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Friday 5 May 2017

Cinco de Mayo (2013)

Director: Paul Ragsdale
Writer: Paul Ragsdale
Stars: Anthony Iava To’omata, Angelica de Alba, Joshua Palafox, Tiawny Ferreira, Christopher Beatty, Lindsay Amaral, Kyle Duval, Tommy Fourre, Ryan Holley, Robert Holloway, Steven Pettit Jr., Pete Magazinovic, Delawna McKinney, Don Gonzalez and Spencer Reza

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Not all holidays are English language, even if half the people getting drunk on Cinco de Mayo have never spent a day in Mexico in their lives and whose command of the Spanish language doesn’t extend past ‘uno mas’ and ‘por favor’. This feature, made because director Paul Ragsdale wanted to shoot a slasher movie, looked at holidays on the calendar and saw that there was a glaring gap on the 5th May just waiting for a Mexican horror feature, can’t hide its tiny budget but it does manage to do far more than I expected it might, especially as it progresses from a cheap beginning to a surprisingly poetic ending. It also veered quickly away from paths that I expected it to follow: while it did start out as a slasher, and it follows some rules from that genre, it feels far more seventies than eighties with a social awareness angle that feels completely out of place in a world epitomised by Freddy and Jason. It’s also predominantly in English, though with a heavy Hispanic focus and a little Spanish dotted here and there for flavour.

I have to say that the beginning is pretty awful, though I must also acknowledge that part of that is by design. Ragsdale decided to present Cinco de Mayo as the first half of a double bill showing on cable TV in a recurring segment called All Nite Long. This is truly embarrassing to my generation but only because it’s so accurate. Eden Trevino does a great job of parodying Rhonda Shear from the Friday edition of USA Up All Night, though in acknowledging that she clearly out-eighties her inspiration, I was shocked to find that Shear didn’t take over the show from Caroline Schlitt until 1991, making this a seventies film in an eighties segment sourced from a nineties show. The rest of the awful is less easy to explain away. Everyone in the cast makes it into the opening credits, in a font bad enough for L to look like I and actors to look like typos. Tlawny Ferrelra? Maybe not. Then, when the movie proper starts, with a brief prologue from a year earlier, it’s really dark and it’s difficult to see what’s going on. Not a good beginning.

It could easily be argued that it keeps improving from that low point, though I’m not sure at what precise point I stopped laughing and started digging the movie. It may well have been the conversation between a set of students about the fact that their Chicano History teacher, Prof. Humberto Valdez, has just been fired. On the surface, it seems entirely as dumb as you might expect from a bunch of college kids but, behind the stupidity, it’s thoughtful, incisive and well written. Before this point, which starts around the eighteen minute mark, my notes were mostly about poor lighting, poor acting and worse camerawork. After it, they focused more on good ideas, good dialogue and interesting angles for the script. The lighting never improves, but the acting does and the white bigots, in particular, are thoroughly believable. Ironically, one of the more prominent, Valdez’s neighbour, Ted, is played by Kyle Duval, who Ragsdale previously cast as a character in love with a young Hispanic lady in a short film called The Mexican Connexion.

The slasher side of the story seems relatively simple: Valdez gets fired, so he goes on a killing spree. However, there’s a lot more to it and, in many ways, Valdez and the film are the same thing. As a character, he seems to exist only to impart his message, namely that Mexican culture extends a lot further than his students think. When asking them about Cinco de Mayo, Cory gets particularly enthusiastic but it’s because of ‘all the drinking, all the car racing, all the fights, getting shanked, chicks sitting on hoods and shit.’ Magdalena asks him later if he really thinks that gangs and prison are an important part of Mexican culture. He replies, honestly, ‘Isn’t it?’ So what their teacher, colloquially referred to as El Maestro, fails to get over in his class, does start to resonate with his students and with us. As Valdez’s message is really the message of the picture, we start to think about some of his topics, such as: ‘What is Cinco de Mayo and what does it mean?’ Well, it probably isn’t what you think, even if you think deeper than Cory.
For a start, Cinco de Mayo doesn’t commemorate Mexican independence. That was achieved on 28th September, 1821, at the end of eleven years and eleven days of war with Spain. However, Mexican Independence Day, the most important national holiday in Mexico, remembers the beginning of that period rather than the end, so is celebrated on 16th September. This is to remember the Cry of Dolores, when Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Roman Catholic priest, urged his people to revolt and they did exactly that. Just as Mexican Independence Day is about the spirit of independence, as epitomised in the Cry of Dolores, Cinco de Mayo is far more important as a symbol than an actual event. It celebrates the victory in 1862 that the Mexican Army, against overwhelming odds, won against France at the Battle of Puebla. The Mexicans numbered 4,000 poorly equipped men, while the French, with twice as many men and much better equipment, hadn’t lost in half a century. The Mexicans won anyway and that energized their people.

What’s really odd is that most of Mexico doesn’t actually celebrate Cinco de Mayo. While it used to be a national holiday, it is not any more, celebrated only in the states of Puebla, where the battle was fought, and Veracruz, its neighbour. It would appear that this Mexican battle is honoured more in the U.S., where California has celebrated it continuously since 1863. Then again, North American history often gets tangled together without any regard for current political boundaries. The Mexican commander, for instance, was General Ignacio Zaragoza, who was born in a little Mexican village by the name of Bahía del Espíritu Santo, which is now the town of Goliad, Texas, its name an anagram of Hidalgo, that priest who gave the Cry of Dolores, with the silent H omitted. The man who asked Padre Hidalgo to speak up was José Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara, who declared an independent Texas in 1813, wrote its constitution and served as its first president. It only lasted a few weeks, but still. Sam Houston didn’t show up until 1836.
Of course, that’s all a century or two ago. Cinco de Mayo was released during the tenure of the 44th President of the United States, though I’m watching during that of the 45th and it seems rather timely; frankly, this movie could easily be prescribed as catharsis during the Trump administration. Valdez is a Hispanic man, a big one too, and his actions, at least the initial ones he takes before his bloody rampage, are inspired by racial intolerance against Latinos. That extra-dark scene at the beginning unfolded one year prior, when two white men shot dead a young Hispanic man on the way home from a party, before dumping him by the Greaser Tree. Nothing racist there, right? Well, this town is populated by people like that. ‘I’m an American citizen,’ Valdez tells Ted as a conversation turns round on him. ‘Liberal mumbo jumbo,’ Ted replies. Rick, whose girl lusts after their greasy labourer, plans to mark Cinco de Mayo by driving his truck, flying his flag and blaring real music. None of that mariachi crap, he has Nickelback!

It’s hard not to side with the killer when he’s killing bigots and he has some interesting approaches too. Of course, he takes down Dean Liberstein, who fired him with prejudice. Initially we assume the dean is hanging from a noose because he’s being lynched, but no! Valdez has a baseball bat and he’s going to treat him like a piñata. Frankly, Ragsdale should have left it there but, possibly inspired by Welcome Home, Brother Charles, he adds a half-baked conspiracy theory to explain why a mild-mannered professor will suddenly explode with ‘Aztec blood lust’. It’s not a worthy angle, but it does allow school counsellor, Dr. Harry Love, to explain to the town sheriff that millions of other Americans are suffering from Aztec blood lust. I can see the daytime talk shows now. Ring this number if you too have Aztec blood lust! Don’t be shy; millions of others suffer from the same condition. Now, over to Dr. Oz, who’s figured out a product to cure it. Oh, and here’s a young mother whose child was vaccinated and now has Aztec blood lust!
I jest, of course, but the conspiracy theory angle is wildly overplayed, while the rest of the picture is, if anything, downplayed. I’d initially felt Spencer Reza and especially Pete Magazinovic were out of place as the dean and the counsellor, but once I saw what they were setting up, I understand why they overdid it so much. Fortunately, that’s a minor aspect, perhaps serving primarily to explain why this picture seeks equal treatment for Mexicans by allowing them to be serial killers just like us white guys. To really understand this, we have to pay attention to what Prof. Valdez reads during the film, a book mysteriously in Dr. Love’s office too, as if it really wants us to pay attention to it. It’s Joaquin Murieta, by John Rollin Ridge, an 1854 dime novel whose original title, The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murrieta, The Celebrated California Bandit, hints at his stature as a sort of Mexican Robin Hood. Johnston McCulley may well have used this book, and Murieta’s nephew, as inspiration for Don Diego de la Vega, better known as Zorro.

Murieta was real, but what’s known of him is so anecdotal that half it is probably made up and the other half is a construct of a few different people. The general theme is that he was a Mexican miner, working a rich claim in California during the Gold Rush, who suffered repeated indignities in quick succession: Anglos drove him from his mine, raped his wife, lynched his half-brother and, if that wasn’t enough, horse-whipped him for good measure. No wonder he became a bandit. No wonder, also, that the revenge that he quickly obtained and the brigandry that followed built his name as a folk hero. Clearly, Valdez, who mentions in the movie that Murieta’s gang hid out in the vicinity, sees him that way and it’s not surprising that he takes Murieta’s identity during the finalé. I must add here also that when the California State Rangers were created to hunt him (and four other Joaquins), they were led by a man named Capt. Harry Love, the name given here to the school counsellor who sparks the whole thing.
So, there’s much to praise here, even in a film with so much to decry. I liked the All Nite Long idea, with Stacy Monroe introducing Cinco de Mayo by posing in spandex against neon backdrops and acting all giddy. What I didn’t like was the trailer she shows us for the film supposedly playing next. That’s Dance Til You Die, which pits dancers against zombies and might seem like a good idea but really turns out not to be. Beyond not playing like a trailer in the slightest, it’s even more low budget than Cinco de Mayo and, even though I get a kick out of low budget schlock, I’ll certainly be switching off All Nite Long at 1am right before Dance Til You Die comes on. I have to call out the music for a similar mix of positive and negative. There’s some great stuff here, including some really cool John Carpenter-esque eighties synth from a Mexican musician named Vestron Vulture, but there’s no overarching theme to it all. It’s just cool bits here and other cool bits there, with some less cool bits in between. There’s no flow.

Really, what you get out of this film is going to depend on what you’re looking for. Low budget movie mavens aren’t likely to care about the poor lighting and camerawork; at least the sound is good and that’s more important. Film fans generally will find a lot of things to complain about, but they may enjoy the surprising cultural depth for what appears to be a simple slasher movie. Slasher fans may want more kills than they get and they may find the finalé underwhelming, but the second half of the film does contain some fun death scenes. White supremacists need not apply; they’re likely to buy up copies and burn them in public, which would at least put some money in the pockets of Paul Ragsdale for future projects. The audience I’m not sure about is the likely one; I’d suggest that Hispanic Americans will enjoy this over cerveza but they may not care about the focus on their culture that the film wants to push. If they’re the kids who walk out of El Maestro’s class because they don’t care, that may be their response here too.

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