If you call someone an animal, it's meant as an insult: it's meant to suggest the person isn't entirely human, or that they've gone beyond behavior that's merely uncivilized and reduced themselves to the state of wild beasts. This is in spite of the fact that we human beings really are animals — great apes, to be precise (though if you call someone an ape, you're probably going to insult them even more). Frankly, after a half-century's experience with both civilization and animals, I'm coming to the conclusion that it's the animals who should be offended by the comparison. Still, when you call somebody who's displaying typically human behavior a sloth, or a slug, or an old goat, or a wolf, it's pretty obvious what you mean across much of the English-speaking world.
It's also pretty obvious how stories of typically bad human behavior might, over time, turn into legends of people actually transforming into the animals they were said to resemble. It's so obvious, in fact, that the idea of lycanthropy — a human turning into an actual wolf — was being dismissed in Europe as a bad metaphor for real illness a century before European vampire legends even got started. For the legends to be understood, though, the animals in question need to be local, and display some sort of easily recognizeable behavior that can be related to something entirely human. Wolves are predators that have had a significant negative impact on human settlements as long as the two have been in contact with each other, so when a person starts exhibiting rapacious behavior that damages the community, it's only natural to start thinking of that person as a "wolf".
The fun starts when we run into comparisons from outside our own particular local culture, when the animals are less familiar to us. For instance, if you call me an armadillo or a platypus, I will have no idea what you're trying to tell me, or what bad behavior I should try to correct. I know I'd be a little upset if somebody called me a turtle in Chinese; but call me, say, a tarsier or an armored catfish in any language and I might even take it as a compliment. Tell me a story about somebody actually turning into one of these animals, and I will most likely be completely bewildered.
Take, for instance, our example for today: the Peruvian were-llama.
Llamas are not completely foreign to me. My late father spent a long time working in South America, and he spent a good portion of my early childhood away in Peru. He brought me back stories of traveling in the Andes: he visited Machu Picchu at a time when few tourists did, and he told me about the incredible stonework of Cuzco. My bedtime stories were often about about the ancient Inca culture — the betrayal of Atahualpa by the conquistadores was one such story that made a profound impact on me. He described the incredible food of the region: corn and potatoes in all the colors of the rainbow; enormous fish and conger eels drawn from lake Titicaca; spicy anticuchos cooked at the side of the road by elderly women... He told me of the Chanchamayo Valley, where the local locomotives burned surplus coffee beans as well as coal, giving the whole area an indescribably wonderful coffee smell. He even tried to bring back seeds of Peruvian aji peppers to grow at home (at sea level. That didn't work). And, naturally, he brought me back toy llamas made of actual llama fur. It didn't occur to me at the age of four that the stuffed animals were made of the skins of actual dead llamas, any more than it occurred to me that my father's work with an American mining company was pillaging the country and wrecking its environment. But by the time I was old enough to read and write, I knew how to spell "llama", and how to pronounce it. And I knew a little bit about the animals' habits and temperament.
Nevertheless, it would never have occurred to me that these beautiful, placid creatures could ever be considered terrifying instruments of the devil.
Now, though, I've seen Qarqacha: el demonio del incesto ("Qarqacha: the Demon of Incest", 2002), a regional horror film from Ayacucho, in southern Peru. Qarqacha is a movie that was made strictly for local consumption. It's only through the magic of the Internet that I've found out about it, but simply tracking it down has not been enough: after I watched it, I had to do a good deal of research before I could figure out more-or-less what it meant.
It turns out that the qarqacha — or "jarjacha", to use the Spanish rather than the Qechua spelling — is a person cursed by God for committing the sin of incest (actually, I guess it would be minimally two people cursed at a time, since... well, you get the idea). Its name comes from the qar-qar-qar! sound of its diabolical laughter. The qarqacha roams the countryside at night, trying to lure honest folk into physical or spiritual peril. And yes, it has the ability to turn into a llama, sometimes a llama with two or three heads. It's a myth taken very seriously by the inhabitants of the isolated rural villages of the region: in places where the populations are small and travel is difficult, fear of inbreeding tends to make incest taboos particularly strong, and a legend such as that of the qarqacha helps dissuade people from giving into the temptation. Even today, apparently, people accused of being qarqachas are often permanently exiled from their homes, and sometimes put to death.
Why llamas? Nothing I've come across tells me why a sinner cursed by God should turn into a useful domestic pack-animal. Perhaps it's because the ominous qar-qar-qar! of the creature's laughter sounds like the "orgling" sound of an aroused male llama (though I doubt that). Maybe llamas tend to mate with whatever other llamas happen to be available at the time, even ones they're related to — though if that's the case, that would hardly make llamas unique in the animal kingdom. In any case, it's difficult for me, as an outsider, to see anything particularly terrifying about a llama. I suppose the real terror comes in what the llama represents to people who believe in the legend. Under the right circumstances, in the pitch-darkness of an Andean night, I suppose even Cuy-qacha, the Demon Guinea Pig of Taking the Lord's Name in Vain, could be absolutely terrifying. Though honestly, I doubt that, too.
Qarqacha takes place in a town in the rural Andes — a place where visitors are rare enough that the local kids run excitedly along the road, shouting and waving, when an occasional car passes on the road. But when one of those cars actually stops, and three strangers get out, the children stand frozen. The blank stares they give the strangers aren't even particularly hostile — the kids simply don't understand what's going on. This sort of thing simply doesn't happen.
The two men and one woman who have just arrived — Sebastián (played by the film's director), Nilo and Ivón — are students from Lima, embarking on a study of the dire poverty in the Ayacucho region. Unfortunately, the students are as ill-prepared for their arrival as the children were. After wandering around long enough to be overtaken by the night, they find themselves wandering the empty streets of the village with no hope of finding a place to stay. They try pounding on doors to see if someone will let them in out of the cold, but no one answers them. The one person they find wandering the streets is a man who approaches them trembling with fear, holding a mirror out in front of him. Apparently satisfied when the trio ignores the mirror, the man runs off without a word. When the students call out to him, he simply turns and makes the sign of the cross at them; then he slips away.
Finally the students stumble across a bare enclosure with a burning fire, but the circumstances within are even more uninviting: there's a woman inside, keening over the laid-out corpse of her brother.
The students make their awkward introductions, and ask the mourning woman if she knows of any place they can stay for the night. There's no place to stay in the village, she replies. But they can stay here, with her. And him — the dead man.
After a restless night, the students make their way once more into the village. They are met less with hostility than that same blank incomprehension, until they run into a friendly farmer who shows them the way to the village leader's house. They knock at the door of the presidente Macario, and his young daughter Rosita answers. Before Rosita can reply to the students, Macario appears and drags her back into the house. That's when they encounter the hostility. Who do they think they are, spits Macario, coming here for a study? He slams the door behind him, locking it with a padlock; grabbing his pick, he turns his back on the students and goes to tend his fields.
Macario stops on his way to pick up his young nephew Avelino, who helps him dig his potatoes out of the stony earth. Rosita brings them a meal as they work; when Macario closes his eyes for an afternoon nap, Avelino ogles his cousin as she cleans up after the meal. Avelino playfully tosses stones at her. When she gets irritated and retaliates, Avelino takes it as an invitation and starts groping her. Rosita cries out in terror, waking her father. Knowing that she's likely to be the one that ends up in trouble over the scuffle, she runs off.
That night, as the students eat their dinner in the house of the mourning woman, they hear a terrible snarling sound out in the darkness. The sound has a profound effect on the woman who is their host; Sebastián, the group leader, cautions the other two to tread carefully, since they're strangers... but Nilo laughs it off, insisting nothing's really going to happen.
The next day, when Macario goes out to work, his nephew's little sister informs him that Avelino is too sick to work today. After Macario has trudged his surly way out to the field, Avelino — who seems perfectly well — sneaks back to Macario's house. He creeps up to the room where Rosita lies sleeping. He pulls the blankets up over her legs. Then he does the same with her skirt. While she is still sleeping, he begins licking her face. Apparently satisfied, he rearranges her clothing; but then, thinking differently, he decides to wake her up. When the poor girl opens her eyes, Avelino attempts to rape her. He's stopped at the last moment by a sudden pounding on the front door: it's Don Máximo from the village, and he's furious at presidente Macario: how long is the so-called mayor going to neglect what's been going on in the village? Rosita puts him off while Avelino sneaks out the back way.
In the meantime, the three students continue their investigation, gradually working their way into the confidence of the locals. But as Sebastián and Ivón take photos and video of the villagers at work, Nilo suddenly appears and gestures for them to follow him. It's their hostess: she's suddenly appeared in the street, single-handedly trying to drag her brother's coffin off to the cemetery. It's clearly too much for her. "Won't anyone help you?" asks Ivón. No, sobs the woman. Appalled, the three young people each take a corner of the coffin and begin helping her carry it through the village. As they enter the main street, the villagers grab their children and bolt the doors. By the time the group reaches the cemetery, the town is as deserted as it was the night the students arrived.
Nilo and Sebastián dig the grave for her — well, mostly Nilo — and when they've finished lowering the coffin in, the woman suddenly jumps into the grave and tears open the coffin lid. Much to the students' surprise, she begins showering the corpse with kisses. It's only natural for her to display a certain amount of affection for her dead brother, but this goes a little beyond what would be acceptable even if he were still alive. When she's finished, the students shovel the dirt back into the hole, and as they do they're surprised by the sudden, furtive arrival of a village priest. The priest mumbles a few words over the grave so quickly they can scarcely be understood, and when he's finished he disappears as quickly as he arrived.
As the students escort the woman back to town, they are ambushed by a pack of the locals, led by Macario. As the woman turns and flees for her life, the villagers begin pelting her with stones. The students try to hold them back. Macario is particularly furious at them for trying to intervene, but Don Máximo talks him down. They're just students, he says; it's not their fault that they don't understand what needs to be done.
The woman manages to escape — but since it's clear the villagers will kill her if she ever comes back, it means the students have lost their landlady, and their place to stay. Back they go to the gloomy little hole where they found her on the first night, holding a vigil over her brother's corpse. After the day's events, the place seems even gloomier than it did with the corpse in the middle of the floor... but they have no alternative.
The students aren't the only ones passing a restless night. Young Rosita has been waiting nervously for Macario to go to sleep. Once he nods off, she quietly sneaks out of the house, where her lecherous cousin Avelino is waiting for her. Hand in hand, they sneak off into the darkness.
In the meantime, that peculiar snarling, groaning noise can still be heard in the streets at night. And as the night goes on, the troubled villagers make a terrible discovery: the man who wanders at night with his mirror, hoping to ward off evil spirits with a sight of themselves, has finally met something in the road... something that did not like what it saw in its reflection.
El presidente Macario is the last to arrive on the scene, where Máximo has already established himself as the villager's real leader. This is the work of qarqacha, insists Máximo, and the horror will continue until the sinners in the town are found and punished for their crimes. An unspecified amount of time later — it seems from the editing to be later that same night, but as we'll see from what happens, that's not really plausible — Don Máximo leads the torch-bearing villagers in a search for the qarqacha. The students follow after them. The villagers come across two rather startled-looking llamas, and much to the students' surprise, they chase the animals down, tie them with ropes, and begin beating them with their sticks and lariats.
NOTE: If you watch this sequence carefully, you'll see that the llamas are not really being hurt. The most vigorous pulling of ropes and smashing of clubs take place with the llamas just off-screen. Skilful editing makes it seem as though the scene is much more violent than it really is. Also, though the animals are wrestled to the ground, the ropes that apparently bind them can be seen to slip off at one point. Nevertheless, the two poor llamas are not happy about any of it: they look bewildered and shocked ("Guys? Guys!! What are you doing? It's us, remember — Herb and Mona! For crying out loud...").
The villagers are convinced that these frightened animals are not llamas at all, but humans in llama form. Whenever someone commits incest, they are cursed to become demons, and one of the forms the demon takes is that of a llama. It sounds completely absurd to Nilo, Ivón and Sebastián, but just because it's absurd doesn't mean it's not true: in the morning, the villagers return to the barn where the pair of tied-up llamas were thrown, and find that there are two naked human beings tied up there instead. One of them is Rosita. We might expect the other one to be Avelino.
It's not. It's Macario — Rosita's own father.
Now, this would be a shocking plot twist — were it not for the fact that Macario would have had to have killed the man with the mirror... circled around the village, and come back to the assembled crowd without being seen... suddenly turned into a llama... and then, somehow, met up with llama-Rosita (who was off with Avelino only moments ago). And all within a few minutes. This is why I think there must be a chunk of plot unaccounted for in between the scene with the dead villager and the llama hunt. Otherwise, there just isn't time for all this to have taken place.
Yet if this plot twist isn't quite as shocking as it's intended to be, what happens next is enough of a shock to make up for it. The villagers drag the naked father and daughter out and tie them up in the town square. Then they proceed to stone them both to death.
Salacious nudity in this context would be extremely inappropriate, so the movie does a very good job of making the doomed pair simply look cold and vulnerable and exposed. Macario remains defiant until the very end: he hurls curses at the villagers even as they hurl stones at him, until finally he slumps from the stake with blood running from his mouth.
The students can do nothing but look on in horror. They weren't expecting this kind of barbarity, but on the other hand they weren't expecting a pair of tied-up llamas to transmogrify into human beings, either. Ivón panics and tries to run away — "I don't want to die in this place!" she cries — but the others restrain her; where would they go now, in any case?
In the meantime, Avelino (apparently having risen late after his tryst with Rosita, and being completely unaware of anything that's happened overnight) bumbles around a corner and catches sight of his uncle and Rosita being stoned to death. Realizing there's a chance Rosita might have confessed to messing around with him as well, Avelino decides to gather his few belongings and flee the village.
After night falls, Avelino slips out of town and starts on his lonely way over the mountains. He sings to himself in Qechua to fortify himself against the pitch darness all around him. All at once, he becomes aware that there's something in the darkness following him — something compared to which a crowd of angry villagers might seem like a relief. Whatever it is, it growls and roars, and stays obstinately just out of view. Avelino runs off in a panic, and out of the movie: his fate remains unexplained.
Later that night, Nilo accompanies Ivón outside their dismal lodging when she needs to relieve herself. While he stands guard in the road, Nilo thinks he hears a strange growling noise nearby. What has he to be afraid of, though? The one incestuous sinner has been driven from the village, and the other two are now dead, so clearly the qarqacha must be gone now — right?
Out of the darkness stumbles the stiff and bloody form of Macario, still wrapped in his burial robes.
Macario may look like a normal, garden-variety zombie, but he is actually a Zombie Were-Llama — a llam-bie. He has brought back with him from the grave a special llama super-power. Llamas are notorious for spitting when they become annoyed, so the undead Macario has acquired the ability to spit on his victims and render them helpless. That's precisely what he does to poor Nilo. As the student stands there paralyzed, Macario bites through his skull and starts eating his brain.
Ivón returns from her roadside pee to discover her friend is dead. When Macario's walking corpse threatens her as well, she's clever enough to confront him with the mirror in her make-up compact: confronted with the sight of himself, the qarqacha retreats into the darkness.
Sebastián and Ivón go wake up Don Máximo and tell him what's happened. "This demon has come back to take revenge for all the others," cries Don Máximo, as he prepares to summon the torch-wielding villagers again. "Only an iron pick through its head will kill it!"
(Great. You couldn't have thought about the whole "iron pick" thing before Macario came back from the dead? Just, er, asking for a friend...)
Qarqacha is a raw film. It's not as raw as, say, José Huertas's Nakaq, another Peruvian horror film from the same region and the same year; but since the nakaq is a supernatural masked killer that eats human fat, the brutally unsophisticated style of Huertas's film actually suits its subject matter. But Qarqacha suffers from some of the things you'd expect in a low, low budget production: jagged edits, lighting problems (particularly the unconvincing day-for-night of the scene involving the discovery of the man with the mirror's corpse), sound problems (ranging from the low levels of location recording, to post-dubbed noises that the characters react to before they could have heard them...), and so on. Director Mélinton Eusebio tries to achieve certain effects that his equipment just can't manage: for instance, his atmospheric shots of the moon over the mountains are spoiled somewhat by the limitations of the video camera, which doesn't have the proper exposure control or resolution to make the moon look like anything other than a particularly large street lamp. Another scene in which Eusebio tries to shift focus from Ivón to a burning candle is again ruined by the inability of the equipment to capture the image the way the director intended.
That said, though, the rawness of the movie more often works in its favor. Qarqacha has a documentary feel about it. It's like a found-footage movie, without the lingering question of why the people involved are continuing to film when things get really nasty. The cast may be mostly non-professionals, but they do a very good job of making us feel that we are observing something that's actually happening in a remote, desolate corner of the world. We may be repulsed at first by the movie's depiction of Rosita as a girl who willingly goes off with the relative who molested her, as though she might have enjoyed almost being raped... but then we find out the real situation of her home life, and it occurs to us she might simply be doing it as a way to get a twisted sort of revenge on her abusive father. Even the shameless mugging of the actor playing Macario in his undead, "llam-bie" form is so thoroughly unselfconscious that his performance stops being ridiculous and starts being deeply disturbing. Furthermore, Eusebio doesn't let the limitations of his tools get in his way: Qarqacha is blocked, shot and edited with the assurance of somebody who really understands visual storytelling.
Eusebio's camera never lets us get a good idea about the geography of the village. The actual location for the shooting of the film was a town called Rancha, not far from the city of Ayacucho. If you take a look at the production stills from Qarqacha that are available online, or even go to Rancha's current Facebook page (!), you'll find it seems like a perfectly normal small town. But the way we see it in the film, it seems absolutely desolate. According to Eusebio, the movie was so effective in making Rancha look sinister that for years thereafter local people went out of their way to avoid it — they called it "Pueblo de jarjachas". This apparently made Eusebio persona non grata for a while in the eyes of the local authorities.
Qarqacha: el demonio del incesto was a notable hit in Ayacucho. Eusebio has gone on to make other movies, including another horror film entitled Almas en pena ("Tormented Souls"), but I don't think any of them have been made available outside of Peru. As for Qarqacha itself, after its initial success bootleg copies found their way onto the Internet. In fact, it is reputed to be the most frequently pirated Peruvian film of all time. Which is, I suppose, a mixed blessing for Eusebio: on the one hand, he's not getting any royalties on his movie, but on the other hand, people all over the world are watching his work. Now if only he'd had the forethought to put his name in the credits... or provide the film with any credits at all; the version circulating on the Internet, and available now on YouTube, has none.
Both Eusebio and Nakaq's director José Huertas started their film careers as young men, acting in a film project started by another young director from Ayacucho, Palito Ortega Matute. That film was never finished; however, a few years later, the two young men made a movie of their own: a drama about gang violence in the wake of the destablization caused by the Shining Path insurgency (which hit Ayacucho particularly hard). Eusebio and Huertas's movie was called Lágrimas de fuego ("Tears of Fire"), and it is credited as the film that launched Ayacucho's regional film industry. In spite of this, and the local success of Qarqacha, it was Palito Ortega who achieved greater recognition both inside and outside Peru. At the time of his early death in 2018, Ortega had made ten films, including several critically-acclaimed social dramas; however, he also made some horror films... specifically, horror films about the qarqacha. Ortega's Incesto en los Andes (2002) is sometimes confused with Eusebio's film — which is understandable, since they're both rare films, on the same subject, shot in the same year in the same region. It's even possible the movie credited to Ortega is Eusebio's film... the online references really are that vague. What is clear is that Ortega made a sequel to one or the other of the qarqacha films from 2002: La Maldición de la jarjacha II (2005); and after a long hiatus from horror, during which he made his more serious films, he returned to the theme as late as 2014 with yet another movie, El Demonio de los Andes.
Now, I have seen Ortega's 2014 film. It feels in many respects like an updated, higher-budget remake of Eusebio's film, although if anything, the relationships between the various characters is even more strained and unpleasant than it was in Qarqacha. Unlike Eusebio's film, El Demonio de los Andes features a very cleverly-constructed were-llama costume. Although it's quite an elaborate piece of work, with animatronic facial features, the movie wisely keeps us from getting too good a look at the costume for most of the film. The truth of the matter is that no matter how well you build a were-llama suit, it's going to look absolutely ridiculous (at least they didn't give their were-llama two heads, as the legends suggest... that would probably have made it much sillier, or — worse — absolutely adorable). Ortega's film is the work of an older, more experienced director, and it was clearly made with better equipment and a bigger budget than Qarqacha. But I prefer Eusebio's movie. It's simple, direct, and overall extremely effective. And the llamas in Qarqacha are actual llamas. Sometimes the simple approach works best.