THE RIDER OF THE SKULLS aka El Charro de las Calaveras (1965) – Halloween is fast approaching, so here is another seasonal post from Balladeer’s Blog. Regular readers know how much I enjoy the campy, so-bad-they’re-good horror films from Mexico. I reviewed several of them HERE years ago.
El Charro de las Calaveras was written and directed by Alfredo Salazar, brother of Abel Salazar, the Brainiac himself from that 1961 horror movie. This was Alfredo’s first turn in the director’s chair but he had written many, many Mexican horror flicks, including the original Aztec Mummy trilogy, Wrestling Women movies, you name it.
This particular movie is a textbook example of a fun-bad film. The Rider of the Skulls (Dagoberto Rodriguez) is a masked gunslinging hero in Old Mexico, clad all in black including a big sombrero but with drawings of skulls on his back and on each shoulder. Well, at first. The shoulder skulls change to one on each breast in the second act.
Our hero has been fighting the forces of evil ever since his parents were slain by criminals years earlier.
El Charro arrives in a nearly deserted town with a dilapidated cemetery in which assorted skulls lie around in piles. The masked hero encounters the first of three monsters he will fight in this flick – a ridiculous looking werewolf with a headpiece so large it makes him look like the mascot of a sports team.
On top of that, the monster doesn’t resemble a wolf-man as much as he looks like a were-hillbilly, given his exaggerated beard and wild hairdo.
The werewolf kills a male victim by clawing at his face, then is driven off by the Rider. El Charro meets Andra, a crazy old(ish) witch who hangs out in the graveyard. She claims she can help our hero against the lycanthrope but he’s justifiably skeptical given her deranged cackling.
El Charro and his pudgy sidekick Cleofas (Pascual Garcia Pena) stay the night with a woman and her son Perico, who inform the duo that the werewolf has been preying on the town for so long that most of the people who are still alive fled. Over the next few nights, the Rider of the Skulls has further clashes with the wolf-man.
The man into werewolf transformations and back again are hilariously handled. The moon comes up, causing the gentleman to fall to the floor fully clothed. Next his body becomes a skeleton, but wearing absolutely NO clothing, then becomes a werewolf clad in the clothing the cursed man was wearing when he fell to the floor. None of this is ever explained.
At any rate, the wolf-man is strictly of the “head and hands get furry” kind – cheap and simple. Naturally, El Charro’s bullets never kill the beast, but they do hurt him enough to make him run away to end each fight. On the final night of the werewolf’s reign of terror he kills Perico’s mother by … well, kind of nibbling on her neck a bit, leaving it fairly bloody.
Our hero seeks out the aid of Andra el Bruja (witch) from earlier and she communicates with the dead (see the zombie at left) to provide our hero with a plan to kill the lycanthrope on the loose. That plan misfires, and the Skull-Rider is nearly killed in battle with the wolf-man but is saved when the now-orphaned Perico distracts it.
El Charro chases the deadly monster along a high hill, where – I swear to God – the werewolf loses its footing and tumbles down to its death! (?) After that taste of anticlimax, the Rider and his comic relief sidekick Cleofas ride off with Perico accompanying them.
We rejoin El Charro de las Calaveras as he and Cleofas arrive in the next town with a DIFFERENT orphan boy – this one named Juanito. The Rider’s costume is different now, with the black mask covering his entire head (except for eyeholes), not just the front of his face. The skull on the back of his shirt is of a different design and the skulls imprinted on each shoulder are now on each of the Rider’s breasts.
El Charro took off his mask in the first act, revealing Dagoberto Rodriguez, but in this adventure the heftier Fernando Oses is in the costume. I don’t know if Mexico’s burdensome union rules caused this, or Rodriguez and Salazar had a falling-out or if these barely connected adventures were originally going to be episodes of an unsold television show or what.
Another possibility is that, like Ed Wood and other low-budget filmmakers around the world, maybe Alfredo ran out of funds for a while and when he raised some more, perhaps Rodriguez and the boy who played Perico were no longer available.
At any rate, the Skull-Rider clashes with an unusual vampire in this new town. This vampire has a human body but the head of a bat – though it could pass for the head of a monkey if not for the HUGE bat-ears. The vamp’s transformations into a bat are pretty damn funny: he stands still, extends his arms and is replaced by some kind of half-assed bat construct which is pulled on strings, with no attempt to even approximate flapping its wings.
After slaking his thirst every night, the vampire returns to its coffin on the second floor of one of the crumbling, run-down buildings in this town. El Charro, Cleofas and Juanito fall in with Maria, a woman whose father was killed the night before by the undead monster.
Over the next few nights, the vampire feeds on the lovely Maria, having fallen in “love” with her. Soon, he has her sleeping in a coffin beside his in the poorly kept town cemetery. When our trio of heroes show up for the big showdown, the male vamp AND the fanged Maria chase them around the graveyard in some truly silly looking scenes.
After once again exhausting his bullets on a supernatural menace, the Rider hurls a convenient sharp rod of wood at the bat-headed beast to impale it, thus killing it and freeing Maria from its control.
The closing portion of El Charro de las Calaveras finds him, Cleofas and Juanito in a new town being plagued by yet another monster. This time it’s a sword-wielding Headless Horseman who is very poorly rendered, being obviously a man with a coat pulled up over his head, but with a bone protruding from the top to look like his headless neck.
This Headless Horseman rides the night-darkened, I mean day-for-night landscape looking for victims. Meanwhile, a beautiful young woman has inherited a box which contains a decomposing head that we viewers know must be the head of the undead menace.
The head talks to the woman some nights, which understandably freaks her out. On the advice of a friend, she pays a gravedigger to bury the box with the talking head in it, among other ways of trying to get rid of it.
This does nothing to stop the nightly depredations of the Headless Horseman, who clashes with El Charro de las Calaveras multiple times. The Rider STILL hasn’t learned that bullets won’t kill creatures like this, and ultimately the horseman and his head are reunited (above left).
After reattaching its head to its protruding neck-bone, the undead figure summons up a few skull-faced figures in Grim Reaper robes (below right) to help it capture our hero and the unfortunate woman.
In the end, the Skull-Rider frees himself and wins a swordfight with the horseman to end its menace.
The Rider of the Skulls is a fun watch, with the day-for-night shooting especially comical, like when the vampire flees a nonexistent sunrise hinted at by the sound of an off-camera rooster crowing.
Cleofas is such an annoyingly broad bit of comic relief that even Leo Carillo would tell him to tone it down a little.
The head in a box should make you laugh, too, since it resembles a BIG Mr. Potato Head wearing a scarecrow mask.
This movie is not up there with The Brainiac, or The Man and the Monster or the films about La Llorona, but it’s ideal for when you’re in the mood for an old-fashioned black & white turkey.