This April marked the 17th edition of the Fantaspoa Fantastic Film Festival, a longtime genre festival supported this year by a grant from the Brazilian government to ensure relevant cultural events could continue amidst the pandemic. There was a colorful slate of films lined up for this year’s event, although admittedly I was flying a little blind because the synopses were in Brazil’s native language and I don’t know a lick of Portuguese. I followed my gut and went with Rodrigo Aragão’s O Cemitério das Almas Perdidas (Cemetery of the Lost Souls), and was rewarded with a carefully crafted throwback tale with plenty of the occult, corrupted religious leaders, and ample amounts of blood.
The film tells two converging stories, first introducing a Jesuit (Renato Chocair) in colonial Brazil who steals the Book of Cipriano (you might know him better as Cyprian). The Jesuit is corrupted by its power and takes on Cipriano’s name, and when he uses the power of the book to save a group of sailors (minus one for the cost of a blood sacrifice, of course) the crew band together and start terrorizing the local indigenous tribes until they are eventually cursed and trapped on the grounds of a cemetery.
Several decades later, when a group of travelling performers make their way to the town that houses the titular cemetery, they find themselves embroiled in Cipriano’s saga in ways that may not be entirely random. One of the performers, Jorge (Diego Garcias) has been having nightmares about the cemetery, and intertwined in them are visions of Aiyra (Allana Lopes), a young indigenous girl who had been captured by Cipriano’s crew. Will Jorge be responsible for defeating Cipriano, or unleashing him into the world?
I did a little digging, and writer/director Rodrigo Aragão is the son of an ex-magician. He got his start with makeup effects and ran a traveling horror show called Mausoleum in the early 2000s. All of these elements permeate Cemetery of the Lost Souls as we see the sensibilities from a travelling performer in how he crafts his film. He pulls from mythology and archetypes that audiences will at least have some familiarity with to establish set pieces geared towards creeping, freaking, or grossing us out. He also takes great care in designing sets that, while usually small, are meticulously built to pull us into the story’s world. His makeup bona fides are also on full display, as blood flows freely and often in this movie, ranging from slit throats to bodies crushed and torn apart. These elements come in a way that brings to mind the Grand Guignol plays that disturbed and delighted 19th century France.
While the ambiance and the set pieces came together wonderfully, the narrative structure gets a little clunky at times. I would have liked to have seen the two stories woven together a little bit more seamlessly. For example, rather than focusing on the “present day” action and flashing back periodically to the colonial tale, there’s a segment where the performers are just about abandoned completely to dig into the meat of the colonial story.
This wouldn’t have necessarily been as much of an issue if not for the fact that it emphasized some of the murkier aspects of incorporating indigenous characters into the story. Not to say that Aragão doesn’t portray them sympathetically, but in a movie like this where nuance isn’t exactly the order of the day the film falls into some of the more tired tropes in these kinds of stories, from implied sexual assault to an ill-advised love story between Airya and one of Cipriano’s more reluctant followers. And ultimately, while Airya does play a significant role in how the story plays out, it’s more in service to Jorge’s story than for her own ends.
That said, it should also be noted that with Diego Garcias’ Jorge, the film centers the story on a black man in a way that we all know is rare in the horror genre. And even though this appears to be Garcias’ first role, he’s got a natural presence as his character transitions from navigating this bewildering, terrifying situation to a ghastly hero moment that reminded me of The Lost Boys in the best possible way.
In addition to Garcias, the supporting performances elevate the experience as everyone commits to the wild set pieces. As Cipriano, Renato Chocair looks like an evil Jason Mantzoukas and clearly relishes his chance to chew scenery as the big bad. And as he and his crew go full demonic, their makeup effects are matched by their glee at reveling in mustache-twirling villainy in a way that serves as a perfect foil for the natural charm from their counterparts in the performing troupe who exude a lived-in camaraderie in their very first scenes together.
In the end, Cemetery of the Lost Souls is more about distilling horror into an experience than it is about exploring any deep narrative themes. And I don’t mean that at all as a dismissal, as sometimes we all just like to immerse ourselves in a nice comforting bath of atmosphere and gore. In fact, the only real wrong turns the movie makes are in attempts to incorporate narrative elements that the movie doesn’t really need. But even with those stumbles, there’s still a hell of a lot to like in a movie that wears its horror sideshow roots as a badge of pride.