Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Census Flashback: South Of The Border

On our Fright Flashback/Census Bloodbath crossover, every week this summer we'll be exploring an 80's slasher film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to the weekend's upcoming blockbuster.

In anticipation of Sicario: Day of the Soldado, the most necessary sequel ever conceived, I'll be reviewing La muerte del chacal, a film that hails from that franchise's domain: the nation of Mexico.

Year: 1984
Director: Pedro Galindo III
Cast: Mario Almada, Fernando Almada, Cristina Molina 
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

I don't know if you're aware of this, but Census Bloodbath is a pretty comprehensive project. In the process of watching every slasher movie the 80's ever churned out, we are gonna cross a lot of borders and oceans. The thing is... If you're watching a bootleg of an obscure foreign film from three and a half decades ago, it turns out that you can't just switch on the subtitles. So yes, I did watch La muerte del chacal (AKA Death of the Jackal) in its original language, and let me tell you - my great grades in AP Spanish don't really carry over into watching a poor VHS rip, so some nuance may have been lost in the process.

Luckily, much like with the previous film I had to watch this way (the 1980 Italian flick Trhauma), the strict adherence to slasher formula makes it pretty damn easy to get the gist of every single scene whether or not you specifically understand the lines being spoken. But I do want you to take this review with a grain of salt, because I certainly didn't watch this under the ideal conditions.

But you know what doesn't need subtitles? Screaming.

So, as far as I can tell, La muerte del chacal tells the story of The Jackal, a serial killer terrorizing the sexy young women of a Mexican town (which, through a bizarre and amusing set of circumstances and tax laws, was shot in Texas). Sheriff Bob (Mario Almada, who also appeared in the film's quasi-sequel Masacre en Rio Grande) is hot on the trail, but before he gets his man a great deal of strippers, horny teens, and various bystanders are felled by the Jackal's awesome sword cane and his two Doberman sidekicks.

Also, like most people you shouldn't trust, he lives in a boat.

Would it shock you if I told you that this film was low budget? It shouldn't, if you've been paying attention. Films made for foreign markets don't land huge sums, and slasher films never do, in any market. But brilliance can thrive in the cheapie environment, and while I wouldn't call La muerte brilliant per se, it definitely has a unique filmmaking quality that can't be denied.

It actually operates in a similar manner to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, utilizing a choppy and erratic editing structure that on the surface seems amateurish but (intentionally or not) drives an eerie chill deep into your bones with its off-kilter glory. Especially in the opening sequences, which depicts the murders of two weirdly middle-aged horny couples in a shipyard, after each kill we get a glimpse of a window closing that doesn't directly correspond to any action in the scene itself, but feels like a grim final note that gets more and more creepy. Also, exactly like Chain Saw, there are random unmotivated shots of the moon that slice through the film at inappropriate times, jamming a shot of adrenaline into otherwise routine proceedings.

Also, there's a boat chase in the middle of the movie, where the watercraft zoom along in wickedly fast motion like they're cars in Mad Max, which is just rad as hell.

I know I'm not making this sound great, but I promise it works. And there are some shots that are just plain great too, so let me make my case with those instead. There's a scene after the killer has escaped from the asylum (about halfway through the killer is caught, and the film suddenly, inexplicably becomes its own sequel), where he's standing in his hospital gown staring up at an apartment building in a beautiful shot that mimics the best of both The Exorcist and Halloween

Actually, the killer's appearance in general is some tremendously exciting slasher material. He cuts a striking giallo-esque figure with his black gloves and identity-obscuring Zorro hat, and his weapon of choice is utterly classy and itching to be iconic. Check it out for yourself:

 So spooky!

I can even follow the movie for the ride when it transitions from a giallo into a telenovela in the third act (although I do not know what the killer's true identity turned out to be, because I couldn't keep people's names straight for the life of me, and he was one of many identical old men in the film).

So honestly, I enjoyed a lot of my time with La muerte del chacal. But if I end the review here, you're going to be very confused about the score I gave this film at the bottom of the page. You see, as much good as there is here in terms of outsider filmmaking, there's not a ton of good as a slasher qua slashers. 

For one thing, the kills aren't tremendously impressive. Most are offscreen, and none are bloody. The weapon is neat, but we don't see it in action quite enough for it to be truly memorable. And the fact that the killer uses dogs to hunt his victims is an interesting twist on the format (albeit one used to better effect in 1981's Madhouse), but it's extremely difficult to pull off a convincing mauling in a film at this budget level.

The worst slasher sin La muerte del chacal commits is the fact that it's a police procedural, my least favorite of the sub-subgenres I've come across over the course of this project. Having the protagonist being a policeman chasing the killer prevents you from ever getting to know the victims or caring about their fates. After each murder you just return to the cop, and you only ever get a minute or two with the new victims before they're dead, so it's hard to be scared. Also, there's no denying how regressive the gender politics in the movie are, especially when there is no Final Girl to even out the score.

One last thing is that we don't find out the killer's identity through the Sheriff's ingenuity and hard work. The film just decides to show us the killer's face during a murder sequence at about the place in the plot that you'd need to find out who it was. It's a lazy storytelling technique, and one that's compounded by the fact that I could not remember what character I was looking at. 

So all in all, while I found a lot to like here (and even I can't believe I compared it to that many classics of low budget cinema), it's just not the type of film that really nails me to my seat. I'm glad I've seen it, but it probably won't stick with me for longer than it takes to post this review and have done with it.

Killer: The Jackal
Final Girl: I guess Sheriff Bob's wife? This is a police procedural slasher, which kind of throws a wrench in this section.
Best Kill: A woman in her bathrobe (I have no idea how she relates to the plot, but keeping in mind that this is a slasher movie, she probably doesn't) is stabbed through the neck so forcefully that it pins her to the wall, hanging several inches above the ground.
Sign of the Times: The secretary in the police station has a major side pony that becomes its own separate character in the scene.
Scariest Moment: A woman wanders into a room on the boat that is full of bodies hanging on hooks.
Weirdest Moment: No fewer than three women decide to explore an old rusty boat in their high heels like they're regular Bryce Dallas Howards.
Champion Dialogue: N/A
Body Count: 15; and yes, I'm including the dogs because their deaths are probably the most slasherific of the bunch.
  1. Man is mauled by a dog.
  2. Woman is killed offscreen.
  3. Man is stabbed in the neck with a sword.
  4. Woman is impaled with a sword.
  5. Woman is pulled into a closet and killed.
  6. Stripper is impaled with a sword.
  7. Man dies in a boat explosion.
  8. Captain dies offscreen.
  9. Mistress is stabbed in the neck.
  10. Orderly has his neck broken.
  11. Security Guard has his head slammed into iron bars.
  12. Mama has her throat slashed offscreen.
  13. Woman is stabbed through the neck.
  14. Doberman #1 is smashed against a wall and thrown overboard.
  15. Doberman #2 is shot.
TL;DR: La muerte del chacal is a shabby but visually intriguing shocker with a few tricks up its sleeve.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1482

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