CAPSULE: PERDITA DURANGO (1997)

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AKA Dance with the Devil

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Rosie Perez, , Aimee Graham, Harley Cross,

PLOT: Perdita Durango teams up with Santeria priest/bank robber Romeo to transport a truckload of fetuses to Las Vegas, kidnapping a couple of college kids along the way for fun.

Still from Perdita Durango (1997)

COMMENTS: Sexy leads Rosie Perez and . Alex de la Iglesia directing with a mid-range budget. Barry “Wild at Heart” Gifford co-scripting from his own novel. Small parts played by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and .

From this assemblage of talent, you’d predict an unqualified gonzo masterpiece. But, although it has its fans, Perdita Durango‘s results are qualified, at best. True, the film is wild and unhinged: any movie with black market fetuses as a plot point has got some impudent imagination going for it. The problem is that Perdita Durango and Romeo Dolorosa aren’t sympathetic outlaws like Sailor and Lula from Wild at Heart, or the sinful-but-valiant trio of de la Iglesia’s previous outing, Day of the Beast. They’re unrepentant sociopaths, in the vein of Mickey and Mallory, but lacking those characters’ satirical edge. That leaves de la Iglesia trying to navigate a dangerous border between black comedy and grindhouse nihilism; and although the movie work in spurts, he never gets the difficult tone flowing just right.

The big problem is the rape scene that happens fairly early on. It’s one thing to rob banks, or even to plan to eat your victims in a Santeria ritual—those are understandable, forgivable movie crimes, motivated by greed and misplaced mystical beliefs. But this sadistic violation is motivated by pure meanness, and Perdita and Romeo can never quite recover our affection. The script only compounds that problem when, instead of offing the dead weight after their cannibal ritual is foiled, Perdita and Romeo let their blonde collegiate kidnap victims tag along for the rest of their spree. Their neglect in ruthlessly killing these two is totally out of character, and seems transparently motivated by narrative interests—giving the criminals someone to talk to other than each other, providing opportunities for suspense from the teens’ escape attempts, and maybe even granting Perdita some kind of unearned character growth—rather than any sort of logic.

And that’s a shame, because Perdita Durango has a lot of cool pieces that could have cohered into a fun movie: Javier Bardem’s Aztec mullet. Random Herb Alpert music scattered throughout. Genuine sexual chemistry between Perez and Bardem. Santeria rituals involving snorting obscene amounts of coke and tossing hearts at the wall while Screamin’ Jay wails in the background. A jaguar dream sequence. But alas, when there’s no one in the movie to root for, and not enough humor (or weirdness) to compensate for the depravity, it’s all for naught.

Normally, I would blame the distributors for cutting the film by ten controversial minutes, retitling it Dance with the Devil, and barely releasing it at all—but this project was a mess from the beginning. It was originally to be directed by Bigas Luna, with Madonna, Victoria Abril, , , and all variously attached before dropping out. Four writers worked on the screenplay. Dialogue slips from Spanish to English (heavily accented, often difficult to understand English, in Bardem’s case). Overall, the production was unsettled, and the chaotic, underwhelming results were almost to be expected. Bardem would go on to better things, Barry Gifford would again collaborate with on Lost Highway, and de la Iglesia would bounce back; but this is something of a low point for most everyone involved. Nevertheless, thanks to Severin films and their 2021 Blu-ray release for rescuing this early de la Iglesia film from oblivion.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…[a] kinetic and bizarre journey through the dark underworld of wild debauchery, reckless abandon, and Santeria.”–Jason Buchanan, All Movie Guide

(This movie was nominated for review [as Dance with the Devil] by “StarWanderer.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

One thought on “CAPSULE: PERDITA DURANGO (1997)”

  1. Have to completely disagree with this review. Perdita Durango is perfect- the dark, ugly flipside to Wild at Heart. Likeable, relatable lead characters are only necessary for those who require standard Hollywood fare. Someone to “root” for? Why? Are you watching a football game or a weird movie? The plot, direction, and acting are all perfect with this one, and the uncut version is essential viewing.

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