Wednesday, May 23, 2007

El hombre y el monstruo (1958)



El hombre y el monstruo (The Man and the Monster), producer/actor Abel Salazar’s follow-up to his two successful "El vampiro" films (El vampiro, 1957, and El ataud del vampiro, 1957) moved away from vampire myths to seep itself in a delirious combination of Faustian legend and Robert Louis Stevenson's classic Jekyll & Hyde tale. Shooting on the ABSA production began on June 23, 1958 at the Churubusco Azteca Studios, and if some of the sets are recognizable to the Mexican horror initiate, it is because the filming followed the helming of another horror film, Misterios de ultratumba (English title: The Black Pit of Dr. M), and employed some of the same sets and decorations. Interesting enough, though undoubtedly coincidental, both films share an underlying warning for man against desiring more than is meted out to a human in life.

The film starts with a bang--almost literally, as the first image in the wonderful prologue is a car heading at furious speed down a night road to almost immediately smash into a tree. (Why the woman driver is driving so furiously is never made known--it's almost as if she is escaping from a horror that precedes the one she will face in a few minutes.) The woman driver gets out and seeks help at a nearby hacienda mansion--a foreboding, run-down dwelling, from inside which a piano is heard. The heavy courtyard door is open, but the door to the hacienda is locked. When the woman knocks on the hacienda door, the pianist stops his playing. As the woman moves away in trepidation, the pianist pleads with her to open the door and set him free. Curiously, a set of keys are lying not far from the foot of the door. The woman hesitates, but, compelled by the begging voice and her human duty toward suffering, she picks up the keys and opens the door. The title of the film is played over her screaming face. (In the K. Gordon Murray American edit, not present on the DVD except for an English audio track, the English title of a film is seen against a black background, while we hear the audio of the woman’s scream.)

This exceptional and atmospheric beginning, almost European in nature with its blonde female, sleek modern car and sophisticated camerawork, heralds a genuine classic of Mexican horror cinema. The moralistic story tells of a famed pianist, Samuel Magno, who has nowadays retreated from the world to focus his time on developing the talents of his protegee, Laura, a woman who is the exact image of Alejandra, a female pianist whom Magno had killed in fit of envy and after making his Faustian deal with the Devil. ("Magno" is derived from the Latin "magna," meaning "the great," so the character is slyly named, in code, "Samuel the Great.")

Faustian tales have been around for ages, both in legend and artistic works. The great violinist Paganini was thought by some to have sold his soul to the devil in return for being such a virtuoso on the violin. So much was this taken to heart that for five years after his death the Church refused his body’s burial in consecrated ground! 19th century musical works such as Franz Liszt’s Faust Symphony (1854) and Charles Gounod’s opera Faust (1859) dealt with the fable, underlying how effective and entertaining a combination music and damnation can make. It is to the credit to the man responsible for the story, Raul Zenteno, that he chose to develop his plot from this folktale that has spread to many cultures through the years. Music is the link throughout the entire film, with the suspenseful climax taking place in a concert hall, where Laura performs with an orchestra under the direction of Samuel Magno. The final scene is operatically emotional (by far the most emotional of all of Salazar's horror films) and ends on a perfect note, much like a classical piece of music.

Aside from its many strengths, what makes the El hombre y el monstruo particularly intriguing is that Samuel only kills his rival, Alejandra, after she plays in a concert a “strange melody” from sheet music that is, sinisterly, white notes on black paper. As she tells Samuel in a later scene, she has no idea where the sheet music came from and it bears no composer’s name. We realize at this point that the Devil has set up a trap and Samuel will fall into it. The hand of cruel fate is evoked here, much as in the aforementioned Misterios de ultratumba, though the ABSA film refrains from highlighting any religious message.

Rafael Baledon, one of Mexico’s notable craftsmen of genre cinema, directs with a superb eye for framing, making each scene count aesthetically, despite the quick shooting schedule of the film. It is quite an impressive directorial outing, reaching beyond just an ordinary journeyman's work for a paycheck, a criticism that could be applied to another ABSA horror director, the notorious Chano Urueta.

The major leads--Enrique Rambal, Abel Salazar, Martha Roth and Ofelia Guilmain--all perform superbly. Roth does a heroic job of keeping still in the scenes in which she plays the corpse of Alejandra, but I do believe several nearly unnoticeable tricks were used, including a photographic cut-out of the actress when the camera is looking over her character's shoulder. The most amusing performance, intentional or not, must go to a black cat, who jets out of the hands of Magno's mother whenever Magno or trouble approaches.

The highly regarded pianist Maria Teresa Rodriguez played the classic compositions in the film and probably the wilder, non-classical compositions as well. Born in Hidalgo on February 18th, 1923, Teresa Rodriguez was a child prodigy who performed Beethoven’s First Concerto with an orchestra at age eight and graduated as a concertista at fourteen. Her participation in the film, noted in the credits, shows the classiness that Salazar was attempting to give his production.

Much has been made, negatively, of the make-up used for the monster. I think it's intentionally a conflicting mixture of repulsive-horrid and pug-ugly lovable, as we are meant to not just be frightened by the monster, but alternately also be sympathetic to it. The gross largeness of the features is also in keeping with the horror make-up of several earlier Mexican horrors, including the classic El monstruo resucitado (1953), though the inspiration here seems to be the Hyde make-up used on Frederic March for the 1931 filming of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson tale. Just add a lot more hair and some facial elephantiasis that balloons up nose and lips.

The DVD from CasaNegra is up to the usual high-standards the company has consistently attained with its previous Mexican horror releases. The print quality, for a film this old, is as good as it gets, and CasaNegra has done a nice job of subtitling the Spanish audio, rendering the lettering in a pleasing and easily readable bluish font that just about glows. The K. Gordon Murray English dub is available as an audio option. Special features include a Mexican horror movie poster "slideshow," a US radio spot (when the film was paired with El vampiro sangriento/The Bloody Vampire), and cast bios by an uncredited David Wilt. The only negative in the entirety is the ugly color photo that graces the cover. The photo has nothing to do with film, but was placed there in a misguided effort to attract the casual buyer. It is one of the most misleading and unnecessary of DVD covers and, thankfully, as evidenced by the advance cover art for CasaNegra's next two Mexican horrors, it's a mistake the company won't make again.

It cannot be stressed enough that fans of Mexican horror need to support this release, and CasaNegra's other Mexican horror ventures, in order for the company to keep on investing in the genre. While no official word has emerged from CasaNegra concerning the sales of its DVDs, the logical surmise, based on the financial troubles that all niche DVD companies are going through these days, is that the plethora of sterling and authorized presentations of foreign horror may be coming to an end. The market will determine this, and it's up to us who love and respect these films to make sure these releases are as successful as possible.

CasaNegra's The Man and the Monster is available at Amazon.com for $17.99.