13 Latin American Horror Movies
Article By: Tony Timpone
Horror movies buffs are always anticipating the next big thing. Remember how we embraced the flood of Asian ghost movies like Ringu (and their English-language reduxes) in the first years of the 21st century? The new wave of gritty horror films coming out of Latin America has attracted the attention of ardent festivalgoers and US production companies looking to mine fresh screams. Even Hostel director Eli Roth has hitched his caboose to some of these exciting Spanish-speaking filmmakers. So today Chiller reveals our favorite Latin American Horror Films for the Friday 13, with exclusive quotes from many of the creators themselves. (We will save Mexico for a future list; titles arranged according to year of release.)
1. At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1964)
Brazil’s leading bogeyman, Coffin Joe (a loose translation of Zé do Caixão), is the brainchild of actor/director/writer José Mojica Marins. The sinister character haunted at least a half dozen movies, usually on a quest to find the perfect bride to sire his demonic child. Coffin Joe also appeared on local TV and in music videos and comic books. “It’s his philosophical contradictions,” says moviemaker Dennison Ramalho, who co-wrote Coffin Joe’s 2008 film Embodiment of Evil (see below), on the fiend’s enduring appeal. “He’s evil, blasphemous and sadistic toward humanity and religion (and especially/excessively toward women), but he protects little kids! You tell me about a bastard more controversial than that!”
Asked which Coffin Joe movie ranks highest, Ramalho replies, “That’s a tough one, really tough. [I choose At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul] because it best synthesizes the character of Coffin Joe.”
2. Rooms for Tourists (2004)
ince this debut effort, Madrid-born filmmaker Adrián García Bogliano has emerged as the leading purveyor of scary frights from south of the border, and he has subsequently toiled in Sweden (the upcoming Black Circle) and in the States (Late Phases). His long-in-the-works first feature, shot in Argentina and in B&W, tells a familiar but frightening tale of a quintet of teenage girls stalked by maniacs.
“It was incredibly difficult,” Bogliano recalls of the shoot. “There was no such thing as horror movies at that moment in Argentina. And the tradition of the genre was very thin. There were a few indie efforts trying to make their things, but we were very clearly pointing to something else. We wanted to make a horror film that had its own identity. Trying to find what would a slasher be like and look like in the Argentinean landscape. That was one of the most difficult things, when you have to work on a genre and you can’t use anything in your country as a reference. You have to figure out things as you go along. We were also trying to make this film at the height of a movement in Argentinean cinema that was all about realism and that had the favor at that time of all the critics. So it was twice as hard to try to pull it off.”
3. Eternal Blood (2002)
A group of role-playing students tangles with real-life vampires in this slick Chilean fear flick from co-writer/director Jorge Olguín, who recalls a stunt that unexpectedly upset one of his castmates.
“When we prepared one scene with gunshots, the actress who plays Elizabeth [Patricia López] suffered a great scare,” says Olguín. “The gunshots were carried out with bags of artificial blood with small explosive charges hidden under her clothes. She was to receive at least 10 gunshots. When the special effects people prepared the actress, she was blind, because she used white contacts over her eyes that did not let her see. So she did not notice when they placed the first bags on her, and suddenly they were detonated by mistake. The sound was as loud as real gunshots and she thought she got hit! One of the blood squibs broke, and she felt the running liquid on her skin. She thought she was bleeding and panicked. We had to calm her down and prove that they were only small charges with protection for her skin. After we shot the scene, she really was very scared and that shows when you see her reaction to receiving the gunshots.”
4. Jennifer’s Shadow (2004)
Claiming an old inheritance in a foreign land never proves easy in horror pictures, such as when American Gina Philips travels to South America for her birthright and clashes with grandmother Faye Dunaway and a supernatural raven. This creepy Argentinean production (a.k.a. Chronicle of the Raven) employed US talent to increase its export value.
“It was a time of learning and growth, which allowed me to experiment with artists that I admire,” says Daniel de la Vega, who co-directed the movie with Pablo Parés. “We chose to work with Gina because we admired her work in Jeepers Creepers. With Faye, I am a very big fan of Eyes of Laura Mars. Having the opportunity to work with Faye Dunaway gave me the chance to learn from an actress with a foolproof charisma, whose mere presence in front of the camera raised every single scene that we were shooting. Her intense creative disposition was perfect for creating the atmosphere in a horror movie.”
5. At the End of the Spectra (2006)
This Columbian film, about an agoraphobic woman trapped in her apartment with a ghost, inspired a Mexican remake (called Espectro) and almost became an American movie starring Nicole Kidman. Director Juan Felipe Orozco, who co-wrote with brother Carlos Esteban Orozco, says the film’s interiors gave everyone chills.
“Even when we shot on a soundstage, the set was extremely scary,” he recalls. “Our production designer, Sara Millan, did an amazing job creating this ‘normal’ but at the same time kind of weird apartment where everything took place. And we decided to use something that was over the top: Hanging on the walls of the set were a weird set of paintings of dead nuns, like real dead nuns! And those paintings were extremely scary. Walking through the hallway with these paintings was simply horrible. And I was always the first in getting inside the set every single morning. Though this was overkill, it helped to build the atmosphere. But for us, working there, it was extremely scary.”
6. Embodiment of Evil (2008)
After a long cinematic sabbatical, Coffin Joe left the mental ward to continue his search for the ideal mate. Co-writer Dennison Ramalho, director of the short-film festival faves Love from Mother Only and Ninjas, relished the opportunity to collaborate with his childhood hero. “There are many stories, and they’re insane,” he says when asked for a favorite anecdote from the Brazilian film. “But one is unforgettable—although, ethically, questionable, and a tiny bit illegal! Actress Leny Dark (who was not really an actress; she was Mojica’s girlfriend at the time) was Coffin Joe’s victim who was tortured with real, live cockroaches. After we finished shooting, I started hearing these shrieks near the dressing rooms. It was Leny. A baby cockroach crawled into her ear and got trapped in the ear canal! The critter was squirming in there. Well, fortunately, we were quick enough to take her to a doctor and have it removed. She wrapped up the day well. At least that was what she told me!”
7. Cold Sweat (2010)
Horror and politics collide in this suspenseful thriller from the prolific Adrián García Bogliano. In the case of two aged former government torturers/executioners, old habits die hard. The crazies lure pretty women to their nitroglycerine-booby-trapped Buenos Aires home for nefarious purposes. “I wanted the villains to be former members of the Argentinean Anti-Communist Alliance, which was probably the worst repressive group operating during the dictatorship in the ’70s,” Bogliano says. “These men had to be around that age. I wanted to have them as prominent figures in the film because of my family’s background—they had to flee from the country because of this group—and also, because as most of those guys never went to jail, I always figured they could be your cute neighbor next door, the senior citizen with the walker that you help crossing the street. I thought it was an interesting concept.”
8. The Silent House (2010)
Shot in real-time and edited as if everything takes place in one take, this suspenser from Uruguay follows a girl and her dad as they arrive at a remote cottage to begin renovations. Then the strange noises and cryptic warnings begin…
“The limitation of money led me to think about how to shoot the movie in a different way,” director Gustavo Hernández explains of his unique $8,000 (!) chiller, redone a year later as a US film starring Elizabeth Olsen. “With no cuts and shooting in sequence, we saved many days of traditional shooting and in just four days we could finish principal photography. But the most important aspect of that limitation was the concept that emerged: ‘Real fear, in real time.’ It seemed a great idea to create a genre film without changing the time or space, to follow the protagonist from the first minute until the end, that was my main objective and my motivation. In this way, the audience could breathe the suspense and tension of the protagonist and suffer with her every second.”
9. Juan of the Dead (2011)
Shooting Cuba’s first zombie—and horror!—film proceeded just the way you would expect in the isolated Communist country. “Nothing like this had ever been attempted in Cuba, so we were pretty much figuring things out as we went along,” says writer/director Alejandro Brugués, currently wrapping his segment of the English-language anthology film Nightmare Cinema. “We had old people playing our zombies (because those are the real zombies you see in the streets of Havana). These were people who had probably never seen a zombie film. The first time we took out our zombies, one of them actually bit the arm of the guy he was supposed to be attacking and took some skin off! Another time a neighbor called the police because he saw a guy taking heads out of a trash can. It was just our prop guy. In the exodus scene, we had to shoot one raft at a time and compose it later in post, because if we threw 100 rafts in front of Havana, people would think it was a real exodus and join and we might’ve started a real one. Every day was something new.”
10. Aftershock (2012)
This genre film starts out as a post-teen comedy about night-clubbing tourists in Chile and suddenly turns into a dark disaster thriller when an earthquake hits. Moonlighting Eli Roth (who also co-wrote and produced) stars as one of the partygoers who must contend with a building-toppling catastrophe, ruthless looters and escaped criminals. Chilean director Nicolás López remembered one particular humorous highlight of his rapid 37-day schedule.
“We were shooting a sequence at night in Valparaiso, and in the middle of it, the light changed,” recalls López, who also directed the comedy Do It Like an Hombre, 2017’s highest grossing Mexican movie. “I started arguing with my DP because it was completely different to what I had in mind, and we discovered that somebody actually stole two spotlights on camera while we were shooting, and we didn’t realize it! That’s why the light was different.”
11. The House at the End of Time (2013)
Venezuela’s first horror film drops a surprise ending that would make Rod Serling and M. Night Shyamalan envious. A mother of two sees apparitions in her old home, a mystery that builds when the story jumps ahead 30 years to follow the same woman in the same haunted abode. Writer/director Alejandro Hidalgo strove to overturn hoary clichés.
“The genre demands innovation now,” he says. “Most horror films are remakes or copies of other movies. They are predictable and full of clichés. Most filmmakers want to scare people instead of telling stories full of meaning and value. So I just wanted to develop a human dramatic story in the middle of the horror. In that sense, one of my priorities was creating flesh and blood characters with their own voices, dilemmas and souls.
“But the most unique element is the main twist,” adds Hidalgo of his film, presently slated for a—surprise—remake. “When I saw The Sixth Sense, The Others and Open Your Eyes (a.k.a. Abre los Ojos), my mind was totally blown. So that was my goal when I developed this story: Presenting a shocking twist—a new theory about ghosts and haunted houses.”
12. White Coffin (2016)
How far would you go to save the one you love? That’s the question posed to a divorced mother whose young daughter is abducted by an evil cult in the arid countryside. Director Daniel de la Vega fought to retain the Argentinean movie’s bleak conclusion.
“The script was written by Adrián [see #2 & 7] and Ramiro Bogliano, with whom we worked for nearly 10 years on this story, until, finally, we were able to put it on the big screen,” says de la Vega. “The ending was exactly one of the reasons why we took so long before shooting. Even though many producers wanted to make the film, all of them wanted to change the ending. That is why I had to produce it myself, and I did it along with Néstor Sánchez Sotelo, to respect our vision of the ending. By definition, a horror film must be politically incorrect and confront the audience with what they would prefer not to confront in their lives. From that core spot is how we built our horror story and remained faithful to the vision of how we wanted to end White Coffin.”
13. Dead Man Tells His Own Tale (2017)
This funny, offbeat movie should put the fear of God (or Goddess, as the case may be) in all the male chauvinists out there. Womanizer/adulterer Angel becomes an undead slave to an ancient Celtic sisterhood plotting worldwide domination by the fairer sex.
“This has been my first movie to tackle zombies, although it’s far from a zombie movie,” director Fabián Forte explains. “Our protagonist is dead in life! The curse that men suffer is somewhat related to what we mean by zombies. The humor of the film allowed us to play with the diverse resources of fantastic cinema. Even the characters in their dialog make allusions to consecrated, classic films. The movie is very free in that sense; that was the gamble too.
“Together with co-writer Nicolas Britos, we wanted to give the film a different dimension,” Forte continues. “Take advantage of vampirism to talk about machismo and its consequences, always in an ironic, comedic tone. We also explored the Celtic world and the Baobhan Sith [a bloodsucking Scottish fairy], [ancient Irish goddess] Macha, the matriarchy, and we felt that these elements played well with the other ideas in the film.”
Tony Timpone talked about the blockbuster movie It and his encounters with Stephen King himself in his Dread Central blog here.