(6/10) This obscure Mexican medical horror from 1936 is a surprisingly well-made and entertaining mad scientist melodrama cut from a Hollywood template. While tame by today’s standards, its scenes with hack-off limbs and gore-filled trunks raised a few eyebrows back in the day.
El Baul Macabro. 1936, Mexico. Directed by Miguel Zacarías. Written by Jorge Dada, Alejando Galindo. Starring: Ramón Pereda, René Cardona, Esther Fernández, Enrique Gonce, Juanita Castro. Produced by Juan Pezet. IMDb: 5.6/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
I must admit to being no expert on early Mexican science fiction or horror films. I have tried to read up, but the problem is that there is very little to read, even in Spanish, online about the more obscure genre films of Mexico in the thirties and forties. So you sort of have to piece stuff together from short plot synopses, footnotes in books on Mexican cinema and artist biographies. Furthermore, most of these films — if available at all — don’t come with subtitles, and I don’t speak Spanish. Fortunately many of them are available on Youtube, and even if Youtube’s automatically translated subtitles are often hilariously bad, they at least tend to give the viewer a rough idea about what is being said, which helps tremendously, even if you probably miss the finer points of the dialogue. So with this caveat in mind, I present to you my review of El Baul macabro, or The Macabre Trunk.
Made in 1936, The Macabre Trunk followed up the successes of a string of horror films produced in Mexico in 1933 and 1935, three of which were directed by Juan Bustillo Oro, who is generally considered one of the founding fathers of Mexican horror. One of these was El Misterio del rostro pálido, or “The Mystery of the Ghastly Face”, is sometimes considered Mexico’s first science fiction film, but even with my very broad definition of the genre, I can’t consider it as such, even if it concerns a mad scientist. There’s just not any speculative science in it, and it’s more of a horror melodrama.
The same thing can perhaps be said of El Baul macabro, but this film has just enough wonky Karloffian pseudo-science to qualify it for a review on this blog. It is not, however, the first Mexican SF movie, that honour would probably go to The Dead Speak (1935, review).
The story involves a mad physician, Dr. Renan (Ramón Pereda) who strives to find a cure for his fatally ill, paralysed wife. Renan is convinced that the key to the cure is blood transfusion, but not just any blood transfusion will, do, rather it has to be blood from a young female, the right blood group, and apparently with a number of other qualities as well, which are never quite explained. But for some reasons, the five young women he has snatched from his hospital at night have all been duds, and had the poor taste of dying after he emptied them of all their blood. The movie opens, ominously, as Dr. Renan is just about to procure his sixth living blood container from the hospital. Dressed in a black cape, mask and a black fedora, he looks strikes me as a rather flamboyant kidnapper, as the disguise is meant to conceal his identity and not to make the impression that he is The Shadow. But already from the moody, wordless opening sequence it is clear that El Baul macabro is several classes above the cheap, clunky El Misterio del rostro pálido.
“But this one is still alive”, says Renan’s assistant Mozabu (Enrique Gonce), the resident Dwight Frye of the movie, when Renan brings the woman to his lavish mansion, such as only mad doctors of the thirties can afford. But alas, even with a live container, the transfusion fails to cure Renan’s wife Virginia (Juanita Castro).
All the while, the police and the press are closing in on the killer whose young victims seem to disappear without a trace, and have concluded that the perpetrator must be one of the doctors at the hospital. And of course the staff of the hospital is likewise rattled by the mysterious disappearances of their patients, and put their heads together to find out the killer might be. One of these amateur sleuths is Dr. Valle (René Cardona), a young doctor engaged to the daughter of hospital’s director, Alicia (Esther Fernandez, the daughter, not the director). One day, Valle is approached by a beggar (Victorio Blanco) outside the hospital, who tells him what has happened in a scene we have watched earlier in the film. When rummaging around the trash cans in the city one night, the beggar saw a man dumping the contents of a suitcase in one of the cans, and as the beggar approached to inspect the loot, he discovered that it was full of body parts from a young woman. The next day, he saw the picture of said doctor in the papers, and realised that he must be the killer. But since he didn’t know the name of the doctor (perhaps he can’t read), he can’t name the killer, but he tells Dr. Valle that if he could see the doctor in person, he would be able to identify him — for a small price.
Meanwhile, poor Alicia comes down with an appendicitis, and for some reason her doctor boyfriend can’t operate on her, so her father decides to book an appointment with Dr. Renan. After taking a blood test, Renan realises that Alicia’s blood is perfect for the transfusion, and the next night he snatches away Alicia from her hospital bed. But in the meantime, Dr. Valle has done some good old sleuthing, and is now on to Renan. But unfortunately, the police have witnessed Valle talking to a beggar outside the hospital, and for this reason they now believe him to be the killer. So Valle hops in his car and drives to Renan’s mansion in hopes of getting there in time to save his girlfriend, with the police on his tail, building up to a finale where the resident Renfield plays a surprising role.
The Macabre Trunk is stylish film, if made on a much tighter budget than its Hollywood counterparts at the time. It has the feeling of a Hollywood Poverty Row movie, but the camerawork is a lot more dynamic than what you’d expect from such fare, and there’s much more outdoor and location shooting, opening up the world of the film, making it feel believable, as opposed to, for example, a later Mexican horror entry like Herencia macabra (1940). The cinematography is much more inventive than what you’d perhaps expect from a film like this, filled with cutaways, interesting camera angles, bird perspective, frog perspective, etc. There’s a neat editing technique that cuts from scene to scene via some object which appears in both scenes. It is, as Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings writes, “impressive at first, but ends up being overused”.
This was not director Miguel Zacarías’ usual fare. He fashioned himself a writer first and foremost, and not only wrote many of his films, but around 130(!) novels as well. That’s in addition to directing more than 50 films between 1933 and 1983. Unlike many directors, he also had time to enjoy his retirement, even if he was 78 when he stopped filming — he died in 2006 at the incredible age of 101. A couple of years before that he received the Salvador Toscano medal for his outstanding contribution to Mexican cinema. The late date of his honouring speaks to the fact that Zacarías is generally not counted among the most revered directors of the Mexican Golden Age of cinema, stretching from the mid-thirties to the fifties, like Fernando de Fuentes, Roberto Galvadon or Miguel Contreras Torres. However, like Torres, Zacarías was a devoted nationalist whose films were often meant to highlight some aspect of Mexican history or culture. How this ties in with El Baul macabro is anyone’s guess.
One contributor to the look of the film was cinematographer Alex Phillips, a Canadian who was invited to work on the first Mexican sound film in 1931, and fell so much in love with the country that he spent the rest of his career there, with the exceptions of a few detours to Hollywood in the fifties and sixties. In the forties and fifties he was nominated an astounding ten times for the Silver Ariel (the Mexican Oscar) for best cinematography and won it twice. The editing of the movie, apart from the object-centred scene switches, is fast, employing short shots and rapid editing. Henry Nicolella’s and John Soister’s book Down from the Attic, this was something Zacarías pioneered, partly as a way to get away from the costly dissolves that had been used much in Mexican cinema in the early thirties.
As stated, I can’t evaluate the quality of the dialogue in this film, but with the help of the auto-translated subtitles I had no problem whatsoever following the story, which speaks to the logic of the script and the clarity of the filmmaking. It also speaks to the fact that the plot is rather simple. It’s the same basic premise that was used in an abundance of Hollywood horrors of the thirties and forties: a mad scientist needs to extract something from young women in order to save his wife/daughter, and ends up kidnapping the wife/girlfriend of the hero, who generally tends to be someone close to him. The hero figures out what’s going on at the last minute and rushes to the mad scientist’s lab in order to save his beloved.
Director Miguel Zacarías was something of a world citizen — the son of Lebanese parents relocated to Mexico, he attended high school in the US, studied at at a university in Lebanon, briefly returned to Mexico in 1927, only to enrol at Columbia University in New York in order to study filmmaking. During his four years in the US he also worked at a film lab, where he met a lot of people from the film industry. He returned to Mexico in 1932, not only with a lot of knowledge on how to make talkies, but also with a host of influences from American films, which were not necessarily available in Mexico. The influences show in The Macabre Trunk, which feels very much like a Hollywood movie, only in Spanish. Dr. Renan’s lab, although somewhat whiter and smaller, has clear influences from Frankenstein’s ditto in James Whale’s 1931 film, complete with spiral staircase, and Zacarías constantly shoots it wide from a high angle, much like Whale did in many of his dramatic scenes. The ending with the two women on gurneys shot from the ceiling can’t but evoke images of Frankenstein. But there’s also clear influences from Warner’s gangster movies, as the world of The Macabre Trunk is inhabited by swarms of fedora-wearing police detectives — even a comic relief flatfoot in the form of gum-chewing Carlos “Chaflán” López, a minor comedy star on Mexican stage and celluloid, and nosy reporters.
Another clear influence on the film, as on many of the earlier horror movies, were the “old dark house” films so popular in the US during the twenties. Not only would Zacarias have seen many of the best examples of these during his stay in New York, but they were also readily available in Mexico, as these silent movies worked as well in a Spanish-speaking environment as in an English-speaking one. These, in turn, were inspired by the mystery novels and plays often set enclosed locations, like remote mansions and castles, and had more in common with detective stories à la Agatha Christie than with the Gothic writings of Poe or Stoker. A common trait to the old dark house films were that they revolved around a mystery, often with a seemingly supernatural twist, but always with a rational answer. Even though vampires and witches did occasionally turn up in Mexican horror films, in the majority of cases the horror had a more tangible and rational explanation. Often a film’s plot was more concerned with solving some mystery regarding disappearing bodies or masked villains, than with exploring the more “philosophical” or psychological aspects of the horror involved.
While I can’t give an apprehensive analysis of the acting without understanding at least the majority of the dialogue, I can at least say that the acting, overall, in The Macabre Trunk is as good as it tended to be in the film’s American counterparts, if not better. Naturally, meaty parts like López’s flatfoot comic relief and Gonce’s crippled assistant stand out, with Lopez managing to refrain from mugging, and Gonce perhaps hamming it up a notch too far in some instances. Or, shall we say: hamming it up to Dwight Frye levels also requires a Dwight Frye level of intensity and charisma, and Gonce’s not quite there. Ramón Pereda as the mad doctor himself is good, without leaving any particular impression. The most natural and relaxed performances are given by the leading couple, René Cardona and Esther Fernández. Both actors were cast in central roles in the romantic drama Allá en el Rancho Grande later in 1936, directed Fernando de Fuentes. The film became a sensation, and is generally considered as the starting point for the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. It turned all three of the major cast members into stars.
René Cardona was not only a star of over 120 films during his nigh 50 years long career, like so many of the stars of early Mexican cinema, he also worked as a writer, producer and in particular as a director. To friends of genre cinema he is primarily known as a director of a whole slew of lucha libre films, Mexico’s unique gift to the world of B movies. But he was also one of Mexico’s most prolific science fiction directors and creator of many cult films in the sixties and seventies. If you’re not familiar with the cult movies of Mexico, please hold on to your hats, because I’m going to list a few titles now, and they are among the most wonderful in cinema history.
Cardona directed at least a dozen science fiction films, but I am going with IMDb’s listings here, and there may be a few that I’m missing because they are not tagged as such. His first one was El enmascarado de plata (1954), released in English as The Silver Masked Man, and it was a rather staple mad scientist yarn. But in 1959 he directed one of his most famous films, Santa Claus, about said title character whose workshop is in this instance located in outer space, and who has to battle the devil who wants to kill him and ruin Christmas for all children. The movie was made famous in the US through the MST3K treatment. And then we get to the sixties and the movie Las luchadoras conta el medico asesino (1963), released in the US as Sex Monster, Doctor of Doom and … Rock ‘N Roll Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Ape. This masterpiece was followed up by Las luchadoras contra la momia (1964) released in the US as Rock ‘N Roll Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy. Then came La edad de piedra (1964) and El asesino invisible (1965, as The Invisible Assassin, Neutron Traps the Invisible Assasin, and Man in the Golden Mask vs. the Invisible Assassin). Then in 1967 we were gifted with Las mujeres panteras (The Panther Women), with the IMDb tagline: “The Panther women are worshipers of Satan and perform rituals in their honor and sacrifice. The fighters will face them up and down the ring.” 1968 saw the birth of La mujer murcielago (The Batwoman); “Batwoman is called to investigate a whacked out scientist that is capturing wrestlers and using their spinal fluid to create a Gill Man.” You can’t make this stuff up. In 1969 Cardona remade Sex Monster/Doctor of Doom as Night of the Bloody Apes, another one of his best known movies. That same year also saw the release of Las luchadoras vs el robot asesino, and suppose you can guess the plot of this film. It was later released in the US as Wrestling Women versus the Murderous Robot, although I think I like the French title Sex Monsters better. Then came El incríble profesor Zovek (1972) and later in 1981 Visita al pasado.
And as if this wasn’t enough, Cardona also appeared as an actor on the cult classic Brainiac (1962) and La furia de los karatecas (1982), also released as The Fist of Death and The Fury of the Karate Killers.
As I mentioned in my review of Paramount’s H.G. Wells movie Island of Lost Souls (1932), there is a Mexican 1974 film that was also released as Island of Lost Souls in English. However, thus has nothing to do with Wells’ novella, but is an escape movie, and was directed by René Cardona. Another one of his more famous films is Supervivientes de los Andes (1976), which was distributed by Paramount in the US, with a massive promotional campaign, as Survive! The movie was an exploitation of the 1972 airplane crash in the Andes, after which the surviving members of a Uruguayan rugby team had to eat their dead team mates in order to survive. Many of Cardona’s later films were made in collaboration with his son, the originally named René Cardona Jr. and his grandson – you guessed it: René Cardona III, who both became seasoned B movie directors themselves, creating a dynasty of Z movies. As Soister at Niconella put it: René Cardona “was a juggernaut”.
Esther Fernández, who plays Cardona’s girlfriend, had really only played bit-parts before The Macabre Trunk, and if it was this film that put her on the map, it was Allá en el Rancho Grande who thrust her into stardom. According to Soister and Niconella, she had already been cast in Fuentes’ much anticipated big-budget movie, and used The Macabre Trunk as a dry rehearsal for her big moment. The authors also claim that Fernández was still such an inexperienced and shy actress that she wouldn’t allow herself to be kissed by Cardona on screen, which is why Zacarias filmed a number of inserts of the two lovebirds playing footsie in tender moments. Between 1936 and 1957 Fernández appeared in over 50 films, many of them commercial hits, and was at one point invited to Hollywood by MGM, where she took English and acting classes, and appeared in the successful adventure movie Two Years Before the Mast (1943) opposite Alan Ladd and Brian Donlevy. But either Hollywood didn’t agree with her, or the other way round, as it remained her only US movie. Fernández went on a two-year hiatus in 1957 because of her battle with hepatitis, but when she tried to make a comeback two years later the Mexican film industry had moved on, and the actress, now in her mid-forties, struggled to find any roles. After her retirement she focused on her hobby, porcelain painting, which eventually turned into a business.
Hispanic critics in the US gave the The Macabre Trunk positive reviews, with the El Paso newspaper El Continental praising the technical aspects of the film. The reviewer wrote that “we have to look at the program to remind ourselves that it is not an American film that is being shown on screen”. The New York critics were more difficult to charm, though, with The New York Times commenting that the macabre trunk in question held nothing more than “a bag of old tricks”.
Among modern reviewers Niconella and Soister also commend the movie’s technical aspects, the cinematography and the editing, but take a friendly potshot at the script, design and casting: “Much of the story is set in and around a hospital, as hospitals must have been envisioned by storytellers like [co-screenwriter] Jorge Dada 80 years back: save for that one witness to the carrying-off, all ward-patients enjoy the sleep of the just; all nurses are achingly beautiful and sashay, rather than walk; security is left to old men who are easily overcome or are a tad too late to respond to a call. […] And it speaks volumes about the decade’s societal perceptions that, when not on duty, Renan, Monroy, del Valle, and (presumably) all Mexican doctors live in a style which only today’s millionaires […] can relate to.”
In an analysis in the culture journal Berfrois, Jessica Sequeira comes to the conclusion that the real villain of the film is process — I won’t delve further into the matter here, please read this wonderful piece for yourselves. The tagline of Berfrois is “Literature. Ideas. Tea”, and I don’t know what Ms. Sequeira puts in her tea, but I want some, as the review morphs into something like a 5,000 word essay on the philosophy of process, and she launches into an impromptu poem containing the words “Bad-a-bing-bad-a-boom” and finishes it all with a short story describing an imaginary snuff film. Beautiful!
It’s difficult to find an actual review of the movie online. It’s so obscure that while AllMovie has a plot synopsis, it lacks a rating or an actual review, although Robert Firsching writes that compared to some of René Cardonas’ later cult movies, The Macabre Trunk’s “discreet bloodletting and offscreen dismemberment seem positively prudish, but it was still seen as rather shocking for its time”. Dave Sindelar at Amazing Movie Musings and Ramblings seems to be one of the very few actually attempting a review: “Despite the fact that I didn’t always know what was going on, I found myself quite entertained […] All in all, the movie has the feel of a forties Monogram cheapie, which is interesting, because it predates them by a few years.”
Someone might wonder what the trunk of the title refers to. I first figured that it was the suitcase with body parts seen in the beginning of the movie, but in fact there is a rather large trunk revealed filled with — well it’s never really revealed, but the reactions of the police officers opening it at the end of the movie give us a hint.
Despite its shortcomings I found El Baul macabro to be an enjoyable movie, and having seen some of the low-budget horrors coming out of Mexico in the thirties before, I was a bit surprised of the quality of the cinematography and direction. It does very much remind me of some of the better Poverty Row or minor major studio movies to come out of Hollywood in the forties. Unfortunately it’s seemingly impossible to find a decent copy of the movie. It has never been given an official DVD release, but you can find more or less bootlegged DVD copies of it for sale online, without subtitles. There’s a copy of it uploaded to Youtube, which I imagine is the same one that’s found on the DVD, and it is obviously transferred from a worn-out VHS tape and the image quality is occasionally dreadful, as seen from some of the pictures above. But it’s never bad enough that you can’t follow the action.
El Baul Macabro. 1936, Mexico. Directed by Miguel Zacarías. Written by Jorge Dada, Alejando Galindo. Starring: Ramón Pereda, René Cardona, Esther Fernández, Enrique Gonce, Juanita Castro, Carlos López, Victorio Blanco, Manuel Noriega, Ruperto Batiz, Juan García, Alejandro Galindo. Music: Jorge Dada. Cinematography Alex Phillips. Art direction: Jorge Fernández. Set decoration: Joaquin Duprat. Sound: B.J. Kroger. Produced by Juan Pezet for Producciones Pezet.