Monday, November 4, 2013

Poison for the Fairies

Poison for the Fairies (1984) aka Veneno para las hadas
Dir. Carlos Enrique Taboada
Written by Carlos Enrique Taboada,
Starring Ana Patricia Rojo, Elsa Maria Gutierrez

Wow, this is a hard one to write about. I was sort of dreading it as I watched it get closer and closer on the list, and now that it’s here my worst fears are confirmed, I don’t quite know how to approach writing this review. I’ve started this review about five times, only to go back and delete everything and start over.

And it’s funny, because I can’t even exactly explain why, except that I can’t exactly explain the movie, either. Here’s what I do know: it’s a Mexican film from 1984 (1974 in Mexico time) which concerns two young schoolgirls, Veronica (Ana Patricia Rojo) and Flavia (Elsa Maria Gutierrez). Flavia is a naive and extremely privileged newcomer to the school, and Veronica --a pushy, fearless but lonely orphan-- decides to befriend her. Or at least, that’s how things start out. Things get complicated, because Veronica also claims to be a powerful witch, and as she demonstrates her powers she’s able to wield increasing amounts of control over her newfound friend, to sinister and ultimately tragic ends.

That’s the part that probably doesn’t surprise you, given the general tone of these Chainsawnukah movies. What should surprise you, though, is that although this has all the ingredients of a standard witchy horror movie, it’s missing one key element: an actual witch. See, despite her claims, there is no evidence whatsoever that Veronica has any power at all; a series of lucky coincidences allows her to give the appearance of supernatural ability to the increasingly pliable Flavia, but the audience can see from the start that all her claimed abilities have simple prosaic explanations. She’s just a bully who has figured out that imagined powers are just a potent as real ones.

So there are no supernatural elements of any kind in this movie; indeed, it’s questionable as to whether it’s even a horror movie at all. Director Carlos Enrique Taboada peppers in some creepy atmosphere and scary dreams, but since we know Veronica is full of shit it’s not so much scary as it is tense and unsettling, a long setup which is obviously heading someplace really bad. But even before we get there, there are definitely all kinds of little details just begging you to try and wrestle some subtext out of them.

Issues of class are obviously in there, for example; the victim, Flavia, lives a life of luxury, while orphaned Veronica (still doing well enough to have a nanny, but clearly poorer) preys on her fear for material gain (she pressures her into handing over dolls, trinkets, and even a beloved puppy). What to make of that? Is this an image of naive wealth being bullied by a pushy bourgeois, or some kind of depiction of intra-class struggles? 

Then you have the interesting element of childhood perception, as evidenced by the film’s careful way of avoiding showing the faces of any adults except the (imaginary) witches that Veronica idolizes. Adults are only tangentially a part of the two girls' world, outside forces without any real understanding of the complex inner workings of the children's power structure. Is this merely an attempt to depict the perspective of the film’s heroines, or is there some sort of allegory to more generalized forces in society which are supposed to protect and assist us but end up often overlooking the most grievous injustice?

It’s particularly tempting to draw some sort of allegory with the church, or at least belief in the power structure of a particular system. After all, Veronica makes up a whole universe of random supernatural lies explicitly to control someone she wants some material benefit and personal affirmation from. Surely, Catholic-controlled Mexico, which saw so much brutality under conquistadors and missionaries alike, has some idea what that would be like. Interestingly, Flavia (though much wealthier and happier) has a darker complexion than blonde, fair-skinned Veronica. Coincidence of casting, or are we watching the colonial Aztecs lose their way in a tangle of self-serving religious grandstanding by Spaniards?

Things get even more complicated on the subject of faith, because despite having literally made the shit up, Veronica still fancies herself a witch. She wants it bad enough that she even seems to sort of believe it herself; the “poison for the fairies” of the title refers to a complicated potion she and Flavia attempt to make (and must seek out some obscure and macabre ingredients for). She must know, on some level, that this can’t possibly work, that her purported “powers” are a bunch of crock. But she becomes obsessed with doing it anyway, never questioning the logic behind it. Is Taboada suggesting that a lie, told enough, eventually becomes truth to the believer? Or is it that having an acolyte confirms her belief in her own superiority? Or… well, you get the idea.

Frustratingly, but probably to it’s credit, Taboada isn’t telling you what, if any, allegorical message is meant to be taken here (or, maybe it would have been more obvious if you lived in Mexico City in 1984). That’s probably for the best; too overt a subtext might have poisoned this completely absorbing and unique story of one particular childhood relationship. It's a simple story, but artfully and deliberately told*. As both kids learn by the end of things, stories don’t have to be complicated to have a lot of power. You just have to be able to lose yourself in them.

*It looks great, by the way; Taboada paints some very stylish images without ever resorting to flashy stylization. IMDB says the film was shot in 1.85:1 widescreen, but the version I saw looked cropped for TV, so there may be an even better-looking version out there. Supposedly Toaboada did one other classic horror movie called EVEN THE WIND IS AFRAID, which I guess I'll have to watch next year.


  • SEQUEL: No
  • REMAKE: No
  • CURSES: While the threat of curses looms large here, none materialize.
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS? There is a doll which serves as a plot point, but it's not especially creepy so I can't count it.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Gotta be pretty fuckin high.

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