Ernesto Alonso: EL MALEFICIO’s Demonic Mafioso Dandy
Mexico City, late February, 1983. Channel 2: Televisa Network. 8pm
Enrique de Martino, a mature elegant man with a well-tended black moustache, platinum hair, and a black satin robe with a mandarin collar stands before a mirror, two long lit black candles and an antique painting of an 18th Century military officer with a deep dark stare. The painting is the embodiment of a demon: Bael. As he gazes at the painting, he pledges alliance and bondage before humbly asking for assistance in eliminating his enemies. After a moment of silence, the eyes of Bael glow red as the candles extinguish. De Martino turns and faces the camera while sliding doors shut themselves behind him, concealing the altar within an ornate cabinet in an elegant office. All through this scene, Jay Chataway’s “Mannequin’s Revenge” from the Maniac soundtrack has been playing in the background.
This scene was one of the many highlights of El Maleficio (The Hex), the horror telenovela (soap opera) phenomenon that ran for 320 episodes from February 1983 to April 1984 and captured the attention of an entire nation in the midst of a deep recession and a general mood of doom and gloom. Enrique de Martino, a totemic character in Mexican pop culture, was expertly played by Ernesto Alonso, the famed cinema, theater, and TV actor. He was also a powerhouse telenovela producer who helped bring pioneering TV writer Fernanda Villeli’s concept of El Maleficio to life. While the telenovela stuck to stereotypical gender roles, as well as classic good vs evil tropes, it heated up Mexican eyeballs as the inclusion of the dark arts, the indigenous spirit world, and a cold cynicism towards the corruption of power struck a deep, emotional chord within TV spectators while also drawing a vast male audience into telenovelas for the first time and scoring big with Spanish speaking viewers in the US.
Alonso, born on the 28th of February 1917, moved to Mexico City from his hometown Aguascalientes in 1930 to chase the dream of becoming an actor. He first tasted popularity while performing in theater and radio dramas on XEW radio from 1939 to 1942. In parallel, an illustrious film acting career developed, where he excelled at playing elegant and cosmopolitan characters as well as peculiar individuals such as San Felipe de Jesus (1949), the first Mexican saint, and an obnoxious pimp in Streetwalker (1951). The apex of his film acting career came in 1954 with the wonderful and kinky film Criminal life of Archibaldo de la Cruz by the dream priest Luis Buñuel. This film is two tablespoons of murderous fantasies, one ounce of elegant subdued sadism, a pinch of fetishism, a splash of transvestism, and a whole lot of Alonso in a deliciously perverse performance.
At the start of the ‘50s, Ernesto Alonso flourished as a nightclub empresario. Along with his longtime companion Dr. Angel Fernandez, the Barbosa family and famed architect Mario Pani, Alonso owned the most glamorous and exclusive nightclub in Mexico City: El Quid. If you were a figure in the arts, show biz, politics or wanted to become one, it was the place to be seen at. One night in 1955 at El Quid, Alonso was presented with a juicy proposal by Emilio “The Tiger” Azcarraga, second-in-command at the Televicentro TV network, who wanted to recruit him as a producer, director and actor in telenovelas. Legend tells Alonso accepted, only after adding two clauses into the contract: 1) he could continue with selected film acting roles and 2) he would be granted access to a very amicable financing plan to immediately buy the building where El Quid and his own apartment were located. “The Tiger” accepted. Alonso then entered the sphere of Mexican television when it most needed fresh ideas and through his producing flair and genius created some of the telenovela pillars that first helped transform Televicentro into the Televisa Network. Thus was born the showbiz ecosystem that would eventually spawn El Maleficio.
Other memorable characters and highlights, apart from the regular invocations of Bael, included: Teodora, De Martino’s nemesis and mother of his first child, a beautiful Indian witch who always appears surrounded by white candles. Liliana, the ghost of a little girl who befriends Juan, a boy with paranormal sensibilities. Nora, De Martino’s alcoholic first wife who experiences manic episodes of delirium tremens with big, hairy tarantulas. A black hellhound, invisible to most except the supernaturally gifted, bound to protect De Martino from harm. Soledad, a black magic sorceress for hire who looks perfectly normal and mundane. Plus: demonic possession of a newborn baby, Mafia initiation rituals, assorted violence, and suggested sex crimes. For the music the network licensed tracks from genre favorites: Goblin, the Humanoids from the Deep OST by James Horner and the Halloween 2 OST by Carpenter and Howarth; repurposing them to great dramatic effect
Rumors surrounded El Maleficio’s production: the Bael painting would continually fall down from the wall, heavy soundstage doors would suddenly close shut, and actors and actresses wore crucifixes and religious images under their costumes as protection. Actress Patricia Reyes Spíndola hired a cartomancy expert to help her avoid any esoteric pitfalls that her on-screen persona could attract while actress Malena Doria had to hire a shaman to cleanse her home after repeated incidents of weird noises and moving objects. Tabloids reported stories of mysterious private rituals that were allegedly demonic invocations held by Alonso. There were even those who denounced him as a warlock, bent on corrupting Mexican households through the airwaves.
At the time Ernesto Alonso, stated “I only invoke God and the Virgin of Guadalupe. I respect all the Saints but I never ask them for anything.” Some say these “Maleficio incidents” were but marketing ploys invented by the network and propagated by their own media to further promote the telenovela. Over the years, nostalgia, blogs, and fans have turned these stories into legend. At the time, I heard these stories and I believed them all. And furthermore, it only improved the viewing experience.
I was 11 when El Maleficio aired and was both fascinated and repelled. My parents weren’t too keen on me watching but allowed it since it offered them extra time for unrestrained marital conflict. That is until my nightmares with Bael and Teodora (the Indian white magic witch) and my repeated questions about summonings and black magic at school.
The success of El Maleficio was not a fluke and was not limited to Mexico. Its impact was felt all over the Spanish-speaking media. Years before, Alonso had already been christened as “Mr. Telenovela”, thanks to the roaring success of most of his productions. He invented the historical telenovela with great success before similar English and French productions by retelling and spicing up national history with love stories. The creative mantra being: even our national heroes had love trouble while they were making history. But along with that narrative formula he developed and perfected over the years, he did not cease to experiment and inject genre into telenovelas.
Although many believe El Maleficio was the first horror telenovela in Mexico, Alonso had previously produced other TV dramas that delved into the unusual, the morbid and the peculiar: Las momias de Guanajuato / The Mummies of Guanajuato (1962), where intricate love stories with paranormal overtones set in the Colonial period would start and end with the mummies on display at the world-famous museum (recreated in TV soundstage). Doña Macabra (1963) a black humor extravaganza with two old ladies who happen to be witches hiding a treasure from greedy relatives. La Mujer Dorada / The Golden Woman (1964) the misadventures of a woman with golden-colored skin who works at the circus along with her friends: the dwarf, the fat lady, the Siamese twins, and the bearded lady. La Bella y la Bestia / Beauty and the Beast (1979) which told the story of a family that inhabits a haunted house and are slowly killed one by one by a young and innocent-looking Linda Jackson (played by Tina Romero), who four years earlier had played the titular character in Alucarda, unaware that film would eventually turn her into a genre legend.
The roaring success of El Maleficio demanded a sequel which came out in 1986 as a film. El Malefico 2: The Envoys from Hell, starring Ernesto Alonso and TV superstar Lucia Mendez, was shot in NYC, Venice, and Mexico City. But despite the expectation, glamorous locations, nuclear annihilation angst, and Alonso, the film tanked at the box office. Something most definitely got lost in the telenovela-to-film translation. Even previous fans like me rejected it as the film felt like a clunky, pale imitation of The Omen trilogy.
The ‘80s continued and flowed into the next decade. Alonso continued producing telenovelas, sometimes scoring big hits but now concentrating on historical and romantic projects while staying away from genre fare. Other producers took the mantle with titles like The Strange Return of Diana Salazar (1988) starring Lucia Mendez, Alonso’s former co-star and protege. His lifelong partner Dr. Angel Fernandez, who had passed away in 1973, had left him in charge of their two adopted children: Juan Diego and Lupita. Alonso was now a grandfather of two girls; Maria Luisa and Julia from his sons’ first marriage to Teresa Anaya. In 1996, at the age of 33, his daughter Lupita died in a car crash related to substance abuse.
Alonso spent his last years very close to his granddaughter María Luisa and in the care of Teresa Anaya. On August 7th, 2007, gentleman and showbiz titan Ernesto Alonso died. By then he had starred in 36 plays, 41 films, and produced 160 telenovelas. At the time, Proceso, an influential news publication, suggested that the character of Enrique de Martino had been partly inspired in certain esoteric leanings of Azcarraga, who had reigned Televisa until his death in 1997.
Sad tales of intrigue, manipulation and extreme greed surfaced in 2010 with the publication of a tell-all book by Claudia De Icaza which channelled information provided by Maria Luisa, granddaughter of Alonso. Through the book, she denounced the machinations of her own mother Teresa Anaya, who turned out to be the universal heir of the Alonso estate and all intellectual properties. María Luisa accused her mother of manipulating Alonso and distancing him from family, lifelong friends, partners, and lovers who really cared for him. In a further twist of events, Teresa Anaya challenged the Televisa Network over IP rights of Alonso’s catalogue of telenovelas. She won the case, keeping El Maleficio away from reruns or relaunches in any type of home media or streaming platforms. There has been recent talk of a remake or a reboot but attempts in 2016 and 2018 have failed.
In the final episode of El Maleficio, Enrique de Martino was, unfortunately but predictably, vanquished by the forces of good. He stoically stood before his altar to Bael as flames slowly crept up around him until he was fully consumed. His reign of terror came to a halt. But in the final shot of the series, we discover the painting survived the purifying fire and we clearly see the eyes of Bael glow.
I have never forgotten that moment. A seed had been planted. It was through the character of Enrique de Martino, a demonic mafioso dandy, that I had discovered a gateway into a hidden world of mysticism, rituals, and invisible forces that both scared and captivated me. That paradox would take years to bloom but it would eventually become one of the building blocks that still, to this date, fuels my passion for defending and promoting the power of Mexican imagination and its creators.
Viva Ernesto Alonso!
A Mexican offspring of the 1970s obsessed with the power and paradoxical beauty of genre stories imprinted onto celluloid and pixels. Abraham Castillo Flores has been Head Programmer at Morbido Fest since 2010, where he curates and presents exotic and outrageous films to audiences hungry for intense emotions. Abraham lives in Mexico City where he dedicates his every breath to the promotion, restructuring, study, and presentation of genre films.