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There are several good starting points but little imaginative execution in “Satanic Hispanics,” a generic horror anthology whose title promises more than its individual creators deliver. Four Latinx-themed horror segments of variable quality are sandwiched between a modestly amusing wrap-around story about a haunted traveler, simply called “The Traveler.” It’s not enough, despite some amusing performances and effects-driven thrills.
That, unfortunately, is par for the course with recent horror anthologies. The average segment in this type of movie is about a quarter to halfway there. The better anthologies usually coast on charm, some make-up effects, a clever gimmick, maybe a cult-friendly cameo or two. I’m a sucker for horror anthologies and can see how a few elements might endear “Satanic Hispanics” to enthusiastic viewers, especially at a film festival or an event-type screening. But that doesn’t make “Satanic Hispanics” any less uneven or generally underwhelming.
Each of the featured shorts in “Satanic Hispanics” appears stretched well beyond its conceptual limits, even the pulpy but otherwise unremarkable wrap-around segment. The titular rambler of "The Traveler" is played by “Napoleon Dynamite” star Efren Ramirez. Ramirez hisses and groans at all the right moments as he warns a pair of skeptical American cops (Sonya Eddy and Greg Grunberg) to prepare for the arrival of San La Muerte (Saint Death), a vengeful Paraguayan wraith.
Ramirez’s character threads the needle of his story with four otherwise unrelated vignettes. His world-weary performance still can’t add enough diverting tension to this knowingly slight material, whose main joke seems to be how funny it is to go through the motions, only this time with weary Latinx characters. Ramirez’s schtick also wears thin fast, given how often he has to warn the wrong-headed cops that there’s no time; he’s already explained about San La Muerte, so you must trust him. Ok, but why?
The best segments in “Satanic Hispanics” have more standout qualities than a clear sense of purpose or ingenuity. In “Nahuales,” director Gigi Saul Guerrero (“Bingo Hell”) and co-writers Shadan Saul and Raynor Shima start with a great premise: De la Cruz (Ari Gallegos), a CIA collaborator, gets captured and tortured by the animalistic “Nahuales,” a group of Mexican animal-men. The rest of the segment feels like a warm-up for what might eventually become more than just a showcase for cool folk-horror makeup.
The same is basically true of “También Lo Vi,” an atmospheric ghost story about Gustavo (Demian Salomon), a Rubik’s Cube-obsessed loner who accidentally opens a door to the afterlife in his mood-lit apartment building. A weird and only partly sensible haunting ensues, followed by an anti-climactic finale that’s only charming if you don’t mind its familiarity.
To be fair, it is nice to see a talented make-up effects team show off their gross-out gifts, and Salomon’s lurching performance perfectly suits his character. I’m also looking forward even more to the next feature by Argentinian writer/director Demian Rugna (“Terrified”), which presumably will demand more of the talented filmmaker.
The most inoffensive short, “El Vampiro,” is also the least eventful. In this goony comedy, a klutzy vampire (Hemky Madera) races home before sunlight after forgetting about Daylight Saving Time. Madera’s knack for physical business often gives “El Vampiro” the boost it needs to squeak from one lazy setup to the next, but even he runs into some trouble, given sketchy pacing and threadbare gags. A little bit goes a long way here, as when Madera’s character struggles to hypnotize a pair of scoffing cops (Ken Arnold and Darien Rothchild), and while the segment ends on a macabre grace note, the rest barely moves on fumes.
Both “El Vampiro” and “The Traveler” are representatively disappointing—their creators’ lack of vision or vigor makes it hard to care about tossed-off material that shrugs at its unseriousness. The makers of “The Hammer of Zanzibar,” the worst short in “Satanic Hispanics,” also put a lot of weight behind a bad taste routine that upends the rest of the movie.
“Mystery Science Theater 3000” co-host Jonah Ray Rodrigues plays Malcolm, a trenchcoat-clad paranoiac who traps and confronts a shape-shifting Cuban demon named King Zombie (Morgana Ignis). There’s a flashback at one point, including a long, incredibly awkward story about an antique dealer (Jacob Vargas) who gets topped and then falls for a philandering demon.
The tone-deaf details and sheer duration of this excruciating routine, as told by the jilted lover of a “muscular” demon “who would just come to any man who would call him,” might make you wonder why director Alejandro Brugués leans so hard into these particular stereotypes. (Brugues’ “Juan of the Dead” was also criticized for hacky homophobia.) Luckily, Ramirez soon returns and wryly notes that nothing bad really happened to Malcolm because he’s a white guy. At least that joke’s got legs.
Now playing in select theaters.