Curandero: Dawn of the Demon (2005)

Review first published by Cinetalk.

“They drink blood, they yank out spinal cords, chop up bodies,” Federal Agent Magdalena (Gizeht Galatea) tells Carlos Gutiérrez (Carlos Gallardo) over dinner, as she describes the macabre modus operandi of the ‘Satanic drug-trafficking cult’ that they have teamed up to pursue. “Want dessert?”

Humble, softly spoken Carlos is the ‘curandero’ of the title, although it will take some time for him to start believing in the powers of second sight and spiritual healing that he has inherited from his long-absent, presumed-dead father (José Carlos Ruiz). Recruited from his small town by Magdalena to purify a police station in Mexico City from which mass-murdering cult leader Castañeda (Gabriel Pingarrón) has – impossibly – escaped, Carlos must confront not only the shamanistic gift/curse that is his birthright, but also the demonic hordes eviscerating their way through the local populace.

Robert Rodriguez may now be as synonymous with Hollywood genre fare (The Faculty, Spy Kids, Sin City, Planet Terror, Machete) as with the no-budget indie debut El Mariachi (1992) by which he originally made his name, but Curandero: Dawn of the Demon, which he co-wrote and helped produce, marks a return to his wilder outlaw roots. Set in Mexico (with unapologetically Spanish dialogue), and starring the original Mariachi Gallardo, this film is helmed by the Venezuelan director Eduardo Rodriguez (no relation), who fully exploits local pagan mythologies so underexplored by Tinseltown that even the tropes borrowed here from other films (chiefly The Exorcist) are mutated into something appealingly rich and strange. We may be used to seeing doubt-plagued Catholics on screen facing their demons both literal and metaphorical, but how often does a film throw elements of palo mayombe, black magic and even Mithraism into the mix, while keeping Christian lore strictly to the margins? By the time Curandero is over, you will certainly know your nganga from your goat-appeasing rituals.

Through Carlos’ increasingly clairvoyant eyes, lawless locales are shown as literal hellholes, and the more excessive acts of gangland enforcers as truly diabolical, in a hallucinatory vision of the Mexican ‘underworld’ where uncomfortable national realities – hyper-violent criminal cartels that operate with seeming impunity, a corrupted police force, indigenous traditions sacrificed to urban malaise – are remapped according to the psychedelic charts of Jodorowsky, and viewed through the distorting lens of genre. The ensuing pandemonium is a bad trip though Mexico’s mean streets – idiosyncratically filmed, disorientingly edited, and shot through with a particularly visceral brand of magic realism.

With its cheap-looking devils, on-the-nose dialogue and over-reliance on gore effects, Curandero is far from perfect – but dine at this feast of meat and madness, flesh and freakouts, carnality and carnivalesque juxtapositions, and even if you never quite make it to the dessert, you will have filled on cheese strong enough to give you nightmares.

Anton Bitel