Review

Review

The Unseen: 'Perdita Durango’ – A Journey of Sex, Magic, and Murder

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Álex de la Iglesia is quite possibly my favorite filmmaker. Seriously, I cannot think of another director whose entire body of work I find quite as remarkable. The Day of the Beast (which should be its own entry in The Unseen, as it never had a US release) is my favorite horror comedy ever. The Baby’s Room scared the hell out me and should not have been stashed away in the bulk title release of 6 Films to Keep You Awake. The Last Circus is brutally beautiful. Even his more “commercial” film, The Oxford Murders, is a meticulously woven masterpiece. Iglesia has recently appeared in horror news both for his inclusion in The ABCs of Death 2 and also for the insane trailer of his upcoming film Witching and Bitching (watch the trailer here). But the Iglesia film I’m discussing in this article is even more obscure than these rather unknown flicks: this Unseen column focuses on Perdita Durango, aka Dance with the Devil. 
 
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Released in 1997, Perdita Durango falls in line with other artful ultra-violence/grindhouse-referencing films that appeared in the later 1990s, including commercialized ones from Quentin Tarantino. But it is better than all of them. Yes… I said that. Perdita Durango (played by Rosie Perez) is a sexy woman who joins forces with Romeo, a ridiculously violent serial criminal played by Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men). Together the two embark on a road trip of crimes, kidnapping, rapes, and murders. Now before all the film purists email me to point out that a violent film is not necessarily part of the horror genre, please rest assure there is ample horror in the fact that Romeo practices Santeria (at least a fictionalized version of it). As if the violent crimes weren’t enough, the film is chock-full of demonology, possessions, corpse-dismembering, magic, and sacrifices. 
 
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Based on the novel of the same name by Barry Gifford, the character of Perdita Durango also makes an appearance in another of Gifford’s films, David Lynch’s Wild At Heart, where she is played by Isabella Rosselini. Though several actresses were considered for the role of Perdita, including Madonna and Victoria Abril, Perez makes this film, and some fans consider this to be her best role. She obviously channels Tura Santana in personality, but also in costuming. At one point, a shot even mimics the iconic shot of Santana from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! with the camera at a low angle looking up towards her as she fights a gent. It’s a beautifully executed reference! The late James Gandolfini also appears in the film, playing a DEA Officer chasing the duo. He gives a remarkable and surprisingly comedic performance. 
 
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Which brings me to perhaps the strangest element of this sick little film: it’s a comedy! You won’t be laughing through the whole run, and there are some downright gut-wrenching rape scenes and childhood flashbacks. But yet huge chunks of Perdita follow the standard Iglesia style of mixing intensely abhorrent subject matter with merriment. Though Romeo is a cold-hearted killer, he loves Herb Alpert music, carries around his childhood sticker book, and exchanges sensitive letters with his cigar-smoking Grandmother. Even the most ruthless gangsters in the film are bathed in a light of mirth. Iglesia makes sure that the viewer does not take the film’s excessive brutality too seriously. Well, at least that is his intent. That is not to say the film’s censors didn’t take it very seriously. 
 
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By 1997, Iglesia had built a sizeable cult following around his films. A quick glance of forum discussions on the film release reveals that many of his fans felt betrayed by this one, like he was leaving behind his Spanish roots to do a big American action movie with big American actors. Yet, few American audiences have ever heard of this one. That's because Perdita Durango has never had a good release stateside. Studios and big distribution companies don’t like signing on to movies that contain quite this much exploitive sex, pedophilia, and a truckload of human fetuses being trafficked for use in beauty products, and Perdita is not exactly the type of film that would play at mall movie theatres across America.
 
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The flick received a limited VHS and DVD release in 1999-2000 under the name Dance with the Devil, yet the saddest part is that neither the VHS nor DVD releases contain the entire film. Both are chopped-up censored versions, missing about 10 minutes of footage. Apparently the US distributors felt we could not handle some of the more explicit shots. Fine, fine, thanks for protecting us from those big scary sex scenes… whatever. But the biggest insult is a scene cut from the end of the film: as Romeo tells stories about his youth to Perdita and their hostages, he recalls seeing the western film Vera Cruz for the first time and how much it affected him. During the final gun battle at the end, the scene morphs so that the characters and setting become the shoot-out from Vera Cruz. Such a brilliant opening into the mind of our unstable main character! I usually would never reveal the ending of a film like this, but this is not exactly a spoiler, because this portion does not exist at all in the American release. It is just gone. This type of censorship cut is just plain senseless, and can only be viewed as the distributor assuming it was far too artistic for US audiences. For a more detailed list of what cuts were made, please check out this exhaustive case study on Senses of Cinema.
 
You can get the stateside releases of Perdita Durango off Amazon for under $30, but don’t be fooled by the “unrated format” that is touted on the cover; this version is cut to hell. Though I can cross my fingers and say some spells wishing for a full-length uncut release, for now the original version of Perdita remains unseen.
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