Very suddenly, the population of a small village in Belize is struck by a deadly illness. It’s not your run-of-the-mill kind of sickness either, but the sort of thing that very quickly convinces the local doctor to somewhat unhelpfully mumble about curses. The government is very quick to quarantine the village, so soldiers surround the place and are all too willing to gun down everyone who comes too close; on the other hand, we don’t get to see any attempts at actual medical help.
Young Nehanda (Nehanda Higino) has been having a recurring dream concerning a cave, the jungle and the witch-like creature known as the Xtabai. When her little brother catches the illness, and her mother is killed by the soldiers when she tries to leave to find a doctor who doesn’t go from “unknown illness” to “curse” in the course of a few hours, Nehanda becomes convinced these dreams are indeed prophetic, and the cave contains a way to lift the curse destroying her village. So off she goes to the jungle with vaguely sleazy local guide and owner of an excellent name John Jones (Arran Bevis), and half of her school mates as well as her teacher (Jim Goodchild Arnold) in tow, facing the dangers of the soldiery as well as the rather unwanted attentions of the Xtabai herself.
Central-American Belize isn’t exactly a metropolis of filmmaking, so Xtabai may or may not be the country’s first (and possibly only) horror film. Not surprisingly with a film from a country with a small population and comparatively little cinematic infrastructure, director Matthiew Klinck’s epic is very rough around the edges, mostly shot with handheld digital cameras and featuring amateur actors. It does have a bit more going for it production-wise than many a microbudget horror film though, like actual soldiers portraying the members of the Belizian army (which comes as a bit of a surprise in a film that does portray that organisation as perfectly willing to gun down an unarmed woman and taking flight on the first sighting of a floating witch), and a general air of professionalism making the best out of a difficult situation behind the camera.
Xtabai is an interesting (in the best possible interpretation of the word) mixture of various elements: there’s an air of down-to-Earth realism to the early scene setting parts of the film – in part certainly on account of the semi-professional actors in very real locations – but the film also shows an imaginative streak that seems half to be caused by the ambitions of low budget horror movie that doesn’t quite want to only copy other films and half feels like folklore. This is after all a quest story about a girl trying to save her brother from a curse.
There’s also a bit of what I’ll never stop to call home-made psychedelia going on. The Xtabai’s murders scenes are delightful examples of how to use the cheapest digital effects to portray the change in perception attacks of the Weird/supernatural have on the characters, and definitely demonstrate more creativity than just letting the Xtabai slash and stalk in too mechanical a manner. From time to time, Klinck even manages to find a bit of visual poetry. I was particularly fond of the shadow play in Maestro’s death and the pure Weirdness of his fate in this regard, but there are a lot of little moments like that scattered around the film to keep the jaded horror film viewer interested.
I deeply appreciate the film’s dedication to the local: it’s not only the jungle (though I suspect that’s as good as cheap locations that are just sitting there for a filmmaker to use can get), or the way the film’s characters don’t fit horror movie tropes quite the way one expects. It’s not that the characters are deep mind you, but they are products of slightly different cultural sensibilities the film doesn’t attempt to hide, though they might very well be particularly embarrassing clichés if you’re from Belize.
The Xtabai – related to other folkloric entities of a parallel kind from all around the world as she may be – is a great pleasure in the local regard too, as is the film’s decision to include some of her stranger habits you’d typically get to see in folklore or in Weird Fiction, and less in straight-up horror. To make a final example of the film’s individual way of going about things, the Xtabai can in the end only be conquered with the help of a human sacrifice as prepared by a helpful Mayan elder (Nicasio Coc, I believe), something Klinck doesn’t keep hidden for some kind of final twist or for a not pre-planned self-sacrifice but lets the Mayan gentleman state completely friendly and matter-of-factly right when the characters meet him.
Of course, there’s also the mandatory “sexy bikini scene” (absurdly enough after the first member of our expedition has been taken by the Xtabai), a plot that more than once creaks mechanically, some feet dragging and so on and so forth in here, too, but in the case of this film, all that adds a slightly naive charm to the proceedings and not the generic blandness it could have. These weaknesses just can’t distract from Curse of the Xtabai’s inherent qualities of Weirdness, localness, imagination and enthusiasm that make it a film very much worth seeking out for those willing to approach a film on its own terms.
Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?