René Cardona, Jr.
Mexico / UK, 1977
Review by Thomas Scalzo
Posted on 19 October 2011
Categories 31 Days of Horror VIII
Ah, the Mexican horror film. Like the lure of the siren’s song, never what it appears to be, yet who among us can resist? From masked wrestlers to Aztec mummies to inexplicable amalgams of slashers, demons, and folklore fiends, the genre efforts from south of the border are surprising, entertaining, and a reliable source of joyous bewilderment.
With such a varied pool of material from which to choose, however, narrowing the field to four selections was a difficult task. In the end, we decided to steer clear of the most bizarre offerings, and leave the coverage of the mass of wrestler films for another day. Instead, we chose to focus on a few relatively straightforward Mexican horror titles that represent Mexican filmmakers successfully putting their own memorable spin on well-established horror subgenres. Thus will our month-long adventure bring us to the wonderfully atmospheric hacienda of a sophisticated vampire story; to the creepy convent of a demonic possession tale; and to the Mexican suburbs of an endlessly amusing supernatural slasher film. So check back each Wednesday as we continue our search for horror treasures from south of the border.
Buried deep within this 120-minute paean to free love and spear fishing is a gruesome When Nature Attacks horror film, replete with torso-severing shark attacks and a bloody final showdown between man and beast. But unlike Grizzly, Jaws, or Kingdom of the Spiders, Tintorera feels no obligation to keep its titular nemesis front and center for the duration of the film. In fact, so much time elapses between the first and second shark attacks - time inexplicably filled with libidinous carousing aboard a yacht and the wanton destruction of sea life - that it’s easy to forget you’re watching a horror movie at all.
We begin with Steve, a hard-working factory man who, after passing out during one of his shifts, is under doctor’s orders to take a vacation. With a friend’s private yacht at his disposal, Steve jets on down to Mexico, stocks up on booze, and makes a commendable effort to relax. And for Steve, relaxing means making time with the ladies. Confounding his efforts, however, is a professional gigolo named Mike. A man seemingly incapable of wearing anything more than a Speedo, Mike has dedicated his life to wooing wealthy damsels and reluctantly accepting their enthusiastic remunerations. When Mike sets his sights on a gal that Steve considered his own, tensions flare, fists fly, and Steve’s idyllic vacation seems very much in jeopardy.
But not to worry: director René Cardona, Jr. is not a man to let a little violence spoil the good vibes he’s trying to create. Soon enough, Steve and Mike are best buddies, living together on the yacht, sharing women, hosting parties for hippies, and happily killing fish with spear guns. Whenever Steve tries to take stock of the situation and rationally understand just what his life has become, he’s stymied by unimpeachable hippy wisdom: just live, man, just live. Even when the no nonsense factory man in him bubbles to the surface and he kicks everyone off the yacht, it’s only a matter of time before Mike wins him back to the leisurely life of ladies and not thinking about tomorrow.
After an hour of this preposterous scenario, with only one quick shark attack by which to whet our horror appetites, one might wonder where in the world Cardona is going with this film. Sure, there are fleeting hints that the Tiger Shark will, at some point, play a role in the story, but as the minutes pile up, and a substantial narrative develops around Steve, Mike, and their free-love threesome with an adventurous vacationer named Gabriella, any semblance of horror tension is stretched mighty thin. We do get an increasingly uncomfortable series of underwater scenes featuring Steve and Mike gunning down innocent marine life, but these moments are more saddening than scary, and only tangentially connected to the story of a man-eating shark prowling the waters thereabouts.
On one hand, we could easily chalk up such narrative decisions to the director’s distracting love of gratuitousness for its own sake. After all, this is the man whose work contains numerous examples of a distasteful penchant for animal cruelty. Perhaps he became so enamored of his sea-life killing spree that he forgot about the horror. And if you’ve got an island full of scantily clad women who love to party on yachts with strange men, you might as well keep that storyline going as long as you can. For as everyone knows, once the killings begin in earnest, the opportunities for lighthearted nudity usually decline. In thinking a bit deeper on the matter, however, it becomes clear that Cardona, despite his lack of focus, is at least attempting to use his meandering tale to touch on some more complicated ideas.
Take the scene featuring Steve and his first paramour exploring some nearby ruins. As Steve stares thoughtfully out at the water, he observes, “These stones have been defying the fury of the elements for centuries.” To which his lady friend replies, “I wish human relationships were strong like that. But you know, they usually end up destroying themselves.” Corny, yes, but indicative of a subtle theme running through the picture: the inevitable dissolution of friendships, love, and by extension, the idyllic existence Mike, Steve, and their bevy of women try so hard to create. Admittedly, such an idea is all but lost amid the nonstop onslaught of boobs and bleeding marine life. Yet for a film ostensibly working within the strictures of a genre that normally highlights humanity’s failed relationship with nature, such human-centric ideas are unexpected.
Pseudo-intellectual messages notwithstanding, Tintorera is a fantastic mess of a movie. From horribly unpleasant spear fishing sequences, to an abundance of oft-naked, devil-may-care women, to a serious attempt to have a long-lasting threesome without anyone getting hurt, Cardona is all over the place in terms of tone and story. As long as a narrative element at least tangentially connects to his underlying theme of the fragility of relationships, or illustrates how cool it is to kill stuff, Cardona seems content to toss it into the mix. Horror purists may well balk at this hodgepodge approach, particularly as it leaves room for only a select few scenes of genuine horror. But for a film that could easily have been nothing more than a unremarkable Jaws rehash, Tinorera manages to offer up unexpected scene after unexpected scene. It may not be timeless horror, but it is not easily forgotten.
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