It would be a stretch to say that Mexico has a great television tradition, with ethically shady entertainment behemoths like Televisa peddling the lowest common denominator and reinforcing all sorts of retrograde social values. But that doesn’t mean the history of Mexican broadcast TV isn’t full of fascinating exceptions. In fact, the same diabolical network that brought the world the return of the dictatorial PRI (Institutional Revolution Party) can also be credited with launching the careers of some of Mexico’s most illustrious directors, including Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, and Emmanuel Lubezki. And it’s all thanks to a spooky ’80s anthology series called La hora marcada.
Broadcast on Televisa from 1987-1990, La hora marcada seemingly came out of nowhere in a television landscape otherwise dominated by formulaic telenovelas and cringe-inducing variety shows. The premise was simple: each episode would stand on its own, giving the directors and writers total freedom to explore creepy visual atmospheres, terrifying premises, and heady social themes within the loose boundaries of the sci-fi and terror genres. Consisting of over 100 chapters, the episodes were unified only by the apparition of a death-like figured referred to as the “Mujer de Negro,” or Lady in Black.
Comparable to a Mexican Twilight Zone, or even Black Mirror, La hora marcada borrowed freely from literature, American cinema, and Mexico’s own folkloric traditions, and left its mark on a generation of Mexican children who to this day clamor for a definitive DVD collection of the series. But beyond its cult value, La hora marcada is credited with providing a sort of no-holds-barred audiovisual laboratory for promising young directors at a time when the national film industry was hitting rock bottom. Among the numerous directors associated with the series, classmates Alfonso Cuarón, Emmanuel Lubezki, and Luis Estrada (La dictadura perfecta) made their way to La hora marcada soon after graduating from the UNAM’s Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos (CUEC), in part thanks to a sympathetic professor named Juan Mora Catlett, who also directed several episodes.
Once production had began, Cuarón recalls a stimulating conversation with a jolly Tapatío, who concluded a long reflection on the work of Stephen King by flatly asking Cuarón why his adaptation of a King short story was so terrible. That jolly but brutally honest man was none other than Guillermo del Toro, and his somewhat frank introduction was the beginning of a lifetime of collaboration and friendship between the two. In fact, del Toro is credited with dreaming up the original story for the episode De Ogros — believed by many to be the greatest of the series’ 112 episode run — which told the story of a young girl who finds solace from her abusive household in a kind ogre who lives in the sewer system. If that sounds familiar to anyone, it’s because many believe it to be an early iteration of what would later become Pan’s Labyrinth — only De Ogros was written and directed by Cuarón.
In total, Cuarón directed six episodes of the series, taking the opportunity to dream up tricky cinematic sequences in the midst of rushed, on-location shooting schedules. In a recent Tribeca Film Festival panel with Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, the duo recalled how they would look for one single shot that could make the otherwise low-budget endeavor worthwhile, and indeed, a glance at the Cuarón-directed episode A veces regresan gives a sense of exactly what that meant. This, of course, was the episode that inspired Cuarón’s lifelong friendship with del Toro — and one can certainly sympathize with Del Toro’s criticisms when faced with the excessive soundtrack and somewhat stiff performances. Nevertheless, the episode’s hallucinatory opening tracking shot betrays a truly visionary talent reinforced by visually complex montages, and even a lively chase sequence. All in all, this story of a tragic death at an amusement park followed by a ghostly visitation 25 years later isn’t exactly Cuarón’s best work, but over twenty rough minutes we see all the seeds of Cuarón’s unique cinematic vision.
For his part Del Toro wrote four episodes of the series and directed five, with Hamburguesas (also known as Con todo para llevar) often revered as his most inspired episode. A sort of ironic play at anti-capitalist allegory, Hamburguesas tell the story of a comic book illustrator who’s inspired to make a late-night visit to a booming fast food chain called Roonie’s — only to discover that the restaurant is staffed by an army of zombies. While visually, the episode is significantly more academic than Cuarón’s sweeping cinematic style, the story is well-executed and accompanied by plenty of touches that showcase Del Toro’s own personal vision, from the ironically pleasant masks donned by the zombie staff to the episode’s deeper allegorical implications.
Luis Estrada directed only one episode, but it was long enough to be in the belly of the Televisa beast that he would eventually put on blast in his box-office smash La dictadura perfecta. Entitled El motel, Estrada had the pleasure of working with Chivo in one of the series most technically accomplished episodes. Consisting of a hodgepodge of American horror cinema tropes, from Psycho to Jason Voorhees, El motel tells the story of a woman stranded on a country road with her drunk husband. Hours from the nearest town, she forced to stay the night in a creepy motel where she is terrorized by a knife-wielding psychopath donning an oxygen mask. Throughout the episode, Estrada’s direction is tight and effective, helped along in no small part by Chivo’s terrifyingly atmospheric cinematography and complex camera movements.
But Chivo wasn’t the only cinematography master to refine his eye on La hora marcada. Cuarón himself also explored his strictly visual side as cinematographer on the episode Smog. In that same Tribeca panel mentioned above, Cuarón revealed that his original intention was to be a cinematographer, and Chivo actually worked as his right hand on a number of film school projects. As anyone would expect, however, seeing Chivo’s unique talent eventually convinced Cuarón that he should look for another profession. And it all worked out pretty well. Yet, a quick glance at Smog reveals that Cuarón actually had what it took to be a great photog, as he lights Smog’s underground, post-apocalyptic world with dim, smokey silhouettes that wouldn’t be entirely out of place in Children of Men.
Unfortunately for film buffs the world over, La hora marcada has fallen into the dustbin of television history, with only one cursory and shoddily-produced DVD collection available from Televisa. Many of the episodes are available in their entirety on Youtube, but their low quality does no justice to the illustrious minds behind the camera. Cult fans continue to rally around the cause of a definitive collection, but Televisa has thus far given no sign that they are interested in doing the work. Whether or not we may see such a collection in our lifetimes, we can rest at ease knowing that La hora marcada effectively gave the world a handful of the 21st century’s greatest cinematic masters — and gave more than few 10 years olds terrifying nightmares along the way.