Basque director Alex de la Iglesia looks to significantly expand the reputation he earned with “Accion Mutante” and “The Day of the Beast” with his big, brutal, bloody third feature, “Perdita Durango.” Shot mainly in English and based on Barry Gifford’s novel about an amoral Tex-Mex spitfire and her killer companion, this trashy comic-strip saga of apocalyptic sex, violence and voodoo rituals is not quite fast or fun enough to fully satisfy in its present shape. But all the ingredients are here in abundance, and some serious re-editing could eliminate the flab and carve out a robust contender for international cult success.
Reportedly budgeted at around $ 8 million, and boldly impressive in terms of its muscular sound design, punchy soundtrack and arresting widescreen lensing of locations in Mexico, Arizona and Las Vegas, this is the most ambitious Spanish production of the year. While it in some ways resembles the Robert Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino pic “From Dusk Till Dawn,” “Perdita” is less studiously hip and more genuinely out there, and shows 32-year-old de la Iglesia in full command of a much larger scale than that of his earlier pics.
The title character previously made a brief appearance, played by Isabella Rossellini, in David Lynch’s “Wild at Heart,” also based on a Gifford novel. Rosie Perez takes over the role here, immediately establishing that she is not the kind of girl you would take home to meet mama in a very funny scene in which a software salesman casually hits on her and gets more than he bargained for from the smoldering drifter. But despite the title, the real center of the piece is Perdita’s demonic lover, Romeo Dolorosa, played by Javier Bardem in a sexy, strutting turn that should thrust the Spanish star — also due in Pedro Almodovar’s “Live Flesh” — onto the international map.
A bank robber, murderer, sex fiend and son of a witch from Petit Caribe, Romeo wears long tresses, tattoos, heavy jewelry, sleek black threads and snakeskin boots, prompting Perdita to describe him as “like an extra in a bad Black Sabbath video.” A devotee of Santeria, the ritualistic mix of Yoruba culture and Roman Catholicism that was the religion of early African slaves, he robs fresh graves for corpses to be used in possession rites during which he rips out hearts and slurps up blood before rapt audiences in small towns on either side of the U.S.-Mexican border.
Enlisted by Santos (Don Stroud), a mob boss with a taste for little girls, Romeo is to hijack a truckload of human fetuses for cosmetic experimentation. While Perdita goes for the simpler pleasures in life, she has no qualms about her man’s need for a human sacrifice to appease the gods before taking on the dangerous job. Suggesting that blond gringos would make the ideal prey, she settles on teen sweethearts Duane (Harley Cross) and Estelle (Aimee Graham). The terrified pair are snatched away to a desert hideout where they are swiftly deflowered by their lascivious hosts.
Stripped and feathered, the sacrificial lambs are saved in the nick of time when Romeo’s wronged bank-robbing partner (Santiago Segura, from “The Day of the Beast”) busts in on the ceremony, followed by Texan lawmen who have been trailing Romeo. The truck heist then goes awry in a shootout with DEA agents that wipes out Santos’ men and puts Romeo on the wrong side of the mobster. But despite the odds mounting up against them, Perdita and Romeo continue heading for their designated destination in Vegas, still with Duane and Estelle in tow, aware but unafraid of being on a one-way ticket to hell.
Despite being dressed up with novel elements of black magic, mysticism and religious superstition, and being peppered throughout with plenty of dark humor, down-and-dirty sex and explosive, well-handled action set pieces, the story seems a little thin to justify a two-hour running time. Faster cutting, particularly in the second half, would help sustain the frenetic rhythm that de la Iglesia successfully establishes in the early reels.
Perez is fine as the remorseless, gutter-mouthed Perdita — all scornful glances and tightly coiled sexual energy — but she is no match for Bardem’s charismatic psycho-sorcerer, especially remarkable in the Santeria scenes in which he drifts, possessed, into a blood-drenched, ecstatic trance.The character is rumored at one point to be a nagual, a supernatural beast with a human head on a jaguar’s body, and Bardem’s powerful physical presence lends credibility to the man-beast fusion. Cross and Graham are amusing as the hapless teens raised on Diet Coke and Mary Tyler Moore, but the film’s ironic take on American pop culture could perhaps have been further developed.
In addition to the ample dosage of sex and violence, distribs in some censorship-sensitive territories may balk at certain scenes involving fetus-trafficking, rape and pedophilia, not to mention a bizarre, graphic depiction of the crucifixion of Christ. But the tongue-in-cheek tone that prevails makes all of this relatively innocuous.
Key off-camera collaborators reassembled from de la Iglesia’s previous films again make significant contributions here. Production designers Jose Luis Arrizabalaga and Arturo Garcia’s rustic sets are strewn with religious icons and splashes of strong color. A variety of locations, from shanty towns to dusty, cactus-covered plains to the neon glitz of Las Vegas come alive through d.p. Flavio Martinez Labiano’s agile camera. The score by Brit composer Simon Boswell (“Shallow Grave”), which ranges from urgent, tribal drumming to arch Hitchcockian riffs, is complemented by tunes from Johnny Cash, Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass and blues rocker Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, who appears as part of Romeo’s Santeria act.