Classic Mexican Horrors
La Llorona and El Fantasma del Convento: conceived as Mexican horror fables for Mexican audiences, these expressionist gems tap indigenous cultural riches and brooding Catholic guilt. The fable of ‘The Wailing Woman’ is told in a three-part story starting with la conquista; the spooky ‘Phantom of the Monastery’ is a moral tale cautioning against carnal sin, set in a haunted ruin. Ramón Peón, Fernando de Fuentes and Juan Bustillo Oro’s adult approach achieves a true sense of The Uncanny, mixed with powerful social statements. These are separate disc releases: one film is sourced from the only known existing print, and the other is a full-on 4K restoration from prime nitrate film elements. Indicator’s extras tap the best research available on the titles.
El Fantasma del Convento
Separate Region-Free Blu-ray Releases
1933 & 1934 / B&W / 1:37 Academy
Street Date March 21, 2022 (both) / Available from Powerhouse Films UK
Directed by Ramón Peón, Fernando de Fuentes
Wow — these two Classic Mexican Horror films are truly mind-opening. They’re first-rank ghost tales that come from within the Latin-American culture, that have meaning and resonance for anyone who can appreciate the power of Catholicism and the very real curse of colonial injustice. Yes, the messages are conservative, but that only means that they reflect Mexican reality all the more. As is said several times in the extras on these two releases, these sophisticated cinema nightmares have power because they’re inspired by indigenous folklore — they owe nothing to Hollywood’s vampires and monster-makers.
Horror film fans aware of fantastic films from Mexico have long been keen on the late-’50s early-60’s weirdness of films like El Barón del Terror (Brainiac) and the rather effective El espejo de la bruja (The Witch’s Mirror). It’s possible to find some reasonable 1950s vampire film from Mexico, in a field crowded with absurd Aztec Mummies and avenging wrestlers.
The same names crop up with these productions. Director Chano Urueta, known to fans as an actor in The Wild Bunch, directed both Barón and Espejo, and also an earlier pot-boiler that’s reportedly the first modern ‘medical horror’ tale, the truly strange El monstruo resucitado.
But until the last five years or so we’ve been denied official home video access to the real font of Mexican horror cinema from the early talkie era, when the tiny Mexican film industry was dominated by American product (sometimes with Mexican stars) and films from the better-established Argentinan and Spanish film industries. Filmmakers had to experiment, just to get attention. It’s again a small group of colleagues that made a clutch of intense horror pictures. The first Mexi-horror wave faded almost immediately, when Mexican screens were swamped by rural musicals with happy vaqueros — ‘comedia ranchera’ movies. The film that started that craze, Alla en el Rancho Grande (1936), was directed by Fernando de Fuentes, who also spearheaded the expressionist horror films of 1933 and 1934. De Fuentes almost was the Mexican film industry in the early days. His bigger claim to fame was with stirring dramas about the revolutionary period, such as El Compadre Mendoza and ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa!
We’ve already enjoyed a splendid Blu-ray of Dos Monjes (Two Monks), directed and co-written by Juan Bustillo Oro, Fernando de Fuentes’ frequent collaborator. Responding directly to avant-garde filmmaking trends from Europe, Oro fashioned a proto- Rashomon tale: two men tell clashing versions of a tragic backstory that motivated them both to enter a monastery. Expressionist sets were lit by the celebrated still photographer Augustín Jiménez; sculptor Germán Cueto designed the weird masks seen in a fantastic concluding sequence. Dos Monjes is currently available with five other films on a 2020 Criterion disc set called Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project No. 3
England’s Powerhouse Indicator now brings us two other equally famed Classic Mexican Horror films, in two separate releases. One is co-written by Fernando de Fuentes, and the other directed by Fuentes and co-written with Juan Bustillo Oro. One even shares an actor with Dos Monjes. I recommend them to horror fans who can appreciate the vintage weirdness of Vampyr and White Zombie.
See also the old DVD Savant review for Rafael Baledón’s 1961 ‘Llorona’ shocker The Curse of the Crying Woman.
1933 / 70 min. / The Crying Woman, The Ghost, The Wailing Woman / Available from Powerhouse Films UK / £15.99
Starring: Ramón Pereda, Virginia Zurí, Carlos Orellana, Adriana Lamar, Alberto Martí, Esperanza del Real, Paco Martínez, Doña Marina, Alfredo del Diestro.
Cinematography: Guillermo Baqueriza
Set Designer: Leonardo Noriega Stavoli
Film Editor: Ramón Peón
Musical Director: Max Urban
Written by Carlos Noriega Hope, Fernando de Fuentes story by Antonio Guzman Aguilera
Directed by Ramón Peón
We’re told that these young cinema entrepreneurs had extensive theatrical backgrounds. They didn’t want to imitate the Hollywood films that dominated Mexican screens, and instead drew material from their own culture. All the films are steeped in Catholic symbolism, moral directives, and especially guilt for crimes of the heart, often old-fashioned lust. La Llorona goes a step further, presenting the legend as a figure from a guilty colonial past. There is apparently no one Llorona legend. The basic image is of a ghostly woman who walks at night wailing for her lost or stolen children. Her presence alone chills the blood. She may have lost her children due to various deeds by lovers or husbands, but she also may be tainted by evil herself, for betraying a man. In modern times the Llorona became a kind of bogey-woman utilized to frighten children at bedtime.
Caste position was everything in historical Latin America. Even now the first fear of the established and propertied is losing one’s station, of joining the unwashed rabble in poverty. Because power lies mostly with men the situation of women is even worse. If the husband or lover has wealth or prestige, he can take a wife or lover of lesser social standing. If the inequity is wide enough he discard her and keep her children, and suffer little social penalty. La Llorona stands in for a history of patriarchal oppression.
The makers of La Llorona had definite artistic ambitions. Writers Carlos Noriega Hope and Fernando de Fuentes set their tale in the present (1932) with two major flashbacks to earlier times. The handsome production has excellent sets and costumes, especially those of the early colonial period. Comparisons are often made with D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, even though there is no parallel cutting between eras.
The fascinating picture uses ancient relics — an Aztec knife, pagan idols — as supernatural tokens, as in The Mask 3-D and Q, The Winged Serpent. Suspense is generated through Secret Passageways and ‘Clutching Hands’ as in the silent The Cat and the Canary. But social politics are are strong unspoken force — the show could also be called ‘The Curse of the Scorned Women’ or ‘Revenge for a Genocide.’ Hope and de Fuentes use the origin story that says the first Llorona is La Melinche, or Marina, the Aztec slave who was given to Hernán Cortés, She became his translator, lover and collaborator, aiding and abetting the conquest. Cortés took away Marina’s son. In legend she went mad, and became a supernatural spirit. In the movie this spirit has been fulfilling a centuries-old curse, killing the male heirs of the Cortés line at the age of four.
Some of the acting is stilted and the pace is slow — my editing instinct keeps saying ‘tighten up!’ The telling may be melodramatic but events are not sanitized. The present-day story begins with a birthday celebration and ends like an Italian ‘giallo’ with hooded mystery figure threatening the birthday boy. We take the threat seriously — children do die. The ‘family curse’ theme resonates with past crimes still present in the social caste system. Although not expressed directly, anti-Colonial rage is as strong here as in Terence Fisher’s much later The Stranglers of Bombay. With its strong narrative line and rich background, La Llorona is a satisfying classic horror movie.
“He kept the child and he threw her away. You know a man could do that in those days. They had the power and the freedom.”
The text pieces in PI’s insert booklet chart examples of La Llorona in history, literature and film. I listened to most of the disc extras but didn’t catch a mention of the presence of the La Llorona theme in what critics currently call the greatest film of all time, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. That film’s murderer strives to convince James Stewart’s detective that the woman he is shadowing is possessed by the spirit of Carlota Valdés, a beauty from a hundred years before. A bookstore owner tells us that Carlota was found ‘dancing and singing in cabaret’ by a powerful married man, became his consort and gave him a child: he then took the child and abandoned her, and she went mad wandering the streets calling for her lost child. Why isn’t La Llorona a main part of the canon for Vertigo? Hitchcock’s movie co-opts the legend wholesale for its supernatural backstory.
El Fantasma del Convento
1934 / 85 min. / The Phantom of the Monastery / Available from Powerhouse Films UK / £15.99
Starring: Marta Roel, Enrique del Campo, Carlos Villatoro, Paco Martínez, José Ignacio Rocha, Victorio Blanco.
Cinematography: Ross Fisher
Production Designer: Fernando A. Rivero
Film Editor: Fernando de Fuentes
Musical arrangements: Max Urban
Written by Fernando de Fuentes, Juan Bustillo Oro story by Jorge Pezet, Fernando de Fuentes, Juan Bustillo Oro
Produced by Jorge Pezet
Directed by Fernando de Fuentes
“When the soul harbors no impure desire, there is nothing to fear in this House of God.”
The next year’s El Fantasma del Convento is a straight-on ghost story that can be told in a few sentences — which wouldn’t begin to express the rich experience of this remarkable movie. It’s in some ways dated and conservative, but the attitudes and values expressed are still very much here despite today’s PC culture revisionism. ‘Decency’ is God-fearing, and women can still be judged as good or bad based on their adherence to a rigid system of double standards. But any honest depiction of a hypocritical status quo will contain its own criticism. This is what makes many of Luis Buñuel’s Mexican movies so interesting. He paints within the censor’s lines yet his wicked satirical exaggerations turn the rules of marriage, family and society upside down.
Our three young protagonists are youthful, urban and worldly. Eduardo (Carlos Villatoro), his wife Cristina (Marta Ruel) and their friend Alfonso (Enrique del Campo) take shelter in an abandoned monastery. They are surprised to find that the place still functions, run by an order of monks that behave like something from the distant past. The leader invites them to dinner and explains a certain eerie room barred with a large cross. As in Dos Monjes, men become friars to atone for past sins. We hear of one named Roberto, an unhappy adulterer. Roberto’s story has a special meaning for Cristina and Alfonso: they’re on the verge of cheating on Eduardo.
Unspooling at a nightmarish, funereal pace, El Fantasma prowls the monastery, finding something creepy in every scene. They see scary shadows with no source, and the silhouette of a penitente. A cabinet keeps returning to an odd position without explanation. The visions fit in with the uncanny imagery of Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Vampyr. The mysterious monks contradict some of things Alfonso and Eduardo see with their eyes. One monk warns Alfonso against being so curious, but then offers to answer his questions. They more or less ignore the monks’ instructions to stay alone, out of each other’s rooms.
Where is the source of evil and misery? The woman. The men wear sturdy boots for the hike but Cristina has joined the excursion in stiletto heels. When the leading monk lectures, she distracts herself by carving the word ‘cobarde’ (coward) into the table. She’s provoking Alfonso for not taking advantage of their ability to be alone together. Cristina’s willful smiles are more than a little disturbing, like those of Dreyer’s Sybille Schmitz.
El Fantasma is slow but eerie, with atmosphere to burn. It was filmed in real monasteries including one in Mexico City that displays authentic mummified corpses of monks of olde. That spectacle was the producer’s inspiration to make the movie, according to writer Oro. It’s unclear whether the dessicated mummies we see are originals or theatrical mock-ups. They look very convincing. When the supernatural and ghoulish imagery arrives it really carries a charge. Alfonso dares to enter Roberto’s forbidden room, which becomes the film’s horror highlight.
“There is something strange but very human going on here.”
Fernando de Fuentes said that he preferred more realistic stories, but his direction here is marvelously expressive. The sequence in which Alfonso tries to understand the mysterious, ‘unmotivated’ shadow of a bat is a near-perfect visual construction with little or no dialogue. It’s as uncanny as anything by Tod Browning or James Whale.
Juan Bustillo Oro’s hooded monks speak softly but demand a harsh rejection of worldliness. A motto on a wall puts a curse upon those that bring the sins of the flesh into the House of God, heightening the feeling of dread. Are the monks there to teach, or to punish? When the openly wanton Cristina finally gets Alfonso alone in the dark, her “Love Me” plays as a cue for a terrible retribution.
It’s interesting — in classic Universal horror the threat is largely external. When the horrid mummy and vampire issues are resolved, the young romantic leads can finally get together to make love in peace. These Mexican scare shows are about horrors that can’t be resolved so easily. The curses come from within the ‘normal’ bourgeois couples — from their heritage, or from their forbidden desires.
Powerhouse Indicator’s Separate Region-Free Blu-ray releases of Classic Mexican Horror are immediately the most exciting fantasy discs of 2022. We’re accustomed to encountering interesting horror fare, but these are works central to the genre, genuine classics. Kim Newman expresses the feeling well — not even he had seen El Fantasma del Convento, and it blew him away.
The disc presentations are not equal. La Llorona is a cinematic rescue, transferred by the Cinema Preservation Alliance from the only known surviving element, a 16mm projection print. As explained in an extra, digital processing was kept to a minimum to avoid erasing textures and shading. Some timing shifts remain on dissolves and the picture is rough at times, but otherwise it plays extremely well. We can fully appreciate a sequence featuring an impressive double-exposure montage of conquistadors in helmets and Aztecs in masks and feathers. A brief extra on the disc collects the odd star and moon- shaped changeover cues that were found on the print, and digitally erased.
El Fantasma del Convento is a full restoration from key nitrate elements. Like Dos Monjes it was restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive in collaboration with the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. It’s in terrific shape, so good that we can appreciate the fine gradations in light and dark in Ross Fisher’s cinematography — much of the show plays in near-darkness yet we never wonder if something’s wrong with the print. We’re told that the Mexicans engineered their own sound recording system, and the dialogue here is extremely clear — perfect for language learners, I might add. Max Urban’s music track provides jolts of its own, while passages that play silent are just as scary.
The audio on both films is well recorded. But the Mexicans were a couple of years behind Hollywood and could not yet mix audio tracks. In Llorona the music will sometimes crudely cut to silence to allow for dialogue and sound effects. The music score for Fantasma was organized to fit better around other audio. In one scary passage, music stings jump in between shouted dialogue, cleverly dodging the inability to mix tracks.
Indicator’s disc producers have hit on some excellent sources for extras. Stephen Jones and Kim Newman offer full commentaries for both films, discussing them in academic terms and having a grand time comparing and contrasting their content with scores of horror films from other countries. Kim Newman apologizes for mispronouncing Spanish words yet does a decent enough job throughout. My understanding is that the word ‘Llorona’ is pronounced “Yo – row – nuh” pretty much everywhere; an Argentinian might put a soft ‘j’ sound on the first syllable.
Offering a welcome perspective on both features is Mexico’s Abraham Castillo Flores. The director of the Mórbido Film Fest, Flores communicates well the special place of Mexican folk traditions in popular cinema. His knowledge of Mexican film history gives us insights on all of the creators, including a rather unflattering report on one of the stars of Fantasma — the actor moved to Spain, and when the Civil War broke out, served as a Franco spy and informer against the Republicans.
The best item on La LLorona is a handsome visual essay narrated by the granddaughter of the film’s producer, whose voiceover narration is altogether charming. Vintage film footage, family photos and newspaper clippings tell how the coming of sound forced Latin theater owners to band together to produce more movies locally. Some of the little children in the movie’s birthday party are seen as senior citizens, watching the movie on video.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
La Llorona and El Fantasma del Convento
Separate Region-Free Blu-ray Releases rate:
Video and Sound: Llorona Good, Fantasma Excellent (Spanish language)
Supplements (from Indicator):
Audio commentary with Stephen Jones and Kim Newman (2022)
La Llorona: Ghosts of the Past (2021, 17 mins): documentary by Viviana García Besné, the producer’s great granddaughter
Transcending Time (2022, 18 mins) with Abraham Castillo Flores, head programmer of Mexico’s Mórbido Film Fest
Lunas y estrellas (2022, 2 mins): compilation of the source print’s distinctive cue marks, which were removed during the restoration
Illustrated 40-page booklet with an essay by Emily Masincup, an archival article on the legend, Valeria Villegas Lindvall on the many cinematic interpretations of the theme, an archival newspaper report on the premiere, excerpts of contemporary critical responses, and Peter Conheim on the restoration
El Fantasma del Convento
Audio commentary with Stephen Jones and Kim Newman (2022)
The Devil in the Detail (2022, 18 mins): with Abraham Castillo Flores
Illustrated 36-page booklet with an essays by Maricruz Castro-Ricalde, and screenwriter Juan Bustillo Oro, an archival production report, a look at the film’s original promotion, excerpts of contemporary critical responses, and Jan-Christopher Horak of the UCLA Film & Television Archive on the restoration.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: February 17, 2022
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