Friday, December 17, 2010

Caperucita y Pulgarcito contra los Monstruos (Mexico, 1962)

Caperucita y Pulgarcito contra los Monstruos –- aka Tom Thumb and Little Red Riding Hood vs. The Monsters –- stands as proof that, in the Mexican popular cinema of the 60s, any series that ran long enough would eventually see its protagonists face off against shoddy versions of classic movie monsters. The extent to which Peliculas Rodriguez’s Little Red Riding Hood films are known at all north of the border is largely due to huckster/entrepreneur K. Gordon Murray’s imported versions of them, which were made to seem even more alien by dint of their eccentric dubbing and tuneless approximations of the originals’ songs. Not surprisingly, watching the original Spanish versions shows them to be much more accomplished then those bastardized US cuts might lead you believe, without absolving them in the least of being bafflingly strange.

The first Little Red Riding Hood film, 1960’s La Caperucita Roja, was written in part by Rafael Garcia Travesi, who at the time you would have been more likely to find scripting things along the lines of Santo vs las Mujeres Vampiro or Benito Alazraki’s adaptation of The Monkey’s Paw, Espiritismo. Tasked with penning a fairy tale adaptation aimed at children, Travesi appears to have fallen back upon what he knew best. Thus the picturesque alpine village that Little Red Riding Hood calls home is depicted as being one that is just barely keeping the forces of darkness at bay. Early in the film, one of the town’s elders intones ominously about a “prophecy” that dooms the town to being visited upon by “fear, destruction, and death”, with the only hope of breaking the curse being a “good, innocent soul” who is capable of “facing the horrors” of the “Devil’s Cave”. Said innocent is, of course, Little Red Riding Hood (Maria Gracia), who will indeed –- and quite literally -- confront Satan himself before the picture runs its course.

And said fear, destruction, and death comes in the form of the Wolf, played by Mexican comic Manuel “Loco” Valdez, wearing an odd costume that includes a mask which leaves half of his face exposed and a furry body suit that looks like it’s made of soiled carpet remnants. At his side is dwarf actor Santanon as an equally anthropomorphized -- not to mention nauseatingly obsequious -- skunk whom the wolf constantly abuses both physically and verbally. The filmmakers take great pains to “open up” their source material, going so far as to show us the creation of the garment that will give our heroine her name. In addition, the wolf is shown to be obsessively stalking Red long before she takes her fateful hike to Grandma’s house, and it is well over an hour before we finally make our way to that whole familiar “what big eyes you have” business. Throughout it all, child actress Gracia exhibits a sublime blankness that only serves to highlight all of the inappropriateness that’s going on around her. (See, for instance, the scene in which the wolf fantasizes about her being quite graphically laid out on a platter in front of him like a roast pig.)

Of course, the most invincible weapon that Little Red Riding Hood has at her disposable is her oppressively sunny disposition and sheer adorability, both of which serve to make her irresistible to all who fall within her path, including, it ultimately turns out, the Wolf. Once the child has convinced the bloodthirsty villagers to refrain from burning him at the stake, the Wolf promises to mend his ways and, in return, is made an official “Keeper of the Forest” by the insanely fickle citizenry.

The second Little Red Riding Hood film, 1961’s Caperucita y Sus Tres Amigos, is a tiresome exercise in water treading that, with the whole Red Riding Hood mythos having been more than covered by the first film, never really manages to justify its existence. This time around, the Wolf is shown having a hard time gaining the respect of the villagers in his new role as forest cop. Eventually, their taunts drive him to violently return to his old ways, after which he is only able to redeem himself by rescuing Little Red Riding Hood from a band of unscrupulous gypsies. Once again, Red must plead for his life before the vengeance crazed townspeople, who are as prone to forming themselves into an angry mob as rainwater is to forming puddles. Eventually, all is set right again, but not without some blood being spilled, as poor Skunk almost succumbs to his near fatal dynamite and gunshot inflicted wounds. (I’m telling you, these villagers don’t fuck around.)

With Caperucita y Pulgarcito contra los Monstruos, we see something that is already weird going completely off the rails. I’m not sure whether its creators felt contempt for the series by this point, but had they been motivated by a desire to destroy it in the most spectacular manner possible, I don’t think they could have come up with a better way. This time around, much of the action centers around the “Kingdom of Evil”, a dark realm overseen by the Queen Witch (Ofelia Guilmain), who is an undisguised appropriation of the witch from Disney’s Snow White. As we join the film, the Queen is putting on trial both the Wolf and the Ogre from Tom Thumb, both for the crime of going against their evil natures and falling in league with the annoying juvenile do-gooders whom they were meant to kill. The queen, who is on a first name basis with Satan, hates these holier-than-thou little urchins, Little Red Riding Hood especially, and doesn’t beat around the bush in saying that she wants to see them killed.

The jury hearing the case is a nightmarish assortment of geeks, freaks and creatures, all the more disturbing for both the slapdash, putty-faced manner in which they are realized and the searing Eastmancolor in which they are captured. Among them are a pinhead called Boogie Man (who seriously looks to have been the model for Bill Griffith’s Zippy), a fearsome brute with an oversized butterfly net called Child Snatcher, a pair of Siamese twins, and a hirsute, wind belching giant called Hurricane Dwarf (which sounds like something a character in an old Taiwanese fantasy martial arts movie would be called). Also prominent among this group are “The Vampire” and “Frankenstino”, who need no introduction -- oh, and there’s a robot, probably just because there was a robot costume that no one was using lying around in the prop room. As you might expect, this group isn’t particularly sympathetic to the Wolf and Ogre’s cause, and so the two are sentenced to die by being sawed in half, after which they are noisily carted off to the witch’s dungeon.

Little Red Riding Hood and Tom Thumb (Cesareo Quezadas) –- who is now part of the mix for I know not what reason –- are alerted to the Wolf and Ogre’s predicament by the frantic Skunk, and set off with him to effect a rescue. As in the previous two films, a fairy princess character is introduced to magically gloss over whatever narrative kinks the writers didn’t feel like resolving logically, and so the tiny Tom Thumb is granted his wish to become normally sized, thus relieving the special effects department of having to render any further crude optical effects to show him otherwise. Meanwhile, the witch, out of her hatred for Red, has poisoned the village’s water supply, turning all of its inhabitants into white rats and monkeys.

Back at the Queen Witch’s castle, the Wolf and Ogre pass the time until their execution by being horribly tortured by the manically cackling and chattering monsters, first by being strapped to a table and having their feet mercilessly tickled. Then, in Dick Cheney’s favorite sequence from Caperucita y Pulgarcito contra los Monstruos, they have water poured into their mouths through funnels until their stomachs are distended to the point of near bursting. (Oh, kids, don’t be upset. Like that could ever happen!) This in turn leads to them –- and I honestly have no other way to accurately describe this – uncontrollably pissing out of their mouths.

The film then proceeds in much the same shrill and off-balance manner, as Red and her companions make their way across the hellish nightmare landscape that is the Kingdom of Evil, encountering various beasts and a fire-breathing suitmation dragon along the way. Ultimately, the captives are rescued just as they are about to be cleaved in two by a buzz saw, only for Red herself to be captured, leading to a particularly harrowing scene in which the Queen threatens to gouge the child’s eyeballs out with her long, talon-like fingernails. Finally she gets pushed into a furnace.

It’s not unusual to see filmmakers mining the story of Little Red Riding Hood for darker adult themes, the best example, I think, being Matthew Bright’s Freeway (and the worst likely being that Twilight tinged dross that’s hitting theaters this week). But, despite all of its perversity and mean spiritedness, Caperucita y Pulgarcito contra los Monstruos at the same time refuses to let go of it’s crass kiddie film pandering -- syrupy sentiment, endless under-cranked capering and all, all of which serves to make it that much creepier. In this age of helicopter parenting, it’s difficult to imagine any mom or dad subjecting their children to such fare, but, then again, this isn’t now, but the early 60s we’re talking about. It is, by contrast, quite easy to imagine Don and Betty Draper distractedly dropping off their kids for a matinee of Tom Thumb and Little Red Riding Hood vs. The Monsters before heading off to their respective, adulterous assignations. Quelling the resultant night terrors would simply be a matter of putting a few drops of Scotch in little Sally and Bobby’s before-bedtime cup of Bosco.

Being myself the issue of that generation of parents, I in part hope to, by reviewing this film -- and in effect advertising the fact that I have a copy of it in my home -- give notice to all of my friends with small children that I am an unsuitable babysitting candidate. Because, people, I will make your child watch Caperucita y Pulgarcito contra los Monstruos. You’ll be amazed at just how quickly a young lifetime’s worth of obsessive sheltering and positive reinforcement can be undone.


Prof. Grewbeard said...

"ai-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi, it looks as if we're real-ly going to die!..."

i real-ly couldn't think of a better way to spend Christmas than with a double bill of this and Santa Claus Vs. The Devil!

i'd swear it's FrankenstinK, though...

Prof. Grewbeard said...

i meant to say, "ai-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi-YI-YI", sorry...

Todd said...

Thanks for the clarification. I speak Yi, and that was very confusing.

carol said...

i don't want to make a diagnosis based only on one picture, but it appears manuel valdez was bitten by a were-goofy.

kenjn60 said...

I consider this film responsible ,to a large degree, for fostering my interest in unusual international cinema. I saw it on t.v (the English dubbed version) alone at home late one autumn afternoon when I was about 7 or 8. As the sun was setting outside, and this crazy narrative was unfolding on the screen, I was both terrified and enchanted, and when it was all over, I experienced for the first time that feeling of "Did I just imagine that?"

Todd said...

Carol: Good point. He could also be one of the knock-off mascots at "Diznyland".

Kenjn60: This one's a good start, alright. I'm surprised I never saw it when I was a kid. I imagine it escaped my notice because I wasn't aware that "Frankenstino" was in it.

memsaab said...

That queen is straight out of a Disney film (Snow White, I think?)! Curse you for making me want to see another non-Indian or American film that I don't have time for!!!!!! (Verification word is dietods, heh)...

Todd said...

Yes, definitely Snow White. And Memsaab, this one has songs in it, too. You could just pretend you were watching a Bollywood film. I mean it's not that much weirder than the Indian children's films I've seen. Though, I'll admit that the songs aren't exactly RD Burman quality.

Your verification word is a German/English palindrome. The machines are getting cleverer.

Michael Barnum said...

Todd, the ogre and Tom Thumb are from a previous film, TOM THUMB (1957) now you have a whole other series to get acquainted with, if you dare!

And call me crazy, but I thought the second Red Riding Hood movie was quite good...the wolf's overly over-acted antics were toned down a bit from the first film and I actually was able to find his character amusing...but what was with Stinky and the Wolf's abusive relationship, I did find that to be somewhat disturbing...well, of course, lot from those 3 movies I found disturbing!

I hope you have the courage to watch PUSS N BOOTS, but tread carefully, my friend! (Ok, actually I loved PUSS N BOOTS!)

Todd said...

Ah, so with Caperucita y Pulgarcito, we're seeing a dual purpose sequel, a little fairytale movie synergy. Thanks for clearing that up. I could've done so for myself if I'd bothered to do a little more research, and should have.

Thanks also for standing up for the second film. To be perfectly honest, my low tolerance for it may have been a result of me watching all three films in one sitting(!). And that's something I have only myself to blame for.

The whole Wolf and Skunk relationship seemed rather, um, complex, given the Skunk seemed complicit in his own abuse to some extent, even asking the wolf to slap him in a couple of scenes.
But, hey, little kids love that kind of stuff, right? In fact, I'm having my little nieces and nephews over for our annual viewing of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf this very evening.