Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Maya (1989)

An Ancient Mayan curse is awakened in the ancient temples in Mexico, and people are killed in strange and gory ways by an invisible force. The Italian blend of supernatural and giallo horror subgenres, which climaxed early with films like Suspiria (1977), and Inferno (1980), proliferated in the late 1980s as Italian horror degraded in quality and became less focused. This is undoubtedly my favorite phase of Italian horror cinema, not because the films were better, but because they were more fun. The rules and traditional storylines went out the window as budgets grew smaller and the masters of the genre like Lucio Fulci and Dario Argento got older and less energetic.
The late 1980s phase gave birth to some of the wildest and most bizarre blends of cinematic clich├ęs, and the films just got crazier and weirder. But they were really cool because the general disregard for film logic meant infinite creative freedom for the filmmakers. An Italian director could make a magic masala of a film with ghosts, witches, zombies, demonic possession, and serial slashers, and it would get financed and distributed. Explanations were not necessary for the less-than-critical video store crowd, and if one was usually an ancient curse, voodoo, or witchcraft. Films like The Church (1989), The Spider Labyrinth (1988), and The Devil’s Daughter (1991) are artistic, well-made examples of this new-school approach. Their lower grade, crazy, inbred cousins like Ghosthouse (1988), Beyond the Darkness (aka Ghosthouse 3, 1990), Demons 6: De Profundis (AKA Il Gatto Nero), and Spectres (aka Spettri, 1988), are far more abundant, though just as much fun to watch.
Maya falls somewhere in between, with a very unfocused plot, but excellent displays of technical abilities such as camera work, gore, and atmospheric settings. It has less of a manic feel to it than movies like Ghosthouse or Demons 6, almost as if the heat and humidity of the setting slowed down the pace. The director makes great use of Mexico’s tropical, hedonistic tourist environment, and blends it with the indigenous superstitions and belief in the occult. The evil force causes people violent deaths at the invisible hands of the Mayan curse. One woman is thrashed about in a bathtub until her nose is pounded into pulp on the edge of the tub, and another man is crushed by a rolling pick-up truck. The climax takes place on Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican day of the dead.
The attacks are exclusively on outsiders and not the locals themselves. Most of the victims are sweaty gringo expatriates, doomed to drink themselves to death anyway. The film did a good job of capturing the lazy, alcohol-soaked lifestyle so many foreigners lead when they take up residence small tropical towns in the world’s impoverished paradises. When the booze and women come cheap, many retire at an early age and lose all their ambition.
Having lived in a similar place once, Thailand, it was easy for me to put myself in the head of the film’s creators and became especially appreciative. Horror is just as popular a genre in tropical Asia as it is in America, and I learned about some of their legends and superstitions by watching their made for TV supernatural horror movies. I’ve always liked films set in exotic countries and enjoy ones that involve local legends like voodoo or indigenous religions. The fact that Italians made this one automatically made it a cut above the rest.

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