Anthology films are, pretty much by definition, a mixed bag, but this one doesn’t have many highs to balance out the lows. It offers a series of eight shorts, each by a different director, that are said to reflect Mexican legends and folk tales, and perhaps there is some overarching cultural theme at work. But mostly “Mexico Barbaro” is just a mixture of grubbiness and gore.
It opens with Laurette Flores’ “Tzompantii,” which, via a recollection of a reporter about his search for some missing men, sets the stage for what follows by demonstrating that the same sort of blood rituals that characterized Aztec practices are now being repeated by drug traffickers. The message that brutality crosses all chronological lines is undoubtedly true, but as delivered here it at most achieves a queasy impact.
Edgar Nito’s “Jaral de Berrios” is a supernatural western in which two outlaws, one of them badly wounded, ride to a deserted hacienda. The place turns out to be haunted, and both are eventually visited by lustful ghosts that give them sexual satisfaction but also their just deserts. This is one of the more effective entries in the series, with some impressive locations and camerawork.
Aaron Soto follows with the strange, surrealistic “Drena,” in which a young woman’s taking a cigarette from the hand of a corpse apparently unleashes a demon that orders her to drain the blood from her sister’s vagina. What it all means is unclear—perhaps it’s a modern iteration of some local legend—but in any event it’s too weird and allusive to offer much more than a shock.
In “La Cosa Mas Preciada by Isaac Ezban, a young couple repair to a rustic cabin where the man intends to have sex with the girl. But before he can, they’re visited by a woodland creature that gruesomely rapes the girl, covering her with some sort of vomit in the process, and then drags her back to the forest glen where she’s tied up and tiny critters dance around her. Presumably this is some sort of commentary on the defilement of a young girl’s virginity, but if so the point is muddled.
The title of Lex Ortega’s “Lo Que Importa Es Lo De Adentro” is a ghastly joke on its concluding revelation of the mission of a bedraggled homeless fellow who’s called a boogeyman by a disabled young girl, though her cruel mother and pampered brother dismiss her ravings—with disastrous results. This is a genuinely creepy tale, but it’s undermined by over-the-top acting and excessive gore.
“Munecas,” by Jorge Michel Grau, is mostly focused on the struggle of a terrified woman to escape a man who’s trapped her in a swamp. Shot in black-and-white, it has its effective moments, and the locale of the twist ending—the Island of Dolls in Mexico City’s canals—is certainly creepy. But even as a short the piece feels overextended.
There follows Ulises Guzman’s western “Siete Veses Siete,” focusing on a horribly scarred man who takes a corpse into the desert and brings it back to life, only to take vengeance on the once-dead man for his crimes. Once again, this is nicely crafted, but in the end it turns out to be pretty obvious.
The final segment, Gigi Saul Guerrero’s “Dia de los Muertos,” comes closest to injecting humor into the mix. Like Guzman’s piece, it’s a revenge tale, set in a strip joint where the dancers put on makeup for the Day of the Dead. When the all-male audience comes on too strong, the dancers deal with them in a blood-soaked finale.
There are flashes of interest in each of the films here, but overall “Mexico Barbaro” doesn’t manage to rise much above mediocrity.