Director: Carlos Enrique Taboada
Notable Cast: Ana Patricia Rojo, Elsa Maria Gutierrez, Leonor Llausas, Carmela Stein, Maria Santander
Although I was privy to the work of director Carlos Enrique Taboada before the unveiling of the Mexican Gothic from Vinegar Syndrome, the recent release schedule from the boutique labels perked my interest. The Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched documentary released last year pushed me to dig further to find more Mexican cinema, and this set was as good of a place to start as any.
Despite its 1986 release year, Poison for the Fairies, the first of three films included in this set, this little gothic Mexican film is a dark, often unnerving horror drama about childhood friends, lost innocence, and the consequences of the small choices made that begin to spiral out of control. Poison for the Fairies is a shockingly relevant and poignant slice of cinema, more akin to the tones and seething realism of 1970s horror than mid-80s, and it’s one hell of a witch’s brew once it's cooking.
Poison for the Fairies works more as a dark drama than anything. Still, the fairy tale undertones and witch lore embedded into its character beats and plotting ensure that it leans further into horror territory as it goes. It somehow manages to pull off the horror in a way that’s not so apparent on the surface. Although there are a couple of scenes of suspense, when Flavia finds Veronica’s grandmother for example, the horror lies in its concepts rather than in jump scares or intensity of any of its style. Once again, it retrofits itself more into the 70s horror space than anything.
Part of the film’s success in its unnerving aspects is that it focuses on the viewpoints of two girls and allows its narrative to be shaped by their interpretation of things. It’s told so distinctly from their eyes that Taboada makes the brilliant choice to have the faces of most adults covered in most of their scenes. These faceless adults are just isolated from the girls in a way that their disembodied voices make the girls feel isolated and on their own in a way that emphasizes their reliance on one another and their decisions. Decisions that come with their own dark consequences as the film progresses.
Strong performances from its two leads Flavia and Veronica (Elsa Maria Gutierrez and Ana Patricia Rojo, respectively) punctuate the fluidity of trust and suspicion between the two girls as they find a volatile friendship in one another as outsiders instigated more by happenstance than anything. The ebbs and flows of their relationship drive the core emotional merits of Poison for the Fairies. In contrast, director Taboada subtly drives home its supernatural elements that feel far more akin to the characters’ imaginations than anything grounded in the film's reality.
Still, the world is bewitching in children's eyes, isn't it? Whether or not the witchcraft can be interpreted as real through our unreliable narrators.
As its increasingly dark and unsettling narrative continues, the film only occasionally steps aside from its realistic grounding to deliver these surrealistic moments, as when the film occasionally shows an adult’s face. As the stakes rise higher and higher, Poison for the Fairies starts to gurgle with such an atmospheric tension that its finale ends up feeling like a relief rather than an ending, only eventually settling into my gut as the feeling that the compounding darkness of these girls’ choices left more of a void in my heart than weight was lifted from it. For a film about two girls toying with some small-scale witchcraft, it has an end-of-the-world notion underneath it all that’s surprisingly effective - even if there are no actual end-of-the-world scenarios.
With its naturalistic cinematography that occasionally slips into more surrealistic moments and two honest performances from its dual leads, Poison for the Fairies may well be one of my favorite discoveries for the year. It’s a slow burner, character-driven flick that may not relish in the exploitative nature of other Vinegar Syndrome releases. Still, it’s a flick that sticks to your heart in some wrenching ways and deserves far more attention.