B&W, 1933, 70 mins. 18 secs.
Directed by Ramón Peón
Starring Ramón Pereda, Virginia Zurí, Carlos Orellana, Adriana Lamar, Alberto Martí
PHANTOM OF THE MONASTERY
B&W, 1934, 85 mins. 14 secs.
Directed by Fernando de Fuentes
Starring Marta Roel, Carlos Villatoro, Enrique del Campo, Paco Martinez, Jose Rocha, Victorio Blanco
Indicator (Blu-ray) (UK/US R0 HD)
Before it was besieged by masked, monster-fighting wrestlers and brain-slurping fiends, the Mexican horror film began on a far more elegant note in the early days of the sound era. Drawing on both Universal's ornate monster movies and German Expressionism, the first two sound horror films to emerge from Mexico have been fan favorites among those diligent enough to hunt them down but haven't enjoyed anything close to the reputation they deserve.
The very first one out of the gate was La Llorona, based on the familiar common folklore about a ghostly weeping woman mourning the death of her child. The ghostly figure has been so omnipresent it's been revived in several later films like René Cardona's La Llorona (1960), The Curse of the Crying Woman (1961), Kilometer 31 (2006), and The Curse of La Llorona (2019). This is the one that started it all though, sticking closely to the archetypal story about a spirit so terrifying it can strike a man down dead from fright (as we see in the first scene). During the autopsy, a doctor insists it was a heart attack but, over the surgical table, a debate erupts over the conflict between the rational and the supernatural. Thus begins our main story where, following a kid-friendly dinner among friends, Dr. Acuna (Pereda) has to deal with disruption in his household including his wife, Ana Maria (Zuri). Their situation involving a curse on their oldest son is tied to a third story showing the possible origin of the "weeping woman" thanks to a boorish conquistador (also Pereda) and his torment of his rattled wife (Lamar), who came from a much lower class and finds the life of nobility to have some very nasty, destructive strings attached. Along the way we get some pretty creepy shots for '33 including a bit of blood and a peering figure in a black shroud with only its eyes visible as it stalks.
Touted in its opening moments as a "modern version of the legend of Mexican folklore," this film is fascinating for the way it tries to weave a sort of early horror anthology approach within the challenges of the still-recent sound cinema, here involving some narrative transitions (including fancy wipes) that take close attention to keeping track of when and where you are. Some of it can be stagy of course given the era, but it's a key entry in the evolution of world genre cinema and should be essential for anyone interested in the origins of Spanish supernatural cinema.
Culled from the best surviving print material (the sole surviving 16mm print), La Llorona looks great given the circumstances on its global Blu-ray premiere from Indicator in 2022. There's obviously a fair amount of age-related wear and tear, but clarity and contrast are solid throughout to create what would seem to be the best possible way to enjoy the film without destroying its inherent texture through digital smudging. The Spanish LPCM 1.0 mono track is also constrained by the source but good for what it is, with optional English subtitles (standard translated and SDH options). An audio commentary with Stephen Jones and Kim Newman is a welcome addition as they use their extensive horror expertise to analyze this film far outside the usual European wheelhouse, including a look at the history of the source figure, thoughts on the transitions from silent to sound filmmaking for horror stories, the impact of ghost tropes that traverse various cultures, and lots more. The new La Llorona: Ghosts of the Past (17m1s) by Viviana García Besné (great granddaughter of the producer) is a fascinating combination of family reminiscence and film history as she examines the film and its mythos within the history of her own relatives and national culture. Then in "Transcending Time" (17m49s), Abraham Castillo Flores, head programmer of Mexico’s Mórbido Film Fest and all-around Mexican horror enthusiast, gives a thorough study of the myth's evolution in Mexican City with wailing female specters representing various aspects of class and gender oppression, elements very much present in the main feature. Finally in "Lunas y estrellas" (1m38s), you get a quick collection of the very unusual "cigarette burns" used to denote reel changes which were removed from the main presentation. The package for this limited 4,000-unit edition from the U.K. and U.S.. markets also comes with a booklet featuring a new essay by Emily Masincup, an archival article on the legend of La Llorona, Valeria Villegas Lindvall on the character's cinematic incarnations, an archival newspaper report on the film’s premiere, sample critical reactions, and Peter Conheim on the restoration.
Released a year later as Mexican cinematic output was taking off, The Phantom of the Monastery is a variation on the old dark house formula with a nice change of place for its locale. Three friends -- Alfonso, Eduardo, and Cristina - are out for a hike in the woods only to lose their way. A monk in the nearby vicinity finds them and ushers them to find shelter at a remote monastery nearby, where a strange brotherhood holds regular rituals and strange things seem to be going on behind half-closed doors. Complicating things is the fact that Cristina is married to Eduardo but attracted to Alfonso, which mirrors a story told by the Father Superior about a cursed love triangle. Gradually the night spirals out of control as the newcomers discover a dark secret within the monastery walls.
Featuring a plot angle that would make this a solid double feature with Lisa and the Devil, The Phantom of the Monastery (El fantasma del convento) features a disarmingly low-key first half that's loaded with striking Gothic imagery but keeps its chills relatively restrained. Things get more overtly horrific after that as the imagery becomes more morbid, to an extent that gives this a fun pre-Code horror feel at times. It's mild by today's standards, of course, but for sheer atmosphere this one delivers in spades.
Difficult to see for years and presented in shoddy fan-subbed copies on the gray market (under the confusing translated title Phantom of the Convent), this film is significantly more sophisticated in terms of visual craftsmanship and benefits from a downright spectacular restoration here on the Indicator 2022 Blu-ray if you're familiar with its history. Presented by The Film Foundation World Cinema Project, the restoration was undertaken by UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding from the George Lucas Family Foundation, using the 35mm nitrate picture and sound negatives preserved by Mexico's Permanencia Voluntaria film archive. A few shots are slugged in from a lower generation source (most notably a couple of quick bits near the end), and of course the optical-heavy main titles are inherently dupier; otherwise it's very crisp and impressive throughout with full justice done to the very striking production design. The LPCM 1.0 Spanish track is in good shape as well, again with English translated or SDH subtitles. Jones and Newman return for another commentary here, and with this one in particular it's a bit of a kick hearing them wrestle with a subset of their favorite genre and a title that had escaped their attention until fairly recently. Their appreciation for the film and their ability to thread its merits with other historically significant contributions from both cinema and literature is once again very entertaining and informative. In "The Devil in the Detail" (2022, 18m1s), Flores returns to put this film in context within the larger framework of Mexican fantastic cinema including the famous 1931 Spanish-language version of Dracula and the huge audiences these films were drawing domestically. He also talks a great deal about director Fernando de Fuentes, an influential and prolific figure in early Mexican film history and someone who obviously had quite an eye for striking visuals. Again this one debuts as a limited edition complete with a 36-page booklet featuring an essay by Maricruz Castro-Ricalde, screenwriter Juan Bustillo Oro on the making of the film, an archival production report, a look at the film’s original promotion, an overview of contemporary reviews, and Jan-Christopher Horak of the UCLA Film & Television Archive on the restoration.
Reviewed on March 2, 2022