Monday, February 15, 2010

El Charro de las Calaveras (Mexico, 1965)

If you love goofy-ass, poverty row Mexican monster mash-ups like Santo and Blue Demon vs. The Monsters -- and if you don't, have someone check your pulse, seriously -- the horror western mash-up El Charro de las Calaveras has your name written all over it.

In fact, if you love such movies, you owe a gigantic debt to El Charro director Alfredo Salazar, who contributed his screenwriting skills to almost every touchstone film in that exalted sub-genre, from the Aztec Mummy trilogy, to the creature-rich Wrestling Women films, to such standout lucha-goths as Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dracula and the Wolfman, to name a mere few.

El Charro marks Salazar's first time taking on the directing responsibilities in addition to writing, coming after a prolific, almost twenty year run working primarily as a screen scribe. He even steps out from behind the camera for an inspired, Hitchcock-style cameo as the hapless victim of a vampire.

The film's title character -- whose name in English translates as "Rider of the Skulls" -- is a masked, Zorro-like figure in a skull-and-crossbones emblazoned shirt who rides the range fighting monsters and supernatural threats whenever they pop up, which appears to be quite frequently. Salazar shot the film in three separate, roughly thirty-minute-long episodes, which might suggest that they were intended for television broadcast, though that's not necessarily the case. The labyrinthine regulations of Mexico's film unions at the time limited certain studios to the making of short subjects, and as a way of circumnavigating said regulations, some studios shot their films as a series of short subjects, only to assemble them into feature length later. In short, this is simply how many movies were shot in Mexico at the time.

Still, some continuity shifts between the segments suggest that they weren't quite filmed back-to-back. There are some very noticeable changes in El Charro's costume between the first segment and the remaining two, as well as a turnover in the actors playing his kid sidekick -- not to mention the fact that El Charro's weight fluctuates radically, going from long and lean to el gordo in a matter of minutes. One unfortunate constant, however, is El Charro's comic relief sidekick, who is on hand for the sole purpose of being too drunk or frightened to be of any use whatsoever whenever danger arises.

El Charro de las Calaveras' key selling point is that it is very generous with its monsters, even though those monsters are uniformly cheap and crappy looking. It's sort of like one of those tourist restaurants that tries to compensate for how awful its margaritas are by serving them in fishbowl sized glasses, only without the resulting nausea and self-loathing. That the film dedicates so much of its screen time to its rubber-faced creatures is a blessing for many reasons, but not the least for the fact that, when it doesn't, it tends to focus on our masked hero just sort of aimlessly cooling his heels, sitting around with his two sidekicks either playing cards or just staring off into the middle distance.
The film's first episode concerns El Charro's efforts to protect a young mother and her son from a rampaging werewolf. It has to be said that he fails pretty spectacularly in this. The werewolf eventually kills the woman. El Charro then gets in a fistfight with the werewolf and loses, after which the werewolf accidentally falls off a cliff while chasing the kid. This episode also features a cackling witch and an oatmeal-faced dead guy who sits up in his grave to deliver some kind of expository information in Spanish.

The next episode follows pretty much the exact same outline as the first, but this time with a bat-headed vampire who strikes all kinds of hilarious "RAAAAR!" poses in the manner of the suburban dad vampire from Santo and Blue Demon contra los Monstruos. This time, although El Charro is once again unable to protect the young woman in his charge -- with the result that she gets bitten and apparently turned into a vampire -- he seems to be able to reverse the damage once the monster is vanquished. This segment also features some excellent transformation sequences involving an over-sized dangly white rubber bat.
The final episode is the weirdest, involving a headless horseman type figure whose head, for some reason, is in the possession of a rich lady who is keeping it in a box. Amusingly, she keeps trying to get rid of it, only to have it pop up again at her bedside, talking to her.

It's also interesting to note, continuity-wise, that this is the first of the episodes to place the action in the present day, with people being shown driving cars and the rich lady lounging in a bathing suit by the pool outside her modern home.
Anyway, the headless horsemen is eventually reunited with his head, after which, with the help of some hooded skeleton guys, he captures El Charro, the lady, and El Charro's comic relief sidekick and holds them captive. Diluting the sense of peril somewhat here is the markedly distracted acting style of some of the supporting players, which really comes to the fore in this sequence. El Charro finally escapes from his bonds and has a sword fight with the now headed horseman, which is hands down the coolest thing that El Charro does in the entire movie. Lastly, I've been trying to resist mentioning how much the headless horseman's head looks like Michael Jackson, but it just does. I'm sorry.

I'm sure that El Charro de las Calaveras is available on the gray market and from all kinds of torrent sites, but if you would like to enjoy it while giving money to The Man, it is also available on a pretty nice looking new DVD release from Lionsgate/Televisa, paired with another Mexican masked rider movie, El Asesino Enmascarado. It doesn't have English subtitles, but, then again, it really doesn't need them.


houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

That's an incredible head he's got there.

By the way, doesn't the overabundance of comic relief make you glad you don't understand what they are saying?

Todd said...

Yes, but, unfortunately, much of the CR's dialog consisted of exclamations like "Ai mamacita!", so what little Spanish I picked up from watching old Speedy Gonzales cartoons sufficed to give me the gist of it.

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Pop culture can be so cruel.

Michael Barnum said...

Wowee! I wonder if I ever came across this at Walmart (our store on the north side of town carries a very large selection of Mexican films on DVD) and just didn't realize what fun was contained inside!

Todd said...

You very well might have, Michael. The cover design doesn't do a very good job of playing up its monster-liciousness.