Gigi Saul Guerrero’s Latest Combines A Real-Life Horror with Fantasy
Her provocative film provides a glimpse into how families are separated at the U.S.-Mexico border.
I knew when I met Gigi Saul Guerrero in 2013 to talk with her about her short film Dia De Los Muertos, which centered on a group of strippers who take revenge on their customers, the then-23-year-old director would one day be a force to be reckoned with. And I was right.
Ironically, this past Independence Day, Saul Guerrero aka La Muñeca Del Terror (doll of terror), as she’s known by her fan base, made her feature film directorial debut with Culture Shock, which is part of Blumhouse TV Productions’ “Into the Dark,” month-long horror anthology series.
Both timely and frightening, Culture Shock addresses head-on the horrors of politics and immigration. The film’s protagonist is “Marisol,” played by Martha Higareda, star of Altered Carbon, a sci-fi series on Netflix.
Marisol is pregnant and asks a coyote (smuggler) to help her cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Just as she and her group are about to take the final steps across, they are confronted by the Mexican cartel. As a violent scene erupts, Marisol blacks out only to wake up in a surreal Pleasantville-esque world where pastel colors and pastries dominate the landscape. She finds herself in a home where her baby is being cared for by “Betty,” an older White woman, played by Barbara Crampton, who refuses to let her hold the infant, and her friends and family appear to be have been taken by body snatchers and left docile and obedient in their antiseptically pristine new American dream “town.”
Saul Guerrero, 29, explains that Betty represents the family separation happening at the U.S.-Mexico border. The lack of control and the frustration and anxiety of not being able to hold your child; that some higher power has a say over your children.
She says the cartels in Mexico are a real-life danger Mexican people have to live with. “There’s danger and horror everywhere. We’re always escaping something from our own race,” Saul Guerrero says.
Roger Ebert’s website said about Saul Guerrero’s film it’s “ambitious, fascinating, and features the best ensemble yet for ‘Into the Dark,’ anchored by a fantastic performance from Martha Higareda.”
A Cinepocalypse reviewer says, “With the current political climate, the notion of Guerrero handling a piece about immigration, especially with her unique background and perspective on the subject, seemed like a perfect fit, albeit a daring one.”
Culture Shock breaks a few barriers, with a Latinx woman at the helm, writing and directing, and a cast and crew where English was the second language on set. It’s also a departure for Saul Guerrero, as it is a psychological horror versus the 18 short slasher films she created with her film company Luchagore Productions.
Hot off two panels at Comic-Con, one where she was the only Latina, Saul Guerrero was also recently named one of Variety’s 10 Latinxs to watch. She tells me she simply wanted her first feature to be meaningful.
“When I first read the script I knew in my gut it would work. I knew I could bring something to this film no one other director could as a Mexican woman. And I thought, if it goes well, I will be trusted to bring my people in for the next project,” she says.
The film was not afraid to show the reality that is America now.
Saul Guerrero was born in Mexico City, and relocated to Vancouver, British Columbia while she was still in high school, so the immigrant experience isn’t far from her thoughts. She co-founded Luchagore while still a film student at Capilano University in Vancouver, where she still lives.
Raynor Shima, producer and co-founder of Luchagore Productions, says he’s watched Saul Guerrero’s craft and skills grow immensely over the last eight years they’ve worked together. He says Culture Shock is a story only she was meant to tell: “This is Gigi’s true vision on this project and we couldn’t be more proud to see her do this on her own and grow as a filmmaker.”
Luchagore was able to produce their films over the years through crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, and shooting Halloween commercials in Vancouver. For Saul Guerrero to go from the small-budget films she was accustomed to directing, to an offer to direct a feature was the break she was hoping for.
Culture Shock was filmed in 16 days in February of 2019. She says the delicate subject matter was a risk and releasing the film on July 4 was a deliberate choice. The script was also written half in English and the other half in Spanish. She says the character Attwood, played by Creed Bratton, is a swipe at current American politics, and the end credits are meant to highlight the reality behind “fake news.”
“It’s hard to talk about this because I’m not American, but the film is very much an homage to both the U.S. government and Trump from the Hispanic point of view,” she explains. The film was not afraid to show the reality that is America now. And Saul Guerrero says the film’s release was “insane.”
“We got so much love… but [also] so much hate! Certain audiences suddenly think we’re going the propaganda route in the genre. They forget that horror has always historically functioned as a sociopolitical allegory since its beginning,” she notes.
“To me personally, it was amazing and rewarding for a story you envisioned visually to be not only seen by so many people, but how left and how right they are reacting! I feel the reception was more positive than negative. Ever since we began with festival reviews and buzz, the hype continued to grow about it! I loved every second of it.”
Latinxs are the U.S.’ second-largest racial group with 18% of the population. Yet, they only make up around 8% (just a 5% increase from 2016) of media representation. Saul Guerrero says she was the only Latinx key person on Culture Shock and sharing her culture was worth everything.
“I wanted to make something that people would talk about,” she explains. “Something my mom would love and want to watch. I come from a very Mexican, Catholic household and I wasn’t allowed to watch horror.”
Many Latinx people grow up hearing frightening stories of characters like El Cuco, El Chupacabra, and La Llorona — a woman who drowns herself and her children after being spurned by her husband. Her ghost is left to wander the Earth wailing and kidnapping children to replace her own. It’s this intimacy or love-hate in the supernatural that makes Latinx audiences drawn to and yet terrified of horror.
She tells me that the first film she ever saw in the horror genre was Children of Men directed by Alfonso Cuarón, a fellow Mexican director. Saul Guererro was 16 years old and her mom made her sister take her along on a date. The film takes place in a dystopian world where there are no children being born, homeless people abound, and immigrants are rounded up and put into cages.
She says the movie changed her whole way of thinking. She never imagined how disturbing humanity can be: “I told them that night, ‘I’m going to be a film director.’”
She started researching other Mexican directors, which led her to Robert Rodriguez. She vibed with what she calls his Tex-Mex style, read his book, and a few years later, Dia de los Muertos was born. She says it’s similar to From Dusk Till Dawn but in Rodriguez’s version, the vampires are bad and in her version the strippers are good and they kill the bad guys.
Everyone deserves a fair chance in life and everybody at the border today being locked up in cages deserves a fair chance.
Revenge is a theme in many of her films. Whether it’s killer strippers, or Armando, the main character in her film El Gigante who is captured and awakens to find a Lucha Libre mask sewn onto his face. The only way to escape is to fight and kill the terrifying and evil Gigante. Or in her film La Quinceañera, about a 15-year-old girl whose family gets massacred during her Quinceañera by a Mexican cartel. She grows up fast to become a woman — which is what a Quinceañera is all about — as she and her Abuela (grandmother) seek retribution.
“Who doesn’t want the bad guy to get what’s coming to him/her/it? We all root for the underdog because at some point we have been that person,” Saul Guererro says. “Horror movies just make the stakes a lot higher. Women are no different as an audience, we love justice and we love a character that can come from being broken down and finding the strength to take over the world if they need to.”
When Saul Guerrero talks about the horror genre, she becomes electric. She tells me she loves it because of the variety of reactions she sees in audiences — from her father who’ll laugh when he’s nervous, to the usual screams of terror, to her own cheers of “fuck yeah” when something really scares her.
In addition to scaring audiences, Saul Guerrero says giving her female characters as many choices as possible is something central to her screenwriting. The last decision Marisol makes in Culture Shock, whether to stay in the U.S. or to return to Mexico, wouldn’t have existed without the director’s commitment to making sure all of her characters are three-dimensional.
She’s excited about her next directing project, although it hasn’t been publicly announced yet. She tells me in hushed tones that it’s an episode for a series on the USA network, based on a popular horror series, set to be released in October. And of course, she looks forward to doing more films like Culture Shock if they’re timely, relatable, and deliver a poignant message.
“Everyone deserves a fair chance in life and everybody at the border today being locked up in cages deserves a fair chance,” she notes. “It’s what we all strive for. I know I understand and am meant to tell this story because I am an immigrant too.”