Back when I was in high school, I often took advantage of the Spanish-language programming available on a local (Chicago) station; sometimes for mere novelty value, sometimes because I really wanted to enhance my education. An actual horror movie airing on the station was hard to pass up; and I remember well when my friend Danielle and I watched one such film that she had taped at my request (I was VCR-less in those days). MAS NEGRO QUE LA NOCHE ("Blacker Than the Night," 1974) seemed an atmospheric enough haunted house story involving a cat that might or might not have been dead, but I hadn't learned nearly enough Spanish to follow such a talky, untranslated thriller and while we watched it through to the end, neither one of us came away terribly impressed... nor did I hear much mention of that movie in historical context in the ensuing years--let alone see it featured with the more popular Mexican horror movies about which I DID learn a lot more.
As such, it never occurred to me that this film made enough of an impression in its native land that it would qualify for a big-budget 3-D Mexican/Spanish remake in this day and age... and thanks to our large local Spanish-speaking population, it actually played in not one but TWO county multiplexes. Alas, as with last week's review of TUSK, I didn't get to this one until it was pretty much too late to review for local audiences... sorry about that, chief.
The new MAS NEGRO follows the original storyline faithfully as memory serves (as updated and directed by Henry Bidwell), allowing such modernizations as contemporary music, fashions, naughty Internet sites and the matching tattoos shared by two of the main characters. The story seems as simple and old-fashioned as possible. Young, engaged Greta (Zuria Vega) abruptly inherits a huge, gloomy mansion (her childhood home which she barely remembers after a lifetime in boarding school) from her recently departed aunt. Though she has the quietly sinister,, smiling elderly maid Evangelina (Margarita Sanz) at her disposal, it's too much for her to handle on her own, so she invites her three best friends (Adriana Louvier as Maria, Erendira Ibarra as Pilar and Ona Casamiquela as Vicky) to move in with her. Oh, there's just ONE condition to the inheritance, according to a justifiably nervous estate lawyer... Greta just has to take good care of her late aunt's black cat Becker. Well, while I'm saying as little as possible, one of the friends blames Becker for something most unpleasant that happens to her... and she takes revenge on the cat by drowning it.
As I said, it SOUNDS straightforward enough, but frankly, the narrative scarcely requires the device of the cat... Becker's nothing more than something to beware when rounding corners. This is one of those cases where all hell is going to break loose, cat or NO cat, because of all of the pent-up sexual frustration, infidelity and drug use that plague both the original occupants of the house AND the newcomers (especially Jose Maria Torre as Pedro, Greta's fiance, who can't stand the fact that she's saving herself for marriage whether or not any of her friends believe her). There's enough psychic energy raging in THIS house to rival THE HAUNTING itself (and please, I'm only talking about the original).
This remake stands tall in production and art design... and while 3-D may seem unnecessary for such a tale, it's put to good use--not with flying objects but with deep, dark halls, forbidding passageways, a room filled with staring photographs (in which Pilar is expected to sleep) and one terrifically subtle shock involving a painting. The casting is also quite good... Sanz (previously seen in FRIDA) is particularly unforgettable as the creepy maid whose polite smile never completely squelches the contempt she holds for Greta's "trashy" friends, while the four young ladies comprising the leads all contribute mightily to the film's overall attractiveness while standing tall with distinct, separate personalities simultaneously.
And here's why the film is never going to catch on with "mainstream" American horror audiences. They're going to complain that it's too long and too slow (no real horror-show violence until we near the climax), and a great many will be frustrated that all four of the leads are seen in various revealing outfits throughout without ever crossing the nudity barrier (despite several sequences that would seem to demand it). None of that bothered me, however, because, as I hinted earlier, I really HAVE learned a lot about Mexican horror over the years--what seems like "teasing" is actually a combination of Catholic modesty and the very frustration at the heart of the movie (the virginal Greta dreams of sex as she resists it at this time in her life--THAT we're shown, but when one of her friends of lesser virtue takes advantage of Pedro's frustration, the film doesn't even bother to show it because we already KNOW what's on THEIR minds). All that's missing from the classic Mexican horror formula is a role for the Church itself--I've seen less and less of this (outside of the works of Guillermo del Toro himself, naturally) as south-of-the-border films try harder to appeal to American viewers.
So the leisurely pace and the lack of titillation work perfectly well in the new MAS NEGRO--it shows you exactly what you need to be shown and the slow build allows for a good variety of quick scares--some you'll see coming, some you won't. The only true liability here, again, is in the frankly muddled narrative... even after all of the flashbacks have unspooled, Greta's history still isn't completely cleared up, and we're still not sure just what role poor Becker has in the goings-on... is he the reincarnation of the aunt? Or is that the maid? And which and who and... sorry--some of this was lost on me even WITH subtitles. Nevertheless, this remains a striking, old-fashioned Spanish-language chiller and I'm glad I went the extra mile to see it.
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