Más negro que la noche

Más negro que la noche is the least complex of Carlos Enrique Taboada's four gothic horror films. On the other hand, it is the most viscerally frightening of the four, and the only one to feature a little bit of on-screen blood. Unlike Taboada's first two gothics, Más negro... has a certain plot twist that it half-heartedly tries to keep hidden until the end. It's such an obvious twist that I don't feel I'm spoiling anything by disclosing it in the course of this review.

The first characters we meet in the film are an old woman and her cat. Actually, it's the cat who gets the fullest introduction; of the old woman, we see only her hands. The cat's name is Becker, and in a series of brief vignettes we see the old woman talking to him like an old and trusted friend. But in the last of the sequences, the old woman is wracked by a heart attack during her knitting; she dies, and the cat arches its back in terror at her suffering...

We're then introduced to four young women, who share an apartment in Mexico City out of economic necessity. Ofelia, the sole blonde of the four, seems to be the mother hen of the group; but if she appears more mature or responsible than the other three, it is probably because she is so stolid. The others are Pilar, a cook who is recently separated from her husband and considering divorce; Aurora, a librarian who keeps a pet canary; and Marta, who is the youngest and least settled of them all.

Ofelia learns that she has inherited an enormous old house from her long-forgotten Aunt Susana (the old woman in the movie's prologue). Ofelia had not seen her aunt since she was a child, and remembers her as a stern and inhospitable woman. She wonders why on earth Aunt Susana would have willed her estate to her. But it turns out there's nothing mysterious about the bequest: Ofelia is the last surviving member of her family, so there was nobody else in line to receive the inheritance.

There is one minor codicil, though: la tia Susana simply requested that Ofelia continue to care for her cat Becker for the remainder of his life.

You might think this wouldn't be particularly difficult request to grant. Of all domestic animals, cats are among the easiest to care for. But take it from someone who's spent a long time rescuing cats: there are a lot of people who would find even this simple act of charity impossible. Count among these people Ofelia's housemates: Pilar dislikes cats; bird-loving Aurora loathes them; and Marta tends to side with the majority. However, the thought of free lodgings is tempting to them all, so the other three put aside their misgivings and follow Ofelia out to the mansion.

They are met at the door by the elderly housekeeper Sofia, and it's immediately clear that the older woman distrusts the girls as much as they distrust her. Ofelia, who remembers the old house from her childhood, tries to be courteous to Sofia; but the other three can't resist making derisive comments about the old-fashioned style of the house. The valuable objets d'art make no impression on them, and Marta dismisses Aunt Susana's classical record collection as "completamente out." And the full-length photograph of Aunt Susana that dominates the sitting room gives them the creeps. All this does nothing to endear them to Sofia.

As Sofia takes them on a tour of the house, they reach Aunt Susana's bedroom — the room in which she died. Pilar decides she will take that room for herself. She isn't squeamish about the fact that the old woman died in the room, but she reacts with disgust when she learns that the cat, out of habit, might curl up with her at night (personally, I find her attitude incomprehensible: it's been a long time since I went to sleep with any less than three kitties on top of me).

And thinking of the cat, Becker is nowhere to be found. Sofia explains that he is frequently off prowling the neighborhood, and will be back when it suits him.

What color is he? asks Ofelia.

"Black," answers Sofia. "Más negro que la noche (blacker than the night)."

Needless to say, the girls find Sofia's answer overly dramatic and laughable. After all, it's just a stupid cat. With the help of Ofelia's boyfriend Pedro, they move all their modern stuff into the old house, put some swingin' pop LPs on the phonograph, and begin wearing down Sofia's nerves.

Their first night in the house, Pilar awakens with the feeling that someone — or something — is in the room with her. Looking up, she sees Aunt Susana's rocking chair swinging back and forth... only there's nobody in it. Pilar creeps quietly out of bed and eases over to the moving chair...

And, of course, the cat's in it. Becker has climbed in through the open window, jumped into the familiar chair and started it rocking. This is probably one of the only instances in horror movie history when the "ghost" turned out to be a cat... and it still made sense. Unfortunately, from Pilar's point of view, it would have been better had the thing in the rocker turned out to be a ghost after all. Her screams of disgust draw the other three girls (and eventually Sofia) into the room; Pilar vows she won't sleep in a room with a cat.

The next morning, Sofia gives the girls a set of keys that includes the key to the attic. Excited over what they might find hidden there, the four run up to investigate. There, they find boxes and trunks filled with antique clothing of the finest and most expensive sort. Evidently when she was younger, la tia Susana was a vivacious and fashionable young woman. The girls spend the afternoon trying on all the petticoats and gloves and dresses and hats, once-stylish clothes that now have become museum-pieces — and the irony of the situation is lost on them.

Then, they notice an ornate trunk that stands by itself at the far side of the attic. This must be something very special. But before they can open it, Becker the cat suddenly appears out of nowhere and lands on the trunk lid. He hisses at them, warning them to stay back — but the girls shoo him off and open it anyway.

It is Aunt Susana's hope chest. At the top of the chest, perfectly preserved, sits her wedding dress — the beautiful, ornate white dress which Aunt Susana never had the opportunity to wear. Seeing it, Ofelia's eyes light up: she can use the material to make a new, up-to-date dress for herself! She grabs the dress, and she and the others run back downstairs.

At the attic window, half-obscured by the curtain, an old, white-haired woman is watching...

Late that night, as Ofelia sleeps in the room abandoned by Pilar, a stately figure in a long black dress walks in. We see only her hands; they are familiar hands, old and gnarled. The figure takes the wedding dress off the chair, where Ofelia has carelessly tossed it, and slips out as quietly as she came in. But Ofelia senses the disturbance and wakes up. Noticing that the dress is gone, she searches the house to see who might have taken it. She finds the dress stuffed into the fireplace, almost completely consumed by the fire.

Naturally, the only person who could have done this is Sofia, so Ofelia and the others summon her to the living room. They demand to know if she is the one who burnt the dress. Sofia's eyes widen: then she catches sight of the smoldering ruin, and she composes herself. Yes, she says; she destroyed it. Ofelia's aunt had considered that dress sacred. It represented the sacrifice of her youth and happiness; Sofia claims she couldn't bear the thought of that dress being thoughtlessly cut up by anyone else. So, she says, she decided to burn it... even if it meant her dismissal. But much to the surprise of the others, Ofelia doesn't fire Sofia. In a way, Ofelia understands the older woman's reasons, and — unlike the audience — she believes her.

(We, on the other hand, have a pretty good idea who really put the dress into the fire.)

Sofia is upset by the girls' self-centered flippancy and lack of respect. In an unguarded moment, she tries to explain to Pilar about what a remarkable woman Aunt Susana had been. She'd held those around her to a very high standard of behavior: if you did something wrong, Sofia says, she would never forget it — and she would never forgive. This sort of attitude is completely foreign to the girls, who accuse Sofia of trying to mutiny in lots of little ways. For example, there's the way she unnerves them by sneaking out into the garden at night and calling for Becker. It's creepy to them, the way she does it without being seen... especially when she denies ever having been there.

Things reach a crisis of sorts when Aurora finds her canary dead on the floor. Becker has broken into the cage and half-eaten the poor bird. When Ofelia comes home that night, she finds Sofia — and it is Sofia this time — out in the garden looking for Becker. Sofia explains about the death of the bird, and worries to Ofelia that Becker may not be back for a while. Animals, she says, seem to know when humans are angry at them.

That night, Aurora is awakened by the sound of unearthly sobbing coming from somewhere in the house. Terrified, she goes to Marta's room for comfort; but although Marta has heard nothing, Aurora is too scared to be consoled.

A few days later, Ofelia comes home from a night out with Pedro and finds her friends looking uncharacteristically somber. They have some news for her, they say; news she isn't going to like. They've... found Becker.

Ofelia, who as I've noted earlier is a bit of a blockhead, is at first relieved. Where was he? she asks.

The others break the news to her as delicately as they can: Becker apparently got locked in the attic. When they found him, he was dead, apparently of starvation.

(Now, you know, and I know, and everybody who has ever had a cat knows that this explanation is pure used kitty litter. Chances are you'll have guessed what the real story is, but the movie wants us to pretend we haven't. I'd also like to point out that it's very unlikely that the cat playing Becker was harmed during the production. There are Mexican exploitation films in which harm comes to live animals — René Cardona, Jr.'s dreadful Night of a Thousand Cats, for example, or the uncharacteristically sadistic El Santo vehicle El Aguila Real. But considering the overall theme of Taboada's film, it would have been ludicrous if he'd allowed the animal to be hurt. The "dead cat" glimpsed briefly in these scenes is most likely sedated.)

Late that night, Marta sees a woman's shadow moving slowly and stiffly toward the sitting room. When she goes to see who it is, no one is there — but poor Becker's little body, last seen abandoned in the attic, is now lying on the floor by the hearth. Just then, Sofia comes in behind her and frightens her. Marta demands to know why Sofia moved the cat's corpse — and once again we see a momentary panic in the housekeeper's eyes as she tries to figure out what to say. Sofia quickly regains control of herself, and tells the furious girl that she (sic) moved Becker because this had been the cat's favorite room.

But when the housekeeper goes to remove the poor cat's body, she catches sight of la tia Susana's shadow, standing clearly and unambiguously at the window...

The next day at work, Aurora has an experience that frightens her even more than the voice in the night. As she walks alone through the lonely rows of books at the library, she turns a corner... and there, half-hidden by shadows at the bottom of a flight of stairs, stands the unmistakeable form of Aunt Susana. The next instant, the old woman is gone... but the shock stays with Aurora. She knows it was the figure of Aunt Susana by the cane it carried, the same cane as in the portrait. But when the girls confront Sofia and demand to know where the cane is, Sofia tells them that she herself placed the cane in the old woman's coffin just before it was interred.

Aurora gets a surprise visitor

AsI've mentioned in my previous reviews, Taboada's ghosts are not the semi-transparent creatures we've come to expect from horror movies. It's true, they have the mysterious ability to appear and disappear at will, but in spite of this there is nothing insubstantial-looking about them. It's Aunt Susana's actual physical presence that makes her so frightening. Taboada has made her appearances even more effective by making sure we do not see her face for most of the movie. If we've seen her face at all up to this point, it's only been through the life-size portrait in the sitting room — where her wizened features are stern, yes, but also calm and dignified. She will not be so composed when we see her again, face-to-face.

The next time Aurora finds herself alone in her library at night (probably putting some tractate Middoth back on its lonely shelf), she suddenly hears the sound of someone walking through the aisles... someone who walks with the assistance of a cane. While she is distracted, we see Aunt Susana passing through the shadows behind her, her pale white hands standing out against the black of her formal dress. Sensing the movement, but still seeing nothing yet, Aurora begins to panic — especially when all the lights in the library go out at once.

Aurora feels her way cautiously through the stacks. She seems to realize that someone, or something, is waiting for her nearby... The terrified girl is powerless to keep from looking up, through the books on the shelf in front of her, to meet the cold, implacable gaze of Aunt Susana herself...

When Ofelia and Pedro come to meet Aurora later on, they are surprised to see the building dark. The library watchman goes to check the circuit breakers while Pedro and Ofelia split up to search the stacks. When the lights do go back on, Ofelia finds herself face-to-face with Aurora's body: she has died of a heart attack, and is now hanging by her feet from the metal stairway.

A few days later, Sofia finds the housekeeper standing pensively by Becker's grave. There are fresh flowers on the grave, and Ofelia wonders why Sofia would have put them there (assuming, as usual, that Sofia was the one to have done it). She seems offended that Sofia would take a mere cat's death as seriously as Aurora's, but Sofia insists that the death of any loved one is a very serious matter. She also says that this week will be her last in Ofelia's employment.

Naturally, Ofelia wants to know why the housekeeper intends to leave, but Sofia doesn't want to tell her. "You won't believe me," she says. Ofelia insists, and Sofia comes out with it: la tia Susana is present in the house, and her spirit is in agony over the death of Becker. Sofia failed to prevent his death, and even if she wasn't directly responsible, she is still culpable. There will never be peace for her again in Aunt Susana's house, because Aunt Susana did not forgive... and will not forgive. Ofelia thinks she's insane, but Sofia gives her a warning: even after she leaves, she says, there will still be flowers on Becker's grave.

Ofelia, stolid as ever, dismisses Sofia's words as mere foolishness.

In the meantime, Pilar has been slowly drifting back toward her estranged husband Roberto. At first, we assume his renewed attentions may have something to do with her comfortable new living arrangements; but — surprisingly, considering how generally unsympathietic our four main characters are — this doesn't turn out to be the case.

One night, Pilar finds herself alone in the house with Sofia. Sofia is on her way out, but stops to check on Pilar first to make sure she will be all right in the house alone. Pilar thinks the old woman is trying to intimidate her, and snaps that she'll be perfectly fine. Sofia excuses herself and departs.

But once Pilar is alone, she hears a cat at the window. It looks and sounds distressingly like Becker. Pilar follows the cat outside, where she thinks she sees a light moving in the cellar. Thinking it might be Sofia, she goes down into the darkness to find out.

It is not Sofia.

When Pilar gets a clear look at who is waiting for her, she panics and stumbles out into the night. Naturally, nobody (except Sofia) believes she really saw what she claims to have seen; but Pilar, for her part, vows to leave the house as soon as she can. She goes off to a party with Roberto, but she's too upset to enjoy herself. She only starts to relax when Roberto assures her that she need never spend another night in that house again. She should just collect a few of her things from her room, and come home to him for good.

Pilar is enormously relieved, and sets out to get good and drunk. Later, Roberto drives her back out to the mansion so she can grab a few necessities. He waits in the car while she totters in and eases her way up the staircase, humming to herself. This is the happiest we've ever seen Pilar, and why not? After all, what else could happen to her, now that she's found a way out of the nightmare?

What, indeed: when she gets to the top of the stairs, a pallid hand closes over hers. Pilar looks up — and becomes the second of the housemates to meet Aunt Susana's eyes. The intensity of the old woman's glare makes Pilar take a startled step backwards... whereupon she falls over the bannister and breaks her neck on the floor below.

Well, that's two of the housemates dead as a result of very peculiar "accidents". Ofelia still doesn't see a connection, but Marta is growing more and more nervous as the days go by. There's something Marta knows that Ofelia doesn't; something we've probably guessed by now, but which poor unimaginative Ofelia refuses to see.

Late at night, as the two girls sit up waiting for Pedro to arrive, the lights in the house suddenly go out. Marta is petrified, but Ofelia insists it's just a simple outage and goes out to check the breakers. While she is gone, Marta goes into the sitting room to wait... but there's someone there — sitting in the chair she preferred when she was alive. Marta knows her by her gnarled hands, working her knitting needles; on one finger is the elaborate ring she always wore.

When Ofelia returns, the figure in the chair disappears. The knitting, though, is still there, forcing even Ofelia to admit something strange is going on. Marta explains about seeing the ring on the apparition's finger, and Ofelia protests: whoever it was couldn't have been wearing Aunt Susana's ring, becuase it's sitting in a box in Ofelia's bedroom. The girls move slowly through the darkened house to investigate — and sure enough, they find the ring is gone.

By this time, Marta is on the verge of hysterics. Ofelia can't understand it: if Aunt Susana is really haunting the house, why is she trying to murder them? After all, even though her aunt could be harsh and unbending at times, she wasn't a monster. Surely she wouldn't want to kill them just because Becker had had an accident.

And that's when Marta decides to tell her the truth.

Becker's death wasn't an accident. After Aurora had found the mangled remains of her canary, she'd grabbed a shovel out of the fireplace and gone after the cat. Marta and Pilar had followed her; when the cat tried to defend himself (as cats will do), they'd joined in the attack, until the three of them had succeeded in beating him to death.

(The attack, seen in flashback, is shown in red-tinted negative. This is partly to give it an otherworldly effect, and partly to obscure the fact that no real violence is being done to the cat. If you look closely, it appears they're actually playing with the kitty, but when the play scenes are interspersed with violent reaction shots, it looks like the cat is being pummeled.)

Ofelia is nauseated by Marta's confession — but at last, things are starting to make sense to her. The important thing, she thinks, is to get Marta out of the house as soon as she can. But Marta ponts out to her that it's no use. After all, Aurora was killed in the library. Aunt Susana will track Marta down no matter where she hides. Just then, Ofelia hears the sound of Pedro's car pulling up; urging Marta to stay put, she runs out to get her boyfriend's help.

As Marta watches in horror, the door swings itself firmly shut.

Marta panics. Whether it is the gathering force of the haunting or Marta's own guilty conscience that drives her, sobbing, deeper and deeper into the house, we can only guess. But there's no question what's waiting for her in the shadows. Just as it seems that Marta is about to drop dead from terror, Becker walks into the room. This is, of course, impossible; and as Marta stands gibbering over the ghost cat, la tia Susana walks silently down the stairs behind her. When Marta turns around, the ghost-woman paralyzes her with her icy gaze, stretches out her bony finger in accusation, and continues down the stairs...

When Ofelia and Pedro manage to get back into the house, they find a nasty sight: Marta is lying at the foot of the stairs in a gory heap. A pair of knitting needles has been thrust into her heart.

After the "accidental" deaths of two of Ofelia's friends, now a third girl has been clearly murdered. Pedro didn't actually see Marta alive before he got into the house, so Ofelia has no one to vouch for her innocence. And certainly nobody is going to believe that Marta was stabbed to death by a ghost. There's only one possible conclusion the authorities can come to when Marta's death is reported, and perhaps this is what is beginning to dawn on Ofelia as the movie ends. Ofelia may not have been guilty of Becker's death, but neither is she innocent — and now la tia Susana has left her to deal with the consequences.

There's a sort of "hey you kids, get off my lawn!" vibe to Más negro que la noche that I find endearing. In a way, it reminds me of the story of Hasta el viento tiene miedo turned upside-down: instead of young people rebelling against the insensitivity of the adults, this film takes the side of the elders as they struggle against a self-obsessed youth culture that has rejected them. Taboada's film makes a refreshing alternative to the youth-oriented mainstream horror films we're given today.

Aunt Susana's request was simple enough to honor. It wasn't even legally binding. All that was required of Ofelia and her friends was a little human decency, and the slightest bit of gratitude for the unexpected (and undeserved) gift of the legacy. But decency is hard to come by; and as is the case in Taboada's other horror films, selfish short-sightedness is punished with Old Testament-style ferocity.

I can't help but compare the movie to the Drop of Water episode from Mario Bava's I Tre volti della paura / Black Sabbath. In both movies, an old woman takes a terrible revenge for a wrong done to her after death. But Bava's approach is much different: first, he unnerves us by confronting us with the old woman's ghastly corpse. Later — just as the early, subtle stages of the haunting are beginning to convince us Bava is aiming for the high road — WHAM! he shoves the hideous cadaver back in our faces. It's terrifying, but it's also a bit of a cheat. In Taboada's film, by contrast, there's nothing horrible about the old woman's appearance. Except for her dreadful silence, Aunt Susana looks just like an ordinary, living human being. But through skillful use of lighting, shadows and camera angles, and by taking care to reveal the ghost's face only at crisis-point, Taboada manages to make her extremely frightening.

La tia Susana

Normally, I'm very unhappy when animals are harmed in movies, even when it's clear that the animal in question wasn't hurt in real life. Heck, I even cry at the end of Yongary. I don't feel quite as bad about Más negro que la noche, though; not just because it's a very good movie, and not just because the cat gets to come back for revenge... and oh, I do like that the cat comes back for revenge... but mainly because some primitive part of me, my inner curmudgeon, is rooting hard for the ghosts.

This movie has little of the emotional anguish of the earlier two gothics: in Hasta el viento tiene miedo, even the ruthless Bernarda had her human side, while El Libro de piedra ends in bleak despair for practically everybody; but with this movie, there's never any real doubt whose side Taboada is on. His common theme of thoughtless cruelty being revisited on its perpetrators is probably a little overstated here, to the point where it really doesn't make much sense any more... our satisfaction in the punishments these four young women receive is every bit as troubling as the girls' own lack of compassion. I suppose it's the horror movie equivalent of this well-known quote:

I know that there are people in this world who do not love their fellow human beings,
and I hate people like that!
— Tom Lehrer

OK: so if we're looking for ambiguities, we have to look within ourselves this time. Still, in spite of its relative lack of subtlety, Más negro que la noche is a good scary ghost story. And while I may not be particularly proud of the way I cheer at the murders, I have to admit it's refreshing to see a horror film in which the thoughtless young principal characters have to face the consequences of their actions.

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