Wednesday, June 13, 2007
The Curse of the Doll People (1960)
While CasaNegra Entertainment has been getting a lot of very good publicity for its Mexican horror DVDs (and rightfully so), BCI has been mining Mexican horror territory, too, with several releases from the Cinematografica Calderon catalog. Thus far, seven Mexican horror films have been released by BCI, a three-film set of the Aztec Mummy trilogy and two double-disc sets: Night of the Bloody Apes/Curse of the Doll People and Cemetery of Terror/Grave Robbers. The latter sets are part of BCI's CRYPT OF TERROR series.
Of the CRYPT OF TERROR sets, The Curse of the Doll People (Munecos infernales, 1960) is the only film that's part of Mexico's Golden Age of Horror. It is a splendid example of the outre nature of the fantastique emerging from Mexico at this time--wild and nearly ridiculous, but hypnotic and chilling at the same time.
Inspired by Tod Browning's The Devil Doll (1936) and the profanation-revenge motif of many mummy films, The Curse of the Doll People relates the fate of group of visitors to Haiti, who steal a sacred figure from a voodoo sect and bring it back to Mexico. Naturally, there's a curse attached to stealing this idol, so very shortly members of the expedition are being mysteriously killed off, one by one.
We soon find out that the killers are dolls--mobile, mute little assassins with transfixing paper-mache like faces--who employ long needles to strike at and murder their victims. At each murder they also pick up a strange hair thread knotted in nine places. This we learn later is "the sorcerer's ladder"--actually more commonly known as "the witch's ladder," an item crafted by a sorcerer or a witch that carries with it the omen of a fatal death. These machinations are the work of Zandor, a high priest of the cult from whom the religious object has been stolen. Zandor has made the journey to Mexico, along with his prune-faced, zombie helper, Staloon, who plays a wind instrument that guides and helps the killer dolls come back to safety, much like Bela Lugosi's Ygor did for the monster in two Frankenstein pictures.
Atypically for the time, the strongest and most intelligent protagonist of the film is a woman, Karina (Elvira Quintana), a doctor who has an impressive knowledge of archeology, medicine and voodoo traditions. She even takes it upon herself to courageously visit, on her own, the evil den from where the murders arise. Nowadays, when strong females are fashionably prevalent in horror films, the choice of actress would probably be some anemic waif who doesn't look suitably rigorous for the part or some gym-muscled knockout who goes overboard in Tomb Raider-like capacities and needs to knock out a few male characters to prove her strong female traits. Elvira Quintana, however, looks both feminine in that robust "I am a woman" European way (she was born in Spain) and assertive enough to hold her own in a company of men, which her character does all the time in this film.
Though not the lead male character, Molinar (Roberto G. Rivera) is also a unique presence in Mexican film. He appears to be some crime boss, with his "muscle" always around to help him, yet he is a congenial part of the gathering of friends that includes those who have been cursed. This sympathetic portrayal of a criminal and an acceptance of his lifestyle among the "good" characters in the film is unusual and oddly refreshing, as it takes into account the natural and easy cohabitation of the criminal in society. It is Molinar who finally decides to take the law into his own hands in dealing with the murders of his friends, though it will be up to Dr. Karina to find the most effective means of doing so.
What's instructive about this film, and other Mexican horror films as well, is that the performances are generally top-notch. Despite the outre subject matter of much of Mexican horror, it's difficult during this time to come across bad acting in the main principles that falls into an amateurish Ed Wood zone. (Any Woodisms are typically sourced to the risible English-language dubbing familiar to most American fans.) Mexican fantastique, at least up to the end of its golden period, was crafted by professionals, even if the films were frequently of low budget. The resumes of the artists involved are usually always impressive and involve other genres, to include serious art or drama films. While the United States had its plethora of amateurish horror films with amateurish acting, Mexico remained relatively free of these impulses, undoubtedly because of the limited options for making truly independent films. Even the masked wrestlers in luche libre films were given a veneer of acting skills, as their voices were dubbed by professional actors.
From an American perspective, the only area in which Mexico seemed deficient was in the make-up department. Mexico never produced a Jack Pierce, for instance, or a Paul Blaisdell. That said, the monsters arising from Mexican cinema are certainly unique and, in their own way, impacting. Delicacy was not a strong suit here; a powerful, immediate impression was the intent and perhaps a need to outdo the visual weirdness being manufactured in the horror cinema of Mexico's northern neighbor. As it is, The Curse of the Doll People has some of the best make-up of Mexican horror cinema. Simply and ingeniously done, the adult-faced masks of those little devils are memorable and searingly impacting to anyone who may have seen this film as a kid. Even now, from an adult's perspective, these guys are damn creepy looking, though kinda cute, too.
A member of that impressive list of exiles from the Spanish Civil War, Elvira Quintana's career in Mexico took off when she got a nose job and purportedly added more measurement to her breasts with silicon. (With her upturned nose, Quintana bears a remarkable resemblance to euro-cult actress Edwidge Fenech.) Unfortunately, in those early days silicone injections were problematic, health-wise, Elvira may have been aversely affected by them. A multitude of serious health issues began to imped her in 1967, including acute pancreatitus, and she died a year later at the age of thirty-two.
At least she outlasted her co-star Roman Gay. Gay, a popular romantic actor of the time, appeared to have been a ladies' man on and off the stage. He was shot dead by a jealous ex-husband in May of 1960. Both Quitana and Gay played with each other before, in Bolero immortal (1958), a seminal film for Quintana, and El vestido de novia (1959), so The Curse of the Doll People became a sad send-off to their brief partnership, considering that Gay would not outlive the film's premiere.
Quintin Bulnes is suitably austere and commanding in his role as Zandor, the voodoo high priest. A noteworthy character actor with a long list of credits in Mexican cinema, many in the western genre, Bulnes is a familiar face from other Mexican fantastique. He appeared in two of Boris Karloff's Mexican quartet of horrors, Dance of Death (Macabre serenade, 1968) and Isle of the Snake People (La muerte viviente, 1968) and played a vampire in Frankenstein, the Vampire and Company (Frankenstein, el vampiro y compania, 1962) and Little Red Riding Hood and the Monsters (Caperucita y Pulgarcito contra los monstruos, 1962) He's also seen in a couple of Gaston Santos westerns, as well, including the horror-tinged The Living Coffin (El grito de la muerte, 1959), which has been recently released on DVD by CasaNegra.
The director, Benito Alazraki, had a varied career in cinema that included not only genre films like Santo vs. the Zombies (Santo contra los zombies, 1961) and Spiritism (Espiritismo, 1961), but a string of well-received documentaries made during the 1950s for his own production company, Teleproducciones. He spent ten years in Spain, beginning in 1962, directing and writing television programs, and directing two co-productions with Mexico, Los jovenes amantes (1970) and Las tres perfectas casadas (1971). After returning to Mexico, Alazraki became heavily involved in managing positions in television, and kept his hand active with the occasional directing assignment.
Several members of the cast of The Curse of the Doll People (Elvira Quintana, Roberto G. Rivera, Quintin Bulnes) already appeared together for director Benito Alazraki in La ley de las pistolas (1959), likewise scripted by Doll People's screenwriter Alfredo Salazar and produced by Cinematografica Calderon (and Roberto G. Rivera). Excepting for Bulnes, the same team made an earlier western, Pistolas invencibles (1959). These were artists familiar with each other, moving smoothly from genre to genre.
BCI's The Curse of the Doll People is presented in the original Spanish version, as well as the K. Gordon Murray English-dub on the flip side of the disc. The source material appears to be from a video master provided by Cinematografica Calderon, the original producers of the film, so the quality on the Spanish version is not up to the finer Mexican horror emerging from CasaNegra. The right side of the credits are slightly cut off, obviously indicating that we are not seeing all of the picture, and scenes end with the picture getting temporarily brighter before the next scene takes over. Inexplicably, at 3:42 into the film, a second of an exterior pan scene intrudes itself into the film. Having the K. Gordon Murray dub available was a commendable idea that went wrong when a cut version of the Murray dub was mistakenly used. The Spanish version clocks in at 1:21:57, while the Murray version present here is only 1:10:00. Despite these rough edges, the BCI presentation is the best that this film has seen in any format in any version, and this one has the considerable benefit of being the original Spanish version with English subtitles. When coupled with two versions of Night of the Bloody Apes and David Wilt's excellent liners (housed in an eight-page booklet), the price is superbly right for acquiring the DVD set and making it part of anyone's Mexican horror collection.
The BCI set of The Curse of the Doll People and The Night of the Bloody Apes is available at Amazon.com for $12.99.
Posted by Mirek at 2:24 AM