Studio: Dimension Films
Director: Eduardo Andres Rodriguez Gonzalez
Writer: Robert Rodriguez
Producer: Luz Maria Rojas
Stars: Carlos Gallardo, Gizeht Galatea, Gabriel Pingarron, Jose Carlos Ruiz
A federal agent enlists a Mexican shaman to help bring down the leader of a satanic drug-trafficking cult.
A curandero is an Hispanic spiritual healer, a sort of cross between a shaman and an exorcist. Believers employ curanderos to purify people or places thought to be cursed, and the curandero usually employs some combination of herbs and ritualistic practices.
In the film of the same name, Don Carlos Gutierrez is one such curandero whose belief in the mystic side of perceived curses is skeptical, to say the least. Carlos has a more practical ideology that curses are, more often than not, a manifestation of the mind and not a genuine materialization of evil spirits. Regardless, Carlos has an honest desire to cure people of their afflictions, whether it is in their heads or not. By rubbing an egg over a person’s body and muttering a few choice words, Carlos will happily tell people what they want to hear in order for them to believe they have been purified.
As tends to be the case when a man of faith smirks and winks in the face of demonology (Father Karras in “The Exorcist” or Reverend Cotton Marcus in “The Last Exorcism,” for example), Carlos has his convictions challenged after a federal agent employs him in a manhunt for the elusive leader of a satanic drug-trafficking cult. The notorious Castaneda and his devoted followers are responsible for dozens of grisly murders throughout Mexico City, and Castaneda demonstrates abilities that prove his power extends past the physical world.
“Curandero” is the General Zod of horror movies, having tumbled in a Miramax-Lionsgate Phantom Zone for eight years between its 2005 production and 2013 DVD debut. Studios are not in the habit of sitting on cash-printing goldmines for the better part of a decade, so a date gap this wide is often a sign of trouble. Fitting it is then, for such a prejudicial assumption to undergo a journey of change akin to the movie’s namesake character. Initial doubts are replaced with the revelation that there is a little more to this than a seasoned skeptic might believe.
“Curandero” does shuffle together two decks of cards, however. One deck is crisp-cornered and freshly coated in wax. The other is more dog-eared and well worn. It makes for an overall mix somewhere in between freshly engaging and passively routine.
Carlos Gallardo, familiar as the original “El Mariachi” in Robert Rodriguez’s 1992 breakout film, inhabits the curandero on a full circle journey of personal redemption and revelation. It is a fully formed portrait, as opposed to the one painted for his nemesis. The ruthless Castaneda is less developed beyond a singular note of evil. Physically imposing, the character looks terrifying with a shaved head and bulbous fur coat. Though his menace is undercut some by a penchant for maniacal laughter, the kind of stomach jiggling guffawing expected of a Hanna-Barbera villain, but not of an occult-empowered druglord. Power and immortality lose some luster too, when their acquisition requires days spent with little more than conducting massacres or performing rituals in subterranean caverns.
The pace is required to be slow, as the story of the curandero’s journey is about both literal and figurative exploration. Most of the curandero’s time is preoccupied with following clues and interviewing leads. Director Eduardo Rodriguez may have felt constrained by that restrictive speed of plot advancement, so he injects doses of momentum with quick cut montages when Carlos experiences visions of gruesomeness. They work as ways to show gory horrors without reveling in the bloody imagery, though their sudden appearances can be jarring and overused. There are also scenes where “Curandero” steps out of its procedural shoes to flirt with gangland-style action. Several bullet-riddled firefights break the slow tempo, although they are of questionable necessity given the true themes of the film.
The visual look draws from that same mixed bag. The cinematography elects for a high contrast lighting style that soaks the Mexican landscapes in a bright golden bloom, but at the expense of sacrificing detail to depthless blacks.
The hero’s journey is a well-traveled narrative, and the deliberately unhurried pace will turn off some, although “Curandero” finds redeeming uniqueness in its setting and mythology. For all the familiar tropes of a hunter chasing his quarry, “Curandero” compensates with interesting slices of Mexican folklore. Everyone has seen an exorcist purify the afflicted with a bible and holy water, but not with an egg or by tossing a blood bucket of human remains. And who knew that druglords contract organ donor surrogates to follow them around and give up their lives instantaneously should the need arise?
There are rough edges and some predictability, but “Curandero” still makes for an interesting entry in the realm of exorcist-centric films. If nothing else, its mark is made by the Spanish-specific elements. And its locations make for an atypical setting that keeps the visuals interesting. When they are not lost in black murk, that is.
Review Score: 65