As I have mentioned elsewhere, starting in the late 1950s and proceeding on throughout the ‘60s, the Mexican film industry enjoyed a Golden Age of sorts when it came to the field of horror. I have already written here on FanLit of such wonderful Mexican fright fests as The Vampire (1957), The Vampire’s Coffin (1958), The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy (1958), The Ship of Monsters (1960), The Witch’s Mirror (1960), The Brainiac (1961), The Curse of the Crying Woman (1961), and Night of the Bloody Apes (1969), and in today’s Shocktober column would like to shine a light on four more of these truly mind-boggling films from south of the border. All of them, of course, would make for perfect fare during this time of the year:
Mexican director Fernando Mendez’ 1959 horror masterpiece The Black Pit of Dr. M originally appeared under the title Misterios de Ultratumba (Mysteries of the Afterlife), certainly a more appropriate appellation. In this film, you see, Dr. Masali, head of a rural insane asylum, coerces a dying associate, Dr. Aldama, to show him the secrets of the realm of the dead, and then return him to the land of the living. But poor Dr. Masali should have known that when you make a deal with the soon-to-be-dead, things don’t always turn out quite as expected! And they don’t, in this very cleverly plotted story that conflates a predestined love affair, an insane gypsy woman, a cursed dagger, disfigurement by acid, transmigration and so much more. Rafael Bertrand is truly excellent as the obsessed Dr. Masali, and special praise must also be heaped on cinematographer Victor Herrera for his work on …Dr. M. His B&W nighttime photography (most of the film does transpire at night) is a thing of real beauty, replete with moving shadows and dense, swirling mists; his work on another of Mendez’ horror films from 1959, The Living Coffin, seems far more pedestrian, in prosaic color. …Dr. M is the kind of film that serves up a startling plot twist every few minutes or so. I would hate to spoil things for any potential viewer by saying too much, but thus feel that this minireview is not doing this tremendous picture justice. So please just trust me on this one – this film should be required viewing for all horror fans! The fine folks at Casa Negra should be thanked for rescuing this little gem from obscurity, and presenting it via a great-looking, excellently subtitled DVD, and with many fine extras, too. Again, gracias, Casa Negra!
THE LIVING COFFIN (1959)
The Living Coffin is, I would imagine, a fine example of that most curious of subgenres: the Mexican cowboy/horror movie. Reuniting director Fernando Mendez, actor Gaston Santos and cinematographer Victor Herrera after that same year’s The Black Pit of Dr. M, the film is, I regret to say, a far lesser achievement. Whereas …Dr. M is a beautifully shot B&W masterpiece, this picture is – though surprisingly filmed in color – a much more pedestrian affair. In it, lawman Gaston, his bumbling compadre Coyote Loco, and Rayito, the smartest horse you’ll ever encounter this side of Trigger, Silver and Mr. Ed, come to the aid of a hacienda in which corpses are being stolen from their tomb and the legendary Crying Woman is heard to wail at night. What horror elements there are chiefly consist of eerie close-ups of the Crying Woman’s attractive but corroded face as she flits through the darkened corridors, but the picture also features a nifty bar fight, a good quicksand sequence, a few shoot-outs and some lame comedy (but certainly not enough to torpedo the film). Santos himself, sans mustache and in color, is practically unrecognizable from the role he essayed in …Dr. M, and Herrera’s talents are much more obvious in that earlier picture. Still, The Living Coffin makes for a reasonably entertaining 70 minutes, and might even be appropriate to watch with the kiddies, especially when the film’s “Scooby Doo” aspects come into play. However, viewers interested in seeing a real Mexican masterpiece dealing with the Crying Woman of legend should check out 1963’s, uh, The Curse of the Crying Woman, a film that I just love. And oh … the Casa Negra DVD that I recently watched looks just fine, as always, but what’s the deal with the microprint on the essay extras? You’ll need one of those 102″ TV screens to read these, I’m afraid!
THE MANSION OF MADNESS (1973)
It was the grisly demon-possession flick Alucarda (1977) that first made me aware of the talents of the late, underrated Mexican director Juan L. Moctezuma. Anxious to see more, I popped in the DVD for Moctezuma’s first film, 1973’s The Mansion of Madness (also, fortunately, on the Mondo Macabro label), and was pleased to discover that it is another winner, although much less disturbing and intense a horror outing than Alucarda. The film nicely captures and expands Edgar Allan Poe‘s 1845 short story “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether” (one of many that Roger Corman never got around to adapting!), and shows what can happen when the inmates of a madhouse literally take over the asylum. In the film, we make the acquaintance of a young man named Gaston Leblanc who has recently graduated from journalism school in 19th century America, and played by hunky dude Arthur Hansel (who looks a good 20 years too old for the part). Leblanc returns to his French homeland to do a story on a mental institution run by one Dr. Maillard (Claudio Brook, the doctor turned demon slayer in Alucarda), whose innovative “soothing system” of letting his inmates run free has been causing quite a stir in medical circles. But shocking surprises await Leblanc as he enters the titular “mansion of madness”… This film, I should say, starts out very strangely, and Maillard’s initial tour of his institution may cause some viewers to shake their heads in bewilderment. My advice would be to stick with it, though, as several plot twists serve to both clarify matters and ratchet up the suspense. Novice film director Moctezuma gives the viewer something interesting to look at in virtually every shot, especially toward the picture’s conclusion. That banquet sequence is a literal phantasmagoria of oddball characters doing unusual things, the frame filled with hyperkinetic wonder. Kudos also to cinematographer Rafael Corkidi, especially for his stunning work outdoors. A welcome addition to the Poe story here: a romantic subplot of sorts featuring an inmate named Eugenie, played by beautiful Ellen Sherman. And speaking of “beautiful,” Susana Kamini, who played the gorgeous Justine in Alucarda, can be seen in this film as well. Look sharp: There she is, playing the topless inmate on the receiving end of that fishing pole! Opening with a pensive voice-over amongst lovely country scenery and concluding with a seeming homage to – of all people – Little Caesar’s Rico Bandello, the picture is a fascinating experience from beginning to end. Thanks again, you Mondo Macabro maniacs!
In case you were wondering whether or not the fact that the name “Alucarda” almost spells “Dracula” backwards has any special significance here, the answer is no, not really. Hardly a tale of vampires, this Mexican film from 1978 rather gives us a look at demonic possession, but, as it turns out, is more – much more – than just a south-of-the-border Exorcist. The film transpires in the year 1865, but, as it was shot in English, its setting may just as easily be the U.S. as Mexico. In it, we meet a beautiful 15-year-old named Justine, played by the gorgeous actress Susana Kamini. (Indeed, Kamini strongly resembles no less a sex symbol than the young Jeanne Crain, and if, by some weird chance, you’ve ever read my reviews for the Crain films State Fair, Dangerous Crossing and Hot Rods to Hell, you already know what I think of HER remarkable physiognomy!) Newly orphaned, Justine comes to live at an unusual orphanage/convent, which looks more like a labyrinth of underground caves and where the nuns are swaddled in mummylike wrappings. Here, she meets Alucarda (Tina Romero), a pretty young “fey” who convinces her to go on an exploration of a nearby crypt. Unfortunately, by innocently (?) prying open one of the coffins there (that of Alucarda’s own mother, as it turns out), a Satanic demon is loosed that wastes little time in possessing both young ladies. And after Alucarda practically rapes the orphanage’s priest during confession, what else can the beleaguered congregation do than to … exorcise its rites? From its fairy tale-like beginning straight through to its apocalyptic conclusion, Alucarda truly is a remarkable film. It contains more screaming and (somehow appropriately) more over-the-top hysterical acting than any film you’ve probably ever seen. It may also be one of the bloodiest; indeed, the nuns in this convent seem to be perpetually covered in the red stuff, and not just as a result of some intensive flagellation. I was not surprised, thus, to learn that the film’s director, Juan L. Moctezuma, was a friend of Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky and served as an associate producer for his 1970 cult film El Topo (the goriest film I’d ever seen, back then). Alucarda also features some stunning cinematography – indoor and outdoor – by Xavier Cruz, numerous gross-out segments (those whippings, especially, plus a skewer-filled exorcism AND the picture’s most memorable image: Justine rising, admittedly vampirelike, from a coffin filled with blood) and some very bizarre moments (such as the deservedly named Sister Angelica oozing blood from every pore and levitating while she prays for the two girls). Viewers who may be expecting the usual blend of head swiveling, cussing and the regurgitation of pea soup may be both stunned and surprised with the imaginative work that Moctezuma has given us here. The film comes to us from the wonderful outfit known as Mondo Macabro, known for its great-looking DVDs that are simply jam packed with extras. Alucarda is no exception. It impressed this viewer so much that I immediately set out to watch Moctezuma’s first picture as a director, 1973’s The Mansion of Madness, which, happily, is also available from Mondo Macabro…
So there you have it … four remarkable horror outings from our Mexican friends that should surely leave you slack jawed with amazement and appreciation. Espero que puedas disfrutar de estos cuatro algun dia pronto!