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Plot: how far will a woman go to save her dying husband?

Every country does its own regional spin on an established formula. Madame Death (La señora Muerte back at home in Mexico) offered a Latin American spin on a familiar and well-known plot. Armed with enough mad science, hysterical acting, and bare skin to satiate even the staunchest of Eurocult fanatics Madame Death has blood on its hand and murder in mind. Headlined by two of the biggest superstars of the day in the form of Regina Torné and Isela Vega as well as featuring a special guest appearance by faded and fading American star John Carradine this was aimed at the domestic market as much as the Spanish markets in America (where it was distributed by Columbia Pictures). Madame Death has camp to spare and possesses enough zany kitschy charm and Latin flavoured insanity to be considered something of a sub-classic. It’s very much due reappraisal as far as we’re concerned.

After almost ten years of imitations Georges Franju’s French shocker Eyes Without A Face (1960) continued to reverberate with audiences around the world. Madame Death is a gothic horror on the model of The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962), and The Curious Dr. Humpp (1966) - a Spanish and Argentinian take on the French original, respectively – and spices up that well-worn formula with a bit of The Bride Wore Black (1968) for good measure. It even had to good fortune of preceding the thematically similar She Killed in Ecstasy (1970) by a single year. This is a gothic in tradition of The Vampire (1957) and The Vampire’s Coffin (1958) and The Bloody Vampire (1962) and its sequel The Invasion Of the Vampires (1963). Not that it features any vampires, curses, or ancient castles as such but it goes for that same old Universal Monster atmosphere. For whatever reason this one gets often (and incorrectly, in our opinion) compared to Ed Wood although it’s far more in line with what Paul Naschy was doing in Spain around the same time. While the Wood comparisons aren’t entirely warranted (they’re a bit too convenient, facile, and reductionist to write something like this off) casual viewers will probably make the connection and comparisons because of how relatively cheap this was produced. None of which diminishes from its rustic charm. Before Satánico Pandemónium (1975) and Alucarda (1977) this was the state of Mexican horror.

Before Tina Romero and Susana Kamini in the seventies, Maribel Guardia in the eighties, and Salma Hayek in the nineties there were Regina Torné and Isela Vega. Regina Torné rose to fame, at just 21, in 1966 as a jazz and bossa nova singer and played an instrumental role in helping popularize said genres in Mexico. She recorded alongside popular 60s teen idols Julissa and César Costa. Naturally such acclaim combined with her striking green eyes and classical beauty led to opportunities in television and on the silver screen. She figured into movies with leading man Julio Alemán and famous luchador enmascarado Demonio Azul (or Blue Demon). 1969 was a particular busy year for her as she starred in a whopping 9 (!!) movies in a short 12 months. The most of those were Wrestling Women versus the Murderous Robot (1969), Diabolical Pact (1969), The Big Cube (1969), Midnight Women (1969), and Blue Demon vs. The Diabolical Women (1969). Torné graduated into headlining roles in 1990s, won the coveted Ariel award for Like Water for Chocolate (1992), and remained untainted by scandal. All of that would change on January 24, 2006 when her daughter Regina del Pilar Campos Incháustegui and three accomplices threatened, kidnapped, murdered, and burned the body of 26-year-old single mother Maribel Monroy Flores (who’s husband Edgar Rogelio Eslava Sánchez del Pilar was having an affair with) in the region of Magdalena Contreras. Del Pilar was sentenced to 35 years and incarcerated in the Santa Martha Acatitla women’s penitentiary in Mexico City. Torné visited her daughter frequently and until 2014 there was a pronounced distance between the two. Torné accepted what happened but never condoned her daughter’s actions. The same year Torné announced her retirement and started a performing arts academy for children and adolescents in the city of Puebla.

Isela Vega got her start as "Princess of the Carnival" in Hermosillo in 1957 and from there rolled into modeling and, not much later, singing and acting. After the Bond imitation S.O.S. Operation Bikini (1967), the comedy The Bed (1968), and the horror Diabolical Pact (1969) her career took flight after the western spoof With My Guns (1968). To American and European audiences Vega's probably best known for her roles as Maria in the western The Deadly Trackers (1973) and as Elita in Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974). Back at home in Mexico she co-wrote, directed, and starred in the witchcraft movie Lovers of the Lord of the Night (1986) that famously became a victim of Mexico’s non-existent distribution system and went practically unnoticed. In more recent years Vega could be seen in Dora and the Lost City of Gold (2019). Ten years before the lousy disco vampire spoof Nocturna (1979) and the same year as Blood From Dracula’s Castle (1969) John Carradine was already going anywhere easy money took him. In this case he was slumming and hamming it up in Mexico. Like Boris Karloff before him Carradine too forged a package deal with producer Luis Enrique Vergara. Madame Death was the last of four movies he filmed with Jaime Salvador. It was preceded by Secret of Death (1969), The Vampire Girls (1969), and Diabolical Pact (1969) (which also co-starred Torné and Vega). Needless to say, there’s no shortage of starpower – established, fading, and on the rise - for what by all accounts is quite a modest and unassuming little horror romp.

Marlene (Regina Torné) is the head of a popular fashion house in metropolitan Mexico City. Together with her personal assistant Julie (Elsa Cárdenas) she oversees and manages the day-to-day operations of the business. Her ailing senior-aged husband Andrés (Víctor Junco) is dying of a debilitating cancer and now that conventional medicine has failed Marlene’s willing to explore other options. To that end she has enlisted the help and expertise of disgraced scientist Dr. Favel (John Carradine) to help stave off Andrés’ inevitable demise. Meanwhile, at the fashion house Tony Winter (Miguel Ángel Álvarez) is maintaining an affair with Lisa (Isela Vega) behind the back of his wife Patricia (Alicia Ravel). Favel promises Marlene that he has the treatment that will cure her husband but for that he needs “fresh young blood cells. ” Marlene hates Favel with a passion but is willing to put her personal reservations aside if it means saving her husband. Favel - ousted from the medical community over ethical violations and the dubious nature of his research – sees in Marlene’s predicament the perfect opportunity to conduct his latest experiment. Favel has his semi-mute hunchback assistant Loar (Carlos Ancira) put Andrés in a state of suspended animation and informs Marlene now she has to do her part. The machine gives Marlene a horrible degenerative disease that disfigures half her face and body. Understandably, the infliction of contortion drives her to the brink of insanity that manifests itself in sudden urges of insatiable bloodlust and homicidal proclivities. Dr. Favel promises that if she brings him the blood he requires, he will cure Andrés’ cancer and restore her lost beauty. As the bodies start to mount lieutenant Henry (Fernando Osés) and his consultant doctor (Mário Orea) are tasked with investigating the case. Is Dr. Favel really trying to help Marlene or is he just exploiting her desperation for his own selfish gains?

Producer Luis Enrique Vergara and writer Ramón Obón obviously knew where to steal from and what the classics were. Dr. Favel has a laboratory worthy of Dr. Lorca from Brides Of Blood (1968) and The Mad Doctor Of Blood Island (1969). Every mad scientist needs a grunting, brutish semi-mute hunchback assistant just like Bela Lugosi and Tor Johnson in The Bride of the Monster (1955). The hunchback assistant gets whipped in very much the same fashion as Johnson in that Ed Wood epic. John Carradine’s floating disembodied head more than a few times resembles Bela Lugosi’s ominous omnipotent narrator in Glen or Glenda (1953). Marlene’s face is melted off very much in the same way as Barbara Steele’s in Nightmare Castle (1965). The special effects are nothing to get excited about but the face prosthetic is efficiently realized, especially considering the miniscule budget this was on. Marlene has a pet lion cub (we imagine it’s called Simba). In tune with the changing political – and social climate and reflective of the liberated and more emancipated place of women in society following the Sexual Revolution of 1968/69 Madame Death is suprisingly progressive for the day. Marlene’s an independent woman running her own business and while she’s ensnared by Dr. Favel she ultimately has her own motivation for doing what she does. The men are spineless fools and useless buffoons and slaves to the every whim of their mistresses or spouses. Dr. Favel needs not a man to do his budding but an ironwilled woman. Something like this begs the question why Torné and/or Vega never ended up working with Paul Naschy or any of the other pulp directors/producers in Spain.

What is Madame Death if not a valentine to Regina Torné and Isela Vega? It’s nigh on incomprehensible how something like this was more with the times than what the house of Hammer was putting on the market around this time. Madame Death might not exactly be good in the traditional sense but it was surprisingly in tune with the times. The plot, minimal as it is, is feeble at best and a patchwork of well-worn clichés. The cinematography from Alfredo Uribe is workmanlike and not particularly riveting. The time of the Universal inspired gothics clearly was fading and something more incendiary, provocative, and risqué was brooding within the collective subconscious. There’s enough Latin American family dysfunction and romantic complications with all the attendant melodramatics that that brings. Torné’s bountiful decolettage and brief nudity alone warrants interest and at least a cursory viewing. However you spin it this is alternatively delightfully old-fashioned or completely campy. When it gets down to business Madame Death certainly pushes all the right buttons and has atmosphere in spades. As a victim of unfortunate times Madame Death is poorly produced, poorly written, poorly acted, and poorly dubbed. Somehow despite of everything working against it this must have laid the groundwork for directors as Rubén Galindo, Jr. and Juan López Moctezuma. With enough blood and boobs for anyone Madame Death clears the way for what was to come in the wicked and wild seventies when diabolism and hexcraft reigned supreme. As a harbinger of things to come you certainly could do much worse. This another of those little-seen obscurities that’s high overdue of one of those expansive (and expensive) 4k/8k restorations and remasters.

Plot: pious, virtuous nun is offered the temptations of the flesh by Satan.

While it was Great Britain that had the dubious honour of kicking off the nunsploitation cycle with Ken Russell’s iconoclastic The Devils (1971), it were the most devout contries of continental Europe (Spain and Italy, in particular) that gleefully embraced imitating The Exorcist (1973) and exhibited an almost religious zeal in indulging in its more sacrilegious inclinations. In France Joël Séria’s Don't Deliver Us From Evil (1971) had a dedicated segment and from there nunsploitation was the only next logical avenue. In Poland there was Walerian Borowczyk's Behind Convent Walls (1978) and Czechoslovakia’s Valerie and Her Week Of Wonders (1970) is a lot of things, but it certainly was not nunsploitation the way it was typically understood. That Mexico would end up creating one of the subgenre’s more defining and enduring works should come as no surprise. The country had a long history in horror, and it was and is both deeply superstitious and devoutly Christian. The only to surpass Satánico Pandemónium in sheer blasphemy, scorn, and irreverence was Brazilian filmmaker Juan López Moctezuma’s unparallelled masterpiece Alucarda (1977). In the company of such greatness it’s easy to forget that Italy got there earliest with The Demon (1963) preceding both The Exorcist (1973) and nunsploitation as a whole.

Gilberto Martínez Solares had a long career going all the way back to 1939 and in the six decades that he was active he directed just about every mainstream genre (romance, drama, comedy, etc) under the sun. He even helmed one or two Blue Demon and El Santo luchador movies – but none of his voluminous repertoire has attained the kind of longevity and prestige that Satánico Pandemónium has. On top of that, as near as we can tell, this was Solares’ only foray into horror. Perhaps that is why Satánico Pandemónium is filled to the brim with artful shots and visually arresting imagery. It’s always interesting when mainstream directors decide to helm a genre film. As with any production everything hinges on the lead. For that reason alone Cecilia Pezet was an interesting choice. Not in the least because she hardly ever did horror. Overflowing with enough clerical sleaze and containing enough corrupted Catholical imagery to satiate any agnostic, atheist, or anti-theist Satánico Pandemónium has lost none of its baroque charm and shock value. Even almost forty years later it’s is a towering genre achievement.

22-year-old Lutheran nun María (Cecilia Pezet) lives a virtuous and ecclesiastical life sequestered away in a Protestant convent somewhere in rural Mexico. In quiet resignaton the nuns live an impoverished life of celibacy, prayer, and contemplation. Whenever they are not being harangued or scolded, by Mother Superior (Delia Magaña) for their infractions they submit, as scripture dictates, to corporal mortification and self-flagellation. The closest thing to a friend María has is sister Caridad (Veronika Con K., as Verónica Avila). María is the youngest and described as the purest and most pious of her order. One day she's out picking flowers in a meadow when she's tempted by Luzbel (Enrique Rocha). Running away she encounters her friend Marcelo (Daniel Albertos) and helps him with feeding one of his lambs. On the way home María again is tempted by Luzbel. María tries to live a virtuous and sin-free life and it becomes increasingly difficult for her to balance the crushing weight and burden of her maidenhood with the nigh on insurmountable ballast that is her devotion to God. Matters are complicated by the fact that she’s haunted by visions of Luzbel by day and overcome by carnal lust and perverse desire at night. Sin, it seems, lurks everywhere.

After Compline Luzbel continues to seduce María. She's overcome by temptations of the mind and of the flesh. In her dwelling she's raped by a fellow nun (Verónica Rivas) or so she believes because when she comes to Luzbel’s lying on top of her. Soon sister Clemencia (Clemencia Colín) and a novice (Amparo Furstenberg) come relaying their increasing and continuing struggle with their vows and the natural inclinations that come with their age. Ever since that innocent stroll in the woods the other day María has been haunted by impure thoughts and is sometimes stricken by carnal urges of perverted desire. When Caridad commits suicide by hanging and Marcelo and his aging mother (Velia Lupercio) die under mysterious circumstances Mother Superior accuses young María of bringing sin into the convent. Forced to choose between her two masters María declares that Satan has been living inside of her and strangles the tyrannical Reverend Mother with a rope magically appearing in her possession. Surrendering to a life of blasphemy and vice María swears that if she cannot live her life in service of Christ then she’ll become an apprentice of Satan. Not only does she promise to visit heresy upon her sleepy village - she vows to bring down the convent, and if possible, the Protestant Church in its entirety, with her no matter the cost.

What could possibly be said about Cecilia Pezet in what was more or less her swansong theatrical performance? She would appear in La lucha con la pantera (1975) afterwards and here she’s, thankfully, cast against type for once. This, more than anything, served to amplify her performance manifold. Pezet’s portrayal of María is one of quiet agitation, understated misanthropy, and (during the third act) violent homicidal retribution. It’s at least as powerful, by sheer contrast alone, as Jeanne Goupil’s youthful exuberance and wide-eyed malevolence in Don't Deliver Us From Evil (1971) and Tina Romero’s legendary hysterical, maniacal, hair-raising performance in and as Alucarda (1977). Likewise does Enrique Rocha take great pleasure in his role as Luzbel who introduces María to the pleasures of the flesh and whose corrupting influence will eventually bring down the Church. Delia Magaña was one of the great divas of Mexican cinema and theatre who made a name for herself for her many comedic roles. Magaña attended cocktail parties with Charles Chaplin and Mary Pickford. Verónika con K. was a singer and soap opera regular who just as frequently worked as a television presenter. The remainder of the cast were either enthusiast first-timers while others experienced brief careers that didn’t really go anywhere.

And who could possibly forget Mexican bombshell Salma Hayek as Satánico Pandemónium writhing seductively in Robert Rodriguez’ beloved genre-hybrid From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) where she was dressed in little more than that tiny bikini, feathery headgear, and a slithering snake? If anyone reintroduced Solares’ masterpiece to a mainstream general audience, this was the where and the when. Rodriguez grew up on and in the grindhouse and he has been a staunch defender of exploitation cinema no matter how much Hollywood tries to force him into a mainstream direction. What better way to pay tribute to Mexico's greatest exploitation's than to have the latest superstar proudly bearing its name? Satánico Pandemónium was one of those legendary milestones, that there was something far darker brooding within the collective subconscious. The time of the Universal inspired gothics of the prior decade now was very well in the past. Like its Spanish counterpart Mexican horror is at its best when it bathes in that decaying, mildewy atmosphere and is unafraid to lay fire upon the Church and its adherents. Satánico Pandemónium has something for everybody, and a whole new generation of horror fans should be exposed to its malefic glory and dripping misanthropy.