Today I watched Juan López Moctezuma’s Alucarda (1978)
In an abandoned church concealed by strange mist, a girl is born and her mother says ominously, “Don’t let Him take her!” This young girl, named Alucarda, grows in a nunnery but her taste for the blasphemous will not go unquenched. She corrupts another orphan girl named Justine and together they take vows to their new lord Satan! What makes this film more interesting and less straightforward than it could be is how it focuses on Alucarda and Justine more as protagonists meanwhile the nunnery is a dark and dismal place inhabited by priests wreathed in bloody bandages. The film seems to identify with the satanic plight much more so than the christian one.
This highlights one of the more strangely fascinating elements of the horror genre, namely how it plays with the concept of protagonist. Everyone should by now be aware of Hitchcock’s classic Psycho bait-and-switch but this experimentation goes even deeper than that. This is because it is most commonly the antagonist who becomes the icon in any given horror work, sure Van Helsing is a recognized name, but it pales in comparison the recognition a name like Dracula commands. And thus there is more than one extremely long series following the exploits of one insane murderer or another. This film follows in the tradition by making it rather obvious that the antagonistic satanists are the ones we are supposed to identify with but I imagine it took most audiences a little while to realize this.
Upon it’s original release this movie would likely have seemed like exploitative trash. It would seem that this film is preying upon the socially conservative values of an audience it wants to shock and disturb. But I think that this hides a deeper level of subversion at play here. The way the church goes after lesbianism and demonic possession plays completely different to a more liberal audience but it seems to fit with the dark aesthetic on display. The film frames the church as both a brutal oppressor and protagonist in a way I think was meant to slip past censors and/or producers who would not have understood such radical anti-religious themes.
Set design is perhaps the primary tool in facilitating the subversion inherent in this story. While much of the film looks rather rough and low budget, the nunnery sets are something else entirely. They use the nightmarish twisted visuals of German expressionist design to great effect, making this supposedly peaceful house of God into a dreary and ominous place. There is also a creative piece of costuming on display here as all of the nuns’ habits are seemingly stained with blood to further enhance the sense that they worship death. Meanwhile the satanists frolic naked in a beautiful forest surrounded by symbols of life and beauty.
It is likely a fault of the times that this film was not able to double down on it’s subversion and criticism of christian ideals which makes the ending somewhat frustrating. But the rest of the film definitely makes up for it with creative art design and plenty of on screen madness. It really is a madcap affair with a seemingly endless parade of screaming, naked women, spontaneous combustion, satanic orgies, and expressionist kitsch. And it is a pretty damn entertaining ride, though if you don’t have some love for the cliches of the genre and understanding of the strange moralities explored in these kinds of movies it may come off as flat. 4/5