Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Friends of 4DK: Museo del Horror (Mexico, 1964) by Denis Klotz

So I'm still relying on contributions from my friends to keep the content at 4DK rolling over while I evolve to the Next Stage of Human. This latest entry is by my magisterial M.O.S.S. colleague Denis Klotz, author of the smart and wryly funny The Horror!?

A series of kidnappings of young, beautiful women shakes a Mexican city at the end of the 19th Century (or at the beginning of the 20th?). The police, as they always are in the movies I watch, are clueless, even though a rather less than happy press puts a lot of pressure on them.

Unlike the audience, the police don't even know that the kidnappings are committed by a man with the face of a mummy, wearing a stylish ensemble of slouch hat and black coat, nor do they know that he brings his victims to a comfy graveyard lair where he kills them by tossing a mysterious fluid on them. We are even allowed to have suspects before the police has them. Three men living in the boarding house of Dona Leonor (Emma Roldán) are really rather suspicious, and secretive.

First, there's Professor Abramov (Carlos López Moctezuma), embalmer and hobby taxidermist who really likes to handle parts of human corpses right in his mini lab in the boarding house, and does a lot of creepy, meaningful staring over dinner. Secondly, there's Luis (Joaquín Cordero), once a famous actor before he hurt his leg. Clearly, once you have one limp leg, your acting career is over. Now, Luis owns an old theatre whose backroom carries his new passion - a handful of wax figurines of famous female theatre roles. Our third and last suspect is Raul (Julio Alemán), a young doctor who just happens to make some sort of secret experiments for which he buys human cadavers from the local grave robbers.

Raul is very much in love with Dona Leonor's daughter Marta (Patricia Conde), his childhood friend now working as a nurse in the same hospital as he does. Marta, a rather more independent young woman than typical of a film like this (and consequently an actually likeable female lead), however, has taken rather a shine to Luis, something Raul doesn't exactly change by saying charming things to her like "You only romanticize Luis because he's a cripple!". Grave robber and jerk: serial killer or our romantic lead?

While the young people are sorting out their love lives, further kidnappings and killings happen. The police are finally lead to the boarding house and actual suspects when the first potential witness to one of the kidnappings is killed there with a curare dart, a method the killer will continue to use on people who know too much. It will still take them quite some time to figure out what's going on, and if not for the consequences of the whole love triangle, the killer would probably never be caught.

In Mexican horror cinema, the influence of the classic Universal horror and assorted movies stayed strong throughout the 40s and 50s, when most national cinemas were more interested in alien invasions. Even in the first half of the 60s, it wasn't at all strange for a Mexican movie like Museo del horror to reach back to Michael Curtiz' Mystery of the Wax Museum (and probably the handful of other wax museum based horror and mystery films), and treat its own version to all the fog and dark graveyards the budget could afford. See also the love lucha cinema still carried for the classic Universal monsters in the 70s, when the classic Frankenstein monster or Dracula in his guise as a dark-haired foreigner with an excellent cloak had been rather quaint and old-fashioned in their country of origin for decades.

Museo del horror's director Rafael Baledón's career contains so many movies in so many different genres of popular cinema, it's difficult to actually form an opinion about his body of work when one is only interested in about half of the genres he worked in, and can get one's hands on even fewer of his films. What I do know about him is that the gothic horror movies of his I've seen are quite beautiful to look at and accomplished entries in the genre that eschew much of the - generally also wonderful, but in a different way - silliness Mexican directors loved to add to the Gothic tropes.

Despite being at least partly also a mystery, Museo del horror is no exception to that rule, with much love lavished by the director on the obligatory shots of our creepy murderer sneaking through the dark, so many fog-shrouded streets you might think the film is set in movie-London, and shadows and creaking doors wherever you go. It would be interesting to know what contemporary Mexican audiences were thinking about these accoutrements of a very traditional style of horror at this point. Going by the style of films which came soon after, I assume they weren't so much getting tired of old-fashioned monsters and fiends, but were rather looking for a more contemporary (poppier) visual style of filmmaking.

Fortunately, we are now as removed from Baledón's classicist style as we are from the more colourful (and actually filmed in colour) films that came after, so we are in an excellent position to enjoy both styles of filmmaking. The gothic horror parts of Museo del horror make this proposition easy enough, with Baledón hitting every hoary plot beat not in a perfunctory manner, but with the style, class and conviction of someone working within parameters he understands deeply, and clearly loves.

Less successful, and very much perfunctory, are the film's mystery elements. I, at least, find it difficult to imagine anyone - quite independent of her knowledge of other wax museum horror pieces - will be surprised by the identity of the film's killer or his motivation, despite the two red herring suspects the film introduces. In this regard, I was rather surprised by how little the movie explains in the end. We never learn what the actual nature of Raul's suspicious experiments is, nor what the whole business with the mummy face is about, nor how the killer's lair manages to be at two places at once.

In the end, though, I can't say I actually cared about these curious holes in the film's narrative, nor about the mystery's obviousness, for I found myself permanently distracted by the excellent mood of gothic horror Baledón produced.

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