11 September, 2007

Bring Me The Head of Fernando Mendez

Horror at the hacienda investigated by Cowboy Santos and co. in the obscure Mexican western/adventure/horror film THE LIVING COFFIN (1958).

I enjoyed talking with Jess Franco a few years ago about his early career working as an assistant to such respected Mexican directors as Emilio Fernandez and Chano Urueta, both of whom, according to Jess, lived on the wild side (both directors appear as villains in Sam Peckinpah's 1974 film maudit BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, one of my personal favorites in the horror-western subgenre).
Speaking of horror-westerns let's consider EL GRITO DE LA MUERTE (1958), which is out on a very welcome DVD edition from the estimable CasaNegra, a company dedicated to the restoration and quality presentation of classic Mexican horror complete with original Spanish language tracks with English subtitles (tinted blue for easy reading), the English language export track, cast biographies, still and poster galleries and, in this case, an informative essay on the history of this subgenre from Mexican film authority David Wilt.

This film has a definite fantastique quality which is established in the brief precredit sequence as the camera pans up from a skeleton which has partially sunk into the haunted swamp to reveal a flayed man staggering out of the steaming underbrush as a female moans loudly offscreen. Yes, it's the Mexican fantasy legend of "The Crying Woman" set on a remote hacienda visited by Cowboy Gaston Santos (costumed in the clean cut, fringed range jacket style of Alan Ladd in SHANE) and his tiresome sidekick, Crazy Wolf (sporting an atmosphere shattering coonskin hat!). Therein lies the problem. This guy ruins the atmosphere as much as that idiota who played the irritating sidekick in Mario Bava's HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD. These guys aren't Bob Hope or Lou Costello, they're just NOT FUNNY! I guess even good directors have bad taste or have to follow orders from upper management.

The image of the knife in the clock evokes Dali and Jess Franco himself bending the clock hands at the climax of VIRGIN AMONG THE LIVING DEAD. The Crying Woman evokes some frissons appearing out of a sliding panel, but this film, written by the prolific Ramon Obon, goes the same misguided route as Rene Cardona's 1970 cop-out mummy film, LA VENGANZA DE LA MOMIA, which also has a loud, unfunny "comedian" there to rob the proceedings of suspense and gravitas. I guess they wanted to have a "family entertainment" element. But I appreciate the film as a compelling oddity and a more than welcome experiment. This is the only way to present Mexican horror on DVD, in my opinion.

In any case, the odd color scheme of brown, black and red reminds one just how much Mendez's better 50s horrors EL VAMPIRO and THE BLACK PIT OF DR. M (also available from CasaNegra in Highly Recommended editions) benefited from b&w stock, deep shadows (and a few remain here) and the power of the imagination.
An added note: the colors are a bit faded and the image a bit soft but considering the film's rarity and age this is a really nice 1.33:1 fullframe transfer.

I'll be reviewing CasaNegra's THE MAN AND THE MONSTER in an upcoming blog. I hope they can stay afloat as they are a class act and worthy of your unconditional support.

(C) Robert Monell, 2007


Nzoog Wahrlfhehen said...

According to Luis Buñuel, Chano Urueta would turn up on set with a gun "just to be on the safe side".

As for Fernández, well, accounts by people as diverse as Buñuel, Fernando Rey, Sambrell and Ricardo Palacios,to mention only the first people that come to mind, confirm his reputation as being a colourful character. He owned and carried guns and was frequently drunk. He also owned a mansion with a moat.

Robert Monell said...

Franco talked to me of being an assistant to Chano Urueta in the late 1950s, he also mentions it in OBSESSION. But I couldn't get the exact name of the production he claims to have worked on. I wonder what it was.

JohnBraun said...

36q6LL write more, thanks.