In the baby ward of a hospital, nurses are in the middle of changing shifts. The evening nurse is late, but finally shows up and takes over in the incubator room. She locks the door, grabs a scalpel, and begins to brutally hack away at the newborns sleeping peacefully as horrified parents watch through the looking glass, unable to help. After a struggle, hospital security manages to shatter the glass and break into the room, but at that point, it is too late. The nurse takes the scalpel to her own throat and falls to a lifeless heap in a puddle of her own blood.
This all occurs in the first few moments of Mexican horror film, Belzebuth. It’s clear from this opening that co-writer/director Emilio Portes has no intention of tiptoeing around his subject matter. Belzebuth deals with some crazy shit, and at no point does it shy away from it.
Flash forward five years later, and another unspeakable tragedy occurs. This time at a school where more than thirty kindergarten students are savagely slaughtered. The culprit in this case? A slightly older student that gets his hands on a gun. Once the slaying is done, the pint-size plugger puts a shotgun to his own mouth and blows his head off.
Detective Emmanuel Ritter (Joaquín Cosio) is assigned the case, which recalls tragic memories of his own — his child was a victim of the hospital massacre years earlier. Initially, Ritter has no reason to believe this case is related to the death of his child in any way. Perhaps this is cartel related, but this appears to be nothing more than a kid getting involved with drugs, getting his hand on a gun, and losing it. Things take a terrifying turn when a group of paranormal investigators, led by Ivan Franco (Tate Ellington), show up on the scene and suggest something much more sinister is afoot.
As Franco explains it, the deaths at the hospital and school are just the beginning. The Devil is attempting to stop the next coming of Jesus and this means many more small children are set to die. The key to possibly stopping all of this is tracking down a former Jesuit priest (Tobin Bell) who may hold the answers.
The basic premise is simple — Devil vs. Jesus, Good vs. Evil — but it’s executed as a police procedural. And while the subject matter primarily deals with religion, the film manages to touch on a number of different topics including cartel violence, the corruption of Mexican police, and US-Mexico relations. All of it is handled so well, that even when you know for sure what is coming, it manages to rock you and catch you off guard.
The film is largely carried by Cosio and Ellington who play off one another brilliantly. They come from completely opposite worlds but are fighting towards the same goal. While both actors shine, Cosio steals the show. Cosio’s Ritter is such a tortured character, dealing with ineffable grief, but fully understanding that he still has a job to do. He’s one of my favorite horror leads in recent memory.
I’m not a religious person at all, quite the opposite actually, but Belzebuth managed to get under my skin, and quite frankly, freak me out. At one point the film comments on non-believers like myself, with Ritter saying, “out here (Mexico), even the atheist are believers.”
The film isn’t without its flaws. There are some twists and turns, that ultimately pay off in a satisfying way, but during the film’s final third get a bit convoluted and cause the story to stumble over itself for a brief moment. This is a minor squabble, however, and does not take away from an otherwise great film.
Belzebuth is one of the scariest movies I have seen in years. It’s cliche to say, “watch this one with the lights on,” but when it comes to Belzebuth you really should watch this one with the lights on. From the baby bloodbath up top to a giant crucified Jesus statue that comes to life via possession, to the film’s claustrophobic final act in the narco pipeline, Belzebuth is an unnerving film that will make believers out of us all.
Belzebuth made its North American premiere at Cinepocalypse 2019.