- Welcome back to Balladeer’s Blog’s month-long celebration of Halloween!
- Mexican horror films of the 1950s and 1960s deserve to be as well known as the Hollywood horror films from the 30s and 40s. Just as Universal Studios churned out a series of memorable movies featuring the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman and the Mummy, studios from south of the border went on to give the world equally outstanding creatures.
These horror films boasted Universal- style production values and beautiful black & white cinematography combined with uniquely Mexican twists on horror themes as well as more sensuality and lurid violence than Hollywood had dared to present. This list aims to introduce Mexi- Monsters to younger viewers who may not be familiar with them. I’m omitting generic monsters like the various vampires from Mexican horror films (including Fabian Forte, Cristina Ferrare and a descendant of Nostradamus) and the werewolf wrapped in mummy bandages from Face of the Screaming Werewolf.
7. THE BRAINIAC (1962) – Mexican title El Baron Del Terror. Many may be outraged at my inclusion of this film since it makes many lists (including mine) of the most laughably campy horror films ever made. I would argue that its thoroughly latin theme and brilliantly conceived (albeit cheesily presented) monster earn it a spot on this list.
There’s also the fact that the title creature (seen in the photo above left) symbolizes the Mexican chillers of its period as completely as Karloff’s Frankenstein Monster with the neck bolts and squared head represents the Universal monster movies of earlier decades. The Brainiac is a sorceror who was burned at the stake in the 1600s and who transferred his spirit into a passing comet as he died.
Three hundred years later the comet returns, and the spirit takes the form of a hairy, hideous, clawed creature with a solid forked tongue. The monster’s name comes from the fact that he uses that tongue to penetrate his victims’ skulls from behind and feeds on their brains. He spends the movie trying to eliminate all the descendants of his executioners from centuries earlier, with time out for a spoonful of a human brain in a lab dish during the movie’s most famous gross- out scene.
6. CURSE OF THE DOLL PEOPLE (1961) – Four men purloin an idol from a mystical temple, prompting the resident priest to cast a curse on them for this transgression. Living dolls animated by the dark gods worshipped by the priest are dispatched to kill the thieves and their families.
The murderous dolls in this film are the creepiest ever seen in any horror film by virtue of the fact that they are just midgets in doll masks. That fact makes them rather tall for dolls but enhances the chill factor a hundredfold because the “dolls'” movements are perfectly natural, not special effects of the stop motion or other kind.
The weapons the dolls use are long needles like the ones employed by professional assassins and each time one of the Doll People “makes their bones” by claiming a victim, the next doll’s face becomes a caricature of that victim. After one of the dolls is captured there’s a scene in which it is disassembled for examination and the eyes in the decapitated head gleam with a real light of life that could never be duplicated by mere special effects (the eyes are of course those of the midget behind the doll- mask in a trick shot. )
A female occult expert named Karina comes to the aid of our protagonists and everything leads to a fiery showdown in the underground lair of the sorceror/ priest Zandor.
5. THE WITCH’S MIRROR (1960) – Sara, a witch who is acting as a live- in servant for her goddaughter Elena and her physician husband Eduardo, has a magical mirror that, when powered by the dark forces at her command can show the future, summon spirits and conjure up images from anywhere, allowing Sara to spy on anyone she pleases.
Our witch shows Elena images of her (Elena’s) upcoming murder at the hands of her supposedly loving husband. Not even Sara’s power proves strong enough to prevent the murder, but proves more than effective at avenging it. When our murderer Eduardo remarries very, very quickly, Sara knows what’s up and sets out to rob her goddaughter’s killer of his new trophy wife, Debora.
Casting various spells, the witch turns the doctor’s mansion into a veritable haunted house full of eerie occurrences, driving Eduardo and Debora half- mad with fear before ultimately causing a fire that horribly burns Debora. The film’s only half- over, however, and our unstable doctor tries to restore Debora’s disfigured face and her charred stumps of hands by grafting the skin of various stolen corpses onto his bride.
Meanwhile, like a Mary Worth from Hell, Sara hovers over all the activity, her powers spinning a macabre web around her intended victims before she mercilessly avenges Elena’s murder in one potent night of horror. Even in the 60s Hollywood would not have dared depict the gruesome scenes that are deftly sprinkled throughout this neglected horror classic. And the gorgeous black and white cinematography is used to marvelous effect in the eerie scene where Sara summons Elena’s spirit from within her mirror.
4. THE MAN AND THE MONSTER (1958) – A driven and embittered classical pianist named Samuel Magno kills the female pianist he most admired because he’s tired of living in her shadow. This act was his part of a pact with Satan to become the world’s greatest pianist (aim high, Magno).
We all know how deals with the devil end up, and our protagonist soon discovers that he now possesses musical virtuousity that far exceeds Alejandra’s, but he will transform into a murderous ape-like creature whenever he plays, so nobody but him and his sinister, ever- lurking mother will know how talented he has become.
Magno and his domineering mother retire to an isolated mansion, concealing Alejandra’s corpse on the premises. Samuel often mocks her supernaturally- preserved body while he plays the piano following which he transforms into the simian creature and goes looking for victims to kill. Magno’s body count soars as does public curiousity about his sudden withdrawal from the world at large.
Enter a curious reporter for a classical music magazine, sort of a PBS version of Kolchak, played by the Brainiac himself, Abel Salazar. Naturally Salazar outwits the clueless police and traces the killings to Magno, exposes him as the monster during a public performance by Magno’s sultry female protege, and saves said protege from being the primate creature’s final victim.
The film’s setting in the world of classical music adds a nice timelessness to it, and the performance of Ofelia Guilmain as the mother is part Lady MacBeth and part Mrs Bates. Ignore the campy monster makeup (Lon Chaney, Jr’s werewolf makeup was no better, really) and relish the magnificently Gothic story.
3. THE BLACK PIT OF DR M (1958) – The Dr M of our title is Dr Masali, who runs an insane asylum in the very early 1900s with his colleague, Dr Aldama. The two make a pact stating that whichever one of them dies first will contact the survivor from the other side with the secret of returning to life.
Aldama passes away and, true to his word, returns from the beyond and uses his long lost daughter to serve as the catalyst that sets Dr M on the road to returning to the flesh after death. He also includes a warning that our title doctor naturally ignores. Hanged for a murder he didn’t commit, Dr M does indeed return to the flesh, but as Heavenly punishment for violating the Divine Order his soul is trapped in the body of his asylum’s hideously deformed and homicidally violent resident, Elmer.
Acclimating himself to this revolting new body, Dr M manages to convince some of his colleagues of his true identity, but then the police learn that Elmer was the real killer in the case Dr M was unjustly hanged for. Now faced with being tried and hanged again for the same murder, Dr M snaps and begins behaving as monstrously as his new body looks as events accelerate to the fiery finale.
The disfigured face of the undramatically named “Elmer” is Freddy Krueger level gruesome and very hardcore for its day. And the image of the returned Dr M in his hideous, twisted new body playing a mournful tune on a violin to prove his identity to a friend is a scene worthy of the greatest Gothic horror films.
2. THE AZTEC MUMMY ( 1957 ) – He’s really an Aztec zombie, rather than a mummy, but let’s not quibble over that, since the success of this movie spawned at least four followup films. The “mummy” is Popoca, an Aztec warrior preserved by the priests of his era to stand eternal guard over a lost Aztec treasure. Popoca is in a state of partial decay and stinks of death, but his heart is in the right place and he proves highly successful in protecting the lost treasure.
The Aztec Mummy was one of the most popular monsters from Mexican films and through his first three movies encountered a mad scientist named Dr Krupp, a masked hero called the Angel and a robot powered by a human brain. Popoca couldn’t speak, so most of the dramatic burden was always assumed by his costars, with Popoca showing up at crucial moments to save the day for the good guys and keep the treasure out of the covetous hands of the indefatigable Dr Krupp.
After three movies with Popoca, different Aztec mummies went up against the wrestling women AKA Las Luchadoras and then Mil Mascaras in two more films. Despite their popularity, these movies are my least favorite Mexi- Monster flicks, but I’m according them the number 2 spot in recognition of their world- wide fame.
1. CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN ( 1961 ) – The crying or weeping woman, called La Llorona in her native Mexico, is the undeniable queen of Mexi- Monsters. This ghoulish menace has appeared in many, many films before and after this one, but this was the one that added witchcraft to her powers and spawned the “Llorona- mania” that shows no signs of abating. The most recent Mexican horror film about her in 2007 used the tag line “The legend of La Llorona never dies”.
Since I’m a mythology geek I’ll point out that variations of the story of La Llorona can be traced all the way back to Aztec times, but the Christianized version of her story goes like this: a woman (the 1961 version began the tradition of having her be a witch) who had secretly borne the children of her aristocratic lover realized she was just being used as a pleasure toy when the man dumped her to marry a titled woman. She killed the children and was killed by the man in turn (in some versions she took her own life). When she arrived at the gates of Heaven she was denied entry until she could account for her slain children, and has spent centuries since then roaming Mexico by night looking for those children and making a loud wailing cry as she goes.
She also preys on the children of others, either drowning them or letting them be eaten by the voracious, emaciated ghost- dogs she leads around on chains. The image of the Crying Woman’s pale face with the empty eye- sockets from which tears flow is unique and unforgettable. She also preys on adults unfortunate enough to encounter her and various films give her minions, undead and otherwise. The 1961 epic featured La Llorona attempting to defy the will of Heaven by reuniting her spectral soul with her dessicated human remains. This figure deserves to be as well- known as Dracula, Frankenstein, Freddy Krueger and all the rest.
SHE WOLF (1964) – AKA La Loba, this film was left off only because it features a generic monster like a werewolf, albeit a female one. Generally a very good film, with La Loba making several kills in the opening minutes of the story. The special effects for its time and budget are very nice and the unique way the She Wolf leaps around like she’s practically flying is visually appealing and memorable. Think of the way Wonder Woman leaped around on the tv show, but even better.
And the movie takes the common sense approach of having La Loba sprout full- body hair when she transforms, none of this cheap “just the head and hands get furry” look. The transformation rips our female lycanthrope’s clothing to pieces, too, but her hair, already long in her human form, becomes even longer in her lupine form and discreetly covers the parts of her body that might cause a problem for the prudish.
RESURRECTION OF THE LIVING SKELETON (1959) – This supernatural story set in the Mexican West is an enjoyable horror/ western hybrid. Dr Kraken is kidnapping and experimenting on the local ladies in an attempt to restore flesh, blood and organs to the woman he loves – in this case a talking skeleton with glowing eyes (think of the movie poster for Evil Dead II). A by- product of his efforts results in her son periodically turning into a monster with a massively enlarged cranium (“Beware the Steroid Monster”), caveman eyebrows and enormous teeth. The masked hero of the movie is the Scarlet Fox, NOT a wrestler for a change, but a western hero in a red Zorro outfit with a huge skull pattern on the chest.
THE WITCH (1954) – No traditional witch in this flick. The title refers to a horribly ugly woman transformed by a mad scientist into an irresistably beautiful woman and then sent out to avenge him on a Mexican corporation that stole his invention and caused his daughter’s death. The beauty kills the designated victims by feigning interest in them, then killing them when she’s alone with them. Think of PRC’s Devil Bat, Mad Monster, or The Flying Serpent but with a hot woman as the “monster.”
BEYOND INSANE (1936) The title describes the movie’s mad scientist, whose monster is like a cool hybrid of Mr Hyde, Dorian Gray and the Id Monster. Dr Dienys believes he can live forever by purging negative emotions, then implanting them in his imprisoned monster, who grows uglier and bigger each time its used as a “receptacle”, inevitably breaking loose to wreak havoc.
If you like, you can throw in the telepathic and very horny Mexican Yeti from the films The Monster of the Volcano and The Terrible Giant of the Snow (both films 1962) and the talking preserved head of an ancient Aztec priest out to destroy desecrators of his people’s holy sites from The Living Head (1961).
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