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Maya

Year: 1989   Runtime: 96′  Director: Marcello Avallone
Writers: Marcello Avallone, Andrea Purgatori, Maurizio Tedesco  Cinematography: Silvano Ippoliti
Music: Gabriele Ducros   Cast: Peter Phelps, Mariellia Valentini, Erich Wildpret, Cyrus Elias,
Mariangélica Ayala, William Berger

A small town in rural Mexico is predominantly inhabited by descendants of a Mayan tribe who are still holding to some old traditions. Once a year, the townsfolk celebrate a ritual, symbolic sacrifice of a child on top of the local pyramid to keep the ghost of the evil Xibalba (or Xibalbai – the voice actors are of more than one opinion), whom the townsfolk’s ancestors murdered, at bay. Of course there’s a prophecy that the dead guy will some day return to cut out every tribe member’s heart.

Some time before the newest celebration is supposed to take place, US expat Salomon Slivak (a very sweaty William Berger) stumbles onto the top of the pyramid after meeting a strange, big-haired girl child, mumbling an off-screen monologue about crossing some sort of “border to the other side”. Slivak sure seems to have crossed over to somewhere, for something or someone kills him up there by cutting out his heart.

A few days after the old man’s death, his daughter Lisa (Mariella Valentini) arrives in town. The more Lisa hears about the circumstances of her father’s death, the more disquieted she becomes, until she kinda-sorta begins to try and find his killer herself. This being the sort of film that it is, Lisa isn’t actually doing much more than walking around, asking weird questions that are answered in even weirder ways, and doesn’t appear for large parts of the plot (such as it is). She also kinda-sorta falls for another local US expat, restaurant owner, gambler, bum and all-around jerk Peter (Peter Phelps), whose best trait probably is his hatred of wearing shirts.

While Lisa and Peter aren’t doing much, further killings hit the town. An invisible force murders people in various, creative ways, but never misses out on cutting out the hearts of its victims afterwards.

The whole affair culminates (as far as a film told in a way as roundabout as this one can be said to culminate) on the night of the big ceremony. Will our protagonists actually do some protagging for a change?

Marcello Avallone’s Maya is a pretty weird film that will grow on a certain, very specific and very small sub-set of fans of Italian horror like green fungus on bread, while the rest of the world will look at it – if it’ll realize its existence at all – with a mixture of boredom and exasperation. Fortunately, it’s quite easy to find out to which of the two groups you, dear reader, will belong. Just try and imagine a film indebted to the style and rhythm of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, transplanted into Venezuela standing in for Mexico, tarted up with some barely understandable and badly explained bit of fictitious mythology, with less gore and more interrupted rape scenes (three, by my count), and made by a director who isn’t quite as talented (or mad) as Fulci at his best, but is really trying to be. If that thought makes you happy, or at least a wee bit interested, than there’s a good chance that you’re either me or belonging to the group of Italian horror fans in need to watch out for fungus attacks. Otherwise, you better stay away from Maya, because it’ll only bore you.

  
  
  

For us, the un-bored and un-boreable, Maya is a bit of a treat, especially since there aren’t all that many films actually inspired by more than just the gore of Fulci’s best films. As I said, Avallone’s movie is much more restrained in the gore department than Fulci’s movies generally were, but the murder scenes share the near-arrogant apathy towards the laws of physics and logic with the maestro’s work. The murders are very much at the heart of the movie, too, establishing the proper mood of the unreal, of the breaking-in of the illogical into the world as we know it, at a place where the borders between the quotidian world and the beyond have grown thin and weary.

The parts of the film’s running time that aren’t spent on the murders show the town (most of the time, it actually looks like a village, but some scenes seem to establish it as slightly larger with a slightly less rural feel – you could certainly put it down to sloppy direction, or you could see this imprecision as just another way Avallone uses to rattle the audience’s securities) as a place whose inhabitants are generally closer to acts of madness, violence and irrationality than is typical. Interestingly enough, Avallone uses two (horribly acted) wandering rapist Texan punks on vacation to make it difficult to read the townsfolk’s irrational tendencies as an expression of his film’s racism (though it’s clearly not a filmwithout any problematic ideas about race) but rather as a consequence of the place’s closeness to the other side, as if a door had been standing open just a tiny bit for centuries, letting something unhealthy and destructive cross over that infects (perhaps calls to) anyone coming into contact with it, in small and large ways.

Maya’s plot – as far as you can actually speak of a plot, which you probably can’t – has the stop-and-start quality of the Fulci films it is so obviously inspired by, the same sense of rambling and meandering that is hypnotic to some, and just boring to others, but that seems to be just the logical way to plot a film that is in part about the absence of the sort of order “tight” or just technically competent plotting would suggest.

The movie’s characters, all – as is tradition in Italian genre cinema – either chew scenery as if they’d never eaten anything better or seem passive and listless as if the only emotional reactions they have ever been able to show is sweating. And there’s a lot of sweating done by the whole cast, adding to the air of heaviness and oppression. Maya‘s script includes some minor attempts at giving its characters something akin to development, but most of it is buried under the murder scenes and the sweating, and obstructed by the film’s slow, slow rhythm.

I’ll certainly always prefer Fulci’s big three of gory, dream-like horror to Maya, for Fulci’s just a better, more daring director than Avallone.Maya, however, is still a minor pearl that puts such a heavy, honest emphasis on a mood of weirdness and slight alienation that it would be quit impossible for me not to love it.

The Horror!? is a weekly cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, an aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

2 thoughts on “Maya

  1. Well, it’s nice to finally find the other person who has seen this :)

    Your review is spot-on. I watched the German DVD of this some years ago and was left with the impression of a movie with bits and pieces missing, due to the rambling interrupted nature of it.

    It is a little like WAX MASK…the films that should-have-been.

  2. Didn’t bore me either! I quite like the disjointed, nightmarish qualities of so many Italian horror films, including Maya. It’s a pity this was made so late in the game, and that Avallone only made a couple horror films.

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