Mexican director Juan López Moctezuma, a one-time collaborator with Alejandro Jodorowsky, made just a handful of films during his career. His third feature film was Alucarda, la hija de las tinieblas, made during the mid-1970s.
A young woman (Justine), newly arrived at a convent in Mexico in the mid-19th century, makes a strange and unsettling new friend. After a meeting with a gypsy the girls’ behaviour becomes increasingly disturbing until, during a sermon, they start cursing God and announcing that they have pledged themselves to the Evil One. The nuns, and the priests who act as their confessors, react in the way you’d expect them to react – they start flagellating themselves and they tie the girls up and torture them (for their own good of course). After that things get increasingly weird and bloody. When an attempted exorcism goes disastrously wrong the local doctor is called in, setting up a conflict between the forces of science and the forces of religion.
What distinguishes Alucarda from the average exploitation horror movie is its deliberate ambiguity. We’re never quite sure how much of what we’re seeing is objective reality and how much is being filtered through the viewpoints of the various characters. We’re also never entirely certain whose viewpoint we’re seeing. The divide between good and evil, and between madness and sanity, is even more ambiguous. While the girls appear to be genuinely possessed, the nuns and priests are clearly deranged right from the start and they’ve just been waiting for something to light the fuse to set them off on an orgy of sadistic fanaticism. The doctor’s story seems to follow the classic horror movie arc, from scepticism to a belief in the reality of evil, but the audience is left with an uneasy feeling that his original scepticism may have been the correct response to the situation.
Extra layers of doubt are added to the mix by the practice of having several of the actors playing multiple parts. The acting is effective. Moctezuma had a limited budget but with imaginative lighting and camerawork, a few striking sets and some bizarre costumes (the nuns look like blood-stained walking corpses or Egyptian mummies) he still manages to deliver a visually arresting movie. The movie works as a horror movie, with enough blood and mayhem to satisfy most fans, but it has more than just the blood and mayhem going for it.
The Mondo Macabro DVD release is fullscreen, which is actually quite correct since that’s how the movie was shot. It was also, interestingly enough, shot in English. It looks pretty good, and there are some worthwhile extras. This movie is a must for fans of demonic possession movies, and for anyone who loves non-mainstream horror from the 70s.