Thursday, July 15, 2021

Grave Robbers (1990)

I know a fair bit about Mexican cinema (mainly horror, naturally), and could talk your ear off about the films of Abel Salazar and his family, Rene Cardona (both of them), all of the classics, the b-movies of the 50s and 60s, and of course the Santo films, not to mention the other luchadores. Then of course there's Guillermo del Toro's early output, and the modern classics. But it turns out there was a pretty hefty blind spot in my knowledge! Back in the late 80s and early 90s there was a mini golden age of slasher outings  ...

Hundreds of years ago, a satanic executioner attempted to spawn the son of Satan through a virgin woman, before being captured. As he is put to death he swears unholy vengeance on his persecutors, and intends to return. = modern day, in the Mexican countryside, a band of teens go on a graverobbing expedition, to find gold and other historical artifacts. They unearth an old crypt, containing a mysterious body with an axe in. They remove the weapon, and the body immediately comes to life, intent on continuing his mission and bringing the Devil into the world of man...

Grave Robbers, or Ladrones de Tumbas, is a fun 80s style slasher! By this time the genre had all but died out, and only films like Scream or I Know What You Did Last Summer would =. But Mexico seems to have stayed a decade behind, and thank goodness for it, because the 80s were a much better time for horror! This film is simple, in all the best ways. The story is always clear, and it tells it in an engaging way. Even though you may guess what happens next, Grave Robbers always entertains, and keeps you on your toes with a few unpredictable treats.

This is a fairly standard slasher, but despite keeping all the familiar genre trappings, it's surprisingly unique. Nothing major, but in an era when just about every slasher film was a ripoff of either Halloween or Friday the 13th, I appreciate the originality here.

The first act sets up the story and cast, and it's near the half hour mark when the killings begin. As the movie goes on, the killer's attacks grow more supernatural in nature, from a bizarre death involving an arm bursting out someone's stomach, to being eaten by a wall hand, and various telekinetic attacks, there's a nice variety that makes up for the killer's otherwise slavish devotion to his axe.

The climax is the best part of the film! The promise of the plot summary starts coming true, as the villain finally kicks his plan into gear, and the heroes have gotta stop him before it's too late. It's enjoyable, and I appreciate that there is a happy ending. I don't mind seeing innumerable people getting sliced up, just so long as there's not a downer ending!

The characters are a pretty good bunch. Despite being graverobbing rats (why these teens just casually raid tombs is anyone's guess), the main gang aren't unlikeable, save for Manolo, who's a bit of a prat. Then there's The sheriff, his musclebound deputy Raoul, and daughter Olivia.

While the cast aren't bad, I feel the movie could've done a better job establishing them. For about half the runtime I was under the impression that the main group were Olivia's friends, and that she was the girl who ran off with her boyfriend and didn't partake in the grave robbing. That'd make sense, they're the heroes, so the others face karmic punishment, but they survive. Except those two are actually completely different people. Turns out Olivia has nothing to do with them, and is on a random camping trip with some girlfriends.

The sheriff is a reasonable authority figure. When he drags these kids in he probably doesn't really think they're the murderers, but he figures they know something. And when he sees the crazy shit going on, he immediately concludes that it's the supernatural! He treks down into the crypt, finds a sacred book, and brings it to the local priest to translate, ultimately saving the day! This is why more authority figures in film should believe in magic more openly, they'd be a lot more effective! He seems all set up to sacrifice himself, ala A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, but thankfully he makes it out ok!

The body count here is fairly generous. The main characters don't start biting the dust till over an hour in. Until then it's various minor characters who get axed. I felt a little bad for some of the victims. Imagine that, you're just going on a camp with your girlfriends when suddenly you're all butchered by a satanic monster, all because some assholes robbed his tomb! Where's the justice I tell ya? I felt most sorry for Raoul. He was a cool customer, so I would've really liked if he and his girlfriend could've gone off into the sunset together! Instead the main graverobbers get off scot free while he pushes up daisies!

This leads into my biggest problem with the film-Who dies and who doesn't. There's that aforementioned issue I had, with the two nobler teens who randomly die, and of course Raoul, but my main point of contention is with Manolo! After spurring the events of the movie into motion, and trying to duck away from his responsibility, he eventually helps save the day, and seems to be killed...only to show up again at the end in the most random way imagineable! How? Where? Why? And he gets the girl too. 12 people are dead, including all of his friends, and the blonde warned him this very thing would happen like half a dozen times!

The effects in Grave Robbers are neat! There's plentiful gore, and it's all crafted well. It does look a little fake at times, but I don't mind. They clearly put their effort into making the effects a visual treat, so while it's not 100% convincing, it always delivers the goods. The real highlight of the film is the make-up for the villain, which is spectacular! It would honestly look at home in a big-budget film from America!

Onto the acting. Fernando Almada is good as the defacto action lead. Telenovela star Erika Buenfil does a fine job as psychic teen Rebecca, while Ernesto Laguardia is believable as punk Manolo. The spectacularly named Tony Bravo lives up to [his name], and is sorely underused. The rest of the cast all do good jobs, with no bad performances.

The score here is pretty neat! The movie opens with an orchestral/choral piece that really builds up the atmosphere, and sounds creepy without being in-your-face about it.  Throughout the movie we get pretty standard slasher movie tracks and stingers, and the film ends with a neat tune! It's like the 80s meets a fantasy melody, with old and new instruments combined.

Overall, Grave Robbers really impressed me. It's not the kind of movie to rock the world or anything, but it's so good at what it intends to deliver that I really enjoyed it. If you're curious about Mexican horror cinema, this is a great place to start. Basic in the best ways, and lots of fun...

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