Curandero: Dawn of the Demon (★★ DVD/VOD Review)

CuranderoSquareThere’s nothing wrong with doing favors for friends, but writer-director Eduardo Rodriguez owes Robert Rodriguez (no relation) big time. The tag ‘Robert Rodriguez presents’ affixed to Curandero (occasionally subtitled Dawn of the Demon) is the primary reason most people will be drawn to Venezuelan-born Eduardo Rodriguez’s 2005 film, a slice of South-of-the-border ritualistic black magic adapted (by Rodriguez and Luz Maria Rojas) from an original screenplay by Robert Rodriguez himself. Most will be disappointed.

The story begins as Mexico City detective Magdalena Garcia (Gizeht Galatea) calls upon the services of Carlos Gutierrez (Carlos Gallardo), who has inherited his late father’s occupation of curandero, a kind of exorcist who specializes in purifying people and places tainted by black magic. Magdalena begs Carlos to carry out a purification of her police precinct, which the local federales believe to be cursed following a bloody escape by local cult leader and black magic practitioner by the name of Castaneda. Plagued by doubts and with little faith in the supernatural beliefs of his father and his countrymen, Carlos is reluctant to accept the assignment, faking his way through the purification ritual in order to release the precinct from its ‘curse’, and agreeing to help Magdalena with the investigation. No sooner has their pursuit of the mysterious Castaneda begun, however, than Carlos is visited by terrifying visions of the kind of blood-soaked rituals in which Castaneda specializes. Has Carlos inherited his father’s gift? Or the madness that led to his death?

Like the Patrick Tatopoulos-designed creature that lurks in the bowels of Rodriguez’s complex and occasionally confusing story, Curandero is a strange beast, attempting a blend of crime thriller and horror movie in a style reminiscent of From Dusk Till Dawn, but without the tongue-in-cheek campiness that made that film such a blast. Rodriguez (Eduardo) insists on filming everything with an extreme version of that bleached-out, high-contrast photography that has become a TV cliché for scenes set South of the border, lending the entire film an unconvincing stylistic color palette which keeps the action at a distance. The director has also saddled himself with a leading man whose passing resemblance to Peter Lorre is more interesting than his performance, and a lead actress whose acting skills are no match for her complicated backstory. Whatever the merits of Robert Rodriguez’s original script, Eduardo Rodriguez and fellow re-writer Luz Maria Rojas appear to have little faith in it, dressing it up with plentiful inserts of horror clichés – sometimes excused as Carlos’ bloody visions, sometimes purely arbitrary – instead of using Rodriguez’s plotting to build a sense of dread. With no real investment in the characters, their plight remains of little interest, even when the film mutates into a full-blown monster movie in the third act. It’s a film that could do with a purification of its own, turning down the color desaturation, toning down the flash-frame inserts, and putting more faith in Robert Rodriguez’s storytelling. ★★☆☆☆

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