At last, he found himself with the funding and equipment to make his first feature film, which he wrote and directed, and in which he even played one of the major roles. After this, he struggled year after year to find the support to keep making movies. But once he'd made for himself both a body of work and a reputation, he found it even more difficult to get his films made. Now, decades later, he is adored by legions of fans, but is still reviled by the established critics, who call him one of the worst directors in film history.
Sound familiar? Of course it does. I've deliberately written this mini-bio to remind you of Edward D. Wood, Jr. But the writer-director I'm talking about is really the so-called Colombian Ed Wood, Jairo Pinilla. Between 1977 and 1985, Pinilla created a series of low-budget movies unlike any that had been made in Colombia before. Comparisons with Wood were probably inevitable, but Pinilla doesn't mind — and why should he? Whatever you may think of Wood's films, they're still watched, talked about, and loved by people all over the world. That sort of reception would please Pinilla far more than any good review in the newspaper.
Pinilla freely admits that his movies have a certain "Wooden" quality to them: "I think to call [them] naïve is correct," he said, in a 2001 interview. "I work with people who want to have fun, not pretentious people. Commercial? Yes. I've said that I don't intend to make art films. As for kitschy, I'd say, too: if it's tacky for people to enjoy themselves, then my movies are tacky.1"
But there are a few crucial differences between Wood and Pinilla. To begin with, Wood worked in Hollywood. At the time he was struggling to get his movies made, there were thousands of other people trying to break into the business all around him... and many of them (most of them, I'd say) had better ideas than he had. Wood wasn't attempting to do anything particularly revolutionary: he was trying to revive a style of film-making that was on its way out, based on his memories of the movies he'd seen as a child in the 1930's. It was his total lack of technique as both writer and director that gave his movies whatever "originality" they may have.
By contrast, Pinilla was trying to make fantastic films in Colombia, where there was no tradition of fantasy or horror cinema. He was trying to do something that had never been done before, and he was trying to do it in a way that was entirely his own. The resistance he met stemmed at first from the political aspect of film-making in Colombia: both the private and the government-sponsored film production companies wanted movies with social messages (no matter how trivial those messages may have been). If the movie wasn't about poverty and grinding human misery, it wasn't "important". Also, the film couldn't be sold to the foreign art-house cinemas, which were expecting message movies from Latin America2. Ghost stories and alien invasions were completely out of the question as subjects for a proper "Colombian" film.
Both Wood and Pinilla managed to establish themselves through sheer persistence, and through unwavering faith in their own abilities. But while Wood was merely delusional, Pinilla really does have a solid instinct for visual storytelling. Pinilla's films may be rough around the edges, and some of their plot twists may be hair-raisingly inane... but Pinilla is far more in control of his material than Wood ever was.
And this brings us to the most important difference of all. During his lifetime, Wood never had a hit. His reputation only began to grow after his death, when the Medved brothers labeled him the Worst Director of All Time in one of their "Golden Turkey" books. Pinilla may never have broken any box office records, but his films have always found appreciative audiences in Colombia. The local critics may never accept him, but ordinary people in Colombia certainly did. This was especially true of his first feature, Funeral siniestro (1977): the Cine Colombia company grudgingly agreed to release it for a week, thinking it would flop and quickly be replaced by something more substantial. Popular demand kept the movie running for four months.
Once upon a time — I'm sticking with the fairy-tale language, and I have a feeling you'll be able to see why — once upon a time, there was a little girl named Isabel, and she lived with her father in an isolated house by the edge of a wood. One day, Isabel's father died under mysterious circumstances, and the poor child became the guardian of her uncle Humberto (played by Pinilla) and his wife, Lucrecia. Isabel's new step-parents immediately moved into the house by the edge of the wood; but Don Humberto was almost immediately called away on business. Isabel was left alone with her step-mother. But Lucrecia was actually a wicked step-mother, who wanted the house all to herself... and she had a plan to get it.
One of the strengths of Funeral siniestro is that its story — while set firmly in modern times and never once crossing over into fantasy — bears a strong resemblance to folk tales from all over the world. Amatuer actress Derly Díaz turned out to be an inspired choice for the role of the evil step-mother: she's terrifying. The very last shadow of her youthful beauty had just that moment left the room; so when her Lucrecia loses her temper and allows her true, vicious nature to come to the surface, she seems to age twenty years in the blink of an eye.
The movie itself begins with Isabel's father's funeral, though this is not the funeral siniestro of the title. Pinilla does a superb job of preparing us for the tone of the film through this introduction. There is no dialogue; instead, the tolling of the church bells merges with the electronic music soundtrack, occasionally sliding into some conventional organ music before reverting to tape. The funeral procession emerges from the stark shadow of the church into the light, and passers-by cross themselves hastily as the coffin approaches. The mourners push right by Pinilla's camera, which at one point plunges straight through an oncoming wreath.
The procession arrives at the cemetery. When little Isabel she sees the gravedigger leaning on his spade, she is overcome by grief; and all at once the camera switches position to the bottom of the grave. The coffin descends slowly into the pit... and as soon as the last light of the sun has been blocked out, the opening credits play over the darkness.
There's a strong visual imagination at work in this opening sequence. In lesser hands, the whole introduction might have been replaced with some dry exposition — such as (heaven help us) a Reading of the Will scene. As it is, we learn quite a bit about the situation without a word being spoken, and we're plunged immediately into the heavy atmosphere of the story.
Once the credits have finished, we find ourselves spending a surprisingly long time watching a woodcutter at work. And why not? The woodcutter is another stock figure in fairy tales. This one is a young man in traditional Colombian clothing, hacking some branches with his machete and tying them to the back of his burro. At one point, he reaches out to take his sweater off a branch, so he can finish cutting down the tree it was hanging on.
The scene has several purposes: first of all, it introduces us to Jaime, who is the caretaker for Isabel's family's house. It immerses us further in the folk-tale atmosphere of the story. It helps to establish the slow, deliberate pace the rest of the film will follow. But most of all, in the subtlest and most unobtrusive way possible, it introduces Jaime's sweater into the viewer's subconscious... and that sweater becomes extremely important in the first half of the movie.
Jaime returns to the hacienda just as Don Humberto's car arrives. Humberto has just enough time to drop off Doña Lucrecia and Isabelita before he must return to Bogotá to finish his business. Humberto is completely unaware of his wife's true feelings about Isabel. What she really wants is complete control over Isabel's inheritance. There's only one way for her to get what she wants: something unfortunate must happen to Isabel — just as something unfortunate (and undetectable) happened to the girl's father.
As long as Humberto is out of earshot, Lucrecia is cruel and abusive to Isabel: "Stop your incessant whining!" she tells the grief-stricken child; but once Humberto enters the room, her demeanor changes completely: "There, there, sweetheart," she murmurs; "don't cry. Your daddy is watching you from heaven!" Seeing nothing wrong, Humberto leaves Isabel in Lucrecia's care. But before he goes, he has a quick word with Jaime: if he should run into anything unusual in his duties around the house, he should keep track of it and notify him when he returns.
Jaime is much more observant that Humberto, and he figures out very quickly that something is wrong. He listens from the shadows as Lucrecia throws a fit over a dish Isabel has broken: how dare Isabel be so careless with property that should be Lucrecia's now? Unfortunately for Jaime, Lucrecia is observant, too; and she realizes that the caretaker has already seen more than he should. She accuses him of eavesdropping and orders him off her property. Jaime points out that it's not exactly her property after all, but reluctantly goes to pack his bag.
On his way out, though, he can't help but take one last look into the house, to make sure Isabel is all right. He looks through a window... and sees Lucrecia performing some sort of weird ritual involving a cigar and a human skull. Evidently she's a wicked witch as well as a wicked step-mother. Poor Jaime is so shocked by what he sees that he is too slow to duck out of sight when Lucrecia whips around. Snarling that she won't stand any more of this, Lucrecia runs out to confront Jaime.
Jaime tries to protest that he didn't see anything, but Lucrecia is enraged beyond words. She grabs him by the throat and begins choking the life out of him. His bag falls to the ground, and some of his meager possessions spill out. At last, Jaime manages to throw her off; but then, figuring the force of her wrath has been spent, he makes the mistake of stopping to retrieve his belongings. Behind him, Lucrecia reaches for a shovel...
Beck in the house, Isabel is cleaning up from dinner. When she goes to the door, she's puzzled to find she's been locked in the house. Looking through the keyhole out onto the darkened porch, she sees nothing unusual. But out in the darkness, in the shadow of a tree, stands Lucrecia... next to a bloody heap.
Isabel is doing her chores the next morning when she runs into Jaime's friend Rómulo, who (I think) works for her distant neighbor, Don Octavio. Rómulo has some news for Don Humberto, which he'll have to deliver to Doña Lucrecia in his absence. Isabel tells him she's afraid of her step-mother. She's a strange woman who does some strange things, she says. She's almost afraid the house has become embrujada — cursed by a witch. Rómulo laughs at this — but his laughter stops when he reaches the house, and finds mysterious bloodstains on the ground beside the porch. He delivers his news to Lucrecia as though nothing were wrong; but on his way out, he warns Isabel about the bloodstains, and tells her he will come back the following morning to make sure she's all right.
Lucrecia padlocks her room and goes off to the ciy for the day, warning Isabel as she leaves that she had better have dinner on the table when she gets back. As soon as she has gone, Isabel runs out to the front yard to look for the blood Rómulo had told her about. She follows the dark red smears around the house, and finds Jaime's grey sweater caught in a bramble — stained with more blood. The trail ends in a patch of newly-turned earth, just about the size of a grown man. When the soil begins to give way around her feet, Isabel is horrified.
The girl wraps the bloody sweater in a newspaper and runs off for the nearby town. On the road, she's relieved to see a familiar figure riding toward her on horseback: it's her neighbor, her late father's friend, Don Octavio. Isabel waves down Octavio and tells him about the blood, and the suspicious patch of ground behind the house. Then she shows him the sweater. Octavio's face darkens: this is a very serious matter. He tells her to give the sweater to him, so he can take it to the police. He then advises her to go back home, and say nothing about this to anyone until he comes back with the authorities.
Isabel, who knows that Octavio was very close to her father before his death — his unexplained, mysterious and sudden death — sees nothing even remotely suspicious about this. So she goes back to the hacienda to wait... and wait... and wait...
(While she's waiting all alone in the house she thinks may be cursed, there is an eclipse. The eclipse footage is placed almost exactly at the midpoint of the film: it serves no narrative purpose; it's never commented on by any of the characters; it doesn't mark a change in the action. It just is. And it works. For one thing, it's beautiful in itself; but what's more, since it doesn't have any inherent meaning, it behaves the way any well-captured image does and allows to audience to come up with all sorts of allusive possibilities on its own. No matter how much Pinilla may distrust "art films", in Funeral siniestro he's come dangerously close to making one himself.)
Lucrecia does eventaully come back, and by that time Isabelita is so worked up and anxious that she's even glad to see her. She even goes so far as to try to give her step-mother a hug. Naturally, Lucrecia is having none of that: she sends Isabel back to work. But as Lucrecia turns to go back to her room, she is staggered to see that her padlocked doors are standing open. In her imagination, she sees Jaime's bloody corpse wailing at her from the shadows, a shovel in his stiffened hands...
... but the figure in the shadows turns out to be none other than Don Octavio. He's brought her the bloodstained sweater. Obviously the girl has figured out too much, and their plan must be carried out sooner than expected. Lucrecia tells him not to worry: she's got a foolproof scheme for another "accident". The girl will be dead tomorrow, before Humberto comes back, and before she can tell anybody else about Jaime. In the meantime, since Humberto is still away, Lucrecia has some other urgent plans... she pulls Octavio onto the bed, and the camera mercifully cuts away to the next morning.
Lucrecia's murderous attack on Isabel is the first major climax of the film, so it's a little surprising that it occurs only a little past the halfway point. Since there's still so much movie left, we have a pretty good idea that the attack is not going to succeed. Nevertheless, the sequence is so well shot that it does manage to generate a good deal of suspense.
Lucrecia tries to drown Isabel in the river, while she's washing her clothes. Isabel manages to get away — and this leads to a stunning coup de théâtre that's way beyond anything Ed Wood ever came up with. Lucrecia runs after the girl, but stumbles just before she can reach her. This allows Isabel to make it back to the house just a bit ahead of her stepmother. Isabel bolts the door... and then the audience, also breathless, waits with her for Lucrecia to arrive.
But for a surprising few seconds, she doesn't.
Then, at last, we see the ominous shadow at the door, and the pounding begins. Isabel runs to get a piece of firewood to use as a club, and stands by the shadowy hallway with her improptu weapon raised over her head. But she doesn't notice the pair of hands reaching from behind her...
Without going into too much more detail, let me just mention that at this moment something goes horribly wrong with Lucrecia's plan. Somebody else ends up getting killed instead, and the sudden arrival of Rómolo — who'd told Isabel (and us) he'd be stopping by — changes everything. And it's not just the murder plot, but the whole focus of the movie that changes.
Once Rómolo has discovered the body, he goes to inform the authorities. Suddenly the house is full of friends and neighbors, as well as doctors and mortuary attendants, who've come to help after the tragic "accident". Isabel is completely safe as long as they're around. But just as suddenly, as night falls, every single person remembers some reason why they can't possibly stay any longer. Soon, Isabel finds the last of her protectors making their excuses... she's about to be left behind, obligated by custom to stay at home and keep watch over the dead body. The poor girl is still in a state of shock from realizing her step-mother's just tried to kill her; and now, on top of that, she has to deal with the corpse in the living room — a corpse she is sure is watching her... blaming her... hating her for still being alive.
This is the funeral siniestro of the title. And this is where the film really comes into its own, as a truly menacing ghost story in which there is no ghost. The horror of the situation comes from Isabel's idea of what she thinks is happening in her casa embrujada. In the end, it doesn't matter whether the ghost is real or not: even if it's only a figment of her imagination, it still turns out to be just as deadly as her murderous stepmother.
If Funeral siniestro is a little rough around the edges, and contains some plot twists that don't really withstand close scrutiny, it's still a remarkable first feature. For such a low-budget film, made with non-professional actors, it holds together very well. It was obviously made with a great deal of care: even the smallest details (like a sweater, or some bits of broken crockery, or a poorly-tied knot in a piece of string) turn out to have tremendous importance to the story.
Unfortunately, his next horror film wasn't quite as effective...
27 Horas con la muerte
Pinilla's third feature film, and his second horror film, has some truly horrific moments in it. Not all of them are intentional. The naïveté that critics complain mars Pinilla's work is much more in evidence here than in Funeral siniestro, at least in part because Funeral Sinistro's folk-tale atmosphere allows us to suspend our disbelief more easily.
27 Horas con la muerte (1981) has a much more contemporary feel to it than Funeral siniestro: it's set in the city (Bogotá, to be specific), and a good deal of its action takes place indoors. The actors are equally terrible... but the photography is cleaner, and in general the production has a much more polished (and expensive) look to it.
Once again, Pinilla gives us a wordless prologue to set the tone for the movie to follow. This time, there is no funeral: only a cemetery, deserted and (according to the sound effects) wind-swept. We gradually move in from a distance shot, getting closer and closer to one particular mausoleum... and then one particular niche, which just happens to be open. Waiting, even. The camera slowly zooms into the niche; and as with Funeral siniestro, the opening credits play over the darkness of the grave.
Armando Velásquez's score for 27 Horas... is very much different from the music he provided for Funeral siniestro: while the earlier soundtrack was a combination of electronic music and solo instruments — guitar, violin, piano, all indifferently played — 27 Horas... put a large ensemble at his disposal. Velásquez's main title theme sounds like Carlo Rustichelli at his most romantic — brooding, lyrical and skillfully orchestrated. For some of the rest of the incidental music, though, he tried to be more upbeat and contemporary, and at times it sounds a little incongruous for a horror film.
The action of the movie proper begins with a dead bunny. Actually, it's two dead bunnies: he first one had keeled over in an earlier test, while the second (we're led to understand) has just now expired. A scientist named Dr. Mendez is at work in his lab, conducting some experiments involving a new drug; and if the condition of his two test rabbits is anything to go by, the drug may need a little more work. By the way, it seems to me that these animals are actually dead, not merely anaesthetized... when Mendez picks one of them up in a later scene, it's started to stiffen.
The scientist is interrupted when his former student Mario comes in. Mario has just stopped by a doctor's consulting room in the same building, only to find that he's too late to see him. The best Mendez can do is give Mario a note to take to another doctor, one Dr. Morales, who should be able to help him. The two men go off to Mendez's office, where he writes out the prescription. Mario goes off to see Morales, and the scientist goes back to his lab.
Much to his surprise, Mendez finds there is now one dead rabbit and one very lively rabbit waiting for him.
There's no doubt that the living rabbit was the one that had appeared to die in the first experiment, some 9 hours ago. Mendez immediately calls his colleague, Dr. Victor Rotalo, and insists he come over to the lab at once. If what Mendez thinks is about to happen does happen, he wants someone else on hand to corroborate it. Also, it's about time we had a character whose name didn't being with M.
Victor is extremely skeptical that the second rabbit will somehow return to life. He examines the animal, and verifies that it is absolutely, thoroughly, unmistakeably dead. Mendez must have made a mistake with the first rabbit; that's all. So the two men wait, smoking an endless succession of cigarettes, while the requisite 9 hours pass. When the time is up, the two men leave Mendez's office and go back to the lab, where the bunny is — predictably — still dead. But just as Mendez is about to admit defeat, and Vincent is reaching to turn off the lights, there comes a rustling sound from behind them. The rabbit has begun to twitch its way back to life!
It's pathetically easy to see how this "special effect" was carried out: they just shot the scenes in backwards order, killing the bunnies one by one as needed. The scene in which the "first" "resurrected" rabbit sniffs around the body of the "second" I find particularly difficult to watch: no wonder the "first" rabbit seems unhappy when Mendez picks him up. This is one of the aspects of 27 Horas... that I find unintentionally horrific, and one of the reasons I don't think I'll be watching this movie again very often.
Mendez sees the revival of the second rabbit as a fascinating curiosity: the LSD-derived paralytic he'd been testing may work a little too well, producing a sort of super-catalepsy that is completely indistinguishable from true death. To Mendez, this seems to be worth little more than a footnote in his paper, once he perfects the drug for its intended purpose. It will probably make an excellent bar story, too. But Victor immediately sees possibilities for the "failed" drug that Mendez hasn't thought of, and when Mendez's back is turned, he steals a handful of the little white tablets.
Victor's idea is that someone — say, a healthy young man, younger than Victor himself and in perfect physical condition — should take out a large life insurance policy. He should be a married man, so that his beneficiary would be his close, trusted ally. Then, he should take three of the pills: each pill produces a death-like coma for 9 hours, so 3 should knock him out for 27 hours. In Colombia, it seems, a person must remain convincingly inert for 24 hours to be declared officially dead, so 27 hours should be just enough. Then, once the formalities were over, the "dead" man would be free to come back to life; he and his wife would assume new identities with their insurance money, and a tidy cut would go to Victor as the brains of the operation and the provider of the pills.
I'm sure you've noticed there are some problems with this plan. To begin with, I'm pretty sure Mendez had to account for every pill at his disposal, so Victor's theft would have been noticed at once. More significantly, even though the pills had a particular effect on a rabbit, there's no guarantee that they would have the same effect on a human. If a rabbit-sized dose produced this super-catalepsy for 9 hours, who is to say it will have the same effect on a full-grown man — assuming it even has the same effects on a human body that it does on a rabbit? After all (with, I suppose, a few exceptions), humans are not rabbits.
But even then, assuming that a single pill produces the same effect in a person as it does in a rabbit: how does it follow in any sane mind that three pills result in a coma that lasts three times as long? The drug doesn't pace itself entering your bloodstream; you're smacked with the full dose at once. If one pill produces a near-death state for 9 hours, three times the dosage seems more likely to kill you for real. That's not even considering what sort of side-effects there might be to being paralyzed and probably oxygen-deprived for hours and hours: maybe the after-effects aren't noticeable on a rabbit, but again... human beings are not rabbits.
And, of course, there are many more obvious problems which we'll mention later. But since Pinilla is making the rules in this version of reality, we just have to accept that the pills work the way Victor thinks they will. Victor knows just who to approach with his scheme: young Mario, who has recently married a rather high-maintenance wife, and whose uncertain future makes him a perfect candidate for the swindle.
So Victor approaches Mario, and Mario at first ridicules the idea. Not for all the money on the world would he agree to "die" for a while. But he can't help but be intrigued. Not being a "scientist", he's a little worried about some of the issues I just brought up. Isn't there some way the drug could be tested on a human being, before he consented to take three of the pills? In fact, why shouldn't Victor himself try it out first? Victor practically chokes on his coffee at this. No, no, he protests; Mario doesn't understand medicine. If something were to go wrong, a medical man would be needed to try and revive the test subject. And clearly, it wouldn't be a good idea to involve another professional man in the scheme.
Mario himself hits on what he thinks is the perfect idea: the day before, he'd run into a street kid who'd been caught trying to steal fruit from a roadside stand. Taking pity on the boy — a poor orphan reduced to living off his wits in the slums of Bogotá — he'd told him to stop by his house later, and he'd try to find some work for him to do. Who better to be a subject for their experiment than a gamín that nobody would miss?
And here we have the next moment of unintended horror.
The use of a poor 11-year-old child as their human rabbit is awful enough; but when the kid shows up, we're confronted with something even worse. We're given the spectacle of two grown men, waiting hungrily, trying to convince a little boy to take a pill that will knock him out. To be fair, I'm certain that neither Pinilla nor his actors (nor his audience, either) ever stopped to consider what even ghastlier implications this situation might have; but I think you'll understand why I think this movie's replay value is on the low side.
The boy's "death" is appropriately graphic and difficult to watch. He doesn't simply clutch his heart and expire with a flourish, as "dying" people often do in low-budget horror movies. He goes into spasms and begins to foam at the mouth, before lapsing into an eerie stillness. It's nasty, but then it should be nasty; his grey pallor as he lies on Mario's sofa, combined with the conspirator's (and our) uncertainty about what the pill will do to the boy, makes us very uneasy. While Victor and Mario wait for the 9 hours to pass, we learn that they've neglected to explain their plan to Mario's wife Marisa — how could this plan possibly succeed?
Fortunately for Victor and Mario, Marisa is tempted enough by the money that she doesn't run screaming for the police. Doubly fortunately, the little boy doesn't run screaming either, when he wakes up. The audience's credulity has already been stretched to the breaking point, so it's probably a good thing that the movie begins to improve a little from this point on.
From the boy's experience, Victor and Mario learn that the victim — er, sorry; the subject — stays conscious for the duration of the catalepsy. He's unable to move or respond to stimulus... but the sense of hearing is made extremely acute. The kid doesn't seem to have emerged from the ordeal with any noticeable damage, so Mario decides to go through with the plan.
It's Marisa who starts things off with the insurance policy, through a friend of a friend who's on the investigative board of an insurance company. When the company finds out Mario wants to insure himself for an exorbitant amount, they begin to get suspicious (Pinilla has a brief cameo here as the president of the company). Marisa is forced to take home a stack of application forms six inches thick. This leads to the best lines of the film, which reflects Pinilla's frustration with the official channels for making movies: "All these are required?" says Marisa. "Fecal sample, urinalysis, blood test, pulmonary tests, electroencephalogram, electrocardi...? Yikes! You'd think I was trying to get a film produced!"
But eventually, the insurance company can think of no good reason to deny Mario his policy. This means our brilliant, brilliant conspirators can move on to the next part of their plan. Mario is to take the 3 pills at a big public event: his birthday party. But Mario, who has to actually undergo the fake-death, is starting to get worried. Sure, he's seen that the pills don't seem to harm the person who takes them. But still: he has to be pronounced dead, for heaven's sake! He'll be lying there, inert, unable to move or defend himelf... while people poke and prod him, and eventually put him in a coffin. Please, he says! Please — he's only going to be "dead" for a short time, so please don't let them put him in a coffin!
Vincent tells him to get a grip on himself; Marisa murmurs endearments and encouragements; and eventually Mario decides to go through with it. The pills kick in just as everybody at the party (including his insurance agent, and the friend-of-a-friend of Marisa's who'd started the policy) gathers around to sing Happy Birthday. Mario writhes and foams at the mouth, and collapses beside his birthday cake.
Well, now: it's mildly suspicious for a healthy young man to suddenly take out a huge life insurance policy. But for that young man to drop dead almost immdiately after? On his birthday? The statistical likelihood of this is so far off the chart that it would have to be some sort of scam. So naturally, the insurance company decides to make sure he's dead. Remarkably, there is no autopsy, and Mario's body is not embalmed. You may find this too difficult to accept; but if it was OK for Lucio Fulci's City of the Living Dead, I guess it's OK here. But the insurance folks stay by Mario's body, monitoring it for any signs of life.
And here's where reality, which has been missing from the movie so far, decides to come back with a vengeance. Vincent's plan might have worked so far... but he didn't count on how difficult it was going to be to reclaim Mario's body from the rules and rituals that apply to the dead. Victor needs to get Mario out of his coffin within the next few hours. But he can't: there's not a single moment at which the "remains" are left unattended. If it's not the doctors, puzzling over this healthy young man's sudden and fatal "heart attack", then it's the funerary workers; if not them, it's the investigator from the insurance company, stethoscope in hand. Victor must remain silent as the attendants arrive and fasten the lid on the coffin. Mario, with his hearing enhanced by the drug, is powerless to resist as he hears the heavy screws tighten. Then it's off to the cemetery, where — Marisa realizes with growing horror — Mario's coffin will be bricked up into a niche in a mausoleum, with the still-living Mario trapped inside it.
27 Horas con la muerte is currently (as of January, 2010) almost impossible to find through (ahem) legitimate sources. As far as I know, it's also never been subtitled or dubbed into English. So I hope my readers will forgive me if I reveal just a little more of the plot. I'll stop short before the series of twists that pop up at the end... (some of those twists don't make much sense anyway, though on the whole the conclusion is pretty satisfying).
The film does a very good job of ratcheting up the tension as we start to realize there is very little hope for Victor and Marisa to get Mario out of his coffin. The precious minutes are flying by, and there's still all the bogus formality of the funeral to get through. It proves to be too much for Marisa, who breaks down as the bricks are being mortared into place: "He's alive! He's alive!" she cries, as she tries to run to the crypt. Victor is forced to drag her away with a sorrowful shake of his head. Clearly, he tells the shocked mourners, she's overwhelmed by the suddenness of it all, and is unable to accept that her husband is gone forever.
Later — just a short time before Mario is supposed to wake up, but under cover of darkness — Victor creeps back into the cemetery to see if there isn't something, anything he can do. It's not as though he has an actual plan... he hasn't even brought any tools with him. He's just made it to the crypt when he runs into the cemetery's security guard — their snarling, four-legged security guard.
With only moments left before Mario's super-catalepsy wears off, Victor is forced to run back to Marisa and ask her for some meat to distract the dog. And here we have one of those moments that a director must be either a genius or insane to include: when Marisa sees the hole in Victor's trousers, where he narrowly escaped getting bit by the dog, reality sneaks up and bites her on the ass. Seeing something so comical, so absurd, at such an inopportune time makes her realize that the plan has become a farce. That's when she really understands how impossible it will be to rescue her husband from his living death.
So... why bother?
Bringing Mario back from the dead was always the weakest part of the scheme. Not only would it be difficult to get him back from the grave, but it would be nearly impossible to work him back into normal life. Why not leave him in his coffin? As far as the world knows, he's already dead. If the insurance company should get suspicious and exhume him, what would it matter? He'd still be there, and he'd still have died of natural causes. It's not that she didn't like Mario... it's just that she likes the money more. As for Victor, a larger share of the cash and a hot young girlfriend (or wife, perhaps, later on, after a suitable period of mourning) should be enough to keep him quiet. What could possibly go wrong?
That's as much as I intend to reveal, because you've probably guessed the answer to that rhetorical question.
If you look up 27 Horas con la muerte on the IMDB, you'll see it has a fairly high rating: over 7, when last I looked; and this was from viewers in the US as well as Colombia. That rating might be just a little on the charitable side... but only a little. When you consider the time, the place and the circumstances under which it was made, you have to give Pinilla a lot of credit for achieving the results he got. Most of the problems with the film stem from its plot, but the same could be said of many horror films from every part of the world. For the most part, the movie is a solid piece of low-budget film-making, a movie that many, many of today's direct-to-video schlock autuers couldn't hope to equal.
So why on earth would anyone refer to this talented and capable man as the Colombian version of Ed Wood? Why equate his naïve but technically-competent films with some of the most ridiculous movies in history? Is there any justice to the claim? It wouldn't seem to make much sense... until, that is, you saw a movie like...
It was Pinilla's habit to wait in the lobby when one of his films was released, and then talk to people as they came out. He wanted to get some idea of how they felt about his movies: what they thought worked and didn't work. It's another illustration of the man's humble, tradesmanlike view of his work — even though he's trying to stay true to his own vision, he never loses sight of his audience.
When 27 Horas con la muerte was released, Pinilla was astonished to find that people were walking out as soon as the movie had started. Deeply concerned, he asked the departing audience members why they were leaving so soon. The answer astonsihed him even more: they were leaving because they'd realized the movie was going to be in Spanish. The early eighties marked the beginning of the Age of the Hollywood Blockbuster, when big-budget American effects films like Aliens or The Terminator were giving audiences all over the world a sense of spectacle that the local fantasy film industries couldn't hope to match. People wanted to see those expensive American films, not the home-grown ones.
Pinilla realized immediately that this wasn't necessarily an issue of the movie's quality. It was all perception. So for his next movie, the adventure film El Triangulo de oro (1983), he filmed most of the action outside of Colombia... and dubbed the film into English before he released it. His plan worked: audiences mistook his film for an import, and went to see it in droves.
Pinilla used the same technique for Extraña regresion (1986). Unfortunately, he never got to find out if the technique worked a second time. Nobody got to see Extraña regresion until it was released on video many years later. The way I understand it3, Pinilla had secured funding for the film from FOCINE, the Columbian government entity intended to promote film production (the organization is now defunct). He had worked out an arrangement with United Artists to release 27 Horas... internationally at the same time it was released in Colombia. He'd even taken out ads on TV to announce the premiere. But the powers-that-be at FOCINE, who hated his work and were embarrassed by his choice of genres, got him on a technicality. Under the the terms of the loan, Pinilla was to pay back FOCINE after the film was finished. But Pinilla completed the film a month ahead of schedule. Rather than wait for the film to be released, so that the poor director had a chance of paying off his debt, FOCINE insisted on being reimbursed immediately, taking "finished" to mean "technically complete" rather than commercially viable... and when Pinilla couldn't come up with the full amount, FOCINE confiscated his film and all his equipment. This killed the deal with UA, and forced Pinilla into a premature retirement that lasted many years (until the advent of affordable video equipment).
I will be brief about Extraña regresion. The first part of the story concerns a group of medical students. In the middle of an actual university class, they students and their teacher get into an earnest discussion about Jesus and medicine. Jesus went around healing the sick and raising the dead... so (they all agree) he must have had some highly advanced medical knowledge. Since it's a scientifically-established fact that Jesus rose from the dead after three days (here the scientists in the audience choke on their popcorn), then it follows that there must be a physiological principle whereby the soul can return to the body exactly three days after death (and here it's the theologians' turn to pick their jaws up off the floor).
You've probably guessed the next step. Without informing their teachers, the kids decide to put their theory about the transmigration of souls to the test. They'll find someone who died of simple asphyxiation, and revive him three days later... just like Jesus. I'm not sure whether this idea is worse as science or religion, but I do know that this is not what Thomas a Kempis had in mind when he wrote about "The Imitation of Christ".
It's very difficult for the students to find a body for the experiment, so one girl volunteers to be the sacrifice. This is Laura, and it turns out she has a particular reason for wanting to die and return. Her mother had recently been murdered in a botched robbery. She hopes to be able to commune with her mother's soul in the World Beyond, to find out who killed her. So the group takes over the university morgue one weekend; they hook Laura up to a tank of carbon monoxide (though the tank is labeled "CO2") and asphyxiate her. Then they hide her body among the other corpses in the freezer, and wait for their chance to bring her back.
But as dreadful as all this sounds, it gets worse: the real killer is one of the students. Rather than take the chance that Laura might be resuscitated, and might come back with information from the Afterlife, the killer decides to ruin the "experiment". First, he cuts the power to the morgue, so Laura's refrigerated body will warm up and begin to rot. Next, he calls the police and gives them an anonymous tip about a murder at the university. The cops discover Laura's body, and the leader of the group, Laura's devoted boyfriend, is thrown in jail. To everybody's horror, Laura is autopsied before her spirit can come back.
Well, that seems to be that...
... except that at the exact moment Laura was supposed to return to her body, one of her friends gives birth to a baby girl. Laura's soul takes residence in the newborn baby. As the little girl grows up over the next 20 years, Laura's personality and memories begin to reassert themselves, and she begins to look for a double murderer from the past.
As a horror film, Extraña regresion is very... well... extraña. As a statement of Christian religious doctrine, it's a nightmare: it seems to downplay the divinity of Christ (which I doubt was the intention); it endorses reincarnation; and finally, it makes killing for revenge seem like a spiritually ennobling act. And as a pure movie, it's a disaster: the young actors are far worse than the actors in Pinilla's previous horror films; the English-language script is clearly a poor translation; and the American voice actors who provide the English dialogue are so awful they make the original Colombian actors look professional by comparison. Even the music represents a huge step down: instead of an entirely original soundtrack, we're given mostly snippets of stock classical music (including a very bizarre choral arrangement of Mussorgsky's "Great Gate of Kiev", which is used to suggest Laura's ascent into the Other World).
Still, the movie is so completely insane that it rises to near Ed Woodian grandeur: there's never any doubt that in the universe of the movie, Laura would have come back in three days. I have to really struggle to come up with something positive to say about the film, and I guess the best I can do is this: it is genuinely disconcerting, if only because its point of view is so bizarre.
Pinilla himself plays the older version of Laura's wrongly (?) accused boyfriend, twenty years after the girl's death. He doesn't look very much like the kid who played the character earlier, but that's OK: as usual, Pinilla is one of the better actors in the film. Of course, this isn't saying much; and I'm a little bewildered as to why Pinilla seems to be chewing gum during his big, emotional final scene.
In recent years, Pinilla has come out of his involuntary "retirement". As film-making has become more affordable, thanks to advances in video technology, he's been able to get back into the business he so loves. At the beginning of the new century, he made the first Colombian film on digital video (a religious film — though after Extraña regresion, I'm a little worried about seeing this one), and has since gone on to continue making horror films. So far, these new movies have been very difficult to see outside of Colombia, but I have hope... and I can't wait to see them.
Though FOCINE is long gone, and the cultural and political situation in Colombia has seen many changes, there are still a number of Colombian critics who still loathe Pinilla and everything he's done. In 2008, the director was invited to an interview by the program Séptima dia4. It turned out not to be an interview at all: it was a hit piece. They called Pinilla "a madman"; they stated that "no rational person would ever have anything to do with a Pinilla film." Pinilla was appalled and hurt by the sheer level of venom in the attack5. But Séptima dia's judgment seems incredibly out of touch with the times. The whole world is now making horror films (Indonesia! Thailand! Uruguay! Peru!), and while a sizeable percentage of them are awful in ways neither Wood nor Pinilla could ever have dreamed, few people would argue that they constitute a cultural embarrassment.
Pinilla deserves to be encouraged, not attacked. He started his career with a great deal of talent, originality and skill; I have a feeling that the repeated attacks by the Colombian cultural elite left Pinilla with a distrust of anything that seemed too "high-brow", and that this has had a negative impact on his development. If he finishes his career further toward the Ed Wood end of the spectrum, I suspect it's in large part because he was driven there by the incomprehension of Colombia's media industry. They should know better by now.
NOTE: If I have mis-stated anything about Jairo Pinilla, the content of his movies, or the history of Colombian film, it is because of my very poor grasp of Spanish. I apologize if I have misrepresented anything.
1. Burgos Lopez, Ricardo: Nadando a contra corriente: el caso de Jairo Pinilla (Swimming against the current: the case of Jairo Pinilla); QuintaDimension.com
2. One of the bitterest ironies about this situation is this: the Colombian film authorities were preventing Pinilla from making the kind of movies that the ordinary working people of Colombia — the subjects of so many of those hand-wringing "documentaries" — really wanted to see.
The typical Colombian films created during the 1970's became known as pornomiseria movies, because they exploited poverty and despair while saying nothing meaningful (http://www.afterall.org/journal/issue.21/pornomiseria.or.how.not.make.documentary.film). As the 1970's drew to a close, a group of directors from the Cali region (which, conincidentally, is also where Pinilla comes from) rebelled against this style of film-making. These directors had themselves been involved in making activist documentaries, and they objected to the trivial results other film-makers were producing just to get government support.
One particularly pointed attack on the pornomiseria genre was the film Agarrando pueblo (1977), directed by Luis Ospina and Carlos Mayolo. Agarrando pueblo is a film about documentary film-makers in South America who have trouble getting the extreme footage their backers expect. So — stop me if you've heard this one — they start faking it. Naturally, this doesn't go over very well with the locals, who retaliate. All this turns out to be a movie within a movie, with so many layers of manipulation and exploitation that it's almost impossible to sort it all out... The end result leaves the audience wondering about the role of film and the media in shaping our understanding of the world. I wonder if Ruggero Deodato ever saw Agarrando pueblo...
Luis Ospina made the allegorical vampire film Pura sangre in 1982. Carlos Mayolo went on to create his own style of fantastic cinema in Colombia, which he called "Gótico tropical". Although his film Carne de tu carne (1983) features vampires, elemental spirits and walking corpses, it's still much closer to art-film than Pinilla's horror movies.
3. Burgos Lopez quotes Pinilla's own account. See also Salazar, Carlos: Cine de horror colombiano: realidad o fantasía; Psychotronic Kult Video
4. "Sir Laguna": Jairo Pinilla en Séptimo Dia. :( , in Cine de horror Colombia (http://cinedehorror.blogspot.com). The link to the original interview is no longer valid.
5. Who did they think he was, Uwe Boll?
No, no: all snark aside, some of you may be wondering why I'm criticizing Séptima dia, when I've launched some pretty nasty ad hominem attacks againts people like Boll or the makers of the 2005 Amityville Horror. Well... first of all, I'm not interviewing these people; and while I'd hate to give the impression that it's better to attack people behind their backs than to their faces, what I really want to say is that if you're conducting a professional journalistic "interview" with a creative personality, you owe your subject a little courtesy and objectivity. Even if your subject is Uwe Boll.
And in my own defense, folks like Boll or Michael Bay have huge amounts of money and a corporate infrastructure behind them. When I say something unkind about Boll, I think most people understand it's not Boll himself that's my main target (well, OK: when he does things like challenge movie critics to boxing matches to defend his "reputation", then he absolutely deserves to be attacked personally; but I think you know what I mean). It's the whole media machine that forces terrible movies like Boll's into the cultural landscape, whether we want them there or not.
By contrast, when you attack Jairo Pinilla, you are only attacking Jairo Pinilla, since he has had to fight a lonely struggle to get his movies made. And Séptima dia's comments weren't made in the heat of anger, having just come from a screening at which they thought their intelligence was being insulted: this was sandbagging, pure and simple.
OK, OK: I'm a hypocrite. Nevertheless...