Howl of the B-Masters


" either make your products in your garage, or you pay the price to try to enter the big houses. By paying the price you should read: become a freelancer, (since the big boys don't hire staff anymore), move to L.A. and work as a bartender for years until you become... a freelancer?? This model is unattractive for many who would like to do this for a living on regular basis."

-- Ricardo Islas on

The vampire. The werewolf. The man-made monster. They haunted us in folklore and in literature; and with the advent of the Talkies, they stepped out of the world of individual imaginations and into the lives of millions as a vivid, shared nightmare.

In the years since Universal set the template for the classic Monster Movie, many film-makers have tried to update those stories for a new generation. Some of these attempts were very entertaining... some very much less so. The real challenge has been to go beyond simple entertainment and make the old stories meaningful for a contemporary audience. Some succeed, but many more fail: taking the werewolf genre alone, for every Ginger Snaps there are dozens of disasters like Eyes of the Werewolf, Night Shadows and Tony Zarindast's abysmal Werewolf (as seen on MST3K). For every Howling, there's a Howling II, a Howling III, a Howling VII... and so on.

But then there's writer/director Ricardo Islas, who has devoted himself consistently to reinventing the Monster Movie.

Islas got started making movies in his native Uruguay. He made his first feature film — a vampire movie called Crowley — in 1987, at the age of 16. Frankly, Crowley is a 16-year-old's vampire film: Islas himself played the title character, a howling, black-clad monster who's returned from the grave to seek the (high-school-aged) reincarnation of his long-lost love. It was shot on whatever equipment Islas could get his hands on, and consequently it has a lot of trouble with light levels and sound. But Crowley was unlike anything anybody'd ever attempted in Uruguay, and it showed enough of the young man's obvious talent that it became a local hit.

After Crowley (and its 1990 sequel, Cenizas de Crowley/Crowley's Ashes), Islas went on to bigger and better things. His next films included an adaptation of a gruesome horror story by "the Poe of Uruguay", Horacio Quiroga (El Almohadón de Plumas/The Feather Pillow, 1988); a science fiction film (Rumbo a la Oscuridad/Journey Into Darkness, 1992); a moody Gothic (La Trampa/The Trap, 1992) and a werewolf movie (Plenilunio/Full Moon, 1993). In the mid-1990's, he moved to the United States. From his new base in Chicago, Islas has taken on such familiar subjects as ghosts, zombies and lesbian vampires, putting his personal stamp on all of them. He's even dared to step in where so many have failed in recent years: to make his own, unique version of the Frankenstein story.

There's a simple difference between Islas and all-too-many of the others who have attempted to find new life in the same old graveyard: Islas has something urgent to say. He uses the conventions of traditional horror as a starting point, not as a destination. His movies may involve the supernatural, but they are always firmly grounded in Real Life.

For instance, one of Islas's major concerns in his US-made films is the struggle of the Hispanic population in the United States. His protagonists are often latinos & latinas struggling to keep their dignity, in the face of a White-dominated culture that sees them as either a threat, or an exploitable work force, or a marketable demographic, depending on the occasion... but never seems to see them as human beings, who are deserving of respect.

Islas is obviously (and justifiably) angry at the systemic racism in America, but he never allows his anger to overwhelm his compassion. For example, the gang of murderers who change El Día de los Muertos (2007) from a slice-of-life drama into a horror movie are led by a fanatic white supremacist... but Islas takes pains to show us that the gang is not entirely white, nor male, nor even heterosexual. Racism is part of the problem, but the real issue is dehumanization: these people enjoy inflicting pain and terror on the powerless, and that kind of brutality underlies many more evils than just racism. Yet Islas also refuses to dehumanize his killers. He shows them to us as shockingly ordinary people, with ordinary lives and careers; and when the supernatural intrudes into their lives, looking for revenge, we feel an unexpected sympathy for them. Islas does not want us to be comfortable with anyone's suffering. The killers may be monsters, but they are human monsters, and we recognize that we are not so different from them as we would like to believe.

The Zombie Farm (2009) offers another example of Islas's remarkable outlook. At one point early on, his hero Rocque castigates the heroine Pilar for being an assimilated, college-educated "second-generation" latina who looks down on those who've retained their ties to Hispanic America. In fact, Rocque later goes on an extended diatribe about the way Latin Americans have debased themselves trying to conform to European-American standards of beauty. There's a lot of truth to this. But on the other hand, Islas reveals to us that that Rocque is sneakily partial to blondes, too... and in the course of the film he genuinely falls in love with "second-generation" Pilar, to the point that he passes up the chance to go back to Mexico with an "authentically Hispanic" girl who has fallen in love with him. On top of this, Rocque's words about assimilation echo back to Pilar from the lips of the movie's villain — a woman who has betrayed not only her people but all humanity, by selling her re-animated victims to White agri-business as the ultimate low-wage workforce. In Islas's American films, the monsters may be imaginary, but the injustice is real... and neither the causes nor the solutions are simple. His heroes are flawed; his monsters have unexpected traces of humanity. All in all, Ricardo Islas is one of the most humane writers and directors ever to have worked in the horror genre.

Plenilunio, Islas's reinterpretation of the werewolf film, was one of the last movies he made in Uruguay. Though it represents a huge step up from Crowley in every respect, Islas still had to deal with many of the same problems: limited equipment, limited budget, limited special effects. As usual with ultra-low-budget movies, Plenilunio has its strengths and its weaknesses; fortunately its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses, and its very weakest point — its monster — is so entertainingly awful that it actually begins to tip back into the "strengths" category. I'm not going to discuss the monster and its design at all until after I get finished talking about the movie itself.

Roberto (played by Islas himself) is the head engineer at Channel 3 TV in Colonia del Sacramento, Colonia province, Uruguay. The TV station is a shoestring outfit... besides Ricardo, there's only the station's reporter-slash-anchorman, who's frankly not much use. Their main programming comes from the capital, Montevideo, unless there's something of local interest that captures the main office's attention (which there almost never is).

The station has become a meeting place for some of the local school children — not for any particular reason, other than that the place is convenient, and Roberto enjoys their company. On one particular Saturday (the 14th), the kids can't stop gossiping about some dreadful news they've heard: on the wooded outskirts of town, there was a food truck called Chonpa's. Last night, something — evidently a large, ferocious animal — went chompa-chompa on Mr. Chonpa. The vendor was found dismembered, his food truck practically destroyed. Roberto tries to get them off the macabre subject, pointing out that if something like that had actually happened in their town, the main office in Montevideo would be calling them for a story right n...

The phone rings.

(Now, Channel 3 Colonia had been one of the co-producers of Crowley, and it seems as though Islas may have honed his skills by working with them thereafter 1
1. I suppose I could just ask Islas about this, since he does maintain a visible presence on the Internet and social media. However, I'm a hermit. I tend to suffer from debilitating shyness around people I admire, so I tend to prefer by talking about people, rather than to them... even if I end up sounding like an idiot.
Certainly Channel 3 didn't seem to mind his using their name or their facility. Also, Islas uses the backdrop of the TV station to set up some bleak humor about media sensationalism, and these scenes suggest not only a strong familiarity with the way the media operates, but also a comfortable working relationship with the host station2
2. Remember, too, that this was 1990's Uruguay. I can't imagine that Islas is much happier with the state of the media anywhere today, let alone here in the US!

Roberto protests when his newsman insists on a ghoulish interview with the food truck man's widow. The black-comic episode that follows serves as a bridge to introduce us to the victim's family: the widow has retreated into a haze of tranquilizers, and her three young children — two boys and a girl — have already realized they must fend for themselves. The adults in their lives all treat them with mealy-mouthed sympathy, as though they were embarrassed by the children's loss. Kids their age, on the other hand, are like a pack of wolves, circling them and sniffing for signs of weakness. Feeling alone and abandoned, the children feel the only way they can regain their sense of stability is to get revenge on the beast that killed their father. The boys decide to leave poisoned meat in the forest, to try to kill whatever animal is living there.

Two of the kids from the TV station, Paco and Lucas, sneak out to gawk at the crime scene. They arrive just in time to see the other two boys putting out the poison. No sooner have Paco and Lucas introduced themselves, when the four of them hear something approaching through the woods. Quickly they hide. Though the thing in the forest sounds like an animal as it lumbers through the undergrowth, the kids are surprised to see a human being step out of the brush. It's an odd-looking human being, though: his skin and hair are completely white. The boys speculate that this Albino might be the owner of the animal, come to remove the poisoned meat. No sooner have they whispered this possibility to each other than the stranger does a remarkable thing: he starts eating the raw, poisoned meat as though he were an animal himself! A sudden noise alerts the Albino to the kids' presence, and he starts to chase them... the kids scramble to their bicycles and are barely able to escape.

This episode, frightening as it is, has one unexpected benefit: it brings the children of the murdered man into the group of friends at the TV station. This in turn gives them something to believe in and look forward to. It also keeps the subject of the mysterious murder fresh in the minds of Roberto and the others.

Not long after, one of the girls finds out (almost by accident) where the weird Albino lives. When she goes to the lonely little house to investigate, she finds strange patches of white fur stuck in the branches of the nearby bushes. Movement from within the house scares her before she can collect any, though; before the Albino decides to come investigate, she's hopped back on her moped and headed back to town.

Disturbing as all of this is, nothing much happens thereafter. Life goes on pretty much as usual for Roberto and the kids, and for most of Colonia as well. Then everything changes... at the next full moon. That's when four young women gather after hours in a theater to rehearse for a talent show. One of the women is in the middle of a long, slow recovery from an accident a year ago. She is confined to a wheelchair, and has very limited mobility... but she's making such splendid progress that she's very optimistic about being able to resume her life again soon (uh-oh). Another of the women calls for a break in the rehearsal, so she can go make a telephone call from the theater caretaker's office on the other side of the building (uh-oh!). The third woman decides to take the opportunity to go to the ladies' room to change a pad (and now they're definitely in trouble!). Naturally, it's the menstruating woman who's the first to be attacked. When she comes staggering back onstage, bleeding from lacerations too numerous to count, her disabled friend watches what's looming behind her and loses control of her bladder. But after disposing of the first woman, the beast (which we don't get a clear look at even now) saves the wheelchair-bound girl for later, and goes off to track her fleeing friends first...

What in other hands might be tasteless is in Islas merely blunt. All at once we're immersed in the daily lives of the monster's victims in a way that horror movies rarely allow. With a few simple gestures, Islas reminds us of the raw, physical reality of living and dying, and makes secondary characters who would normally be "Victim 1", "Victim 2" and "Victim 3" into people — people we identify with on the most basic level.

And certainly Roberto feels that sense of identification, when he's called out to shoot news footage of the massacre. As for the kids... Colonia del Sacramento is not a particuarly large city, and some of children knew these women. Something evil has come to Colonia, and it seems to be orbiting Roberto and the children. Roberto begins to get the fatalistic notion that anything truly good, like this spontaneous friendship that's formed between the members of their little group, must necessarily attract its opposite. Between them, they come to an agreement that the best thing to do is for Roberto to go see the Albino — confront him directly — and find out what it is he really wants.

That turns out to be a really bad idea...

"Quiero que aprendas a apreciar lo que realmente vale... no lo cambies por nada!"

-- Roberto (Ricardo Islas) in Plenilunio

Roberto is a typical Islas protagonist. He's a genuinely good man, but he's out of his depth. The children like him and trust him, and as a result he feels he should be their mentor and protector. He has no idea how to go about this, though; when the boys plan a practical joke involving a condom in a pizza — exactly the sort of thing boys of this age would find hilarious — Roberto takes pains to make sure the girls are out of the room when the joke is played. But the joke's on him: the girls know all about the condom gag, and about condoms in general... and they're also well aware of why Roberto's so anxious to get them out of the room.

Later on, when things begin to go out of control, Roberto still feels he needs to be the children's protector. Unfortunately, he's not terribly good at it. When one of the girls asks him if it's possible that monsters like werewolves might really exist, Roberto feels it's his responsibility to play the adult, and reassure her. But he can't. Deep down he suspects that there's something badly wrong, and he can't lie to the girl just to make her feel better. Instead, he tells her a story from his own family's history, when his great-grandfather back in Italy had a close brush with the supernatural. Almost immediately he regrets his decision, and tries to back-pedal... but the girl silences him. This is the child's first encounter with real evil, and she knows it. Roberto's first instinct was right: it's no good to try to reassure her when death is waiting at the doorstep.

Roberto does prove to be a good protector when the kids need him most. But he doesn't step in to save the day alone. It's all of them working together, at great risk and with tremendous personal sacrifice, that allows them to stand up against the Big Bad Wolf.

And as for the werewolf: the Albino is an unusual monster for one of Islas's films, in that he is a creature of pure evil. Unlike the Headcrusher from Broken Skull, unlike the sadistic killers of El Día de los Muertos, unlike Mama Luna in Zombie Farm, unlike even Crowley the vampire, the Albino has no human side. Nothing about him seems even remotely sympathetic. He enjoys not only killing his victims, but making them suffer beforehand. Once he traps Roberto and ths children in the TV station, awaiting the moonrise, he tells them that his greatest pleasure is making them wait for death: to make them feel the feeble bond between them fraying under the strain... to make them wonder who will be the first to die... to savor their anxiety — their descent into pure animal fear — their growing willingness to sacrifice each other for a chance to survive a few seconds longer...!

If this sort of character is unusual for Islas, it's also unusual for the werewolf genre, which has been defined for most of its history by the Larry Talbot-style reluctant monster. Werewolves in the movies are almost always the victims of circumstance, the innocents transformed into beasts against their will, who are tormented by the things they do when the moon-madness is on them. Not this time: in Plenilunio, we're given a werewolf who relishes his condition.

And make no mistake: the Albino does indeed have supernatural powers. Even in his human form, he is immensely strong, and he's able to sustain a great deal of damage without slowing down. His senses are heightened, like those of a wolf. And when the moon comes out, he really and truly does transform into a huge, hairy beast (although whether it's a wolf, exactly, is a question we'll deal with at the end). The Albino is fascinated by his own transformation, to the point that he videotapes himself before he changes. When Roberto discovers his cache of videotapes, he finds that the Albino has murdered his way south from New Mexico, through Mexico to Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil before ending up in Uruguay. At that point Roberto thinks of him only as a murderer, but even as a mere murderer his career of bloodshed is remarkable3
3. Is there a hidden meaning to the fact that the Albino, who is as white as white can be, got his start in the United States? Or that his lair happens to be right next to the local Foreign Trade Zone? Is he, perhaps, a metaphor for the creeping destructive influence of norteamericano politics and policies on the people (particularly the children) of South America? Very likely — although as usual, even at this early date, Islas makes sure to underscore the fact that not all American imports are so dangerous... witness the kids' fascination with Batman comic books, which (like the Albino) have also filtered down through Brazil. Still, the subtext here is very subtle, and can be overlooked without damaging the story.

Yet in spite of the monster's horrifying strengths and capabilities, this werewolf is limited in ways that supernatural movie monsters rarely are. The realism that has grounded the basic story so far stays in effect when the beast actually shows up. Yes, the Albino is powerful, yes he can change into a huge ravening creature... but he's still limited by the rules of the real world. He threatens to kill everyone, and terrifies them into believing he's capable of hunting them all down if they try to escape. But it turns out his threats are mostly bluff, intended to keep his prey too scared to try. When the kids muster their courage and send some of their number out the windows for help, the Albino doesn't go after them... because he, unlike Freddy and Jason and their ilk, is unable to teleport. Oh, he knows the kids are getting away — he recognizes Roberto's attempt to distract him as a ploy, and he can actually smell the children fleeing... but he doesn't go after them. He knows if he does, the others left in the building will have a better chance of escaping, and there's a chance he'd lose them all. Rather, he takes the opportunity to break into the building and disable Roberto, leaving him to listen helplessly as he goes to dismember the remaining children.

But then, when the Albino really does turn into a monster, he finds himself at a disadvantage. Though he's huge and fearfully strong, he's unable to move his bulk through the narrow corridors and stairways quickly enough to catch his small, agile prey. His subsequent frustration gives the children the opportunity they need to lead him into the trap that their ingenuity, together with Roberto's engineering skills, has allowed them to set. The Albino's threatening words to them — "Nadie entra, nadie sale" (nobody gets in, nobody gets out) — stops being a threat, and turns into the children's rallying cry... an expression of unity rather than cause for alarm.

Plenilunio suffers from the sort of problems you'd expect from a low-low-budget feature film: the lighting, sound and makeup are sometimes less than ideal; a few edits don't quite line up; some of the actors, particularly among the kids, are far better than others; the synthesizer soundtrack is sometimes grating... these are all minor details, and are unlikely to distract anyone who has the least bit of imagination. The movie really runs into some trouble, though, when it gets to the one thing that every monster movie needs to do, no matter what its budget: revealing the beast.

You have to show the audience something — if you've promised them a werewolf, you're going to need to give them a werewolf at some point (unless, that is, you're going the whole Val Lewton/Cat People route, but that's actually more difficult to pull off). You can go the Jerry Warren / Face of the Screaming Werewolf route, and use footage from somebody else's werewolf movie... but that method didn't work very well for Jerry, either, and is rarely used today. You can try the Harinam Singh / Shaitani Dracula method, and just give an extra a cheap rubber werewolf mask... (what's that? You've never heard of Harinam Singh? Yeah: there's a reason for that). The there's the Marco Antonio Andolfi / Cross of Seven Stones-style werewolf: a naked man with some fake fur glued to his face. That's got to be the cheapest costume ever devised. Something tells me this kind of werewolf, while cost-effective, isn't the most appropriate for a movie starring a dozen children.

So where does that leave us? Well, Ricardo Islas has never allowed a mere lack of budget to limit his imagination, so what he ended up doing was constructing an enormous Prop Monster: a man-sized puppet made out of... ummm... well, white cotton batting, mostly. Remember the Shambler from the old computer game Quake I? Imagine someone building a model Shambler out of old pillow stuffing. It's one of the goofiest looking things you will ever see on-screen. It looks like a cross between a hippopotamus, a platypus and a Q-Tip. When it falls off a balcony at one point, you can see the prop float gently to the ground and land with a soft thup, like the enormous cotton ball it is.

My, what big, er...

And here's the, ahem, "werewolf" in action, trying to get a chomp out of its quarry:

Maybe it's a quilter's nightmare, but to the rest of us it's really pretty ridiculous. In a way, though, it's fitting: for a movie that puts kids in real jeopardy at the hands of a true psychopath, a more realistic monster might have been too much. This giant, mutant Easter Bunny — this flayed Muppet — makes a welcome relief from the threat of certain death that's been hanging over the heads of the children. I think the creature makes a good metaphor for the whole movie: Islas wanted to make something impressive, and he wasn't going to let anything get in his way — not the low budget, not the lack of materials, not even the fact that nobody local had ever attempted this before. If he didn't end up with exactly what he'd intended, so what? The intention is clear enough, and the actual result is still a lot of fun.

After El Almohadón de Plumas, local critics began to refer to Islas as the "John Carpenter of Uruguay". This nickname has done him no favors in the North American market. It's a fair comparison, I suppose, in the sense that both men are intensely committed to serious horror; both rose from low-budget origins by making the best of limited opportunities; both are serious craftsmen, and both really know their music (Islas's chosen music for Frankenstein: Day of the Beast not only includes orchestral music by a contemporary Spanish composer, but also uses excerpts from Scriabin's "Prometheus: The Poem of Fire" — what a brilliant and appropriate choice!). But the aesthetic of the two directors are entirely different, and anybody going to see the movies of one expecting something like the work of the other will be disappointed. It makes as much (or as little) sense to call him the Jairo Pinilla of Uruguay, in that both men attempted single-handedly to establish a horror genre in a South American country where no such cinematic tradition existed (hey — given the opportunity, I'd program Funeral Siniestro and Plenilunio on a double-bill, in a heartbeat). But again, Islas and Colombia's Pinilla can be compared only in the most superficial ways.

Islas may yet start to get the recognition he deserves, since Uruguayan horror is finally starting to establish itself on a world stage. Gustavo Hernández's La Casa Muda (2010), an adventurous experiment in pushing the boundaries of narrative in film, was remade in the US as Silent House. The forthcoming 2013 remake of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead is scheduled to be directed by a Uruguayan director, Fede Alvarez, whose excellent five-minute, $300 giant robot movie Ataque de pánico! (2009) managed to upstage Jerry Bruckheimer's entire Transformers series. The stars are right for a renascence of interest in Uruguay's pioneer of horror. Trouble is, Islas has been working in the United States long enough for people to overlook his contribution to horror cinema in South America. Meanwhile, mainstream American horror audiences (largely made up of pasty middle-class white guys like me) tend to pigeon-hole him as a "minority-interest film-maker" and ignore him. That, or they run into Islas's unusually nuanced scripts and completely miss the point: they complain, for instance, that the lesbian vampires of Night Fangs aren't the glamorous, fetishistic "lesbians" of heterosexual myth. Oy.

I don't think the mainstream opinion about him would change very much if more people had access to the movies he made when he was, ahem, safely foreign — that is, when his movies had the extra cachet of coming from an unusual country... and when he wasn't living among us, pointing out our worst qualities. But for those who do admire his work, I think they shed a fascinating light on his development. Now, if Islas would update the purchasing links on his official site's "South American Movies" page, more of us could obtain legitimate copies of them. Cough. Just saying.

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