Judge Mitchell Hattaway ritually sacrifices a chicken, then sautés it with white wine, lemon, and capers. Voila, Santeria picatta!
The soul possessed.
After receiving a phantom Eucharist, young Ricky Banda (Nito Perez, Jr.) begins having visions of the Virgin Mary. Ricky quickly becomes a local celebrity, and catches the eye of Brother Neil (Kevin Rankin), a street preachy who hosts a cable access show. Ricky's neighbors and relatives believe he has been chosen as an instrument of God, but they soon realize that the entity possessing Ricky draws it power from the forces of darkness.
It would take certain skills to pull off a story such as this, but Benny Matthews obviously doesn't possess those skills. Matthews, who wrote, directed, edited and produced this movie, earns points for trying, but that's as far as I can extend the accolades. Santeria is strictly amateur hour at ever level. Matthews's plotting is nothing new, and his dialogue is excruciatingly banal. His shot compositions exhibit no visual acumen. Aside from the aforementioned Kevin Rankin (you might remember him from Hulk, or from his hilarious turn as Lucien the R.A. in Undeclared), the cast is comprised of Matthews's friends, relatives, and neighbors. Most of these people have no acting experience whatsoever, and it shows. Many of them appear to be reading from cue cards, and several of them appear to have just come out of a collective coma. To make matters worse, the movie has been cut down from its original running time of 165 minutes, resulting in some decidedly choppy storytelling. Characters vanish without a trace, while others change motivations without any rhyme or reason. Numerous plot threads are left dangling. And with the exception of the last ten minutes or so, much of the movie consists of static scenes during which the characters indulge in dime store theology. To make matters worse, Matthews opens the movie with narration that spells out the entire plot. He claims to have done this in order to clear up any potential confusion during the climax, but all he ends up doing is shooting himself in the foot. Why sit through the remaining eighty minutes when the first two completely spell out what's ahead? Besides, the climax isn't confusing; it's simply nonsensical. Get this—the entity attacking Ricky and his family actually knocks on the family home's front door, runs and hides, and then waits for someone to open the door before it enters the house (a move which allows Matthews to become the billionth director to swipe one of Sam Raimi's signature Evil Dead shots). I had always assumed evil spirits weren't bound by the laws of physics, but it looks like I was wrong. (Given its penchant for practical jokes, I was hoping the evil entity would also put a burning bag of dog poop on the house's front stoop, but my hopes were dashed.)
The transfer for Santeria is plagued with the same problems normally found on a no-budget, shot-on-video, straight-to-DVD release. Backgrounds are noisy, definition is poor, and jagged edges abound. Darker scenes are murky, colors bleed, and compression artifacts pop up on several occasions. The audio fares better; dialogue is always clear and intelligible, and the music is well represented. The low end is a bit weak, though, and surround action is non-existent. Extras consist of a few deleted scenes, a trailer for the movie, previews for other Lionsgate horror flicks, and a commentary from Benny Matthews and sound designer Will Golden. There's a bit of dead air in the commentary, but there's also some good info regarding the struggles of working on a shoestring. (This is yet another case in which the making of the movie turns out to be a lot more interesting than the movie itself.)
One last thing: The party responsible for the movie's subtitles should be shot. About half of the dialogue is in Spanish, and misspellings in the translations run rampant. "Our" is used for "hour," and the spelling of any given character's name often changes from line to line. And while it's been quite some time since I last checked, I'm pretty sure "siting" (which is used twice during the opening titles) isn't even a word.
It's possible someone could take the core idea of this movie and weave an interesting story around it. The effects of such phenomena on a close-knit, relatively insular, devoutly religious community could provide a talented filmmaker with the raw material for a compelling film, but Benny Matthews certainly isn't that filmmaker. When all is said and done, Santeria is nothing more than a glorified home movie, and a rather poor one at that.
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