Carlos Enrique Taboada's second horror film, El Vagabundo en la lluvia (The Drifter in the Rain), opened in Mexico only one week after his first. The film isn't particularly well known, even in Latin America — possibly because it is not part of the cycle of four gothic horrors that Taboada is best known for. Unlike the great gothics, El Vagabundo... has no connection at all to the supernatural.
It's just about impossible to speak about this film meaningfully without giving away its secrets. Unlike Taboada's gothics — where the content of the story isn't quite as important as the way in which it is told — the details of El Vagabundo...'s story are extremely important. It is only at the very end of the movie that we come to understand how all its pieces fit together. But once we get to the end, we can also see how the film relates to Taboada's other four horror films... thematically rather than formally. If you want to avoid having the entire movie revealed, you can click on any of the SPOILERS headings to go to the very end of the review.
The first thing that happens is this: a Nazi officer and his adjutant stride up to a large house and pound at the door for entrance. When they are admitted, the officer announces that in the name of the Führer, everyone is under arrest.
The second thing that happens is the viewers at home scramble for the DVD case, to make sure they've put in the right movie.
But then the camera pull back and away, and we see the rest of the room: there's a costume party going on, and the "Nazis" are actually the latest batch of revelers to arrive. If you think their costumes are a little tasteless, you're right; but this is not a tasteful crowd. This is a party for Mexico's wealthiest socialites, people that have too much time, too much money and too much alcohol to worry about taste. Take a look at some of the other guests' costumes and you'll see what I mean: there's a man dressed as a boxer, and his date (presumably his wife) is dressed as a faceless, featureless punching bag with legs. Make of that what you will.
(Bad joke though it is, the opening at least tells us to expect some misdirection.)
We're treated to a good long visit at the party, until the background noise begins to get annoying. Just as things are becoming insufferable, one of the guests, a striking redhead named Angela, drags her hostess Laura away from the party and begs her to help her sneak away. Laura's husband had given specific instructions that nobody was to leave before the party is over, but Angela insists that she must get away — and that nobody must know she's left. She claims that she needs to get back to her husband's lakeside vacation house, to get it ready for his return from America. Neither Laura nor we believe her excuse, but Laura senses her urgency and helps her get away.
Once Angela gets to the lake house, it becomes obvious she is trying to establish an alibi. She seems to be preparing for something unpleasant, though we're not sure yet what it might be. But as Angela moves through the house, she runs into a different kind of unpleasantness: the back door has been forced open, and there's a half-eaten can of food on the kitchen table. A closer look reveals a smoldering cigarette butt on the living room floor. There is someone else in the house.
Angela cautiously goes to retrieve her husband's hunting rifle. Feeling a little more confident, she checks some of the darker and more remote parts of the house. Finally, she comes across a man hiding in the wine cellar — a shabby drifter who comes out with his hands up.
The drifter protests that he's done nothing wrong. He hasn't taken any of her belongings, other than some food and a bottle of wine. And he genuinely believes that what he has taken isn't really theft, as long as she and her kind have food in abundance and he is starving. He ofers to work for her to pay for the food, and of course for the broken lock; but Angela doesn't like the look of him, and orders him to leave the house at once.
Outside, a cold, heavy rain has started to fall, and the drifter asks if he couldn't perhaps wait inside until after the storm passed. Angela refuses. The drifter plods to the door, pausing only to put down the open bottle of wine, and slips out into the storm.
Once the drifter has disappeared, Angela composes herself, picks up her rifle and goes out to the car. Propping the rifle up against the rear bumper, she opens the trunk to get out her suitcase. As she pulls the case out, she sees something moving in the back seat of the car: a human hand! Is it the drifter, trying to find shelter for the night?
Angela grabs the gun and pulls open the door of the car — but instead of the drifter, she finds a semi-nude woman passed out on the back seat. Obviously it's one of the party-goers, who had crept into the wrong car for a nap.
Just then, who should show up at Angela's side but... the drifter. Angela puts aside her fear (and her gun) and gets the drifter to help her carry the unknown woman into the house. Then she goes to her handbag — pulling out a suspiciously-thick wad of money, Angela peels off a single bill and gives it to the drifter to thank him for his help. The drifter would much rather have a place to stay warm, but Angela once again orders him out. The man does as he is told... but this time, he pointedly stops next to the bottle of wine he'd put down earlier, picks it back up again, and walks out with it.
Once more en la lluvia, el vagabundo trudges out to the boathouse by the lake. Finding it open, he goes inside and tries to make himself comfortable. Unfortunately, there is also a feral cat in the boathouse seeking shelter from the storm, and it's none too happy to see him. The howling of the cat sets off a disturbing reaction in the drifter: he picks up a hatchet and kills the animal1. Then, half laughing, half sobbing, he continues thrashing around the boathouse with the hatchet, until at last he collapses on the floor.
In the meantime, back inside the house, Angela has managed to revive the woman on her couch. She turns out to be Monica, a wealthy woman who admits she often wakes up in strange places after parties.
Monica is a walking stereotype of the aging socialite: she has a loveless marriage to an Important Man, and both parties treat the union as a business transaction. Her days consist of playing cards, entertaining her various lovers, attending parties and drinking a hell of a lot. The closest she comes to work is to help out occasionally at a center for needy young people — not that she cares about them; in fact, she confesses that hungry people frighten her. No; she's just concerned that disaffected youth may grow up communist.
Monica is skeptical and amused when Angela talks about her own marriage — about how deeply she loves her husband, and how happy they are together. The world doesn't work like that, Monica tells her. Life is much... she hesitates. More complicated, she finishes. When Angela challenges her to say what she'd originally intended, she says "Dirtier".
Now, before we get any ideas about angelic Angela and demonic Monica, we need to consider that the older woman is being comparatively honest with herself and everybody else about the paths she's chosen. For all Angela's appearing to be a more sympathetic character, she is too young yet to have had all her illusions stripped away. Angela refuses to believe Monica could be so cynical deep down, when really she must be as much in need of happiness and fulfillment as everyone else... but before she can press her point, she suddenly catches sight of the drifter at the window.
Monica, who is terrified even though she hasn't actually caught sight of the drifter, thinks they should go to the police right away. Angela, though, won't go; she insists she needs to stay there at the house. Remember: she's been preparing for something grim, though we don't yet know what it is. Angela tries to allay Monica's fears by pointing out that she has a gun. What gun? asks Monica, and Angela remembers that she left it leaning against the car when she and the drifter brought Monica in.
Needless to say, the rifle is not there any more.
Well, then — if Angela can't go to the police, suggests Monica with increasing desperation, perhaps they can call the police to come to them. Unfortunately, all calls from the area are handled through a central switchboard, and just at the moment the operator is off snogging with his girlfriend.
As Monica becomes increasingly hysterical, Angela grows strangely calm. Monica jumps to the conclusion that Angela is waiting for a lover; that's something she herself has done many times in the past, so she can assure Angela that under the circumstances it isn't worth waiting. Angela merely hands her the keys to her car and tells her to get out.
So Monica does. But it's no use. The car's tires have been slashed. There is nothing left for the women to do but sit and wait.
All at once the women hear the sound of a car pulling into the driveway. Monica is thrilled: at last, they have a chance of rescue. Angela is less enthusiastic. The front door opens, and a new character enters... and in that moment, everything changes.
It is a woman named Raquel who comes in from the rain, and Monica knows very well who she is. Angela tries to pretend that Raquel is just a friend who's come to visit, but it's no use: Monica has had her own unpleasant dealings with Raquel, only they didn't turn out the way Raquel had in mind.
Raquel is a professional blackmailer. She digs up dirt on the idle rich — dirt the idle rich practically shovel into her lap — and then uses it against them for large amounts of money. In Monica's case, she didn't care what her husband knew, so she refused to pay. When Raquel had gone to Monica's husband with proof she had a lover, he was relieved: he'd thought she had two.
But Angela is a different sort. She had blundered into her first stupid affair and been caught. Now she's desparate to make sure Raquel doesn't give the incriminating photographs to her husband, or else her whole perfect life will be ruined. Monica thinks she's crazy, and advises her to tell the truth to her husband. If she doesn't, Monica warns, then she'll never see the end of Raquel. But Angela is sure that her husband will never forgive her for her infidelity.
Monica can't understand why they're sitting here quibbling over ethics while a very real threat to their lives is lurking outside... with a gun. She finally gives in to despair and alcohol and goes off to bed, leaving Raquel and Angela to their business.
Unfortunately for Angela, the thick pile of banknotes she's brought isn't anywhere near what Raquel had been expecting. In fact, she takes the amount as an insult. Angela tells her it was all she could raise without alerting her husband, and this draws a sneer from Raquel. She could have claimed anything, says Raquel: a loan to a friend, a donation to charity... even (my favorite line in the movie) her losses at canasta. Raquel would rather spurn this paltry sum and go straight to Angela's husband.
Angela is crushed: why would Raquel do such a thing, when she wouldn't even get any money out of it. Raquel muses that her husband might pay her himself; but in any case, there's the principle of the thing to consider.
Yes, that's right: the blackmailer is standing on principle. Raquel sees herself as a sort of conscience to the amoral rich. After a life of struggle, trying to earn for herself even a tiny portion of what people like Angela take for granted, Raquel now supports herself by making the wealthy pay for their mistakes. All Angela's tears, her pretended remorse, all of it is a lie (says Raquel); what Angela's really afraid of is losing her husband's money and her comfortable life. "I don't live like a parasite off a man I laugh at," she says. "I prefer my method... it's more decent."
Staring out the window into the rain, Raquel continues: when she first got her hands on the photos, she wasn't sure whether or not to try blackmailing Angela. But once she'd spoken to her, she knew she was perfectly safe. A woman who really loves her husband would kill to keep her secret, but someone like Angela, who values her confort above all else, is no risk at all.
And as she says these things, an unreadable look passes over Angela's face...
Monica awakens a few hours later. The house has gone silent. Peering out her window, Monica sees the storm has passed... and now that the view is clearer, she sees that there is a boat moored down by the boathouse. She runs downstairs to find Angela, who is alone. Angela tells her how Raquel refused to take the money and has driven off, and that now her husband will know everything.
Suddenly, all the lights in the house go out. It couldn't be the storm this time, since the weather has cleared. It must be... him. (Remember the drifter?)
The sudden darkness brings Monica back to the panic of the past few hours. She tells Angela about the boat she saw, and Angela says it's her husband's boat... but she doesn't know how to pilot it. No matter, says Monica; she does — and she grabs the keys and runs for the door. Angela tries to stop her, begging her to come back before it's too late; but Monica runs straight down to the boat in the darkness.
I probably don't need to tell you what she finds there, in the boat, under a tarpaulin.
Monica finds Raquel's car parked nearby, with the keys in the ignition. Well... Raquel won't be needing it any more. Monica drives it back up to the house and goes in to find Angela.
Angela is horrified to hear that Raquel is dead, but she seems just a little too ready with an explanation: the drifter must have caught her as she was coming out, and probably tried to rape her. Yes: he killed her trying to rape her... then he put her body in the boat. What could be more obvious? And Monica, who has never seen the drifter with her own eyes, suddenly gets suspicious.
Angela hadn't wanted her to go to the boat. Why not? Had she known what Monica would find? Why was the car still nearby if Angela said Raquel had driven away? Why did Angela have the story of Raquel's murder practically falling off her lips when Monica came back? Of course: Angela must have planned to murder Raquel and blame it on el vagabundo, who as far as Monica can tell may not even exist. Monica would be her witness, even though she hadn't really seen anything. And she'd almost fallen for the trick!
Now it's Angela's turn to grow hysterical. But in spite of her pleading, Monica threatens to kill her if she tries to keep her from going to the police... and it's clear that she means it. Monica takes Raquel's car and drives off, leaving Angela weeping in the road behind her.
But of course, Angela is not alone in the dark.
We know, and Angela knows, even if Monica does not: there is a drifter, and he is a very dangerous man. But did he kill Raquel? Or did Angela really kill her, and hope to blame the killing on the stranger? Angela may not have realized that Monica had never seen the drifter — or it might have slipped her mind. The murder would have been a very risky thing to do, if indeed she did it; but the central question is the one raised by the victim herself: does Angela really love her husband enough to kill? Or is she as Raquel saw her: too fearful of her own comfort to risk killing anyone?
We have no chance to make up our minds before the drifter follows Angela back to the darkened house. Whatever he may or may not have done to Raquel, his intentions toward Angela are all too clear. She forced him out into the cold, cruel rain — but now, she's going to be kind to him. Very kind. He doesn't want her money; he can take that... afterwards.
And still, as he follows her through the pitch-black house, we can't tell if he is the true murderer. Even when Angela accuses him of having killed Raquel, the drifter doesn't respond — Taboada sustains the sense of ambiguity.
We keep wondering if it isn't just possible that Angela is purposely doing stupid things, like running upstairs to get away when there's no possible exit, so she can actually invite an attack. What a terrible, ironic sacrifice that would be, for a woman repenting of a casual infidelity! You can see why she might take this drastic step: even if Monica never saw the drifter, if there are unmistakable signs of an attack on Angela's body then everyone would have to believe her. Why else does she wait until the drifter has almost succeeded in raping her before she attacks him with an improvised weapon she's already made?
Is she the person she believed she was — a woman so in love with her husband that she would kill, or even allow herself to be violated, rather than hurt him with her deliberate infidelity?
Or is she the woman Raquel judged her to be?
Maybe I'm being terribly insensitive here in even suggesting that Angela would go so far as to allow the drifter to maul her. I don't think I'm being unfair, and I think this is the impression Taboada wanted to convey. As horrifying as the drifter's attack is, we still get the sense that there is a terrible ambiguity about the whole situation. It may be difficult to believe, but we can imagine that this is part of Angela's last-minute plan to protect her husband.
Here we have what I think is a real demonstration of Taboada's strength as a writer/director: the "horrors" in his horror films arise out of the complicated natures of his characters. His protagonists are often deeply flawed, and bring their own doom on themselves; while even his most malevolent characters do what they do for the most understandable of reasons. Only in his first great gothic, Hasta el viento tiene miedo, do we have a clearly-defined "bad guy" in the person of the headmistress Bernarda; but Taboada took care to soften the edges of her character as the end of the film approached.
From the beginning, we might expect El Vagabundo en la lluvia to be a simple game of cat and mouse between a mad drifter and a spoiled, wealthy woman who finds herself alone and helpless. Good scary movies have been made from a premise like this. But that's not enough for Taboada, who adds one character to the story at a time, and changes the film's dynamic with each addition. First comes Monica. While Angela seems tormented by her failure to live up to her romantic ideal of the Good Wife, Monica is a cynic, who refuses to live by anybody's idea of traditional morality. Gradually we find out that the basis of Monica's cynicism is her fear of being powerless in a world ruled by men. The terrible irony is that she now finds herself powerless at the hands of a man who is himself at the bottom of the social order. Tough-minded Monica panics, while the supposedly naïve Angela seems less worried about losing her life as she is about losing her reputation.
This, too, would be enough to build a complete and satisfying film. But then Raquel enters the picture, and everything becomes even more complicated. By this point, the menacing drifter has all but disappeared from the story, and for a little while the movie focuses on the three damaged women and their incredibly different ways of looking at the world. Angela desperately wants to hold on to her illusions of innocence, but Raquel considers it her duty to strip them away — publicly, if necessary. Of course Raquel is as self-deluded as any of the other characters in the movie, but her rationalization makes enough twisted sense that we understand her. And that's how we get to the most crucial twist in the story: Taboada makes us see things from Raquel's point of view. Suddenly, we actually want to believe that Angela could be a murderer.
But this is more misdirection, because (outside the movies, at least) killing your blackmailer is rarely considered a sign of moral strength. Still, how easy it is for us to believe that murder would be a step up for poor Angela...!
Maybe you'll disagree with me. Maybe you'll have had enough strength of character to recognize Raquel's choices as false as soon as she mentioned them; or maybe you care so little about the corrupt bourgeoise Angela that it doesn't matter to you if she'd done the murder or not. For my part, I felt a terrible anguish on poor Angela's behalf. I wanted to believe she was guilty almost as much as I wanted her to be completely innocent. And I expected that neither alternative was going to work out well for her...
Guess what? She's neither. In the last few moments of the movie, Taboada removes all the ambiguity he's worked so hard to create. Just as the drifter is about to catch up to Angela, Monica reappears and shoots him dead. The rifle was in Raquel's car, along with the incriminating photographs. When Monica saw the photos, she know that Angela had to be innocent: if Angela had been the killer, she would have destroyed the pictures immediately.
Monica's right, but for the wrong reason. Angela could still have counted on Monica's believing her original story, in which case she could have convinced her to help destroy the photos later. Or Angela might have overlooked the pictures in her haste and confusion. But Angela did not have the gun. Only the drifter could have taken the rifle, and only the drifter could have put it in Raquel's car. That suggests fairly conclusively that it was the drifter himself who murdered Raquel.
(This may be one of the most harrowing twist endings I've ever seen: having led us to expect a twist ending, Taboada doesn't give us one. I was actually upset by this ending the first time I saw the film, to the point where I had to go back and watch it again, to see if there was something I missed. I hadn't missed anything. In fact, I think I was supposed to be upset when the twist didn't appear. I came away from the second viewing feeling much more appreciative of what the writer/director had achieved: it's brave, but dangerous, to deliberately undercut the audience's expectations.)
As the two exhausted women limp back to the darkened lake house, cars pull up: it's some of the costumed party-goers, who have forced Angela's secret out of Laura. They've decided to "rescue" Angela and Monica by bringing their noisy, joyless party to the lake house. And there we have it: Angela's vapid past is in front of her, in the form of the drunken crowd; behind her and in her own hands are the things that will determine her future... two bloody corpses and a stack of photographs. It's just as the real horror of her situation is beginning to dawn on Angela that the movie ends.
END OF SPOILERS
El Vagabundo en la lluvia is much different from the sort of Mexican horror which Taboada helped to develop as a writer in the late 1950's and early 1960's... films like Orlak, the Hell of Frankenstein and The Witch's Mirror. It's also quite a bit different from the style of his other four horror films, the "gothic" cycle for which he is most famous.
Had El vagabundo... been made a few years later, it might have been compared to the Italian giallo-style film, which was just getting started as Taboada's film was released. On closer examination, though, it proves to have much more in common with Taboada's gothic films than with any other model — its cunning use of light and shadow, for instance; or its use of sound, as the overwhelming wall of noise at the beginning of the film gives way to long, nerve-wracking stretches of silence as the film proceeds. Most of all, there's the thematic concern with people who invite catastrophe simply by being unable to look beyond their own desires.
Much of the effectiveness of this movie depends on how you react to the personal struggles between the three troubled women. If you don't find an intense, three-sided (not to mention wrong-headed) argument on the nature of love and ethical behavior compelling... or if you find the characters' self-centeredness unsympathetic... then you might not find the menace of el vagabundo enough to keep you watching.
But I hope I've been able to show that El Vagabundo en la lluvia is much more complex than a straightforward "he's-coming-to-get-you" thriller. Here, though, the complexity has little to do with plot twists or scary surprises. Rather, it's like a piece of contrapuntal music, in which three anguished melodies, playing at the same time, are suddenly joined by a fourth which completes them in an unexpected way. In this case, the cantus firmus is madness and death.
1. Sigh. It seems as though every movie I've chosen to watch over the last few weeks, regardless of its actual quality, has at least one scene of gratuitous animal violence. I feel the need to point out two things here: first, that no cat was actually harmed in this movie; and second, that no feral cat would actually sit still and allow itself to be hacked to pieces this way.