Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
Editor's Note: Scout Tafoya's latest edition of "The Unloved" takes the kind of intuitive leap we want and need from film critics. Like his piece on the films of Wes Craven, "My Soul to Take," it assumes that everything a talented director does is in some way personal, then looks at the work and the life to discover what that might be. Ostensibly, Scout is talking here about 1973's "The Mansion of Madness," by the Mexican surrealist Juan Lopez Moctezuma, but his spur is a current theatrical release, and unfortunately a probable candidate for a future edition of "The Unloved," Guillermo del Toro's "Crimson Peak." He's talking about an entire subset of Spanish and Mexican horror films, and historical events, that shaped del Toro's consciousness, and that continue to manifest themselves in his work, even when the film in question is (at least theoretically) a trifle that's "only" about images and sounds and situations.
What's the connection? According to Scout, it's the way del Toro uses film references and horror movie metaphor to tell what are, in their roundabout ways, political stories. This is something that many American viewers couldn't see or weren't interested in looking for when they watched "Crimson Peak." Rather than being an essentially frivolous work that's all about film school-style homage and genre mashups (the Gothic romance and the Giallo, mainly), "Crimson Peak" is very much a film about a society and its individuals surrounded by madness and haunted by the ghosts of the murdered and disappeared. Del Toro's movie is filled with sudden murders-as-disappearances, as well as accusatory specters that appear in the lives of mortals, making threats and demanding accountability. This stuff all comes from somewhere, and it's not just from del Toro's DVD collection.
"Many Latin horror movies in the 1970s were pained cries from behind lines drawn by dictators," Scout says. "In Spain, General Franco’s reign of terror was slowly coming to an end, and filmmakers took advantage of his slow death by filling screens with bloody revolutionary tracts. They looked like vampire or slasher films, but they were the direction of a tyrant who had killed thousands who wanted a socialist future for their home. In Mexico a period of genocidal repression under more than one president raged without interference or intervention. Thousands searching for fair treatment were kidnapped and killed, fighting back violently to keep from being erased from history."
As Scout notes, "Del Toro himself has suffered the shock waves of the Mexican government’s creation of a climate of violence" in 1992, when his father was kidnapped off the streets of his hometown, Guadalajara, while del Toro was shooting "Mimic."" (Read more here.) Fellow director James Cameron, a producer on the movie, gave del Toro $1 million to ransom his father (money that del Toro couldn't raise himself, because he'd sunk it all into the production)—and recommended a hostage negotiator who secured the release of Del Toro's father 72 days after his abduction. This event is why del Toro won't live in Mexico.
It also partly explains why he'd go on to make such overtly political films as "The Devil's Backbone" and "Pan's Labyrinth," about the emotional and psychological effects of fascism on children, parents and nations, as well as outwardly apolitical films such as "Blade 2" and "Pacific Rim" and, heck, most of his other movies, a good number of which are about ancient evils rising up to claim innocent lives or feed on peaceful and productive citizens and either level functioning societies or leach the decency from them, one blood feast at a time.
"Crimson Peak" might not seem like it, but it's another work in the latter vein. It hands the audience a key to unlock how to watch it, in the scene where it explains the difference between ghost stories and stories with ghosts, and underlines the idea that in the latter kind of story, ghosts are metaphors for unresolved injustices in the past.
Scout's latest work gets the viewer a bit closer to understanding how "Crimson Peak" fits into this tradition. "Pictures make the past impossible to deny," he says, "and they let us commune with what we lost."—Matt Zoller Seitz
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