Tuesday, October 26, 2010

El Castillo de los Monstuos (Mexico, 1958)

I thought that El Castillo de los Monstruos would be the perfect antidote to The Haunted House, which, despite its title, proved to be more of a “gorilla on the loose” caper than a spook show. El Castillo, by contrast, promises us a whole fleet of supernatural beasties, including a Dracula, a werewolf, a Frankenstein, a mummy, a hunchback, and a gill-man. Of course, these classic monsters were no strangers to Mexico’s B cinema back in the day, but this represents one of the rare occasions in which none of them were fighting a masked wrestler.

Instead, El Castillo pits these creatures of the night against beloved Mexican funnyman Antonio “Clavillazo” Espino, who we last saw in Conquistador de la Luna. I knew when I saw Conqistador de la Luna that I was destined to see El Castillo de los Monstruos. That’s not because Conquistador de la Luna was all that great, mind you, but because El Castillo came on the same “Dos Peliculas” double feature disc with Conquistador, and I was determined to get my money’s worth.

El Castillo was produced under the banner of Producciones Sotomayor, a company that would prove itself to be really big on these kind of monster mash-ups. Two years later, they would produce the space critter enriched Ship of Monsters, whose title was a model for truth in advertising, and they would eventually go on to bankroll Santo and Blue Demon vs. The Monsters, a hallowed touchstone of masked wrestlers vs. monsters absurdity. As El Castillo shows, the company indeed took their monsters very seriously, even when presenting them in a comedic context.

For example: When the film isn’t focusing on Espino’s putatively hilarious shtick, great effort is invested in creating a deliciously spooky atmosphere, with some backstage players who we’re used to seeing do much worse really stepping up to the plate for the cause. Among these is composer Gustavo Cesar Carrion, perpetrator of many a wan lucha movie soundtrack, who comes forth here with a thundering orchestral score freighted with all the dark portents you could hope for. Less anomalous is the cinematography of Victor Herrera, who had already proved his way with ominous, German Expressionist-inspired plays of light and shadow in 1957’s classic Ladron de Cadaveres.

And then, of course, there is the sheer fulsomeness of the movie’s assortment of monsters. Only the most dedicated crank could find fault with this lineup. I mean, there’s even a toothy Neanderthal type who you could categorize as the film’s version of Mr. Hyde. And the realization of these creatures, by Mexican cinema standards, is really not that bad; You need only look at something like El charro de las Calaveras or the aforementioned Santo and Blue Demon vs. The Monsters to see how dire things could have been. (Though, I must say that this movie’s wolfman, who’s basically just a naturally hairy guy with fake fangs, looks an awful lot like VincenteLara, who played the part in similar fashion in Santo and Blue Demon vs. The Monsters, though I didn't see his name in the credits.) El Castillo even goes so far as to cast German Robles -- who became famous for playing vampires in more straightforward horror films like those in the Nostradamus series -- as its featured hemophile.

Espino here plays, as I assume he usually does, “Clavillazo”, a goodhearted clown whose trademark appears to be a suit that’s over-sized even by zoot suit standards. Clavillazo’s small town is troubled by a series of grave robberies, which are of course being perpetrated by the mad scientist Dr. Sputnik and his hunchback assistant for the purpose of makin’ monsters. Sputnik, who walks among the townsfolk masquerading as a harmless blind man, puts a hypnotic whammy on Clavillazo’s love interest, Beatriz (Evangelina Elizondo), and spirits her away to his creepy castle, where, in a nice Poe-esque touch, he tries to hex her into thinking that she is his lost love Galatea. Clavillazo, along with two of his goofy assed friends, then endeavors to breach Sputnik’s monster infested abode to set her free.

Of course, there’s a lot more to El Castillo de los Monstruos than that stripped down summary might lead you to believe. It is, after all, largely meant to serve as a showcase for Antonio Espino’s comedic talents, which means that a lot of screen time is dedicated to entirely non-monster-related character bits involving him. What those entail, however, I cannot, without the aid of translation, precisely say. However, I will point out that, while Espino does do his share of frightened sputtering (there are monsters, after all), he seems to be presented for the most part as being a shrewd and resourceful –- if somewhat clownish -- fellow, rather than the bumbling figure of fun that we so often see in these kinds of movies. During the film’s final act, when Clavillazo gets it in mind to take on the villain and his army of monsters, he’s like Jack the Giant Killer, a little man emboldened by passion to confront seemingly insurmountable odds.

El Castillo de los Monstruos is like a little kid’s Halloween party decked out with rubber spiders and cardboard skeletons, in that it basically celebrates the idea of being scared without itself being at all scary. Within this irrepressibly good natured context, Frank, Drac and the gang come across like cozy old friends stopping by to say hello. Sure, they go through all the menacing motions (raaar!), but, in the end, the fact that they are all defeated by a little guy in a funny hat sort of saps them of any potential to truly terrify. Not that that’s a strike against the film, of course. After all, no one familiar with Mexican B cinema of this era is going to look to a film like El Castillo de los Monstruos for anything other than goofy fun, and that it indeed delivers.


Anonymous said...

Ok, guess I need to put this double feature back in my dvd player and watch EL CASTILLO DE LOS MONSTRUOS...what a wonderful write-up Todd!

Todd said...

Thanks, Mike! You know, I love that Lionsgate is doing proper DVD releases of these old Mexican movies -- and I have no problem with the flipper disc, double feature format (the price is right, after all). I just wish they would go that extra inch and provide English subs.

memsaab said...

I am not able to move beyond the suction cups on Frankenstein's neck. There ought to be little stained glass butterflies or rainbows hanging from them too.