to play — but it's not Chopin she knows... more like hot whorehouse boogie-woogie. When Josefina stumbles in and finds the girls dancing to Yvette's jazz piano, Kitty decides that just this once the school tattle-tale is get what she deserves. But before Kitty can do anything drastic, Liliana gets a different idea: if they can get Josefina to dance with them, she won't be able to tell on them — because she'll be as guilty as they are! Liliana has hit on Josefina's secret: she really wants to be "one of the girls", but she doesn't know how to ask. Once the others invite her to dance, she starts to let go of some of her fears and really enjoy herself. Unfortunately, Kitty tries to force the issue a little too far. Calling out "Striptease! Striptease!" she tries to tear Josefina's clothes off. This is too much for poor Josefina, who curls up on a bench in tears. Claudia begs Kitty to stop tormenting Josefina; Kitty, chagrined that there will no longer be a striptease, decides to do one herself, over the shocked protests of the other girls.
I've hinted that Taboada took the high road when it came to making horror films, and as far as the "horror" elements of his moves go, that's true. However, when there are nubile young women in the story, Taboada doesn't hesitate to put in as many gratuitous shower scenes, bum-shots and sequences in lingerie as he can. These scenes are almost comically tame by today's standards (except for the brief scenes of sexual violence in Taboada's proto-giallo El Vagabundo en la lluvia (1968), which [as I recall] is the only one of his five horror films to feature actual nudity). If you're hoping for a more graphic hint of the sexual tensions in an all-girls' school, you're out of luck: this scene is all you're going to get.
But the striptease sequence, though it grinds the action to a halt and seems rather embarrassing today, does serve two genuine purposes. First, it establishes the fact that Claudia can't play the piano for beans — a fact that becomes vitally important later. Next, it provides enough of a distraction that we're actually a little shocked when the inevitable interruption comes: Andrea is watching them. For a moment only, the rain flowing down the window glass makes her face look skull-like and distorted, and then we see that this is an illusion: she's only a pale, beautiful girl standing outside the window in the rain, her hands flat against the glass... a girl who has no right to be above ground and walking.
When even Josefina is willing to swear she saw Andrea Ferran, Lucía has no choice but to accept that the girls are telling the truth. She tells them the rest of Andrea's tragic history: she had come from a broken home, and her only source of comfort was her beloved mother. She'd been an excellent student, and had played the piano exceedingly well. She'd also been a genuinely sweet girl with a fondness for heliotropes. Five years ago, Andrea had run afoul of Bernarda for the usual trivial reasons, and had been forced to stay in the school over the holiday. Andrea had pleaded with Bernarda to be allowed to go home, since her mother was gravely ill. Bernarda had called her a liar and refused. Then, a few days later, word had come that Andrea's mother was dead. Poor Andrea was disconsolate. First she locked herself in her room; then, late at night, she crept out to the tower and hanged herself.
Lucía still feels a good deal of guilt over Andrea's death herself — perhaps more than she ought,considering Bernarda's total resfusal to accept responsibility for the "terrible accident". Late at night, Lucía sneaks out to the hut of Diego the groundskeeper. The wind is howling through the trees, as it has over the last several nights, and the sound it makes is horribly like that of moaning voices. More unnerved than ever, Lucía tells the groundskeeper that the girls seem to believe they've seen Andrea, and heard her calling to them. Diego seems not at all surprised.
"Have you seen her?" demands Lucía.
"Have you not?" replies Diego, calmly.
Diego then tells her that every time he hears the wind sobbing through the trees, just as it did the night they found poor Andrea dead in the tower — just like tonight, in fact — then he knows she's come back. Perhaps she's looking for something, he muses.
This does absolutely nothing to calm poor Lucía's nerves. As she runs back to her room in the ferocious wind, she stops once on the outside stairs and turns back. There, standing in the courtyard in plain sight, is the unmistakeable figure of Andrea Ferran.
One of the things that makes Taboada's ghosts so memorable is that they have a disturbingly physical presence. These are no transparent phantoms. They're not disfigured and ugly either, nor ghastly and decayed. They bear a very strong resemblance to the ghosts of folklore and tradition, who are often mistaken for real people by those unlucky enough to run into them. Rather than being shadowy, or indistinct, or unreal-looking, these ghosts are vividly real, and sometimes even appear with unnatural clarity. It is not their physical appearance that makes them frightening. It is the way they suddenly pop up in places they should not be, and their silent determination to complete whatever it is they've come for; most of all, it is the fact that we know exactly what they are, even though the others on-screen may not.
Take Kitty's boyfriend Armando, for instance, who breaks into the school to spend some time with his sweetie. Knowing nothing of the haunting, he decides to spend the night in the most private spot he can find... the old tower. He is merely surprised when an unknown girl suddenly steps out of the upper room and brushes by him. At first, he even mistakes her for Kitty, come to keep their midnight appointment. Naturally, his story has quite a strong effect on Kitty, who manages to keep control of herself long enough to make up a story about her "friend" in the tower possibly going to tattle to the Headmistress. That manages to convince Armando to get far away from the tower, as well as excuse her momentary panic.
Once Kitty and Armando have left, Claudia again hears the voice calling to her out of the night. Awake this time, she decides to go out to the tower and confront Andrea. She finds herself retracing the steps of her dream in the dark and the howling wind. She creeps up the staircase to the miserable little room where Andrea ended her life. "I'm here!" she calls, but there is no answer. Claudia pauses for a moment, looking out the filthy window at what was probably the last glimpse of the world Andrea ever saw. Turning from the window, she continues her search for Andrea — and in a sudden flash of lightning, she finds her: dangling from a rope just over her head.
Claudia's screams bring everyone running. Of course, Kitty sends Armando running in the opposite direction, but soon she, Lucía, Bernarda and Diego all converge on the tower, looking for Claudia. And there, thanks to an shocking accident on the staircase, one of them ends up dead.
That's when things really start to get interesting.
Because in the aftermath of this new tragedy, something changes in Claudia. Suddenly, she can play the piano exceedingly well. She astonishes Bernarda (let alone her classmates) with the depth of her knowledge of Romantic-era literature. She has even taken a certain liking to heliotropes. Most disturbing of all, she seems to know many things about the school and its people that Claudia couldn't know — that even Andrea couldn't know, unless her spirit had been wandering the school as a conscious being for the last five years, which is a horrifying thought. And if you listen very carefully to what she says (which nobody does, except perhaps Diego, who is too terrified to speak of it any further), you can hear bitter hidden meanings in her words.
Under the circumstances, it's inevitable that Bernarda is going to pay a terrible price for her hard-heartedness. Bernarda has come to feel that love and compassion are weaknesses, and in a sense she's right: it's Claudia's desire to help Andrea that allows her to be overcome by the ghost. But this "weakness", this ability to admit to and to share strong emotion, gives Claudia, the other girls, and Señorita Lucía the resilience to survive their terror. Bernarda, who takes such delight in breaking the "weaker" students, is not resilient: she is unbending, and when she is confronted with the consequences of her actions in such a startling and unexpected way, it's her turn to break.
One of Taboada's principal themes across all five of his nominal horror films is the absence of love in circumstances where it is necessary — in the relationship between parent and child, for instance, or between husband and wife; or, as in this film, between children and those adults tasked with preparing them for their future lives. Through his ghost stories, Taboada suggests that our moments of ill-considered cruelty may have a much more drastic effect, not only on our unintended victims but on ourselves, than we could ever have imagined.
In the case of Bernarda, Taboada wisely chooses not to show us in detail how she meets her fate. There is the possibility that Bernarda has chosen to take her last steps for herself, her conscience awakened by the presence of the ghost child. In any case, we understand Bernarda better than she understands herself by the end of the film (and the end of Bernarda). We may feel that there is rough justice in her eventual punishment, but once it's been meted out, all we can feel is sorrow. The final victim of Bernarda's callousness is Bernarda herself.
Hasta el viento tiene miedo is as much a modern fairy tale as a ghost story. In it, a wicked witch (Bernarda, whom the students even call la bruja) has taken over the kingdom (the school) from the rightful queen (Lucía). It falls to a common girl (Claudia) to make a dangerous deal with a supernatural power to make things right again. Taboada returned to fairy tales with much greater ambivalence in his last horror film, Veneno para las hadas (Poison for the Fairies).
Fairy tale or no, it would be a bit of an exaggeration to call the film's conclusion a happy ending. The characters who remain are shown rebuilding their lives and futures, and there is a sense that eventually, though long after the film is over, a truly happy ending is possible. By contrast, each of Taboada's successive horror films comes to an end just as the true magnitude of the final crisis is dawning on us, and on its surviving characters. We're still left with the sense that the movies' true conclusions will occur long after the part we've been allowed to see; but only in Hasta el viento... are we left with any real hope.
As I finish up this review, in the last days of August 2007, Rob Zombie's remake of Halloween has just opened in theaters. I have deliberately kept away from any reviews or previews of Zombie's version, but I imagine my response to the whole idea of a Halloween remake was very similar to that of most other seasoned horror film fans: maybe it'll be a decent film, but... why even bother? Why not remake one of the many, many films which didn't get made properly the first time, and do it better? Even in the remote chance that the new movie turns out well, what are the odds it's going to be anywhere near as good as the original?
At the same time, many Latin American viewers are asking themselves the same question. A remake of Hasta el viento tiene miedo is due to be released in theaters some time before the end of 2007, while a remake of Taboada's other most highly-respected horror film, El Libro de piedra, is also being released this year. I think I understand what most of us are worried about: first, that Taboada's understated, nearly bloodless approach is exactly the opposite of what today's mainstream horror audiences seem to expect, and what film-makers seem prepared to give them. Technique aside, the next major issue is his thematic concerns: many of today's horror films (Hollywood-style films, that is, and the recent remakes especially) mistake brutality for strength and honest expression. This is exactly the kind of attitude that Taboada's four ghost stories rebut. In each of the four, a little bit of common cruelty is enough to lead to horrible consequences. It would be tragic, and terribly ironic, to see a remake of Hasta el viento... fall into the same trap that dooms poor Bernarda.