Santeria (2005)

FEBRUARY 22, 2012


It may be amusing to me on a personal level, but when I find more to say about a movie’s IMDb page and opening/end credits sequences than the actual narrative, it sure sucks having to write a review. Santeria is allegedly based on a true story, but I couldn’t find any record of the events actually happening, which is a shame because I could have burned another paragraph talking about the real case and how it would most likely be far more interesting than the film.

I’ll give writer/director/producer/editor Benny Mathews credit for one thing – he goes all out trying to sell this as a true story, even spoiling the end in the movie’s opening scene, which tells us who dies (and how) in the events that the movie builds up to. If this was a major true life story (say, the Ted Bundy case), this sort of thing is fine: “Ted Bundy killed 20 women in the 70s, this is his story” or whatever would almost be an expected way to start off such a thing. But then it’s not actually true, it’s a bit silly to be so up front for any other reason besides “Maybe it’ll help fool someone” (which I guess it did; I took the time to Google the case for a while trying to find info on the real events).

Likewise, at the end of the movie, we learn the fates of all the characters who didn’t die on-screen: one guy succumbed to cancer, another was decapitated in a car crash, etc. This fake event sure affected a lot of fake people! Sadly, it’s the creepiest bit in the entire movie; true or not, there’s always something that kind of unnerves me about these text based epilogues. I think it’s due to my overdose on Unsolved Mysteries when I was like 9 or 10 (as I write this I am thinking about that silhouetted figure in the opening sequence and getting mad chills up my back); those sort of unexplained tragic circumstances (usually detailed over a freeze-frame) just unsettle me.

In fact the movie LOOKS like an Unsolved Mysteries recreation; it looks cheap as hell (it was shot on film but poorly transferred and/or posted), and the movie feels like the longest Cliff’s Notes account of a pretty simple story. Scenes come and go at a headache inducing rate, with nothing given a chance to register or sink in before the next scene has already began. A character will show up somewhere and say “I need to talk to you”, and then Mathews cuts to other characters in the middle of a conversation, and then it will cut again to a third character in the middle of an unmotivated panic attack. Maybe if Robert Stack was narrating in between it would be easier to digest, but without him or anything else linking everything in a cohesive way, the movie becomes a giant mess.

And again, we know what it’s building to, so there’s not a lot of suspense or thrills. People love to joke “Why watch Titanic? The boat sinks!” but the movie works because you get to know a bunch of (fictional) folks and care about them, and THEN the iceberg hits, giving the movie the suspense it might otherwise lack if it was just retelling a historical account without any fictional characters. Here, there’s no one to latch on to; the closest I came to caring about anyone was the Brother Neil character, a cheesy TV preacher who is interested in the case of the young man who keeps seeing the Virgin Mary (if there’s any “truth” to the movie’s story, I guess it could be considered a very loose modern version of the Lady of Fatima story). And that was only because he was played by Kevin Rankin, who was the awesome Herc on Friday Night Lights. Everyone else in the movie, forget it – I probably wouldn’t be able to pick them out of a lineup in a couple days.

The commentary explains most of the movie’s problems almost instantly – Mathews’ first cut lasted 165 minutes (it runs 82 now, including the credits that first cut probably lacked). When you cut half a movie out, yeah, it’s going to be pretty tough to penetrate. Even Terrence Malick* - arguably one of the greatest filmmakers of all time – can’t cut that much out of a movie and make it easy to follow, and Mathews is no Malick. It’s possible that he explains why he cut it SO short (certainly 2:45 is too long, but 2 hours is acceptable – Emily Rose was that long and it didn’t hurt it any), but his commentary put me to sleep three times (including at my desk at work) so I can’t be bothered to hunt for further explanation/defense. He seems to think the movie works just as well now, so I’m guessing he didn’t feel the need to explain much about his decision anyway. From what I DID hear, he talks about the Fatima case, the amateur actors, losing an actress after a freaky incident, etc. He also sounds like he’s 15 years old, which I wish was true because it would explain the short attention span thinking that resulted in a potentially interesting take on the religious possession genre becoming an interminable clutter of mismatched scenes (and color timing), bookended with typo-ridden on-screen explanations (“Sitings” instead of “Sightings” is my favorite). A few deleted scenes are also included, but they’re mostly the sort of thing that wouldn’t even warrant inclusion on one of those exhaustive 4 disc sets for a movie, let alone be all that represents nearly 90 minutes of lost movie.

The only other extra is the trailer, which added to my amusement concerning the movie’s release date. The IMDb lists this as a 2011 movie, which I knew couldn’t be right because it was released on DVD in 2006 (the Blockbuster sticker has the release date on it, and I know I’ve been passing it up for years during HMAD “hunts”). The trailer says that the movie takes place in 2005, yet the film itself is set in 1998 (it’s actually a plot point, because 666 times 3 is 1998). And the movie itself has a copyright date of 2002. IMDB got the 2011 date from Australia, where it was just released – I would love to hear the story of its 5+ year struggle to reach the land down under. As with most of the above, it’d probably be more interesting than the movie itself.

Oh well. It’s still better than the Sublime song, I’ll give it that much.

What say you?

*Oddly, the film was shot in Houston, Texas, which was also one of the locations for Malick’s similarly fragmented Tree Of Life. That is pretty much where the similarities end, however.


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