As enthusiastic as it is bewildering, this operatic Mexican 1953 medical horror film is a clunky passion project. Throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, it’s a mix between The Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein and Mystery of the Wax Museum. 6/10
El monstruo resucitado. 1953, Mexico. Directed by Chano Urueta. Written by Adruino Maiuri, Chano Urueta. Starring: Miroslava Sternova, Carlos Navarro, José Maria Linares-Rivas. Produced by Sergio Kogan, Abel Salazar. IMDB rating: 5.8/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metcritic: N/A
With this last of my review of 1953 I’m tackling something of a cult classic with Mexican horror lovers – El monstruo resucitado, directed by Chano Urueta. It’s literal translation is “The Resurrected Monster” or “The Revived Monster”, and it’s been released on DVD internationally simply as Monster. It is also sometimes referred to as El monstruo Dr. Crimen. Made in 1953, El monstruo resucitado is often considered to be the first so major medical sci-fi horror film of Mexico — however, this is contested view. Be that as it may, it was hugely popular and finally broke into the mainstream a horror genre that had simmered on low heat for 20 years.
Set in what seems to be a European town the story follows the young reporter Nora (Miroslava), who infiltrates the Draculaesque mansion of the mysterious scientist Hermann Ling (José Maria Linares-Rivas), posing as an applicant for a job as his assistant. The spooky, secretive Ling is a brilliant plastic surgeon who nonetheless hides his own deformed face behind a mask, cursing a world that has repaid his own benevolence with fear, prejudice and hatred. It’s not clear whether Nora’s following actions are part of her scheme to get a story or born out her own feelings of pity for the doctor — or a little bit of both. But nevertheless she convinces Ling to show her his true face. After a fainting spell, Nora kisses Ling on the forehead, which brings about profound change in him, as he races down the halls, shouting with joy, laughing and uncovering all his mirrors. But Ling has mistaken what was at worst a devious journalistic ploy and at best an act of pity, for love. This makes what follows next all the more cruel.
Ling stalks Nora to a restaurant where she meets her editor, and tells him she has stumbled upon the scoop of the century. When she returns to Ling’s castle through a cemetery, Ling confronts her and chases her to the docks, where he accidentally kills the wrong woman, giving Nora the chance to escape. And now the second act of the film begins, as we segue from Phantom of the Opera to Frankenstein.
Planning revenge on Nora, Ling and his hunchback assistant (of course there is one) Mischa (Alberto Mariscal) transplant the life force of Ling’s captive ape man Crommer (Stephan Berne) into the corpse of a handsome young man called Sergei (Carlos Navarro). His new creation Ling christens Ariel. Ariel is a zombie-like creature, telepathically controlled by Ling. Ling sends his new creation to charm Nora and bring her back to the castle. Ariel succeeds, and Nora is captured. Ling swears to operate on Nora and disfigure her face to match his own. Her only hope now is that the mind of the real Sergei will be strong enough to fight its way out from under Ling’s control — and that of the ape man who also scrambles around his noggin.
Just as science fiction films made in Hollywood were propelled by the horror genre in the thirties and forties, so was Mexican sci-fi propelled by the US Frankensteins and mad scientists — aside from the the famous luchadores, whom we’ll get to on this blog in the near future. El monstruo resucitado has been called (on Wikipedia, no less) Mexico’s first serious take on the Frankenstein mythos, and it is more inspired by James Whale’s 1931 movie (review) than the novel. Claims of “firsts” are always fraught with danger. While El monstruo resucitado popularised Mexican horror, it was preceded by 20 years of horror and horror/SF movies, not just in Mexico but also Argentina, and their influence on El monstruo resucitado is unmistakable. Juan Bustillo Oro released a trilogy of Mexican horror movies in 1934 and 1935. The first Mexican medical horror/SF movie could also be The Dead Speak (Los muertos hablan, review) from 1935, even if it eschews some of the Gothic horror and plays out more like a mystery melodrama. The first true medical horror film was released the following year. The Macabre Trunk (El baul macabro, 1936, review) about a scientist killing young women in order to keep his ill wife alive is very much cut from the Frankenstein cloth. As is A Macabre Legacy (Herencia macabra, 1940, review), about a plastic surgeon mutilating the faces of his wife and her lover.
What’s interesting about Latin American horror films from the thirties through the fifties is that while they were heavily influenced by Hollywood films, they almost never leaned on any one single source. Most were amalgamations of the rich history of the Universal monster movies of the twenties, thirties and forties. The same can definitely be said about El monstruo resucitado. In tone and atmosphere the film is perhaps closer to The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and there are nods to Dracula (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933, review), as well as a to number of old horror film tropes found in early zombie, ape-man and mad scientist movies, and European expressionist movies like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and The Hands of Orlac (1924, review). There’s a definite kinship to Michael Curtiz’ disturbing early colour movies Doctor X (1932, review) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) — complete with Ling furnishing his creepy castle with wax statues of beautiful women.
The film that El monstruo resucitado owes most to, though, is Argentine Manuel Romero’s 1940 “old dark house” movie Una luz en la ventana (“A light in the window”, review). In the vein of Hollywood’s old dark house movies from the twenties, Romero’s pioneering Argentinian film was a combination of slapstick comedy and Gothic horror. But in El monstruo resucitado writer/director Chano Urueta eschews the comedy, settling for straight-up horror and mystery, with a touch of melodrama and a sprinkling of the oh-so-Mexican soapy romance. Otherwise the similarities are striking. Una luz en la ventana follows a young woman who takes up residence as assistant/nurse to a secretive scientist afflicted with a disease that disfigures his face. Ultimately she becomes a prisoner, but tries to reason with the mad doctor’s better self, seeing past the disfigurement. Both mad doctors wear fedoras and black capes, and both command their surroundings with their booming voices. Even the (poor) makeup for the characters are similar. And as a final clincher, Urueta’s villain is called Hermann. Romero’s is called Hernan.
Another interesting fact, although it may well be a coincidence, is that both bad doctors are played by Spanish actors. Dr. Hernan was famously played by Narciso Ibáñez Menta, a renowned stage actor, whose film debut Una luz en la ventana was. It was the film that kicked off his career as Argentina’s legendary king of horror, especially on TV, where he played almost all the famous movie monsters, from the Phantom of the Opera to Dracula. Dr. Hermann Ling was likewise played by a distinguished actor, José María Linares-Rivas, and played in very much the same manner. Linares-Rivas, however, did not embark on a similar horror journey as Menta, as he passed away in 1955.
The original draft for El monstruo resucitado was written by Italian expat Andruino Maiuri, who would later make a name for himself in Italian genre cinema, with films like Mario Bava’s Diabolik (1968), Enzo B. Castellari’s The Big Racket and Sergio Corbucci’s The Con Artists (both 1976). Urueta would rewrite it, but I haven’t found any clues as to how much he changed. The script, as you can read above, is more than slightly bonkers. No, I’ll take that back: the script actually makes no sense whatsoever from a viewpoint of logic – but neither does it have to. Very little actually happens in the film– most of it is Dr. Ling rambling on and on on different topics – a rather gutsy solution, since the face mask Linares-Rivas wears really isn’t the most animated of facial makeups we have seen up to this point in movie history.
In fact, it isn’t so much makeup as it is a rigid Halloween mask that has been slapped on to Linares-Rivas’ face. In close-ups one can even see the actor’s own mouth move through the mouth of the mask, while the mask’s lips remain nearly immobile. The actual design of the mask isn’t half bad, though – resembling a mix between the phantom or the opera and the elephant man. But it is all to Linares-Rivas’ immense credit that Dr. Ling becomes such a riveting character. His dark, raspy voice has a command that rivals that of Claude Rains’ in The Invisible Man, and he doesn’t need the face at all to convey what the character feels at any given moment. But one does wonder if Chano Urueta didn’t slap together the mask himself, since it takes some suspension of disbelief to imagine that Luis Buñuel’s trusted makeup artist Armando Meyer would have let anything so amateurish pass from his hands.
The most elaborate set piece of the movie is Dr. Ling’s huge laboratory, which is beautifully designed by renowned, multiple Ariel award winner Gunther Gerszo. The design of the movie tells of its minuscule budget — by Hollywood standards, not necessarily Mexican standards. This is most obvious in scenes which are meant to take place outdoors, but are obviously studio-bound. When Ling is chasing Nora by the docks, the filmmakers have crammed in a rather too small photo backdrop much too close to the action, so it almost looks like a mural. It’s not quite as bad as the dock scene in The Man from Planet X (1951, review), but not far from it. But Gerszo also manages to use the budgetary constraints in his favour, creating an expressionistic dreamlike atmosphere reminiscent of Whale’s Frankenstein with its plywood headstones and two-dimensional sets. But sometimes it just looks cheap and silly. Gerszo also provided his talents to sci-fi films like El supersabio (review), The Body Snatcher, El castillo del monstruos, El superflaco and La marca del muerto (1961).
The thing that holds the movie together is its eerie, claustrophobic atmosphere, helped tremendously by the cinematography of the prolific Victor Herrera, best known for Gavladón’s La baraca (1945) and Sidney Salkow’s Sitting Bull (1954). And the wonderfully mad script and passion that has gone into this film. On the podcast Scream Scene Ben and Sarah Rowe point out that it feels as if the filmmakers know that this is their one shot at playing around with this genre, and they’re just committed to having as much fun with it as they possibly can, throwing in tropes from and nods to every single horror movie they love. (As an aside, if you like what I’m doing on this blog and are a fan of horror films, you should definitely check out Scream Scene, they’re doing with horror exactly what I’m doing with SF on Scifist.)
As opposed to most Mexican horrors up to that time, El monstruo resucitado got a US release in 1955, playing mostly at Hispanic theatres. It also got a proper DVD release with English subtitles in 2013, unlike any of the other Latin American horror movies I’ve reviewed so far, which also means there are a number of reviews out there. The film has a 5.8/10 rating on IMDb based on just under 100 votes, so it’s clearly no mainstream classic, though. Online critics generally give it favourable reviews, while not ignoring its low-budget flaws and general outrageousness.
In an ambitious write-up, Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant writes: “Mexican horror films are nothing if not ambitious — and enthusiastic. El monstruo resucitado is just plain nuts from the first scene forward, crazy in a way that will enthuse any fan of horror.” Erickson continues: “Chano Urueta’s camera direction keeps pace with the theatrical delirium of the performances by evoking the expressionist angles and lighting of Universal films. The art direction and designs are remarkable. A strange street, a wharf and the cemetery are all drowned in an invitingly creepy fog. Ling’s house interior is a neat multi-level set with excellent lighting. Ling’s basement laboratory would seem to be patterned after Anton Grot’s mad lab for Lionel Atwill in Mystery of the Wax Museum. But Ling is supposed to have sculpted the female figures in his living room, not created them by dipping women in wax. The statues are so good that they sometimes look like actresses standing very still. Mood and atmosphere are nicely modulated to support this appealingly absurd fantasy.
Other critics echo Erickson’s opinion. Mark R. Hasan at KQEK writes that El monstruo resucitado is “a compelling little film, and while it could be remade with vivid blood and carnage, the film’s elegance and charm can’t be replicated”. Mark David Welsh notes that it is “an incoherent jumble that doesn’t make a lot of sense but is undeniably an entertaining experience”. Mark Cole at Rivets on the Poster continues: “And what makes it all work is its admirable seriousness and the obvious passion that went into it”. Ian Jane at Rock! Shock! Pop! writes: “If it’s a bit clunky in spots so be it, Monster gets a lot more right than it does wrong. It might not be the most original story ever told but it’s got some fun performances, loads of bizarre gothic atmosphere and benefits from some impressive set pieces.”
As opposed to some of the no-budget Z movies cranked out by Hollywood at the same time, El monstruo resucitado never comes across as a lifeless programmer. The amount of passion that has gone into the making of this film is obvious from the start. The acting is good across the board and the film has clear signs of some talent behind the camera. Nevertheless, the script is bewildering and absurd to a point, and the direction and editing sometimes come off as clunky and amateurish. Due to obvious time and space restrictions the cinematography is rather static and stiff, which all the smoke and dim lighting can’t redeem. The editing, while sometimes confusing, is what keeps the film entertaining despite a slowish script. The film is an absolute treat for mad scientist buffs and aficionados of Mexican genre cinema, but might be a bit much to swallow for a mainstream audience.
Luciano Urueta Rodriguez, as Chano Urueta was christened, had been dabbling with horror prior to El Monstruo, especially well remembered are his 1939 films The Sign of Death and The Night of the Mayas. The former was a collaboration with Mexican superstar Cantinflas, whom I have written about in the review of El supersabio (1948). These two films are considered to be central works for the birth of the Mexican fantastic cinema, a much stronger genre than science fiction, represented today by directors like Robert Rodriguez and Guillermo del Toro. But in the thirties and forties Urueta was primarily known as a skilled adaptor of literary works, such as The Count of Monte Christo. He was also one of the pioneers of the lucha libre or Mexican free wrestler films, extremely popular from the early fifties onward. The luchadores were perfect both as heroes and villains, and would be featured often in both science fiction and horror movies, many of which Urueta directed. The first lucha libre movie was Joselito Rodriguez’ Huracán Ramirez, released in 1952, and it was soon followed by Urueta’s The Magnificent Beast (La bestia magnifica, 1953). In the sixties Urueta turned the wrestling star Blue Demon into a movie star with the movie Demonia azul (1965), and subsequently had him starring as a hero in a number of films. But Urueta covered almost every genre conceivable – from sci-fi horror to romantic dramas, historical epics and westerns to light comedy.
Never considered an auteur on par with the great directors of the golden age of Mexican cinema, like Fernando de Fuentes or Luis Buñuel, Urueta was one of a handful of very influential filmmakers shaping the genre cinema of Mexico in the fifties and sixties. The Witch (La bruja, 1954) can be considered a medical sci-fi in the vein of El monstruo resucitado and was sort of a warm-up for one of the most important Mexican horror movies, The Witch’s Mirror (El espejo de la bruja), released in 1962. 1962 also saw the relese of the film that is probably Urueta’s best known film outside of Mexico, The Brainiac (El barón del terror), a trashy sci-fi horror movie about a brain-eating monster arising with the arrival of a comet. Apart from Demonio azul, two of Urueta’s Blue Demon films can be considered science fiction: Blue Demon contra cerebros infernales (1968) and Blue Demon contra las diabólicas (1968). Urueta co-wrote the superhero film El incredible profesor Zovek (1972) and had a bit-part as an actor in another one, called Kalimán, el hombre increíble (1972).
Actually, an international audience may recognise Urueta better as an actor, thanks to his appearance in a number of Hollywood films made in Mexico, such as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), as well as the Robert Mitchum film The Wrath of God (1972). Urueta had contacts in Hollywood, thanks to working there with odd jobs in the early thirties. He also spoke English, as well as five other languages, thanks to studying in Europe prior to ending up in the film business. His grandson Marco Urueta in an interview with Corre Camara remembered him as an intellectual with a huge library, and that he taught philosophy and arts at UNAM, the national university of Mexico. According to Marco, his grandfather was ”an atheist who could quote the bible”, and promoted the use of birth control pills and condoms as early as the fifties. He had also studied law and held a pilot’s licence.
José Maria Linares-Rivas was a well-established veteran of Mexican cinema at the time, and had worked with most of the country’s most prominent directors – although mostly in supporting roles. He was nominated for an Ariel award (the Mexican Oscar) for best supporting actor twice (1950 and 1954), and was given and honorary award for his work in 1955 after his death. But although he had over 50 percent of the lines in the movie, he was only third-billed. Second-billed was Carlos Navarro, as the zombie/romantic interest. Heart-throb Navarro won the Ariel award for best supporting actor for his work in Doña Perfeta in 1951.
The top-billed actor of the film is Miroslava – or Miroslava Sternova as her full name was, a Czech blonde bombshell who was perhaps better known for her glamourous looks than her acting – although she did star as a leading lady in a whole slew of Mexican B movies. Something of a tragic heroine of her own life, she fled the Nazis in her home country after being briefly interned in a concentration camp in 1939, and sought refuge in Scandinavia before moving to Mexico in 1941, where she won a national beauty contest, which led to her studying acting in Los Angeles. Although she quickly became fluent in Spanish, her accent and European looks led to her becoming typecast. Her first role in a big movie was a small supporting role in the Mexican-American film The Adventures of Casanova (1948), directed by Roberto Galvadón. Other notable appearances were in pioneering female filmmaker Matilde Landeta’s Streetwalker (1951), Galvadón’s Las Tres perfectas casadas (1953) , which was entered into the Cannes Film Festival and Fernando de Fuente’s Escuela de vagabundos (1955), which is considered as one of the finest Mexican comedies of all time. She starred in a handful of Hollywood films, of which the best known is Jacques Tourneur’s Stranger on Horseback (1955), where she was the leading lady.
Miroslava’s crowning achievement, both artistically and commercially, was her top-billed performance in Luis Buñuel’s The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955), which was to become her last film, as she committed suicide the same year by overdosing on sleeping pills, while allegedly holding a picture of Spanish bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguin – her love interest that had recently married another woman. It was her second suicide attempt – the first was when her then-husband turned out to be a closeted homosexual. Miroslava also had numerous affairs with high-profile Mexican entertainment stars. After her death she became a cult figure, billed the Marilyn Monroe of Mexico. In 1992 she was portrayed by American TV and film star Arielle Domasle in the Mexican biopic Miroslava. In El monstruo resucitado Miroslava does a decent job and readily holds her own against Linares-Rivas, in a role that is a refreshingly active and independent female portrait in a time when women in genre pictures were often reduced to wall flowers.
In other roles can be seen, for example, Fernando Wagner who also appeared in the sci-fi movie Anonymous Death Threat (1975). Alberto Mariscal made the jump to the director’s chair, directing or co-directing a dozen sci-fi tinged lucha libre movies. Stephen Berne appeared in four other sci-fi movies: Asesinos, S.A. (1957), The Body Snatcher (1957), El castillo de los monstruos (1958) and El superflaco (1959). Producer Sergio Kogan went on to produce The Body Snatcher and the other producer Abel Salazar made the cult classic The Brainiac with Urueta.
El monstruo resucitado. 1953, Mexico. Directed by Chano Urueta. Written by Adruino Maiuri, Chano Urueta. Starring: Miroslava Sternova, Carlos Navarro, José Maria Linares-Rivas, Fernando Wagner, Alberto Mariscal, Stephen Berne, Manuel Casanueva, Carlos Robles Gil. Cinematography: Victor Herrera. Music: Raúl Lavista. Editing: Jorge Busto. Production design: Gunther Gerszo. Makeup artist: Armando Meyer. Sound: José de Perez. Special effects: Jorge Benavides. Produced by Sergio Kogan, Abel Salazar for Internacional Cinematográfica.