There’s nothing more tired than a horror movie centred around an exorcism, or demonic possessions in general. After more than forty years of copycats and generally unoriginal fare, I’ve come to accept that nothing will end up beating William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist”. Yes, the movie hasn’t aged as well as other classics —it takes forever to get started—, but it still manages to scare the crap out of me. This is why I wasn’t especially excited to watch Gonzalo Calzada’s “Luciferina” —yes, it’s always intriguing to watch a Latin-American horror picture (that is why the genre has done so well here in Peru), but, at least from what I could gather from the trailers, the film didn’t look particularly original or horrifying.
Oh, how wrong I was. Now, I’m not about to say that “Luciferina” is a masterpiece of the genre, but it definitely ended up being much better than expected. Atmospheric, consistently creepy, and well-acted, it manages to avoid some of the cliches of the genre, while developing an intriguing and really disturbing story. Full of sexual imagery, the film takes a very progressive stance as far as sexual liberation is concerned which, frankly, feels really fresh, especially if one considers the conservative perspective most horror films have of teen sex (remember when the virgin protagonist was the only one to survive in a slasher flick?) It might not feel revolutionary, and its franchising ambitions might feel a little out of place, but “Luciferina” definitely is worth a watch.
“Luciferina” tells the story of Natalia (Sofia del Tuffo), a young woman who lives in a convent, and is about to become a nun. One day, though, he returns home to find out her mother has died, and her father is on some sort of coma. Her sister, Angela (Malena Sanchez) feels she has betrayed the family by leaving, and is afraid that some sort of evil force is attacking their home. Thus, she invites Natalia to the jungle in order to take part in a spiritual rite, performed by a Peruvian (yay!) Chaman (Tomas Lipan). Said rite involves the entheogenic brew of Ayahuasca which, as far as I know, doesn’t make people gouge their eyes out or kill their friends, but hey, it wouldn’t be a horror film if it didn’t take some dramatic licences.
Anyway, Natalia travels along with her sister and her douchebag friends —Abel (Pedro Merlo), Osvaldo (Gastón Cocchiarale) and Mara (Stefanía Koessl)—, as well as her violent boyfriend, Mauro (Francisco Donovan). Their consumption of ayahuasca will result in them revealing various secrets from their respective pasts, as well as a new rite that can only be described as a “sexorcism”. “The Exorcist” this ain’t, and it’s all the better for it.
Story-wise, the film is on solid ground as long as Natalia’s true nature remains a mystery. Why has she dreamt about an abandoned abbey in the middle of the jungle? Why can she see the auras of people? Why is she attracted to the drawings of uteruses her mum made with her own blood? And why is she starting to feel sexual attraction to other people, and in general, a sex drive she had never felt before? Consider, for example, the shower scene, in which she starts touching herself, only to open her eyes and see a couple of cockroaches on the floor. The film makes sure the viewer understands the way Natalia views sex —as something forbidden and dirty (she is proud of being a virgin, after all). Predictably, her views change considerably by the end of the movie.
Nevertheless, the more writer-director Calzada tries to explain his world-building, the less sense the story makes. Yes, the infamous “sexorcism” scene is quite brilliant —disturbing and arousing and wholly original—, and feels relevant in this day an age —a woman empowering herself through her own sexuality in order to defeat a demon? Hell yes!—, but Calzada doesn’t manage to explain the rules of his world as clearly as he should. Plus, most of the atmosphere of dread and suspense disappears during the last third of the picture, in favour of blood, gore, some impressive makeup effects, and quite a bit of nudity. It’s entertaining, to be sure, but it feels a little too different from what preceded it.
In any case, the first two thirds of “Luciferina” are quite successful at unnerving the viewer, making Natalia feel like a truly fragile protagonist —not because she is a young woman, but because she is an inexperienced one, tagging along with a bunch of assholes who aren’t very interested in her safety. In fact, the supporting characters are some of the most annoying I have seen in any horror picture —from the violent and rapey boyfriend to the “know-it-all” psychology students, they deserve all the horrors that eventually happen to them. Fortunately, not even their one-dimensional personalities manage to ruin the palpable atmosphere of suspense that Calzada conveys throughout the opening scenes —even if he makes an unnecessarily extensive use of jump scares.
Sofia del Tuffo is very good as Natalia. She manages to convincingly convey innocence and insecurity during the first two thirds of the story, as well as a more palpable sense of empowerment and bravery during the climax. She makes for a very compelling protagonist, and her journey, while a little predictable, is quite exciting to watch. Malena Sanchez manages to give some moral ambiguity to Angela —she seems to care for her sister, even if she can’t admit it— and the rest of the gang are douchey and violent enough. The supporting characters aren’t bad at all, but this is Del Tuffo’s movie, and she’s up to the challenge.
Visually, Calzada and cinematographer Claudio Beiza do a respectable job at making “Luciferina” look dreary. They make a good use of stiff camerawork and long takes in order to create suspense, as well as quicker cuts and close-ups whenever shit hits the fan. Buenos Aires has never looked any more disturbing, and although the jungle scenes didn’t take me back to the films of Werner Herzog, to be precise, they are atmospheric enough for the movie to maintain a certain level of tension. Makeup effects are convincing, CGI is used sparingly and effectively, and Calzada doesn’t shy away from showing some of the more horrific acts the Devil forces the characters to perform. “Luciferina” isn’t a gore-fest, but it doesn’t feel sanitised either.
There’s a certain poetic beauty to the way “Luciferina” both begins and ends —with a CGI recreation of a foetus inside the womb. The way the picture mixes sex, procreation, and devil rites is intriguing and disturbing, and manages to give it an identity of its own. After all, this is supposed to be the start of a new trilogy —named “The Trinity of the Virgins”—, centred around virgin girls trying to fight demonic possessions. According to this first instalment, at least, sex can be used for both possession and exorcism —good and evil. Sex isn’t inherently “sinful” or “dirty”; it depends on the purpose for which you use it. Now that’s a message I’m glad a religious horror movie dares to convey.
“Luciferina” is quite the satisfying experience. No, it isn’t as scary as other films of its ilk, and yes, it features too many unnecessary jump scares —an old woman in particularly seems to be as stealthy as a ninja—, but it’s original enough, and atmospheric enough, for it to compensate for most of its shortcomings. Most importantly, though, it features a very compelling performance by Sofia del Tuffo, and conveys a surprisingly empowering and progressive message related to sex, and the way it is viewed by teenagers; not bad for a potentially exploitative horror picture from Argentina. Let the rest of the trilogy come!