My first experience with a Mexican horror film came sometime in the mid- seventies. It was a Saturday morning, and my speculation is that channel 9 was showing the film. My Mom was watching the film with me, I liked to isolate myself and watch movies a lot when I was a kid, this concerned people a bit, so my Mom was acting as the surrogate friend I did not need. Any how, before my very eyes, unfolding on the screen, was THE BRAINIAC (1961). From the minute the film started, I recall being captivated. The plot started somewhat like the classic Vincent Price films I was used to watching. A Warlock (Abel Salazar) was to be executed by the Spanish Inquisition, for doing unlimited evil deeds. In what has to be one of the most idiotic plot holes in the history of cinema, the Warlock displays his powers to the magistrates, by making the chains that bound him disappear. Yet, sentencing is pronounced, he is to burned alive, and this buffoon walks to the stake to be burned ??? Why didn't he disappear himself ? Why not wipe out the whole court with just a wave of his hand ? This is a sudden lack of logic that will make most Mexican horror films very endearing, sort of like the lovable kid with downs syndrome who lives down the block. It's funny, when Americans make stupid scenes like the one I just described, I usually hit the ceiling, I find it unforgivable. But when the Mexicans do it, I just break into a smile. You expect it, if they don't do it your shocked. Anyhow, the guy is burned, but threatens to return in 300 years, with the passing of an overhead comet, that looks like something out of a grade school play. Bear in mind, I'm riveted to this film, nothing has my attention but the tube. Anyhow, he does come back to seek revenge, but not as a reincarnated fiend, like Vincent Price in The Haunted Palace (1963), but rather a monster from space, a fucked up looking Demon complete with elongated, forked tongue, which he uses to suck out the brains of his enemies. Believe me friends, up to this point in time, I had never seen such a cool, original monster in my whole life. Here I was used to the Universal monsters, Drac, Frank, and the boys. Then, here comes this creature, it's head literally pulsating, chasing after people in order to jam his tongue down the backs of their head ! Unfucking believable. I can't quite recall my Moms reaction when she saw this thing, but I do recall her being speechless, and chuckling every once and a bit. The interesting thing about this monster is that long term exposer of any monster suite is usually not good. But this film baths in the monsters presence, the makers of this mask were proud! This was what a young fella like myself needed, constant exposer to what I perceived to be a really cool creature, plus I was obsessed with "getting revenge", I hated my school peers and viewed them as the Inquisitors in this film, with myself as the martyr turned monster.
The point is this, and if you get anything out of this fuckin article, let it be this, the understanding of why these films work! Very simple. Simplicity. They are designed totally to entertain the poor and working class, hence, the bulk of Mexico. So of course, having seen this stuff as a kid, the click was instantaneous, what's not to like? Now, in terms of whether or not Mexi horror cinema helps improve the strife of the living, well, no, it's counter revolutionary, and follow me on this. For one, it's pro Catholic church, which encourages poverty and martyrdom in favor of , God for bid, a Communist or Socialist revolution. Masked Wrestlers are the true heros, not revolutionaries. The Monsters (aka the radicals), are always thwarted by either good Christians or idiotic wrestlers (wrestling is a big industry in Mexico, a revered profession, something the youngins look up to). And it maintains the fear that anything NEW is DANGEROUS! Of course, we cannot look at these films in the same light we examine Bunuel or Juan Lopez Moctezuma, but, they ARE INNOCENT in their escapism, and while they didn't promote a different way of living, they did keep a lot of overworked and under appreciated folk happy, and that same joy comes to this "rapidly falling into a third world country", country, itself. That's right, my working class anxieties were quickly put to rest by these smile inducing films. Let me continue the story...
My next experience with this genre came via THE CURSE OF THE DOLL PEOPLE (1960) without a doubt one of the spookiest pieces to have graced my eyes at the time. Again, I'm quite certain, my Mom was in the room, keeping a close eye out for the first signs of Autism. Anyhow, the story of a voodoo curse being forefilled by the use of dolls inhabited by stolen souls was a creepy premise, made all the more disturbing by the dwarf actors dressed in hideous doll costumes. These hideous dolls where dropped off at each victims house by an ugly, mute zombie, who stayed hidden in the dark. As the intended victim would go into bed, the zombie would sit below the window of the doomed person, playing a spooky flute tune. Then, the doll would come to life, and usually stab or strangle the victim. All I can say is I saw this film shortly after Brainiac, and I was blown away. Then, to consolidate my new found treasures, I had a Famous Monsters Magazine that told all about these spicy south of the boarder offerings, and now I could truly identify just where these film were from, who made them, and who the stars were.
So fascinated was I with this interesting "new" cinema I had come across that I began to seek it out. I recall distinctly perusing the TV guide, even keeping my eye on the local Spanish speaking station, channel 47, and hitting pay dirt when they showed Santo En La Venganza De La Momia (1967). Bear in mind I don't speak a word of Spanish, but what did I care, here was my first exposer to Mexico's equivalent of Superman, Santo, and his battle with the Aztec Mummy, which concludes in a disappointing manner when the mummy is revealed to be some jerk in disguise, none the less, a very engaging piece of cinema. The scenes involving the phoney mummy stalking a group of treasure hunters is indeed very spooky, and the mummy using a bow and arrow for a weapon indeed add an interesting twist to the proceedings. These where the grand old days of the early seventies, everything seemed so innocent and cozy to me, then came the eighties, and out went my innocence and the security I was so used to.
In the early eighties, I was busy perusing the local theatres, watching such garbage as The Prowler (1981), Nightmare (1981), as well as early guinea gore like Gates of Hell (1984) and House By The Cemetery (1984). There was so much good trash coming out in the theatre, that it was likely I'd attend a picture three or four times a week. Now, two very interesting things happened in the early eighties. Number one, Rene Cardona Sr's NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES (1969) was re-released to theatres in '82. The interesting thing is that I DID NOT get to see it! Why, you may ask? Well, for one, the title. It's true, I could not talk a single friend in to attending this film with me, then , when my gal friend and I went to a matinee show of some other flick that was sold out, I noticed that NOTBA was playing, and I tried like mad to convince her to go. When she would not relent, I asked her why. And all she said was "that title, I hate it". What the fuck! By the time I was ready to go it alone, the flick was gone. And to add insult to injury, when the film finally came to video in the mid eighties, I wanted to rent it, but my pal, Paul Richichi, did not, and when broached about why, he relented "I don't like the title", and "the guy on the box reminds me of my wife's cousin". The guy on the box was the apeman from the film! Well, I finally rented it myself one day, and just as I was about to watch it, Richichi popped over, ended up watching it, loved it, and needless to say it's now one of his favorite films. Hence, never judge a book by it's cover. For the lame among you, NOTBA is an example of Mexi-cinema totally out of control, a flick that Cardona shot two alternate versions of, a soft version for the general public, and a harder version for overseas. It was the harder version that hit these shores in '72, and rumor has it that the American distributer spiced it up with extra sex and violence as well. And because of the gore quota, this film made for a natural re-release choice during the early gore soaked eighties. On top of that, our local cable station gave us the U.S.A. network, which, on Saturday afternoons, gave us Commander U.S.A., some idiot in a cape who liked like Pat Harrington, had a face painted on his pinky which he called "his friend Lefty", and showed many God awful horror movies. On this station I saw THE VAMPIRES COFFIN (1958) the classic sequel to the equally classic THE VAMPIRE (1957). Again, producer Abel Salazar appears as the unwilling hero, fighting Count Lavud (German Robles), a noble man from Europe who sports a Jewish star on his coffin. Salazar plays his role for laughs, coming off like a dime store version of Bob Hope. The visual effects in this flick rock, highlighted at the end when Salazar and Robles do battle. Robles appears and disappears, finally getting staked while in the form of a monsterous bat! Director Fernando Mendez has so much talent that he makes up for the rest of the talentless directors in the united states. Basically, the Commandeer showed the bulk of the Mexican horrors, but I had a girlfriend at this point and was much more interested in getting blowjobs rather than watching these films, which in a way was a shame, cause the films are no longer shown on TV and blowjobs are a dime a dozen.
In the late 80's, an ex-friend turned me on to the brilliant LA LOBA (1964) one of the most demented slices of Mexican horror ever served up to the unknowing public. Never dubbed in English, the version I offer is straight from South America, and it not being in English does not take away any of the enjoyment this masterpiece offers. Directed by the talented Rafael Baledon, this flick features a loony scientist who is host to a female werewolf who's attacks on local villagers are beyond belief. It's 1964, and the gore quota is pushed to the max, as various folk are torn asunder by our fire filled lassie. And to make matters worse, a male werewolf is introduced near the end, leaving the laboratory in flames, and many mangled bodies behind. This chick wolf is savage, flying through the air like an acrobat, and emerging from a ghostly tomb to stalk victims by moonlit night. Not since the Italian made Werewolf Woman have I seen such savage displays of female fury. Needless to say, I was now really turned on to the work of Baledon, and I followed up this delight with the earlier but equally brilliant MAN & THE MONSTER (aka EL HOMBRE Y EL MONSTRUO - 1957). I offer the original Spanish language version, in all it's crisp black & white glory. The story of a concert pianist cursed for murdering a woman composer & stealing her sonata, this flick has the guy turning into a werewolf like creature and going on murder sprees, but only when his mother protector forgets to lock him in. Again, Abel Salazar is the unwitting hero, and a highlight in the film comes when the monster smashes down the door in Salazars hotel room, looking for the sonata that Salazar absconded with while searching the pianists home. The other highlight being the pianist transformation during a recital at a packed concert house!
At this point, I had discovered the joy of tracking these films down in their original, Spanish language versions. Not to say that K. Gordon Murray did a bad job in distributing these films to an English speaking audience, but of course the Spanish language originals by far present the acting, and the overall appearance of the films in a more serious light. Prime example, take my version of MISTERIOS DE ULTRATUMBA (1957), known in this country as The Black Pit of Dr. M. Perhaps one of the most surreal films to come out of Mexico, a film far more like the product associated with German silent cinema. All Hell breaks loose when two scientist make an agreement that upon death, one will return to tell the other about the experience of dying. In a seance, the dead doctor tells the other that he will soon know for himself the event of death. And when the living doctor ends up being accused of murder, and is executed, his disfigured corpse returns to seek revenge on the other dead scientists daughter. If your confused, don't worry about it, because director Fernando Mendez creates are funeral lyricism so stark in it's use of light and shadow, that dubbing the film should be of little consideration. Of note, the dubbed version, Black Pit of Dr. M has yet to surface on video, so my Spanish print is the only one available. The sight of the decaying scientist playing his violin in the dead of night is both pathetic and brilliant, pathetic in that the doctors curiosity has bit him in the ass and landed him in this horrible situation. Brilliant in that it puts him in a "Phantom of the Opera" light, sort of a tragic hero. Mendez's three films (The Vampire, The Vampires Coffin, and Black Pit of Dr. M ) fall into a completely different category of Mexican cinema in that they take their subject matter very seriously, while other films tend to get more comical in their absurdities. On the more absurd side I present for your viewing pleasure EL MUNDO DE LOS VAMPIRES (1960), (English translation, World of the Vampires).This piece of fluff features Vampire men with Bat heads, vampire chicks with silly eyebrows that look like Lilly Munster, and plenty of atmospheric crypt scenes. The bat men are great, doing some sort of strange Ti Chi' move in unison, those cardboard masks stiff as a beer boner at six in the morning. The guy playing the vampire is no German Robles, and in fact looks sort of goofy in a sixties, fad hairstyle kind of way. Some of the Mexican chicks in the flick are kinda hot, so it's keeps your attention off the goofball vampire, if you're a male, anyhow. Keeping up in the grand tradition of goofiness, why not check out Mexico's answer to Journey to the Center of the Earth, in this case called ADVENTURES AT THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1958). Again, I offer the original, Spanish language B/W print, but language is no barrier for this one. When some tourists disappear during a tour of a cavern in Mexico, a research team sent to investigate discovers monster snakes, and killer bat men in what has to be one of the most delirious adventure films ever made.
First off, let me say that Herschel Gordon Lewis did not introduce the gore film to this country. The Mexicans where fucking with cinematic violence in the fifties, this film being a prime example as victims of the bat creature end up with ghastly, oozing throat wounds. The bat man himself is really something to set eyes on. In long shots, it a silly plastic mask, somewhat similar to the ones used in World of the Vampires. But in close-up, it seems the filmmakers did not like the look of the mask, hence they substitute a guy in Jack Pierce style make-up grimacing and making a general fool of himself. But the difference between the mask and the make-up is startling, they would have been better off with one or the other, but using both only makes one think that the folks who put this film together must have ingested way to much peyote. Still, in the area of pure entertainment, you've never had a better 90 minutes. It's interesting to note that as the horror film in Mexico develops in it's popularity, the productions become rushed, yet despite certain areas of incompetence, such as writing, make-up, direction, there still seems to be some degree of professionalism, whether it be in the camera work, lighting, etc... which in itself lends to the disjointing experiences of watching these films. And no two really seem alike, except of course for that inevitable mark that you are watching something foreign, strange, and sinister. In fact, a nice co-feature for Adventures at the Center of the Earth would be MONSTER OF THE VOLCANO (1964), Mexico's odd ball take on the Yeti legend. Again, I offer the Spanish language original which gives us the most ridicules Yeti this side of the Himalayas. Basically little more that a fat man in a dyed white gorilla suite, this Yeti has the power to hypnotize folks into carrying out his orders, and as he projects his thoughts into his victims heads, he comes across with the clearest, most commanding voice this side of Fernando Lamas. Why this creature, with the ability to live in high, snowy altitudes, and possessing intense strength, would need humans to carry out things is beyond me, but I guess it is no more absurd than Dracula needing Frankenstein to carry out his dirty work. A bit talkier than the others, this film is still worth adding to your collection, mostly for the very unscary Yeti who thinks like Albert Einstein.
In the area of outrageous over the top horror, you can't beat Baledon's CURSE OF THE CRYING WOMAN (1962). I offer a sharp English dubbed print, but this may be, without a doubt, my favorite Mexi horror. In fact, double bill this with Chano Urueta's THE WITCH'S MIRROR (1961), and you've got the grand slam of a life time. Curse of the Crying Woman gives us reams of atmosphere equaled only by the brilliant gothic work being done in Italy. We are also introduced to some Mexican folk lore in the persona of the crying woman, a witch like hag, similar to the Banshee of Irish folk lore, who comes a wailing a way during a violent encounter with death. And talk about violence, this flick goes over the top with vicious guard dogs tearing the flesh off their victims, and an evil coachman (Carlos Lopez Moctezuma, father of Juan) having his horses run over a woman passed out on the highway. Acts of sadism such as that really open ones eyes, especially once the goofy dubbing has put you at ease with a smile on your face. And the crying woman is a sight for sore eyes, literally. A miserable hag with big black holes where her eyes should be, she swoops around like a bat, whining and moaning like the miserable old biddies from the Five Towns shopping center in Hewlett. The Witch's Mirror is even more fucked up. A combo of surgical horror motifs and supernatural fantasy, a doctor, who disfigures his wife after accidently tossing a kerosene lamp at her, attempts to restore her features by grafting from unwilling female donors. To further complicate the matter, the ghost of his first wife, who he poisoned, keeps coming back for revenge. This flick features knock out visual effects, including a pair of floating, dismembered hands that has to be seen to be believed. I would love to have perused Urueta's medicine cabinet to see what psychedelic surprises he had stored away in there. This guy was truly an unappreciated visionary, he deserves an article all his own. At this point, all one can do is wonder just how far back does this whacked out genre of cinema go. Well, in one of the rarest treats that I can offer you folks, I present for your viewing pleasure a copy of Chano Urueta's EL MONSTRUO RESUCITADO (aka Dr. Crimen), a masterpiece that dates back to 1953. Of course in it's original Spanish language, this moody, noir-ish flick sets the precedence of surrealism that Urueta and other Mexican directors will follow. Really, the story is a re-working of Phantom of the Opera, only instead of a love sick musician, we have a brilliant but hideously deformed doctor, who's work with resurrecting corpses is extraordinary, but luck with women is poor. When he advertises for an assistant, he gets a knockout who in turn is knocked out by his looks. When his sense of rejection becomes overwhelming, he revives her dead fiancÚ to act as her suitor, much to her horror. The face on this mad doctor is one of the ugliest mugs known to mankind. A kiss she delivers (eyes shut, I may add) to his face to prove she can deal with his looks is excruciating. None the less, it's the doctors paranoid sense of rejection that really causes the problem, and ultimately leads to all the trouble to follow. The monstrous doctor has strong human emotions, he's longing for acceptance, hence he's chiseled right out of the same stone that Universal Pictures carved their monsters out of, creatures you can relate to because they have human desires despite their fucked up monestrous appearance.
Hot on the heals of this masterpiece comes comes LADRONE DE CADAVERES (1957, French language version), one of the rarest titles in the Cinefear catalog. Essentially, this title started the monsters & wrestlers combo which would become real popular with the introduction of wrestling icon Santo in the early sixties. Again, the film opens with a mystery element, very noir-ish in it's presentation, but once the plot of a crazed doctor killing off wrestlers just so he can use their bodies in experiments to raise the dead unfolds, the grotesque edge, heightened by early gore, gratuitous sexual undertones, and frightful looking monsters quickly put these films in a class by themselves. In this case, the award winning scene being the unmasking of a monestrous result of the scientist handy-work, a hideous half man, half ape creature that grows progressively uglier as the film progresses toward it's climax. The creature raises all hell in a packed wrestling arena, and so ugly is this beasts face that it was featured on the back cover of Famous Monsters magazine, with the film be hailed under the title The Body Snatcher. For years I hankered after this film, finally scoring this French master in the mid-nineties. Director Fernando Mendez keeps the pace moving along at a brisk glide, and familiar horror icon Yerye Beirute appears as the doctors evil henchmen. Beirute, referred to by many as the Mexican Karloff, due to his tall, gaunt, dark looks, graces us with his menacing presence in EL CASA DEL TERROR (1958), this time playing a wicked scientist who steals a mummy (played by Lon Chaney Jr.) From an exhibit, restores it to life, only to have it turn out the mummy was a werewolf, who goes on a rampage upon being set loose. Mexican comedian Tin Tan plays the comic relief , and gout infested alcoholic Chaney plays the fat wolfman, who walks like he's in a coma, and seems to suffer from asthma, at least that's the way it looks to me, cause every once he grasps at his throat, looks winded, and passes out!? To further complicate things, rumor has it that Ed Wood Jr. shot the scenes of Chaney as a werewolf sculling around the hotel that he stalks the heroine in. Wether or not this is true cannot be proved, but it adds to the films myth. And to make matters worse, misanthropic asswipe Jerry Warren acquired the film for U.S. distribution, cut out the footage of that asshole Tin Tan, cut in footage from an Aztec mummy movie (the one he released as Attack of the Mayan Mummy), and called the film FACE OF THE SCREAMING WEREWOLF. Chaney has no dubbed in dialogue, just grunts and groans, and dog yelps, and lingering close-ups of that giant gout nose of his. Furthermore, when the mad doctor de-mummifies him, he's already dressed in his trademark custodian pants that he wore throughout the Universal wolfman films. Since when did Egyptians wear Dickie slacks? And when did they start looking like fat, drunk Irishmen. Very strange indeed. But again, this just adds to that feeling that mommy spiked your soup with acid prior to feeding it to you. Or better yet, the feeling of having an intense fever, a hot, sweaty disorientation that you can't quite shrug off.
Ok folks, I'm about to end part one of this article, but before I do, a few more titles to suggest. First, for the more serious, literary side of Mexico, check out the searing drama of SPIRITISM (1960), a modern take on the Classic short story The Monkeys Paw. Played out like a soap opera, this story of a well off families fear of losing their money and the "anything they'd do" to keep it is very engrossing, even more so because it shows the dread that middle class Mexicans have over the idea of losing material things. It's sad how poverty destroys the spiritual mind set and sets into motion the diseased concept of need. This film not only exploits a true fear among Mexicans with money, but it also delves deep into the world of the spiritualist, and thus we are treated to some Ed Wood style seances that would have fit into Night of the Ghouls perfectly. A crawling dismembered hand, and the hideous scarred corpse of the dead son make for a freaky conclusion to a film that would have been straight drama had it not been for the horror elements. Also, let me take a moment to introduce you to a man I'll speak about in great length next instalment. Rene Cardona is Mexico's pride and joy when it comes to exploitation films. Rene, and later, his son, Rene Jr. would end up directing scores of trash films a piece, among the fathers best being DOCTOR OF DOOM (1962) and THE WRESTLING WOMEN VS. THE AZTEC MUMMY (1964). Doctor of Doom lays the groundwork for the mad doctor and his apeman abducting pretty girls for unorthodox experiments senario, and would later be remade as Night of the Bloody Apes. But Wrestling Woman Vs. the Aztec Mummy has to be seen to be believed. Lorena Velazquez, reigning horror queen of Mexico, plays one of three female wrestlers who help battle an evil Fu Manchu type who is looking to steal the treasure guarded by the dreaded Aztec mummy Tezomoc. When the mummy finally comes out to play, he reveals not only incredible strength, but also has the ability to turn himself into a bat, spider, etc... Yes folks, this is one of the most entertaining entries in the female wrestling series, made more so by the fact that Cardona was an outrageous director, he was not afraid to push the limits of sex and violence, but he was also an absurdist, he allowed his films to go as far as the audiences imagination would take them. One of the highlights in this flick has to be the wrestling matches between the attractive female stars (like Velazquez, Elisabeth Campbell and Maria San Martin) and genuine female wrestlers, who look just like the bull dyke bitch who was the boss at my last day job. These women are gruff, half man/ape like weebles who wobble, fall down, and get their ass's kicked by the female stars, when in all likelihood they could kick mine, your's and those three chicks butts with their arms tied behind their backs. This would be a great film to give your favorite bull dyke for Christmas.