Perdita Durango (1997) is a fascinating oddity in the filmography of Spanish filmmaker Alex de la Iglesia. It was his attempt at breaking into the North American market with a cast that featured recognizable actors like Rosie Perez, Javier Bardem and James Gandolfini. Unfortunately, De La Iglesia’s film came out before Bardem became known to audiences here and two years before Gandolfini hit it big with The Sopranos. As a result, Perdita Durango was trimmed by ten minutes and dumped into direct-to-video hell with the generic title Dance with the Devil. Even in this neutered form, De La Igleisia’s film is a gonzo potpourri of wild sex, crazed violence and pitch black humor. In other words, the stuff that instant cult films are made of.
Based on Barry Gifford’s novel 59 Degrees and Raining: The Story of Perdita Durango, De La Iglesia’s film is a spin-off, of sorts, of David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990) – also an adaptation of one of Gifford’s novels – by focusing on one of the minor characters featured in that film (and played by Isabella Rossellini). Perdita (Perez) is a tough, no-nonsense lady clad in a Tura Satana-style black outfit. She meets Romeo Dolorosa (Bardem), a maniacal criminal who also happens to be an even more maniacal witch doctor.
The couple cross the border into Mexico, become lovers and partners in crime as they kidnap a white-bread couple of teens – Duane (Harley Cross) and Estelle (Aimee Graham) and transport a truckload of human fetuses to Las Vegas while trying to evade determined Drug Enforcement Agency officer Woody Dumas (Gandolfini).
The opening scene, where a schlubby guy tries to pick up Perdita at an airport, tells us all we need to know about her – she’s smart, tough and more than capable of handling herself, sending the hapless guy scurrying with a few choice words. It’s a juicy role that Rosie Perez sinks her teeth into, immersing herself fully. She shows a wide range of emotions as her character is more than an amoral criminal, she also conveys a vulnerability – albeit fleeting – that gives her a bit more depth than one would expect from this kind of a film.
Romeo is an impulsive mad man as evident in a flashback where he forces a busty bank teller to expose her naked breast while he’s robbing the bank! He then double-crosses his partner, hitting him with the getaway vehicle. Much like Perez, Javier Bardem commits fully to the role with scary intensity. Romeo is a force of nature that follows his own beliefs that are a funky fusion of a love for cinema and a twisted belief in Santeria.
James Gandolfini portrays Woody as a slightly sleazy, slightly seedy character that speaks with a slightly weasely lisp and has the misfortune of being repeatedly hit by fast moving vehicles, not unlike a live-action Wile E. Coyote. He also seems to be mildly fixated on Ava Gardner, at one point remarking how much he likes her lips. He’s determined to bring down Romeo for his outstanding drug offenses and will let nothing get in his way. It becomes a point of pride for him. Gandolfini steals every scene he’s in with his I-don’t-give-a-shit attitude and that is saying something in a film that features larger than life characters played by Rosie Perez, Javier Bardem, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
The film is at its most horrific in the scenes where Romeo practices voodoo. In one ritualistic scene, he drenches himself in blood and smothers his face in a bag of cocaine. He then hacks limbs off of a corpse, tears out its heart and writhes around on the ground, channeling multitudes of demons. There is an unpredictable energy to the scene that makes it scary and thrilling. De la Iglesia contrasts these scenes with gallows humour. Romeo may be a vicious killer but he also loves the music of Herb Albert. There is a hilarious moment where he and Perdita happily groove to the strains of The Dating Game theme.
From the grotesque mutants who threaten Earth in Accion Mutante (1993) to the graphic voodoo practices in Perdita Durango, horrific, often bizarre, imagery has always been prominent in Alex de la Iglesia’s movies. Like his cinematic contemporaries — Mexico’s Guillermo del Toro and France’s Christophe Gans — De la Iglesia impishly mixes a variety of genres in his films:
“I like to play with genres and construct my own movies...What I am trying to do is inject poison into these genres. In a happy comedy I like to introduce poison and make the movie freaky and weird, with a tasteless sense of humor.”
It is no surprise that, like Del Toro and Gans, De la Iglesia comes from a comic book/fanzine background that informs all of his work. There is something of the film geek in all of three filmmakers that results in a desire to include show-stopping spectacle set pieces in their movies and to quote other films in their own work, fueled by an obsession with American culture.
El Dia de la bestia was a huge hit in its native country, earning six Goya Awards (Spain’s equivalent of the Academy Awards), and breaking box office records. Producer Andres Vicente Gomez saw the movie and wanted De la Iglesia to direct Perdita Durango. Gomez felt that De la Iglesia’s sensibilities were better suited for the project than current director, Bigas Luna. With pre-production already underway, De la Iglesia came aboard and molded the material to fit his preoccupations.
For all of its inspired lunacy, Perdita Durango is not without its poignant moments, like when Romeo waxes nostalgic about seeing Vera Cruz (1954) at an impressionable age and how the fate of Burt Lancaster’s character resonated with him. Like with that film, there is a certain sense of fatalism in Perdita Durango as Romeo knows he’s going to die but goes through with one last job anyway and De La Iglesia literally has him become Lancaster’s character, mimicking the showdown in Vera Cruz with the one between Romeo and his cousin Reggie (Carlos Bardem). Perdita Durango ends on a deliciously subversive note as the titular character walks through a gaudy Vegas casino with “Winner” signs flashing all around her – epitomizing the American dream – but she’s lost everything.
Perdita Durango is a curious oddity in De la Iglesia’s oeuvre. It is his most overt attempt to crack the North American market (where he has only a small but dedicated following) with his first English-speaking film and a cast of recognizable actors like Rosie Perez, James Gandolfini and Javier Bardem. This alienated his Spanish fans who probably felt he had sold out, while his perchance for graphic sex and violence scared off potential distributors and mainstream audiences in North America, sending the film direct to video. This reaction is unfortunate because Perdita Durango is De la Iglesia’s most successful effort: a perfect mix of the ridiculous and the epic, with the right blend of genres (crime, horror, comedy, road trip) and a wonderfully eclectic cast that features his regular favorites (Santiago Segura) and colorful character actors (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins).