National Hispanic Heritage Month begins on Friday, September 15. To kick off the month-long celebration I spoke with filmmaker Eduardo Sánchez about his contribution (“El Vampiro”) to the new horror anthology “Satanic Hispanics” which features segments from five Latin indie horror filmmakers, including Mike Mendez (“Big Ass Spider!”), Demián Rugna (“Terrified”), Gigi Saul Guerrero (“Bingo Hell”), and Alejandro Brugués (“Juan of the Dead”). We also spoke about the Hispanic culture, rich with spooky folklore, mysticism, and dates set aside to celebrate our deceased ancestors (Día de los Muertos), and why Hispanic filmmakers may have an edge when it comes to the horror genre.
In 1999 the groundbreaking film “The Blair Witch Project” forever changed the horror landscape. Written and directed by Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick, the low-budget film launched the found footage subgenre and used the internet in its early stage (pre-Google and YouTube) to build a website that offered “proof” that the story about three missing student filmmakers lost in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, were possible victims of the local folk legend known as the Blair Witch.
It’s been almost a decade since Sánchez directed a horror film for the big screen. His attention turned to television where he lensed episodes of “Supernatural,” “Queen of the South,” and “Yellowjackets” among other series.
Born in Havana, Cuba where he lived for a couple of years, Sánchez moved to the United States at age 4 when his family relocated to Montgomery County, Maryland. Like many Hispanics growing up in the US, he was raised Catholic and grew up surrounded by the folklore of the culture.
When I was growing up, I spent a significant amount of time with my grandmother, or “Abuelita.” Her home was filled with Catholic statues and holy candles. She prayed the rosary every night and spoke mostly Spanish. Reflecting on the time I spent with her, there were a good number of strange occurrences that we experienced. Today they would be labeled “paranormal” back then it was just a part of life. I was just a kid, but it never frightened me because she never showed fear. Spirits were not evil entities; they were part of the human soul’s journey. She would often speak about seeing ghosts casually in passing. Me? Never saw anything. But several times a week I would hear someone walking around in the grass outside my window (I slept with it open) only to look out and discover no one there.
Preparing for the interview, it hit me. Latin filmmakers have an edge when it comes to horror. Because of our culture, we grew up with so much mysticism that we have a head start in the genre. I asked Sánchez if he felt the same way as we began our discussion.
Sánchez: Absolutely. I think the Latino community in general is just more open to that kind of stuff. My mom who was raised Catholic, wasn’t very devout, she was more of a Christian. She spent her whole life looking for the proper way to worship, and what she taught me early on was if you believe in Jesus, you have to believe in Satan. That opened a whole can of worms for me as a kid. And then she would tell me about La Pata Negra, and other legends. There was this old guy in her town they said was immoral and all the kids would freak out when they saw him. Just folklore. And Latin America is just filled with that because of the mixture of cultures. In Cuba, Santeria came about because the natives wanted to practice their own religion while the government was forcing them into Catholicism. Pagan religion from Africa that has nothing to do with Christianity entered the picture and we got Santeria. So, I think our folklore, our mythology is just ingrained in us.
And a lot of it is very dark.
Sánchez: Yes dark, so I think that we are much more open to that because I think we’ve seen that darkness firsthand as did our parents and grandparents. Plus, we have this history of unfortunately being taken advantage of like the immigrant experience. I think you can have to, you know, when you see evil like that in front of you or just things that are so wrong you must believe in it. I think we Latinos are just a little closer to that dark side, a little more honest with the dark side of ourselves than a lot of other cultures.
When I was a kid, my grandmother used to tell me nonchalantly that she would see a man outside her house who would disappear between the trees. It didn’t faze her. The neighbors would sometimes call her and tell her there was a guy peeking in her window. We would go outside to check and there was no one there. She would say, “son los espíritus” or “just the spirits,” and then instruct me to close the blinds. It was no big deal.
Sánchez: Yes. My mom would talk about this thing called La Pata Negra or The Black Foot which is kind of like Bigfoot, and she would say, “He’s going to look through your window if you’re naughty.” Just like these crazy folktales. It’s kind of abusive a little bit but again there is this matter-of-fact aspect of the folklore that is part of the culture. The darkness is right there, and you learn to live with it. You learn to face it. That’s part of what makes us so strong.
How did you get involved with “Satanic Hispanics” and what does being part of the anthology mean to you?
Sánchez: The title is what got me into this. Alejandro Brugués and Mike Mendez the producers were like, “Hey we’re doing this anthology.” I was one of the first filmmakers they reached out to, and I said, “Yeah I’ll do it.” Anthologies can be good or bad experiences, I’ve had both, and I love Mike and Alejandro, so I said, “Let’s do it.” And then they told me the title and I said “Alright, I’m 100% in” because for me, the title is like freedom. It’s kind of like coming out. “Satanic Hispanics!” There’s no beating around the bush with that title. Anything goes. And for me, that’s beauty and freedom.
Were there any stipulations going into the project?
Sánchez: Alejandro and Mike were like “Just do anything” and we’ll figure out the order of them later.” I think they all ended up balancing each other out in a really nice way. Sometimes with anthologies, you tend to hit the same note a little bit too much, but I think this one is really diverse. It shows a lot of different sides of the Latino culture here in the United States. I was born in Cuba, but I was raised as an American in the United States. How I think of the Latino experience is completely different than any of the other filmmakers, so it was cool to burn a little bit of that. Wear the Latino thing with pride, you know? It’s like saying “We’re going to freak you guys out and you guys might not like some of what you see but you’re probably going to love a lot of what you see.” Let’s just let it go and do crazy stuff and be ourselves.
How did you come up with “El Vampiro” for your segment?
Sánchez: I was looking for ideas. I wanted to do something really scary at first, but I immediately went to comedy, and everything opened up at that point. I’ve known Hemky Madera who plays El Vampiro for a while. We worked on “Queen of the South” together. We became friends and we were looking for something else to do together. I know he has extensive comedy chops; all his characters have little funny sides to them. He mostly plays “the heavy” and tough guys, but I thought Hemky would be great in this, so I sent him the script and he was like “I’m in, I’m in!” Even though he knew he was stepping into a low-beget movie, he found Patricia Velasquez. I had never worked with her, but I was a huge fan of her work. They just fell into the roles.
Hemky and Patricia are great together. “El Vampiro” plays like a Dracula parody. It’s the funniest story in “Satanic Hispanics.”
Sánchez: Yeah. They play this couple that’s been married for a century. How does marriage work in the vampire world? And then give it a Latino edge. The tint. The Latino tint to it. Then bring in Hemky and Patricia and just point the camera at them and just let the magic go. Let it flow. I was fortunate to get a good cast and a good crew. We went with what we wanted to do and shot through the heart, and I think it shows. The whole movie is very personal for all the filmmakers.
Even if you took all the horror elements out of “El Vampiro” you still have a great comedy about marriage with two good actors. The way they interact with each other is like a real marriage.
Sánchez: And that’s the heart of it. I definitely pulled that out of the story. You know it’s like your average marriage. I’ve been happily married a long time but there are always moments where you disagree and want to kill each other. Now imagine 100 years of that. You’re still battling it out, yet I just love the idea that these two people have never fallen out of love with each other. Slowly through this hectic night, they really show how much they love each other, even commenting about dying together. When you make a movie like this, you hope that some of that emotion and some of that tenderness comes through. In horror movies, it is very difficult sometimes to break it down and be romantic. It’s one of the last things you see in horror movies, but I knew we had a good chance of pulling it off with these great actors and I was just happy with the end result. The music brought everything together. And the performances felt authentic. There was something real over there. It’s not easy to do in a short period of time. It’s really a testament to Hemky and Patricia.
There’s a lot of gore in “El Vampiro.” I feel it was a release for you. “The Blair Witch Project” was groundbreaking yet it was psychological horror, not much special effects. I understand you are a fan of old-school practical effects, so was this your opportunity to go nuts?
Sánchez: Yeah. It was fun and liberating. I’ve been doing a lot of TV and mostly serious stuff. In film school I used to do a lot of comedy, that was part of my thing. I’ve had to back away from it a little bit, so it was also an opportunity to do something that I hadn’t done in a long time, really since film school. I think it’s the main reason filmmakers do these anthologies. You know it’s going to be a tough shoot, and there is not going to be enough money, but it does give you an opportunity to do something that maybe you are not doing in your 9 to 5.
“Satanic Hispanics” opens in theaters Friday, September 15