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Terror and Black Lace (1985)

Plot: kept woman is targeted by psychotic killer in luxury high-rise tenement.

Amidst the mid-80s slasher deluge Mexico contributed an old-fashioned suspense and terror flick in the British and American tradition that feels a decade older than it is. It might not have the sheer weirdness of The Mansion of Madness (1973) nor the brazen insanity of Satánico Pandemónium (1975) or Alucarda (1977) but taken for what it is Terror y Encajes Negros (or Terror and Black Lace internationally) remains enjoyable. Often wrongly described as either a very late giallo or an incredibly mild slasher Terror and Black Lace actually is neither. Boil it down to its essentials and you have a fairly typical Latin domestic melodrama enlivened only by a truly mesmerizing lead actress in the habit of parading around in skimpy lingerie and a thriller subplot amounting to a very tense 20-30-minute conclusion. Above all else Terror and Black Lace echoes The Centerfold Girls (1974) or When A Stranger Calls (1979) in varying degrees and sometimes borders on a Maniac (1980) character study. Hell, it even has a giallo-inspired title, if all of the above wasn’t enough. Next to that, more often than not, it feels like a 90-minute pilot to a very deranged (and unproduced) telenovela.

Luis Alcoriza was a respected Mexican screenwriter, film director, and actor who was born in Spain. He fled the country in 1940 to escape the Spanish Civil War and persecution by fascist dictator Generalísimo Francisco Franco because of his Republican affiliation. He emigrated to Mexico where he wrote 90 screenplays over half a century (1946-1996) and directed 24 films in 29 years (1961-1990). His Tlayucan (1962) was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and his Life Is Most Important (1987) was entered into the 15th Moscow International Film Festival. Terror and Black Lace is an offering from Alcoriza’s twilight years and probably not representative for the rest of his repertoire. It’s decent enough for what it is but it’s telling when Argentinian genre precursor The Curious Dr. Humpp (1966) was far more risqué some two decades earlier. Which doesn’t mean that Terror and Black Lace isn’t distinct in its own ways. Unbelievable as it may sound Terror and Black Lace won an Ariel Award by the Academia Mexicana de Artes y Ciencias Cinematográficas (Mexican Academy of Cinematographic Arts and Sciences or AMACC) for Best Supporting Actress (Guzmán) with further nominations for Best Actress (Guardia) and Best Score (Pedro Plasencia). There’s a lot to like in Terror and Black Lace even if it’s more regressive than innovative. But, as always, you could do far worse than this.

Isabel Chabel (Maribel Guardia) is the beautiful stay-at-home trophy wife of overzealous, bovine entrepreneur Giorgio Martinez (Gonzalo Vega). Giorgio is an abusive impotent wretch of a man riddled with petty insecurities and hang-ups. Plus, he systematically fails to treat Isabel with the dignity and respect she deserves. Isabel is a kept woman living her best life in a golden cage of opulence and abundance. The couple own a penthouse in a state-of-the-art high-rise tenement bustling with life where their every wish is indulged by either errand girl Coquis (Claudia Guzmán) or the building manager/administrator (Ángel Domínguez). Isabel spends her days sunbathing on the deck, working out in the health club, and going for shopping trips in the city. On one such trips she meets strapping young man Rubén (Jaime Moreno) and is swept off her feet. Temptation briefly looms for Chabel as she considers embarking on an affair with the young man. When things turn hot and heavy she submits to Giorgio and his terrible mood swings again. In the studio below hers live three party girls (Olivia Collins, Martha Ortiz, and Gabriela Goldsmith, as Gabriela Goldsmeith) and above there’s musician César (Claudio Obregón). When a prostitute (Alejandra Espejo) and shopping mall patron (Leticia Lamas) die under mysterious circumstances the police (Ángel Heredia and Francisco Rolon) are called in for help and start conducting an investigation. One night the girls below Isabel are having an extremely loud party and her phone is out of service. It’s exactly on this night that Isabel witnesses Coquis getting slain by an unseen assailant and the figure disposing of her body. What Isabel doesn’t know is that the harmless looking César is in fact deeply psychotic and obsessed by manes. Coquis was the latest to fall victim to his homicidal proclivities. Trapped in the same building and with nowhere to run – will she survive?

How do you even begin to describe someone as enchanting and multi-faceted as Costa Rican belleza Maribel Guardia? Famous for her long and voluminous black hair and curvaceous figure Guardia is ubiquitous and omnipresent and has left an indelible mark on Mexican popular culture at large. You name it, marvelous Maribel probably has done it. Born in May 1959 Maribel’s initial claim to fame was being anointed Miss Costa Rica 1978, the same year she competed in the Miss World 1978 in in London, UK and Miss Universe pageant in Acapulco where she was Miss Photogenic. Almost immediately Guardia was offered a development contract with Televisa producer Sergio Bustamante. As an actress Maribel was flexible and comfortable doing anything from chorizo westerns and action movies to light-hearted (and more often than not sexy) comedies and dramas. In Mexico By Hook or By Crook (1986), The Scorpion (1986), Cabaret Woman (1991) and Persecuted (1991) are well liked and to the cult world she’s forever associated with Terror and Black Lace. On television she starred in multiple telenovelas (soap operas) and as a singer she released a series of albums in the Norteño music genre on a variety of label imprints. Whether you know her as an actress, model, singer, television hostess, or media personality Maribel was, is, and continues to be, everywhere. Back at home in Mexico she’s one of most photographed celebrities and the domestic media collectively refers to her as 'La Bella' (the beauty, the beautiful). As of 2022, it’s clear that Guardia has been impervious to infirmity and decline and is remarkably well-preserved for her blessed age. At a ripe 63 Maribel continues to effortlessly turn heads and she remains as stunningly elegant as ever.

This being a Guardia star vehicle Luis Alcoriza sees to it that 26-year-old Maribel gets to parade some of the finest haute couture and director of photography Xavier Cruz ensures that her beauty is properly captured for the ages. Alcoriza and co-writer Ramón Obón invent every sort of imaginable situation to have Guardia modeling various dresses, business suits, a pastel-colored g-string spandex during her workout routines, and even some skimpy black lace lingerie. This movie bears its giallo/slasher title for a reason and it makes sure the audience knows too. If that wasn’t enough marvelous Maribel gets to take more than plenty of long, hot showers to satiate anybody’s craving. What other way to describe Maribel Guardia than the predecessor to Salma Hayek and what is she if not the Mexican Helga Liné, Barbara Bouchet, Rosalba Neri or, god forbid, Edwige Fenech. Maribel Guardia looks absolutely ravishing in whatever she’s wearing as does Claudia Guzmán in her more casual attire. Surprisingly, guest star Gabriela Goldsmith later became a pillar in Mexican television and cinema despite not being much of a presence here. Guardia and Guzmán both won Ariel Awards for their performances here which sort of suggests that this was a foray into horror light for the award season. Terror and Black Lace is under the mistaken impression that it is a high-brow social realist drama with an important message, something for the elite and the intelligentsia. Clearly it wants to say something, anything, about the role of women in mid-eighties Mexico yet it’s never exactly clear what. Alcoriza and his writers desperately want this to be some grand work of socio-political importance but it’s lost on us what exactly that’s supposed to be. If nothing else, it goes a long way in explaining why Terror and Black Lace never really commits to being horror. It apparently was very progressive for its time as well.

Then there’s the question how much, if at all, it was representative for the state of Mexican horror in the mid-to-late ‘80s. The most obvious and simple answer to that would be a resounding “no.” Rubén Galindo, Jr., for example, released Cemetery Of Terror (1985) the same year and Grave Robbers (1989) a few years later. What’s clear is that we’re a long way from the ecclesiastical horror of Satánico Pandemónium (1975) and the general insanity of Juan López Moctezuma and his The Mansion of Madness (1973), Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary (1975) and his magnum opus Alucarda (1977). None of which really takes away that Terror and Black Lace can be an effective, unassuming little shocker whenever it can stop focusing on the telenovela melodramatics and embrace its murkier, sleazier side. Unfortunately, that happens not nearly as much, enough, or at all to work. The best thing that can be said about Terror and Black Lace is that at least it’s interesting from a structural standpoint. Plot wise it nearly isn’t as rigid (or as formulaic, whichever you prefer) as the typical slasher from around this time, neither is it for that matter a carefully crafted slowburn on the model of Maniac (1980) or Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). In a post-Maniac (1980) world Terror and Black Lace feels more like an old-fashioned terror and suspense flick in tradition of Wicked, Wicked (1973), The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) and When A Stranger Calls (1979). Except without any of the tension, atmosphere, or dread. Its closest cousin is probably Pete Walker’s Die Screaming Marianne (1971) and it never gets as vile as, say, The Centerfold Girls (1974) or The Toolbox Murders (1978). Marvelous Maribel makes it worthwhile regardless of what you think of it.