El hombre bestia

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗

(2/10) A magnificent train wreck. That’s perhaps the most fitting description of Argentina’s first horror, SF and monster film, The Beast Man from 1934. This no-budget monstrosity throws every conceivable Hollywood genre cliché in the mix, following the exploits of a beast man created by a mad scienist, who’s kidnapping women in a small town. 

El hombre bestia. 1934, Argentina. Directed & written by Camilo Zaccaria Soprani. Starring: Saverio Yaquinto, Raúl D’Angeli, Beatriz Colman, Mario Cuartucci. Produced by Saverio Yaquinto & C.Z. Soprani. IMDb: 3.8/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A. 

1934_hombre_bestia_013Captain Richards (Saverio Yaquinto) is a brave WWI pilot who crashes his plane in the middle of a remote forest. There he lives for twelve years and is transformed into a hirsute Tarzan in a revealing loincloth. As luck would have it, another pilot lands in the exact same spot where he crashed, so Richards kills him and steals his plane in order to escape. When the plane runs out of fuel, Richards crashes again (he obviously wasn’t that great a pilot) right on the doorstep of mad Doctor Marchesi (Raúl D’Angeli). Dr. Marchesi — for reasons left vague — injects both Richards’ pecs (or is it nipples?) with his “diabolical formula”, which apparently turns him into a sexual predator with superhuman strength. The Beast Man now begins kidnapping the local women, whom he brings to his conveniently located, secret cave (how he knew where to find it is anyone’s guess).

All the while the family of one of the kidnapped girls hire an Italian detective, logically named “Jackson” (Mario Cuartucci), who only speaks Italian, and thus can’t make himself understood by anyone in the film (or chunks the Spanish-speaking audience, for that matter), to track down the Beast Man. For this purpose he conveniently stumbles upon a group of sailors brawling on a beach, whom he hires as muscle. Tracking down the Beast Man is no large problem, as he kidnaps the girls out in the open in broad daylight. The problem is that the sailors have the proper etiquette never to engage him more than one person at a time, making it easy for the Beast Man to subdue them. But after much trial and error, the sailors finally figure out an ingenious a way to coordinate their efforts (you grab the left arm, I’ll grab the right) and manage to capture the hairy menace. They bring him to the film’s good scientist, Professor Robinson (Felipe Salzinger), who has a machine that hypnotises Captain Richards and makes him lead the authorities to his secret cave. Thankfully, the women seem unharmed, and the evil Dr. Marchesi gets his poetic due in the end. Detective Jackson even ties the knot with one of the girls, as Captain Richards flies off into the sunset, cured of his bestiality. The last shot, inexplicably, is a picture of a retirement home.

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Saverio Yaquinto as the Beast Man.

This amateurish low-budget clunker from 1934 has the distinction of being Argentina’s first horror, science fiction and monster movie all rolled up into one. At 50 minutes it is mercifully short, because this is a hot mess.

Argentina is historically one of Latin America’s three biggest movie producers, alongside Mexico and Brazil. The first Argentinian short film was made in 1897, and the country had a fairly strong comedy and documentary tradition in the silent era. Like in so many other countries that had previously been swamped by foreign productions, Argentina’s movie industry entered a Golden Age with the coming of sound in the thirties, to a large part because it was now necessary to produce movies in the audience’s own language. But for Argentinian film, there was also another benefit of the talkies, namely that the country’s strong musical tradition was now allowed to wash over the movie screen. This was the birth of the tango film, a genre that would more or less drown out all other genres of Argentinian cinema, save perhaps comedy. Tango films were usually romantic dramas or movies showcasing Argentinian culture and tradition, even if some of them also had more serious plots. But the emphasis on music, dance and comedy also left little room for experimentation with genre film, with the exception of the western, as the gaucho of the Pampas could easily replace the American cowboy.

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Camilo Zaccaria Soprani.

All were not happy with the development of Argentinian cinema. One of them were Italian Argentinian culture journalist and film producer Camilo Zaccaria “C.Z.” Soprani, a leading movie maker in the city of Rosario, 300 kilometers northwest of the capital Buenos Aires, where the movie industry proper was situated. He not only wrote about and made movies, he also published a number of handbooks on moviemaking, covering everything from acting and writing to cinematography. As far as we know, Soprani produced and directed, not always under his own name, four films in the twenties and thirties, three of which were silent. These were  Mujer tu eres la belleza (“Woman, You are Beauty”, 1928), La leyenda del mojón (“The Legend of the Cairn”, 1929), Juan de la Cruz Cuello (1931) and El hombre bestia (“The Beast Man”, 1934). All but the last one are so obscure, and completely or partially lost, that they don’t even have IMDb entries. There is evidence, however, that at least Soprani’s first two pictures were moderate commercial successes and enjoyed by audiences both in Rosario and Buenos Aires, even if contemporary sources seem to indicate that they weren’t necessarily critical successes. Most interesting from a genre perspective are probably Soprani’s first and last movies.

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Newspaper clipping for Soprani’s 1929 film La leyenda del mojon.

The first, Mujer tu eres la belleza, has, until very recently, been preserved only through a number of fragments including shots of nude women. But unlike its contemporary sexploitation movie Afrodita (1928), it doesn’t seem to have been met with censorship and outrage from the Catholic press, which indicates a more modest movie than the surviving (perhaps omitted) fragments imply. According to an article on Pagina 12, a researcher has finally uncovered (in 2018) what is suspected to be a complete copy of Mujer tu es la belleza, and is now trying to find financing for a restoration of the movie. With some luck, we may yet be able to see the full movie in a foreseeable future. And Soprani’s final film is of course our movie at hand, El hombre bestia, Argentina’s first science fiction horror movie — sort of.

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Preserved still from the 1928 film Mujer, tu es belleza

Not only is this the first science fiction film made in Argentina, it is the first science fiction film made in Latin America, and the oldest preserved science fiction feature film made in any Hispanic country. The only earlier full length feature film made in Spanish – outside of Hollywood – was Madrid en el año 2000, a futuristic lost film directed in Spain by Manuel Noriega (no, not THAT Manuel Noriega) in 1925. Now, this comes with the caveat that El hombre bestia can be called SF only by a very broad definition of the genre.

Neither were horror films a staple in Hispanic cinema during the silent era – one can imagine there was little need to produce domestic horror films with on one hand the wave of Expressionist gothics being churned out from Germany, and on the other the extremely popular old dark house horror comedies being imported from the US. The first Spanish-language horror horror films produced were Universal’s simultaneously filmed Hispanic versions of their movies The Cat and the Canary (1930) and Dracula (1931), a practice that quickly fell out of use as dubbing and subtitling became the standard practice for movie exports. The leading producer of Hispanic horrors became Mexico, with filmmakers like Fernando de Fuentes and Juan Bastillo Oro pioneering the field with movies like La llorona (1933), El fantasma del convento (1934) and El misterio del rostro pálido (1935). And one should not forget George Musser’s Spanish- and English-language Philippine vampire movie Ang Aswang, or The Vampire (1933). There are some claims that El hombre bestia would have been produced as early as 1932, but if that were true, the whole history of Argentinian cinema would have to be rewritten, since the first Argentinian movie with synchronous sound – as far as any historical documents can tell – was produced in 1933. Besides, there is a fairly broad consensus that El hombre bestia was made in 1934.

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Left: Gaston Robert. Right: Mario Cuartucci as Detective Jackson.

With the soft rumblings of a Hispanic wave of horror movies being born, it’s not surprising that C.Z. Soprani thought that Argentina should get in on the action. However, his effort did little to popularise the genre in the domestic film industry. It would take another eight years for the next horror movie, Una luz en la ventana (review), to be produced in Argentina. And when looking at the end result, this is not very surprising either.

One must tip one’s hat to the enthusiasm and can-do spirit of Soprani and his ragtag band of amateurs. Soprani wrote, directed and acted as cinematographer on El hombre bestia, with what must have been a shoestring budget. Most scenes are filmed outside in natural light and the few indoor scenes seem to be filmed on location rather than on sets. Locations are frequently reused even when this serves no purpose, as if Soprani would have chosen to film multiple scenes during a single setup in order to save time and resources. I imagine, for example, that the film team was given access to the movie’s airplanes for perhaps one day. So they all take off and land at the exact same spot.

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Saverio Yaquinto and Raúl D’Angeli.

None of the actors have any other IMDb credits, suggesting that they were all amateurs who might perhaps have worked on other of Soprani’s movies. The broad, signalling acting style they use is reminiscent of that employed in silent movies, which, for some segments, is kind of appropriate, since the film is partly silent. Saverio Yaquinto, however, is expressive and athletic enough to remain engaging in the title role, as he dashes across the screen in his perhaps a tad too revealing a loincloth. One must feel for the poor actor, since for about half of the film’s running time he is lugging around lifeless women from one place to the other. But he mugs and grimaces to the camera quite convincingly, and impresses with his physicality. All in all, if there is something this film actually succeeds with, then it is the fight scenes. These guys really go at each other, and the end result is kinetik – it’s just too bad that so much of it is flatly filmed from too great a distance, often in a single take. Mario Cuartucci as Detective Jackson also comes off as halfway decent in his role, he’s got a relaxed air about him that makes him stand out from the stilted acting of the rest of the cast.

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Newspaper photo: Director Soprani to the left with Saverio Yaquinto and extras.

Still, the bad acting is not really the problem with this film, even if it doesn’t necessarily help. The story itself is absolutely ludicrous. It’s like Soprani had three different ideas on the backstory of his beast man and couldn’t decide on which one to choose, so he just used all three of them. First, he apparently wanted some sort of prehistoric wildman, but then wanted a modern man who turned into a beast man after spending 12 years in the wilderness. Then again, he decided that the thing that was going to turn the wildman into beast man was the “diabolic formula”, perhaps because he felt the need for another villain in the film. But all these ideas cancel each other out. If the culprit here is the serum, then why go to all the trouble of making a beast man out of Captain Richards even before he gets the injection? And of you’re going to have a Neanderthal pulling women into his cave by their hair, why not go the old-fashioned way and thaw him out of ice or something? Why bother with the modern Captain Daniels at all? It’s not like he has some crucial backstory that we need to take part of. And if you’re going to use beast serum om Captain Richards anyway, why bother with the whole twelve years in the jungle bit? It makes no sense!

Then there’s the filming. Now, to be honest, I’ve seen forties and fifties Hollywood Poverty Row pictures that have had much worse cinematography than Le hombre bestia, but that’s not saying a lot. Scenes are often filmed in a single take, sometimes with an insert here and there, and you get the feeling that most of it is filmed in and around a single building. There’s no sense of geography, and I don’t know if the Beast Man’s cave is located 500 or 5,000 metres from the town — if it is a town, I’m not sure, as we never really see beyond the front yard where most of all conversations take place. The editing is disjointed and often cuts randomly between one scene and another. And then there is ample use of stock footage, for example for aerial scenes in the beginning.

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Intertitles.

The soundtrack is absolutely mad. As I mentioned earlier, this film is partly silent, partly with sound. The screenplay seems to be written as for a silent film, which would account for the rather simplistic plot, and the fact that I was able to completely follow it without understanding the roughly 20 minutes of dialogue in the movie. Sometimes the exposition is laid out in overlay titles, as if for a silent film. Of course, this mix between silent and sound wasn’t unusual when the talkies were making there debut. The Jazz Singer (1927) was essentially a silent film with music and a little bit of monologue. I’ve reviewed an SF film, Mysterious Island (1929, review) that started production as a silent and then became a talkie, making for a highly confusing end result. For western audiences seeing half-silents from 1934 feels strange, but one should remember that Argentina made their first film with fully synchronised sound as late as 1933. In this sense, it’s not that surprising that an independent filmmaker like C.Z. Soprani, away from the film industry hub of Buenos Aires, should struggle with the new technology. As we know, many filmmakers struggled with the advent of sound, as the recording equipment was unwieldy and microphones had to be hidden from view, but close to the actors — all making for a lot of very static and stiff early sound films. In this sense, El hombre bestia actually scores by keeping large parts of the movie silent, which allows for a more dynamic film.

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Newspaper ad for the movie.

The most egregious part of the soundtrack is the musical score. I have never heard music used in a film as badly as this. It is insane! The film starts out with booming military march music for the scenes of the aviator and the aerial battle, but when the film shifts gears, the music stays the same. So we get pieces akin to Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries whenever the Beast Man takes a stroll in the forest. The worst thing is that the music never seems to be synced to the dialogue and the rest of the soundtrack (of which there is little). Neither, does it seem, did Soprani have the technology of a volume button. The music may simply be cut off in the middle of a crescendo, because the film cuts to a dialogue scene, which has no background music. Then it snaps back to whatever was happening before — continuing the musical score from the same place it left off. This makes the movie absolutely maddening to watch! It’s almost as if the editor (Soprani himself?) first cut the individual scenes and laid a musical score on of those that should have such a thing, and then started editing the these scenes together with each other, without paying any regards to what happened with the score.

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Books on filmmaking written but C.Z. Soprani.

Soprani didn’t have a lot of pull in Buenos Aires. He was a local film journalist in Rosario, who fell in love with the medium he wrote about and decided to try his hands at making movies himself — according to film historians perhaps more in order to make a quick buck than out of artistic ambitions. He made his films on the cheap and seldom received wide circulation in the capital. However, all his films made off with a substantial profit, as he would personally lug around the film reels in other towns and villages, making a decent profit on the side. According to a 2013 documentary, El hombre bestia was shown at a number of private screenings in Buenos Aires, but it wasn’t picked up for a wide distribution and thus was never seen by the general public in the capital. But according to some sources, the movie mas made on 18,000 pesos, and made back over 150,000 thanks to circulation in cities like Cordoba and Santa Fe. However, after the first run of the movie, it was more or less forgotten.

Today the only version of the film that exists is one that was transferred to a VHS cassette.

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Saverio Yaquinto.

According to the documentary Tras los pasos de El hombre bestia (“In the Footsteps of the Beast Man”, available on Vimeo with English subtitles), a commercial 35 mm copy resurfaced as late as sometime around the turn of the millennium, when the son of the lead actor — and producer — Saverio Yaquinto approached movie collector and video technician Jorge Debiazzi. Mr. Yaquinto had carefully stored the ten film cans, and he had heard that Debiazzi might be able to have the reels transferred to video tape. He and his father had accompanied commercial screenings now and then up until the fifties, but after that his son had never opened the cans, and had stored them well in a dark place. Yaquinto didn’t quite understand what a cultural gem he was sitting on, he simply wanted to show the movie with his father to friends and family, and he knew that the film stock would eventually degrade. But he wasn’t aware that it was the only known existing copy of the movie. Neither did Debiazzi apparently quite understand the value of the movie, since he decided to make his only copy on a VHS cassette, even though he knew that it would be impossible to make a second one, because the perforations were in such bad shape that they would crumble during the process.

In the documentary Debiazzi explains that he didn’t have the resources to make a digital copy, neither did he think it was necessary to contact a film institute, say, in Buenos Aires to make a proper transfer. As he explains in the documentary: “I took it as a job. This person wanted the film transferred to VHS, so I transferred it. It’s not like I didn’t care about the value of the film, but it just isn’t my profession [to make proper film transfers].” In his defence, he did keep the original 35 mm print, “just in case”, but unfortunately it degraded in the cans around 2010. What often happens with old nitrate film is that a chemical process occurs as the film stock degrades that makes the film stick together, in the worst cases it just becomes big chunk of plastic-like material. In some cases these films can still be saved at a film lab, but according to Debiazzi: “the smell of nitrate was so piercing that I immediately had to throw the film away”. And, according to Debiazzi, Yaquinto didn’t much care about the film either, as he wasn’t interested in keeping the 35 mm print, “as he already had it on video tape”. Two years after Debiazzi threw away the only known existing 35 mm copy of El hombre bestia, the documentary crew showed up on his doorstep. The 2013 documentary rekindled interest in C.Z. Soprani, and retrospective screenings have been held with what little scraps of his four films that are available today.

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Newspaper article from the time of the rediscovery of the movie.

The VHS transfer of El hombre bestia is available on Youtube, but unfortunately without proper subtitles. While the movie’s cultural value is recognised, most modern critics agree that it is a terrible film. Alejando Franco at Portal Arlequin calls it “an abysmal and bizarre movie”, giving it 2/5 stars: ” As an initational comedy it is moderately funny. But even at just 50 minutes, the viewing becomes endless”. According to Franco it is best seen as a so-bad-it’s-good movie. J. Luis Rivera at El Cine es Sueno gives El hombre bestia 4/10 stars, writing that it is “plagued with problems that make its enjoyment difficult”. He continues: “To begin with, its bizarre plot that includes almost all the elements of the American adventure series (war scenes, jungle danger, crazy scientists, loose monsters, detectives and more), all piled up in 50 minutes of filming. Without regard to logic or coherence, the story goes from episode to episode propelled by strange circumstances and unlikely coincidences that challenge the suspension of disbelief. Even for its time, it is a great leap to take El hombre bestia seriously as a genre film. Which leads to another problem of the film: for a 1934 production, it feels very outdated, even archaic.” Andreas Polets at German Hard Sensations writes that “It’s as if the film was made by 12-year-olds who enthusiastically threw in all the clichés they could think of”.

However, the film also has its defenders. Pablo Sapere at Argentinian film webzine Cinefania writes: “The truth is that this perverse story of a wild man kidnapping young ladies is played out with such naivety and with such a lack of technical resources that, despite its notable shortcomings, the film is delicious. With its awkward and confusing plot, the film achieves a level of delirium that can be placed as the great jewel of Argentinian Cinema Bizarre. And you definitely have to understand it as one of the pioneers of Argentine ultra-independent cinema, made outside the ubiquitous cinematography of Buenos Aires.” Dario Lavia, in another Cinefania review, gives the film 2/5 stars, but writes that, while it is of mostly archaeological and historical interest, El hombre bestia “provides evidence about what Argentina’s independent cinema could have been”. And finally, FantaFilm concludes: “In short, a small “cult movie” made with few means, but pleasantly bizarre and historically important, being – in all probability – the first fantasy horror in the history of Argentine cinema”.

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Saverio Yaquinto and Raúl D’Angeli.

My personal thoughts on the matter coincide with most of the above. This is a magnificent train wreck of a film. Some have drawn parallels to the works of Ed Wood, and I can see train of thought here. I would argue, though, that Wood showed more proficiency as a filmmaker than Soprani. But it is also difficult to compare two filmmakers who made their movies in very different times and circumstances. Despite his outsider status, Wood still made his work smack in the middle of Hollywood, even though he personally had little of Tinseltown’s resources at his disposal. Soprani made his films in the town of Rosario, that in the twenties, when he started, had no film industry to speak of, and what little there was in the thirties he had helped to build. El hombre bestia was also made in the transition period between silent and sound films, which adds to the movie’s bizarre nature. The film, with its budget of pocket lint and shoestrings, the inexperienced crew and amateurish cast, riffing on a foreign, popular film genre instead brings to my mind another movie: Czechoslovakia’s Melchiad Koloman (1920, review). This was likewise one of its country’s first genre films, made by essentially movie amateurs in a period where Czechoslovakian cinema was finding its footing. In comparison Melchiad Koloman is technically a slightly better picture, but it is also a lot more boring.

Janne Wass

El hombre bestia. 1934, Argentina. Directed & written by Camilo Zaccaria Soprani. Starring: Saverio Yaquinto, Raúl D’Angeli, Beatriz Colman, Mario Cuartucci, Gastón Robert, Felipe Salzinger, Rosarita Olmedo, Carmencita Quiroga, Elvira Ratti. Produced by Saverio Yaquinto & C.Z. Soprani.

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