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Of Love and Other Demons: ‘Alucarda’ (Juan López Moctezuma, 1978)

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The viscous atmosphere of Juan López Moctezuma’s Alucarda exists somewhere between high camp and hysterical horror. In the film, the obsessive friendship between two young women, Alucarda (Tina Romero) and Justine (Susana Kamini), becomes rooted in satanic worship. Hidden away from the real world, they take solace in each other’s presence as they are both forced to live in a clandestine convent. As if forged from the earth itself, the convent — cast in browns and hidden light — seems apt to crumble around them. Rather than being a place for the worship of a Christian God, it seems hidden away, buried deep below the earth where devils roam.

Alucarda and Justine, in spite of their love of Satan, are far from the most horrific creatures to live within the walls of this nunnery. The nuns who care and teach for them seem born from the pain and suffering of religion. The frenzy of their devotion is expressed through ecstatic self-flagellation as they tear through their own flesh, with whips representing a hideously deformed expression of discipline. The intensity of their self-abuse seeps bloodily through the yellowed cloth of their habits, which ripple and crack like the skin of an ancient snake. The aesthetic sensibilities of the film engage passionately in a nightmarish conversation between faith and womanhood; the nun’s costumes stained near their crotches, hinting at either menstruation or unspeakable violence. Rooted clearly in their guilt as vessels of original sin, the self abuse should come as no surprise for two young women hoping to renounce this horrific destiny.

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Screams echo through this nightmarish world, as the hysteria of Alucarda and Justine — unparalleled outside the cinematic realm of Zulawski — pierces through the darkness. They recite each other’s names with the intensity and consistency of a meditative mantra, breaching into the absurd. Their names also seem rooted in some awful pre-destiny: Justine hinting at the pure maiden defiled and tortured in Marquis de Sade’s infamous novella, while Alucarda… well, read it backwards. Throughout the film, it becomes increasingly apparent that, as viewers, we are meant to side against Alucarda. As the strange mysterious creature initiates Justine into the dark world of Satanism, the narrative trajectory of the film becomes framed to “save” Alucarda from herself. Pseudo-psychiatry explains her evil ways, and the cure will save her from Satan, lesbianism and a number of other sins. Yet, through Tina Romero’s fanatical and wide-eyed performance, and in light of the nightmarish surroundings, she is more akin to a saviour than an interlocutor of evil.

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Among many portraits of obsessive female friendship in horror, the devotion becomes rooted in alienation from organized religion. Among the most blasphemous and horrific portraits of Catholicism ever to grace the screen, Alucarda portrays Christianity as a frenzied cult where women are especially vulnerable. The hysterical mass of nuns represents both a parade of historical injustices and a symptom of painful alienation. Taught to hate their femininity, the nuns rail against it, fighting against the temptations of the flesh, pushing all and any desire into the cavernous hole where their love should be. They have become monsters by circumstance, their identities awash in their bloodied sores and open wounds.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.

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