Enraged to find a black magic ritual performed near his pregnant wife a farmer murders the old shaman (Jose Tablas) responsible. A day or two later Sheriff Aguilar (Roberto Montiel) finds that same farmer dead. His dead cleaved from his body. Local doctor Jose Luis (Rafael Sanchez Navarro) suspects a serial killer is on the loose in the small Mexican town. However stern-faced Catholic priest Padre Martin (Tito Junco) is convinced the shaman has returned from the grave seeking vengeance as a bloodthirsty "Nahual" or Mexican werewolf! Being rational men of science, Sheriff Aguilar and Jose Luis scoff at such superstition. But as the bodies pile local bigwigs pressure Aguilar to do something or else lose his job. While Padre Martin tasks an ironmonger (Mexican superstar Valentin Trujillo in a cameo) to fashion the church silver into a fistful of potential wolf-man-slaying bullets, Jose Luis is horrified to find his wife Rosa (Roxana Chavez) is missing.
While the early-to-mid Eighties were are regarded as a renaissance period for werewolf movies (The Howling (1980), An American Werewolf in London (1981), The Company of Wolves (1984), Silver Bullet (1985)) this intriguing Mexican entry remains regrettably obscure. It marks the directorial debut of Gilberto de Anda, a prolific actor who went on to helm an equally long list of rural crime thrillers. Earthy and evocative Cazador de Demonios (Demon Hunter) is firmly rooted in regional folklore but de Anda imbues the film with a grimy verisimilitude that makes the increasingly outlandish events compelling. Despite the odd unappealing detour into unfunny comic relief (mostly involving either a moronic deputy or a pair of horny teenagers erotically obsessed with Rosa, although the latter at least pays off), the deliberate pace befits de Anda's attempt to weave a specific atmosphere both lyrical and unsettling.
Although it lifts plot and visual motifs familiar from Hollywood productions like Jaws (1975), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973), The Leopard Man (1943), The Exorcist (1973) and arguably the Latin lycanthropic exploits of the great Paul Naschy a.k.a. Jacinto Molina, Cazador de Demonios crafts an identity distinctly different from the gothic comic book outings of the Spanish horror icon. It has one foot in the supernatural but another in the more 'rational' realm of the police procedural. The heroes are young men of science who use modern methods to track the monster. However it takes a cranky, implacable old priest steeped in the old ways to educate them as to what is really going on. Being a Mexican production aimed at a mainstream audience there is an emphasis on the power and influence of the Catholic Church in the rural community. We first meet Padre Martin preaching from his pulpit against anyone that disrespects the church: Satanists, communists, whores. Evidently he does not distinguish between the three. The film does not hide which side it is on with sinners ruthlessly chastised, doubters having their eyes awakened and traditional values reaffirmed albeit not entirely triumphant. Some of this might prove off-putting for those that don't care for horror films laced with bludgeoning religious messages. Yet the grit and nastiness of the film might still win them over. Sheriff Aguilar emerges a broody, vaguely self-serving, belligerent hero whose unlikable aspects are almost interesting. And whereas by contrast Jose Luis is a decent sort his wife Rosa is quite unsettlingly chastised for her 'liberated' ways, emerging the traumatized shell of the vivacious young woman she once was. There is also an indictment of vigilante justice as the local ranchero boss leads a mob that torches a poor, pleading innocent but get away scott free. Oddly enough most of the werewolf's victims are random and innocent, challenging Padre Martin's steadfast belief the creature is enacting a specific form of supernatural vengeance.
In terms of set-pieces Cazador de Demonios is at its most fun when it goes full supernatural in its latter third. Gilberto de Anda stages a gonzo metaphysical confrontation in the bowels of hell itself then switches gears into slasher film mode with the wolf man's well-staged climactic stalking of poor, perennially abused Rosa before a cruel twist possibly lifted from Naschy's Curse of the Devil (1973). Weirdly the film does not introduce its titular demon hunter until almost the last ten minutes. A sort of Mexican Wilford Brimley: portly, late middle-aged and cowboy attired, he goes on to do absolute bugger all.