Gothic in the Tropics

Posted by Gabriel Eljaiek-Rodriguez on February 04, 2014 in Gabriel A. Eljaiek-Rodriguez, Guest Blog tagged with

Don Roberto Hurtado seems like a sweet, pilule kindly old man. Lying peacefully in his hospital bed and exchanging pleasantries with nurses and nuns, he appears to be the very embodiment of innocence and vulnerability. But us viewers know better: he is—besides being one of the central characters in director Luis Ospina’s 1982 Colombian horror film Pura sangre (Pure Blood)—a vampire, both in the literal, blood-sucking sense, as well as the kind of metaphorical vampire that exploits his workers, bleeding them dry as he goes about his duties as the owner of a sugar plantation in the Colombian city of Cali. Don Roberto is a Latin American vampire and, as a good representative of his doomed breed he spits blood at the end of his filmic life and, being a thoroughly tropicalized vampire he of course spits it into a bowl full of sugar.

The rather contradictory character of the tropical vampire, then, flourishes in areas seemingly untouched by the Gothic tradition, in humid regions where it is difficult to imagine these sun-fearing creatures putting down roots. It was the Colombian film director Carlos Mayolo who first coined the term “Gótico tropical” (“Tropical Gothic”) in 1982 to describe his first two films – Carne de tu carne (1983) and La mansión de Araucaíma (1986) and the first of Ospina – Pura sangre (1982). In these films ghosts and vampires move freely through plantations and houses in the Valle del Cauca and Cali, haunting and drinking the blood of their inhabitants, all the while gradually integrating themselves into the same upper-class families that have themselves spent years scaring and draining the blood of peasants and workers.

With these examples Ospina and Mayolo “discover” that Carpathian vampires are not so different from their tropical Colombian counterparts after all: both kinds of vampires crave the blood and lives of the ones who serve them and both seek to extend their legacies of corruption and sickness in the spaces that they choose to inhabit. The film directors posit that the use of these creatures and others in the Gothic pantheon (along with their respective stories) makes perfect sense in their decadent Colombian context, infested by bloodsuckers and ghosts that seek revenge. Vengeful ghosts—yet another subject of Mayolo and Ospina’s Tropical Gothic— are presented as beings spurred on by decades of violence and injustice, haunting houses and plantations in the city of Cali and its outskirts in the same way that they do the abbeys and moors of England.

In Carne de tu carne (Flesh or your flesh) especially, ghosts play a crucial role as keepers of a wicked family tradition that transforms the young members of an upper-class caleño family into incestuous vampires that, after their death and subsequent revival, are condemned to haunting their family’s land indefinitely. The ghosts that appear in the movie can be interpreted, then, as both members of their specific upper-class family as well as members of any Colombian family – or maybe, members of The Colombian Family –, each representative of a different sector of Colombian society: a soldier, a doctor, a nun, and an elderly woman. After their initial appearance as ‘human’ ghosts, they slowly transform into the specters of different domestic animals, revealing a bizarre degradation that affects not only the living members of the family, but also the dead.

Don Roberto – Pura sangre’s vampire – is presented in several moments as a socioeconomic monster, mostly due to his predilection for the blood of young teenagers, blood that comes into his possession through the maneuverings of his band of hired killers. However, Ospina uses images from the Gothic cinematographic tradition that, once tropicalized, account for the transformations in the sugar magnate produced by his consumption of blood. Many times in the film, as the camera focuses on Don Roberto through the gauzy curtain that divides his hospital room, what is depicted is a silhouette very similar to the shadow of Count Orlok, central character of Murnau’s Nosferatu: complete with hooked nose, large hands and long nails that resemble claws. In this case, only through the filter of the curtain/screen can we as spectators see the true projection of Don Roberto.

What began as a way to describe a particular corpus of Colombian movies from the 1980’s can then be moved and separated from its filmic context, becoming a term of critical analysis that allows us to examine the work of Ospina and Mayolo as part of what writers and filmmakers in Latin America have been doing (and will continue to do) with the Gothic genre. The Tropical Gothic relocates in a distinctly Latin American context Gothic themes, characters and environments, examining them with new lenses and imbuing them with a decidedly political hue, using these elements in many cases to talk about the “unspeakable”— topics such as violence, abuse or socioeconomic and gender inequality.

In this sense, and through the mechanism of the tropicalization of the Gothic, the horrors of the European and North American Gothic genres are transported to the subtropical zone as a way to address the violence and inequality that have figuratively “haunted” Colombia for decades. This tropicalization involves an appropriation of the themes typical to the genre, as well as a transformation and a transposition of the same: the cold and gloomy Balkan cliffs and the dense Central European and English forests are replaced by the languid streets of a tropical Latin American city and by the sweltering fields of the sugar plantations; and the counts, countesses, and mournful ghosts of the European Gothic are replaced by vampiric drug lords, landowners, and guayabera-clad murderers. Despite the undeniable changes that it undergoes, the Gothic is translated by Latin American filmmakers and authors with a great awareness of—and knowledge of— the genre, allowing modifications or additions to be considered as a part of it despite the radical change of scenery, while at the same time permitting its practitioners the freedom to criticize and even mock it.

Throughout the month in this space space I will be introducing some narrative and cinematographic pieces that can be considered as part of a Latin American Gothic, constructed through a mechanism of tropicalization of the Gothic that hybridizes and transforms the canon and its surroundings.

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