A brilliant plastic surgeon uses his skills to mutilate the faces of his wife and her lover in this 1940 Mexican horror melodrama. The premise is promising, but the film is slow to get going and gets stuck in melodrama mode. 4/10
Herencia Macabra. 1940, Mexico. Directed by José Bohr. Written by Eva Liminana, Xavier Davila, José Bohr. Starring: Miguel Arenas, Consuelo Frank, Ramón Armengod. Produced for Productora de Peliculas. IMDb: 4.6/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
I have written film reviews on flimsy information before, but this here is pushing it. Herencia macabra, or A Macabre Legacy, is a 1940 Mexican SF horror melodrama, which has garnered some reputation as a forerunner to the surgical horror subgenre that developed in the country in later years. The movie is barely available online — the only copy I could find was a botched Youtube upload where the ending of the film had been lost, and I had to piece together the final fifteen minutes from photographs and synopses online — of which there are not many. What remained of the film on Youtube was pretty degraded, but clean enough for me to follow the film, with autogenerated English subtitles trying to translate the dialogue from the Spanish soundtrack. Nevertheless, I was able to piece together what was happening on screen, even if some of the dialogue went over my head — and that’s keeping in mind that this is an extremely talky movie.
The film follows Dr. Ernesto Duarte (Miguel Arenas), a brilliant plastic surgeon who labours under the theory that being ugly turns you mean, and that it thus follows that if you make people beautiful they will become kind. In the beginning of the film he proves his theory by performing facial surgery on a girl with a facial deformity that has been a right little demon to her family all her short live. After surgery, when she sees herself in a mirror with a new face, she becomes a sweet little angel, thus confirming Duarte’s theory. Duarte throws himself into his work with making the world a happier and kinder place to live in, one ugly mug at a time, while at the same time neglecting his newly-wed wife Rosa (Consuelo Frank).
With her husband constantly tied up with his work, Rosa enters into an affair with his assistant Eduardo (Ramón Armengod). When Duarte discovers the affair, he takes his revenge by infecting Eduardo with some dangerous genetic material, which deforms his face hideously. Upon seeing her lover’s horrible new face, Rosa turns ill, and eventually dies — or so Duarte would have everyone believe. When she is buried, there is in fact only a wax figure inside the casket. In reality, Duarte keeps Rosa locked up in a secret room in his basement, where he experiments on her, mutilating her beautiful face, and thus leaving her new lover a “macabre legacy”.
It is a bit of a stretch calling this a science fiction film, or even a horror film. In fact, for most of its running time it is a somewhat dull melodrama about a neglected wife, her new-found lover and their attempts to conceal their affair. The main sci-fi element of the movie comes from the fact that Dr. Duarte uses a strange-looking machine with a big, blinking dome and two spirally antennae down in his lab. Exactly what it is supposed to do isn’t made quite clear, at least not from the mangled subtitles for the Youtube video, but somehow it’s involved in the altering of Duarte’s subjects’ appearance.
I have previously reviewed the 1936 film The Macabre Trunk, or El Baul macabro, one of the highlights of the first wave of Mexican horror movies, a trend that began pretty soon after the introduction of the talkies in Mexico on 1931. It followed up the successes of a string of horror films produced between 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”, which 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. However, it carries through a theme that became somewhat emblematic for early Mexican horror films, as John Soister and Henry Niconella note in their book Down from the Attic: “Representative of our favorite genre in the ’30s-40’s, El Misterio del rostro pálido, El Baul macabro and Una luz en la ventana are all slanted toward the science fiction side, heavy on secret laboratories, unwilling patients, and bizarre surgeries motivated by compassion but performed without mercy.”
El Misterio del rostro pálido also involves a doctor Forti trying to make the world a better place, in this case by going with his son Pablo, who also works as his assistant, into a strange area in order to try and find a cure for a horrible plague deforming its inhabitants. However, they are not heard from in eight years, and are presumed dead, until the doctor returns, alone. Still, Pablo’s former girlfriend, now in cahoots with another man, keeps seeing a pale, ghastly face resembling her dead boyfriend in the garden at night. She realises that Dr. Forti is trying to marry her to the ghost of his son, but it is finally revealed that it is no ghost at all, but Pablo alive, hiding behind a mask that conceals his face, deformed by the terrible leprosy he contracted while doing his father’s work. And in The Macabre Trunk there’s also the idea of carrying out operations in order to heal the world, even if in this case “the world” is mainly the doctor’s fatally ill wife, who needs blood transfusions from young women. Una luz en la ventana (review), released in 1942, carried on the theme of facial mutilation by having a doctor inflict a woman with acromegaly in order to find a cure for it. As we can see there’s a theme to early Mexican horror films that is very focused, not so much necessarily on death, but on death of beauty, and in a way death of love. The theme was again resurrected in 1953 in what has been regarded as the pinnacle of the subgenre, El Monstruo resucitado.
However, in his book Fear without Frontier, Steven Jay Schneider argues that to a large extent the Mexican horror efforts still used Hollywood as a template: “These Mexican efforts also share another similarity with Hollywood horror: thematic uncertainty. The mad scientist films of both countries feature chaos created by a particular individual. Life is disrupted for those around him, as well as (potentially, at least) for society itself. Upheavals occur as the traditional parameters of acceptability are violated. Religion and the law are ignored or else challenged outright. And at the film’s conclusion, normalcy is restored. But it is restored at the heavy cost of all that has occurred narratively, and this restoration is not always a clear and unequivocal endorsement of the status quo. The deaths of the Frankenstein monster in Frankenstein (1931) and the giant ape in King Kong (1933), for example, hardly suggest that the rule of man is perfect. Goodness prevails, but what that means is typically not explored. Instead, after the villain is vanquished the credits quickly appear and the film is over. Films in the US such as Dracula, Murders in the Rue Morgue, and The Raven end very quickly after the foe is destroyed, with the greatest majority of these films’ running time devoted to a detailing of his power and control. The same could be said of a film like El Baúl Macabro or El Superloco.”
With all the mutilation hype around the A Macabre Legacy, when it comes down to it, the body horror involved is minor. Leading up to the finale, we have seen no grotesque or deformed patients, as we are simply never shown Dr. Duarte’s patients – I seriously can’t see anything wrong with the little girl’s face in the beginning of the movie that would require plastic surgery, but then again the image was rather fuzzy. And when it finally comes down to the mutilation of Rosa, she’s given some nasty scar tissue on her pretty face, but she’s hardly been turned into the elephant man. Even by the standards of the day, this was not scandalous. Lon Chaney had “mutilated” his own face far worse in a number of silent films and in Freaks (1932) Tod Browning had hired actual circus freaks to fill his roles. Rosa’s disfiguration is hardly worse than that of the Frankenstein monster or poor old Ygor from Son of Frankenstein (1939, review), with his spine sticking out of his neck. Still, for some reason — presumably the body horror involved — the film wasn’t released in Mexico until 1945, although it was finished in 1939 and was set for a 1940 release. According to “Count Karnstein” at German Dark Movie Dreams, the movie’s post-production was actually completed in the US, as presumably the whole production was shut down in Mexico. It was then released in Mexico under another name, La Traicionera, in 1945.
Schneider speaks above about “thematic uncertainty”, and that is exactly what this film gives us. The whole premise of the movie, that “ugly” people are mean and unhappy because they are ugly, and that this can all be solved with plastic surgery, is somewhat offensive. Still, the movie never questions this premise and indeed goes out of its way to show us that Dr. Duarte is doing a benefit to humanity. To a modern viewer, the notion is uncomfortable, but even in the thirties and forties the notion generally went the other way round. Quasimodo and the Phantom of the Opera didn’t new faces, they needed people to accept them as they were. And certainly our sympathies for Duarte aren’t bolstered by the fact that he is neglecting his wife. But on the other hand, he’s not a mean man, he is just wrapped up in his work, and when we see him with Rosa, he is extremely apologetic, kind and loving toward her, so in this sense, her cheating on him doesn’t quite sit right either. But still, we have some sympathies for Rosa, and the vengeance wrought on her and her lover feels the wrong way around — isn’t it the mad scientist who is supposed to get his judgement in the end?
At this point in the review I usually balance out my own thoughts with quotes from other critics, but in this case there aren’t any. I have vacuumed the web and all I can find are a couple of plot synopses. And even those aren’t in Spanish. I find it a bit surprising that so few Mexican web users seem to be interested in advancing the country’s horror and SF legacy, but on the other hand, I can now boast the first actual online review of A Macabre Legacy (I think Dave Sindelar had a post on his blog earlier, but it’s been removed).
Unfortunately A Macabre Legacy isn’t up to the same standard as its predecessor The Macabre Trunk. Despite the weird premise, the film gets stuck in melodrama mode, and seems to hit its stride really in the last ten to fifteen minutes, which I unfortunately haven’t seen. But even if those minutes are superb, it’s not enough to make up for an hour of lost opportunity. The cinematography is flat and with the exception of a couple of dolly shots, camera movement is generally confined to pan and zoom. Even without understanding it I can tell that much of the dialogue is stiff. Scenes between the main actors are usually better acted, but none of the roles are especially memorable, and something like 80 percent of the movie is people standing in rooms talking. There’s little location shooting, except a beach for an unnecessary detour to the belated honeymoon, and the sets aren’t particularly interesting. Still, it’s fairly competently made and in no way a horrible film. I think there’s a bootleg DVD on sale somewhere on the web, but unless you’re a completist it’s doubtful if it’s worth the money.
Director José Bohr directed around 35 films in his career, this being (probably) his only sci-fi. Bohr was born in Germany in 1901 as the son of veterinarian Daniel Böhr, and through a number of twists and turns the family ended up settling in Chile, where Bohr quickly became interested in filmmaking and during his career worked in more or less every single capacity on a film set. As Chile still hadn’t much of a film industry, the majority of his work was done in Mexico, but he moved back to Chile in the late forties and became a pioneer of Chilean cinema. His films were fairly successful, but perhaps not classics. He was equally famous as a songwriter, and wrote over 200 songs, primarily tangos, many of which became very successful. In 1980 he relocated to Norway with his two sons, one of which became a director in Europe, the other an artist. His daughter married and stayed in Mexico, where she married renowned actor Pedro Armendáriz, and their son Pedro Armendáriz Jr should be well-known to Hollywood audiences as a staple Mexican heavy, often playing military types, drug barons, and on quite a number of occasions, presidents of various Latin American countries.
Miguel Arenas played supporting parts in SF films like The Dead Speak (1935, review), The Invisible Assassin (1965), Neutron vs. the Karate Assassins (1965) and The Clutching Hand (1966). Consuelo Frank was one of the stars of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, often cast as noblewomen and queens. She played leads in the thirties and forties, and enjoyed a long career playing supporting roles up until the eighties. She also popped up on SF films like El Superloco (1937), The Ship of Monsters (1960), The Clutching Hand (1966) and Santo vs. the Martian Invasion (1967).
Herencia Macabra. 1940, Mexico. Directed by José Bohr. Written by Eva Liminana, Xavier Davila, José Bohr. Starring: Miguel Arenas, Consuelo Frank, Ramón Armengod, Luis Aldás, Aurora Walker, Augustín Insunza, José Rubio, Manolo Fábregas, Maria Virginio Navarro Schiller, Alberto Galán, Fanny Schiller. Music: José Bohr, Manuel Esperan. Cinematography: Jack Draper. Editing: José Bohr. Art direction: Mariano Rodrígues Granada. Costume design: Mario Chávez. Produced for Productora de Peliculas.