Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Leyendas macabras de la Colonia (1973)

My initial aim was to just show the entrancing primitive cover for an old Mexican video release of Leyendas macabras de la Colonia (shown above), but then I decided make a DVD-R of the video and subsequently started to watch the film, which I had already seen some time ago, but forgotten much about.

The film is, in a word, bad, but with that exquisite badness of certain Mexican fantastique that qualifies it as a low-grade mescaline trip or a dazed tequila dream (not potent enough to be a nightmare) of an incomprehensible walk among the weird and the strange. The Rogelio Agrasanchez production stars three lucha libre heroes--Mil Mascaras, Tinieblas, and El Fantasma Blanco, and the high-cheekboned actress, Lorena Velazquez, best known to Mexican horror fans for her role as Queen Thorina in El Santo contra las mujeres vampiro (Santo vs. the Vampire Women, 1962). The story has Tinieblas buying a haunted painting, which later in the evening transports him and his wrestling buddies and two girlfriends back to Mexico's colonial times. This fivesome is mostly kept out of the action and the action takes place all in one night, as a sorceresses, played by Velazquez, takes vengeance on those who tortured and executed her mother, now a mummy who looks like the Aztec Mummy's better half. The characters of La Llorona and El Monje Loco make embarrassing appearances.

The plot is good for a half-hour TV show, but it's padded out with one of the longest lucha libra matches committed to film (nearly twenty minutes long), a couple of uninspired sword fights, and a slowed-down pace that surprisingly isn't boring, but mind-tripping instead. A mind-trip that induces a honeyed languor and an understanding that life makes no sense, but it's okay, because sleep will come again and then another dream will take over.

You can well imagine movie patrons in Spanish theaters going to see this film in the early 1970s with high expectations and then being trapped into watching something so awful, yet so insightful as to the human condition. I've been in theaters in Central America where I've had such other-worldly, yet equally earthy, experiences, and they humanize one and give one a calmness of the body, mind and spirit. Perhaps it is only through a certain type of bad film that we look at ourselves and realize the co-existent duality that we and life are unreal, as well as real. Good films never present this type of learning. Not even close.

The ending of Leyendas macabras is amusing, however, even naively ridiculous, so the film does leave a viewer on a relative high note, which is always a good note to leave on after you've been through the ringer in primal philosophy and dumbfounding meditations. You can actually leave this film feeling satisfied, which is remarkable considering it is not a satisfactory film.

The print I saw seemed to have the murkiness and color bleed of 16mm, which just made everything more captivating.

The title is flavorful a la español (I believe there was a Mexican horror comic with the same title), and the poster artwork wonderfully evocative. The film was completely shot in Antigua Guatemala, one of the best persevered cities from Spain's colonial past in the New World, so your trip will be in actual historically heady locales.

The film is available on American DVD from BCI's Brentwood, double-billed with El robo de las momias de Guanajuato, another picture produced by Rogelio Agrasanchez and filmed in Guatemala. Spanish language only.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Bela Lugosi in Mexico

It never happened. Bela Lugosi never made a film in Mexico, but it could very well have happened had Lugosi lived past 1956. Indeed, it's highly probable that Lugosi would have been easily seduced to make horror films in Mexico just as several of his compatriots in American horror films had been. Lon Chaney Jr. was the first American horror legend to make a Mexican film, La casa del terror (1959). In that film he played not only a mummy, but a werewolf, with make-up similar to his famous portrayal of Lawrence Talbot in Universal's classic horror series of films in the 1940s. Lugosi's "rival", Boris Karloff, made four films for Mexican producer Luis Enrique Vergera during the spring of 1968, though because of his emphysema, he had to film his scenes in Los Angeles. Basil Rathbone, Lugosi's co-star in Son of Frankenstein (1939) and The Black Sleep (1956), succumbed to the need for money with Autopsia de un fantasma, (1967) a lighter touch Mexican fantasy. The American horror star with the most credits in Mexican fantastique is, no surprise, John Carradine, who reprised his Dracula role in Las vampiras (1968) and made four more Mexican films, Autopsia de un fantasma, La Senora Muerte (1967), Pacto diabolico (1968), and Enigma de muerte (1968).

Lugosi's death came right before the explosion of Mexican horror in 1957 when El vampiro became such a success, with German Robles in the role of the vampiric Count Lavud. One wonders if Lugosi himself would have been solicited for this role by producer Abel Salazar, but even if he had not been, the upswing in horror film production in Mexico would have meant that Mexican film producers would have sought the original Dracula actor and horror king to star in their films. Undoubtedly, someone would have had the predictable, but certainly thrilling thought of having Lugosi appear as the legendary fright character, Dracula himself. Given how many of the Mexican horror films of the 1950s imitated a Universal feeling (even going beyond the Universal films in atmosphere in several films), any appearance by Lugosi in a Mexican horror film would have pleased many horror fans and reinvigorated Lugosi and his career. Had Lugosi lived into the 1960s, it's probable that a Mexican horror film in color, with Lugosi as Dracula, would have been made. This would have been a realization of one of his latter day goals--an appearance in a color film as his most famous character.

Monday, July 02, 2007

El monstruo resucitado (1953)

An investigative reporter, Nora (Miroslava Stern), is sent by her editor to find out if ads in personal columns hold any kind of interesting story element. At an arranged meeting in the dock area of the city, she meets the writer of an intriguing advert--a mysterious man, dressed in black, his face covered by what looks like a black surgical mask and his eyes hidden by dark glasses. Determined to stick to her assignment, despite the man's peculiar, if not frightening, appearance, she accepts to ride back to his house. In the car, he introduces himself as Herman Ling (Jose Maria Linares-Riva).

They arrive at a cemetery and get out. Ling's country hilltop residence is reached through this spooky graveyard of gnarled trees and tombstones jutting up at odd angles, as if the dead under the earth were attempting to push through the ground to seek revenge or succor in the land of the living. As the horrors begin to mount, Nora stifles her fear in pursuit of the story. Ling's house is filled with sculpted figures of women in various tragic poses; at his employ is a peculiar servant who appears either half-idiotic or half-mad. The mirrors of the house are covered in black cloth. Soon, horrid noises and screams will be heard. We have fully entered the land of nightmare....

Trapped by her own desire to complete her assignment, Nora must brace herself for these horrors and more to come. Ling, who is a plastic surgeon, begins to reveal his past to Nora, telling her of his rejection by society and his peers. Nora responds with sympathy in order to elicit more from Dr. Ling--until finally he takes the traumatic step of removing his mask in front of her. The scene and what follows contain the most raw and emotionally uncompromising moments of any such "Phantom of the Opera" moments in cinematic history. At this time, El monstruo resucitado reaches its most impacting, if not shattering point. Soon after, however, another plot element is introduced which quickly turns the film in another direction. Back in a restaurant in the city, Nora relates to her editor the horrors of the night. Unbeknownst to her, Dr. Ling, wishing to make sure if Nora's sympathetic feelings have been real, has hidden himself behind a partition in the restaurant, and he overhears her conversation with her editor. Now there will be revenge. To that end, Dr. Ling restores life to a suicide victim, Serguei Rostov (Carlos Navarro), turning him into Ariel, who will be his automaton of vengeance. The resuscitated "monster" is handsome, while his maker, Dr. Herman Ling, is the repulsive monster. The good-looking and charming Ariel introduces himself to Nora at her favorite restaurant. A relationship begins, while Dr. Ling plots to have Nora kidnapped and disfigured....

Miroslava Stern, who professionally went by her first name alone, received top billing in El monstruo resucitado. Stern was a Czech émigré, who escaped with her father and mother from the Nazi takeover of her country. Her stardom began solidified when she appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine in 1950, for her role in The Brave Bulls. Her suicide in 1957 would give her a future appellation of being "The Mexican Marylin Monroe." Considering her credits in La muerte enamorada (1950), Monstruo resucitado, and Luis Bunuel’s Ensayo de un crimen (1957), one may want to add another appellation--"Mexico’s first scream queen," a descriptive that's admittedly of some tenuous reasoning, but fun, nevertheless.

Carlos Navarro received second billing, to be followed by Jose Maria Linares-Rivas, who as Dr. Herman Ling, is the undisputed star of the film, traveling expertly from stately controlled evil to pathos, then to hysterics and mad laughter, and back again. The Spanish-born Linares-Rivas had already an impressive acting resume before appearing in El monstruo resucitado, with two nominations for the Silver Ariel award for Best Supporting Actor. He died a couple of years after the making of El monstruo resucitado, at the age of fifty-four.

The man behind the mask:
Jose Maria Linares-Rivas

With El monstruo resucitado, director Chano Urueta was on his way to confirming his place as one of Mexico's premier exponents of fantasy and horror. A year later he would helm the classic La bruja (The Witch, 1954), in which a woman this time was the disfigured one. Abel Salazar would employ him for his productions of El Baron del terror (The Brainiac), El espejo de la bruja (The Witch's Mirror) and La cabeza vivente (The Living Head), which would garner Urueta, or at least his films, the attention of many horror fans in the United States.

Arduino Maiuri was responsible for the film's story and part of the screenplay. Born in Italy in 1916, Maiuri spent the 1950s in Mexico, writing many scripts, before returning to Italy in the 1960s, where he became involved in such films as Mario Bava's Diabolik (1968), Sergio Sollima's Citta violenta (1970) and Sergio Corbucci's Vamos a matar, companeros (1970).

For producer Sergio Kogan, El monstruo resucitado was his first horror film. He would follow-up with the aforementioned La bruja, then the pivotal Ladron de cadaveres (1956) and finish off his horror production with Misterios de la magia negra (1958). Though his name as a producer of horror films has been completely overshadowed by Abel Salazar (no doubt due in large part to absence of English-dubbed versions of his films), Kogan is critically important in the development of the genre in Mexico and can, with some debate, be considered the true father of the golden age of Mexican horror.

El monstruo resucitado embraces all the essential components that make a traditional horror film memorable--crescendoing terror, captivatingly weird visuals, plot surprises, and a heartfelt sympathy for the monster (in this case, two monsters--the doctor and the revived killer). There are moments in its latter half when it becomes nearly too outrageous, and the film's lackadaisical back screen projection work is unfortunate, but clearly El monstruo resucitado is just brimming for a major discovery by classic horror fans throughout the world, who should be both astounded by and delighted with the film.