"Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary" isn't a particularly interesting movie when viewed on its own merits. It's a straightforward, competent-enough tale of modern-day vampirism that, much like its spiritual cousin "Martin" (directed by George A. Romero and super-highly recommended), downplays supernatural themes in favor of the concepts of madness, family legacy, and tragedy. Cristina Ferrare's portrayal of Mary, a painter with a compulsion to drink human blood, is untouchably icy and the resulting effect is that the viewer never really empathizes with her struggle to hide her murderous activities from her loved ones.
What IS interesting about "Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary" is that it was directed by Mexican filmmaker Juan López Moctezuma, who created two of the greatest statements in surrealist horror filmmaking of all time: "Alucarda" and "The Mansion of Madness." More interesting still, "Mary, Mary" was made between "Mansion" and "Alucarda." "Mary, Mary's" similarities to "Alucarda" are particularly striking, but ultimately the different choices made in the latter film make up a large portion of its success.
Where "Mary, Mary" might be seen as that lenticular clown card, "Alucarda" is a movie of another sort altogether. It's like finding the Golden Ticket inside the Wonka Bar, to mix my metaphors entirely and inextricably. It tells the story of two adolescent girls (dark and dangerous Alucarda and naive Justine) who form a deep--almost obsessive--spiritual bond when they are brought to live at a convent orphanage. After their dabbling in occult rituals gets all-too-serious, the girls are possessed by demons, unleashing all manner of bad mojo on their keepers. Yes, friends--it's pretty much Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla" car-crashed into Ken Russell's "The Devils." I geek about "Alucarda" with Classic-Horror.com's Nate Yapp in a podcast linked here. I'm going to assume a general familiarity with this movie, so in the interests of time, I'll link to more in-depth takes from my two of my fave blogs. For a wonderful and reverent review of "Alucarda," check out this write-up at Killer Kittens from Beyond the Grave. Junk is gonna get fairly reverent fairly quickly, so if you want a palate-cleansing and very-silly-but-delighted-nonetheless review, check out Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies' take on "Alucarda" here.
So who made these two seemingly disparate movies? Juan López Moctezuma is an interesting figure in Mexican cinema. His work exists in a sort of limbo between the mainstream seat-filling fare of monster mashes, vampire chillers, and masked wrestling films that characterized the country's genre offerings well into the 1970s and the dreamscapes of Alejandro Jodorowsky (whose western-film-themed masterpiece "El Topo" was co-produced by Moctezuma). While Jodorowsky dove head-first into deeply symbolic stories that have genre elements, Moctezuma's films are horror stories with symbolic elements.
All that brings us back to today's vampirrific topics of discussion. Defining what makes two kinda-similar movies made by definitely-the-same guy so very different in terms of their effectiveness breaks down a little like this:
1. The destructive power of compulsion is front and center in both stories. Mary murders and exsanguinates her victims while in a trance-like state, seemingly powerless against the overwhelming need to consume blood. Alucarda and Justine are taken over by powers outside of their bodies and made to commit animalistic, violent, and antisocial acts. All of these women are operating on a level that's unreasoning and primal, and this behavior causes chaos in their lives that spills into the lives of those around them.
2. A lesbian relationship is the turning point in both films. While the physicality of the relationship between Justine and Alucarda is largely implied, the moment when Mary allows Greta to take her home for a romantic interlude marks the point when Mary first preys on someone she knows. Her tearful admission of guilt before drugging, stabbing, and feeding off Greta is one of the few moments when Ferrare's portrayal of the elusive vampiress is relatable. In "Alucarda," the sealing of the girls' relationship in a blood pact is the beginning of the events that will lead to both girls' downfalls. It is this kind of curiosity that leads them directly to their dabbling in the occult and ultimately to their dealings with the Devil. There is a sense of mutual protection and shared affection in the depiction of the girls' love, but there's also an inverse sexuality and ultimately a destructive power to this love.
3. "Mary, Mary" deals with inheriting evil from one's family: Mary is the daughter of a mysterious man who taught her the ways of blood-drinking. "Alucarda" takes this suggestion one step further, implying that the titular orphan was predestined to channel evil forces, and that abandonment by her family led to the unleashing of these forces on the innocent people trying to help her. Mary's father casts his shadow over the entire film, from the presence of his eerie portrait (I love the fact that this is modeled on a publicity still of John Carradine, who plays Mary's father here, as Dracula in "House of Dracula") in Mary's home to the suspicion that he might not be dead after all. In contrast, Alucarda is never aware of her mother's legacy, and blindly stumbles into her diabolical activities.
4. "Alucarda" plays out in a well-defined, thoroughly realized setting with heaps of cultural texture, while such moments are rare in "Mary, Mary." In spite of repeated mentions of Mexican locations via dialogue and the casting of Mexican genre vet actors in supporting roles, there's very little in the way of local color in "Mary, Mary." The notable exception is during a street fair that Mary and Ben attend, in which the masked revelers are used very effectively to heighten suspense. In comparison, every frame in "Alucarda" is infused with exoticism, from the bloodied bandages that make up the nuns' habits, to the cave-like interiors of the convent, to the period costumes of the girls.
5. Science informs "Mary, Mary" while the supernatural is the focus of "Alucarda." Mary is not a traditional vampire--she employs a knife to cut her victims, she goes out in daylight, and it is suggested that her condition is a genetic inheritance. While there are some clever moments that challenge notions of traditional vampirism, such as Mary's murder of a fisherman on a sunny beach, there's just not enough tension derived from this challenging of commonly-held folklore. "Alucarda," on the other hand, directly states that science is weak in the face of overwhelming supernatural odds, setting up its well-meaning doctor for the shock of his life when he realizes that the increasingly gruesome exorcism efforts on the part of the nuns and priests tasked with taking care of Alucarda and Justine are actually the only appropriate means to fight their demonic possession.
6. "Mary, Mary" is a fairly restrained film--Mary spends much of her screen time in what approaches a fugue state, only showing emotion when she's about to kill. Restraint is nowhere to be found in "Alucarda," a movie whose Mondo Macabro DVD box art promises "more loud screaming than any [other] horror movie." This is not hyperbole, folks--Alucarda and Justine spend a not-insignificant portion of the script blaspheming, howling, and cackling. Moctezuma evokes a medieval passion play, with its direct moral message, graphic depictions of violence, and literal religious interpretation. While underlying themes may be ambiguous (this isn't a decrying of the girls' love, nor is it an endorsement), the intent is to make the story itself as clear-cut as possible.
"Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary" is pretty much a case study in what happens when an auteur director doesn't succeed in balancing a strong vision with a narrative that's intended to appeal to a broader audience. The unrealized potential--the movie that could have been--lurks under the surface of the finished product. It's to the benefit of all fans of subversive cinema that "Alucarda" exists as a testament to Moctezuma's unbridled imagination.