If like me, Sandy Hook is one of the worst days you can remember, Belzebuth is going to be a tough watch. In the first thirty minutes or so, there are three massacres, all involving children. The first echoes Sandy Hook closely, with 28 kindergartners being gunned down by an older schoolmate.
Special Agent Emanuel Ritter (Joaquín Cosio), who’s infant child is stabbed to death in the film’s opening, is called on to investigate each of these horrific events. Though there’s no apparent link between the massacres, Emanuel suspects that there is. The mother of the first murderer tells him that a man covered in Satanic tattoos visited her before the shooting.
When Emanuel is called outside to address the press (all of whom think the shooting was perpetrated by “cartels” or “student cartels”), the camera goes across the street to Vasilio Canetti (Tobin Bell) in a hoodie, covered in satanic tattoos. The audience met him in a pre-credit voice over, where he informed them that “in 2010, reports of possessed people increased exponentially.”
The third major player, Ivan Franco (Tate Ellington) comes on the scene in the aftermath of the second massacre. He’s been sent by the Vatican to investigate the happenings for demonic possession. Emanuel—an Atheist who later admits “In Mexico, even atheists are believers”—has no patience for Ivan, that is, until Ivan turns on a blacklight to show Emanuel the hand prints on the ceiling.
While each of the three characters has some great moments in the script, co-written by Luis Carlos Fuentes and director Emilio Portes, Emanuel has the best. Early on, the script and an excellent performance from Cosio, highlights Emanuel’s soft side. Before he interrogates the mother of the first killer, he tells his men, to “get her something to eat. She must be starving.” It’s a small human moment that shows who he is.
Those small moments can separate a good film from a great film, but in this case they make what comes later all the more frustrating. Belzebuth has so much potential. Fuentes and Portes make me almost like Emanuel, despite him being a cop in 2020. But when they go to a Tarot Card reader, he holds up her file and threatens to release the nude selfies she’s taken. None of the other characters react. It doesn’t come up again, though it forces her to agree to do a reading.
That interaction highlights one of the film’s problems: women barely have speaking roles. Elena (Aida López) is the only woman in more than one or two scenes and she’s there because her son Isa (Liam Villa) is the target of the film’s demon. There aren’t many movies that make The Exorcist look socially progressive—the theme of that admittedly amazing film is there needs to be more Church—but Belzebuth manages it. At least in The Exorcist, Chris MacNeil is an active character, doing whatever she can to save her daughter. In Belzebuth Elena is acted upon, not acting.
The film has at least one other retrogressive trope: the Atheist who has to fight religious forces. It’s been done to death. Leave the Atheists alone.
What’s not been done to death is the way Belzebuth flips the script on some racist tropes. People of color are almost always the delivery device for explanations on how magic works in horror films. Think of Scatman Crother’s Dick Hallorann in The Shining, spending his vacation explaining the Overlook Hotel to a little boy he met for five minutes. Portes does good work in this film to flip that, making the white Ivan and Canetti serve as delivery vehicles for the magic, which Mexican Emanuel scoffs at.
In addition to that deft bit of writing, the film won Best Special Effects at the 2019 Buenos Aires Rojo Sangre. The direction plays a big part, as the film starts out being very coy with showing anything disturbing. Much of the early massacres are implied, and it settles viewers so they’re not ready when things are shown explicitly later on. In particular, a wooden Jesus breaking free of its crucifix as it hurls insults at Emanuel and Ivan is excellent.
Belzebuth is a mixed bag. On the one hand, there is Mexican talent in front of and behind the camera who tell a compelling story about authority figures (priests and police officers) going rogue to do good. The implication being that in order to do right, these institutions need to be reshaped. On the other hands, women are nearly non-existent and Atheists are “fixed” into believing. There’s also the tone-deafness of the multiple massacres. See this one at your own risk.
Wicked Rating – 6/10
Director: Emilio Portes
Writers: Luis Carlos Fuentes, Emilio Portes
Stars: Joaquín Cosio, Tobin Bell, Tate Ellington
Release: July 7, 2020 (Blu-Ray and VOD)
Studio/Production Company: Fondo de Inversión y Estímulos al Cine, Pastorela Peliculas, Universidad Autónoma de Baja California
Language: Spanish, English