You Devilish Mummy! Mexican Horror in America, 1958-1963

For Cinqo de Mayo we take a fond look back at the Mexican horror genre.

For some people, Cinqo de Mayo means a nacho party platter, a cooler full of Corona, plastic sombreros and a piñata filled with stale butterscotch discs. For a few of us, though, Cinqo de Mayo means one thing and one thing only: Aztec mummies. The sad part of it is that it might actually make much more sense than the nachos.

After Tod Browning and his crew left the set at the end of the shooting day while working on 1931’s Dracula, they were replaced by director George Melford and a Mexican cast and crew. Using the same sets, the same cameras and a translated version of the script they worked all night to shoot the Spanish-language version of the film. Those who have seen both tend to agree that the Spanish version is the superior of the two. The cinematography is more vibrant and less stagebound than the Browning version, the atmosphere is richer (possibly because they were shooting at night) and most important of all, the Mexican Dracula (Carlos Villar) smolders with a sexual energy and menace Bela Lugosi, great as he is, lacks.

Prior to the mid-’50s, most American audiences would likely be surprised to learn that Mexico even had a film industry. That’s when low-budget producers from Sam Arkoff on down recognized the economic advantages of snapping up the US distribution rights to existing foreign genre pictures. It made perfect sense. You didn’t need to hire any directors or cameramen or gaffers. There were no actor hissy fits to smooth over. All you needed to do was dub in some English dialogue that more or less made sense, fit the action on the screen and approximate the actors’ lip movements.

Or maybe not, whatever.

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Sometimes you might want to bring in an editor to try and rearrange a few scenes so the picture and dialogue’ll make more sense to the kids at the drive-in, but even that wasn’t always necessary. Come up with a snappy English title, Americanize some of the actors’ names and you’re good to go. The important thing is these films could be picked up for a song and minus a few minor expenses everything they brought in was gravy. 

Suddenly US theaters were full of sci-fi, horror and westerns from Italy, Japan, Spain and yes indeed, Mexico. Low-budget distributor K. Gordon Murray quickly established himself as the king of marketing Mexican horror cheapies to American audiences, handling films like The Man and the Monster, The Brainiac, Curse of the Doll People and a whole lotta movies with “Aztec Mummy” in the title.  It would be nice to say these films have complex and thought-provoking storylines, that the acting is strong and subtle, that the cinematography is dazzling and the special effects on a par with any major American studio at the time, but that would really be pushing it. 

A lot of the films were just slapdash, flat-footed remakes of popular American films but with cheaper sets. A few of them do stand out though, in that even the dubbed and edited versions remain uniquely Mexican, even if they do seem to tell the same story over and over again. And some of them are just plain nuts.

Genre director Rafael Portillo and screenwriter Alfredo Salazar were best known for their Aztec Mummy and wrestling pictures and in 1958 topped even Santo Meets Dracula with La Momia Azteca Contra el Robot Humano, translated as The Aztec Mummy Against the Humanoid Robot or more simply, The Robot Meets the Aztec Mummy.

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As the opening narration assures us, the film is based on an “actual experiment” conducted by two scientists from “The Los Angeles University” and verified by witnesses who “signed sworn statements with a notary public” so “there is no question about this story’s authenticity.”

Please keep that in mind. 

The film is told mostly in flashback and through voiceover, which is generally a sure sign you’re watching a heavy-handed bit of editorial butchery. The same sort of thing was done regularly to the US versions of Toho films, usually with a mind toward simplifying the story.

Okay, a psychiatrist (Ramón Gay) is mocked by his colleagues when he presents a paper about past life regression, so he storms home and hypnotizes his wife Flora (Rosa Arenas). We slip into a low budget flashback within a flashback as we learn Flora was once an Aztec maiden scheduled to be sacrificed, when she runs off with a warrior. The village priests find them, bring them back, and bury the warrior alive after placing a curse on him. Then they fit the old Flora with a gold bracelet and breastplate inscribed with directions to the location of “the secret Aztec treasure.” After which they cut out her heart. Which may say something about the effectiveness of that breastplate. 

Returning to the first flashback, we learn the evil Dr. Krupp spied on the experiment and now wants in on it. Nevertheless, the good doctor decides for some reason that the best way to prove his theory is to find the bracelet and breastplate, so they all go looking. Lucky for them they find a secret passage under the pyramid that I guess is in their backyard. Moments later they find the ancient temple, the skeleton of the old Flor and the breastplate, which they take home with them.

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The fun doesn’t last long, though, as the warrior’s mummy shows up at the house, grabs the breastplate, grabs Flora, returns to the temple and prepares to cut out her heart, again. At this point we’re about six minutes into the film.

Then it turns out see, that Dr. Krupp is really a sinister underworld figure known as The Bat and…oh screw it. Over the course of the rest of the film we get gangsters, a shootout, hypnotism, a mad scientist, a pit full of rattlesnakes, that mummy again, some Aztec rituals, a few vanishing bodies, a police investigation, a stolen corpse, a stolen brain and a stolen “machine that uses radium.” Together with lines of dialogue like, “oh, you devilish mummy!” and “continuing our search we hurried to the snake pit.” Eventually we even get a robot there near the end (though it’s more of a reanimated corpse wearing a metal suit festooned with some blinking light bulbs) and it has a brief and slow wrestling match with the mummy.

And all of it, believe it or not, is crammed into a zippy 65 minutes. No, it’s not a particularly good film as the term is traditionally used, but it is a fascinating one. As crazy as it all gets, as big as some of the plot holes and lapses in logic may seem, the craziest thing of all is that you can’t really criticize it for any of that given that it’s, y’know, based on a true story.

Robot Meets the Aztec Mummy is a pretty extreme example of what was coming out of Mexico at the time. Other genre pictures were no less strange maybe, but a little more sane.

Three years after Bert I. Gordon’s Attack of the Puppet People and 25 years after Tod Browning’s The Devil Doll, Benito Alazraki released his 1961 film Muñecos Infernales, better known in the States as Curse of the Doll People

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An archaeologist interested in ancient rights and such and her physician husband (Ramon Gay again) visit an art collector friend who regales them with the exciting tale of his recent trip to Haiti. While there, see, he and two friends witnessed a secret voodoo ritual that included human sacrifice. For all the crazy goings on though, the art collector couldn’t take his eyes off the idol the voodoo priests were worshipping. He thought it would make a fine addition to his collection, so the next day he went back and stole it.

(Given that the story is not told in flashback, just by some guy sitting in an easy chair, I’m tempted to think the whole Haiti angle was an invention of the screenwriter for the American version. Maybe the producer was a little tired of Aztecs by this point.) 

It’s not hard to guess that stealing a revered idol from a voodoo temple is not without its repercussions and sure enough before you know it the children of all the men on the Haiti trip start receiving new dolls in the mail. Real nice, realistic-looking ones too. None of the parents seem a bit concerned by the arrival of anonymous gifts for their children, merely handing the dolls to the tykes and sending them off to bed. After a few cuts to an oddly Mexican-looking Haitian voodoo priest, well you guessed it. The dolls start coming to life and knocking off the parents in ways that can’t easily be traced back as the work of an evil dolly.

The one surprise here is, given the budget, the special effects (midgets in doll clothes on oversized sets) are really, really good. Better than Bert Gordon’s, even. It’s just too bad the story around them doesn’t have a bit more zing to it. It’s a little flabby and obvious. Still, you start to get the sense a pattern is developing.

El Baron del Terror (released in the States as The Brainiac in 1962), directed by Chano Urueta, marked a bit of a break from the simple revenge plot. Oh wait, no it didn’t. But it was still a break from the standard storyline. 

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As the film opens it’s 1661, a comet has appeared in the sky and  an evil baron  (Abel Salazar) is being burned at the stake by Inquisitors for practicing black magic. As evil barons are so wont to do when finding themselves in circumstances like that, he places a curse on all those who condemned him, vowing he will return in 300 years when the comet reappears and kill off all their descendants. The Inquisitors, for some reason, don’t seem terribly concerned by all this and go ahead and burn him anyway.

Cut to three hundred years in the future and true to his word the comet has reappeared and so has the baron, who starts snuffing people who didn’t even know they were related to Inquisitors. Yes, it’s a plot we’ve seen how many times already? But The Brainiac, as the title might hint, does offer a twist or two. First, before he kills his victims the Baron transforms into a kind of hideous, horned, demon monster (the doll special effects were better). Then during the murders he sucks out his victims’ brains, which he keeps in a big salad bowl in the kitchen. When he lures someone over to his apartment and confirms their identity, all he needs to do is excuse himself to the kitchen for a moment, have a spoonful of brains, and SHAZAM! No more descendant and more brains for the baron. 

A year later Ueueta returned to more standard form with La Cabeza Viviente, aka The Living Head. Here again he opens with a long prologue in which he went to some pains to at least give the illusion of historical accuracy. When a great Aztec general dies, not only is he buried, but so are a few of his servants and a high priestess to help him on his way in the afterlife. That those others weren’t quite dead yet doesn’t seem to matter much. It’s all quite a big to-do.

Cut to 450 years in the future, as an incredibly bad archaeologist and two assistants stumble upon the tomb. First they completely destroy the mummy of the high priestess and shrug it off. Then when he finds the invaluable Ring of Death, the archaeologist immediately announces that he’s going to give it to his daughter, “who likes ugly things like that.” Then after reading aloud the very clear curse that will befall anyone who desecrates the tomb, the trio scurries off with the general’s mummified head and the mummy of his servant (the one still clutching the knife).

Do they then deliver them to the museum where they can be properly cared for and kept in carefully climate-controlled environments? Well, almost: he brings them back to his apartment and keeps them in the living room.

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Yeah, it’s not really hard to see where this is headed. The daughter starts wearing the Ring of Death and gets a little kooky in the head. Then the servant and head come to life and all three of them (the daughter carrying the head) go tracking down the desecrators in order to cut out their hearts. 

“I know what you’re thinking,” a police inspector says after the first murder. “But I don’t believe in legends. Or in superstitions either. All I know is that this is a very difficult case.” 

That’s the real killer in The Living Head. Even more so than most, the dubbing is miserable, with most of the lines either being non-sequitors or so plainly obvious and logical they come out sounding like non-sequitors. I get the feeling sometimes that the voice actors they brought in were never given scripts, simply shown the film and told to make it up as they went along.

Ah, but this is merely a taste of what’s out there in terms of Mexican horror. We haven’t even considered the Santo pictures yet and there are hundreds of those. I’m not sure if the likes of Robot Meets the Aztec Mummy would really enrich anyone’s appreciation or understanding of Mexican independence, but there are doubtless lessons to be learned here. Namely, should you happen to find some neat stuff in a sacred temple next time you’re in Mexico, for godsakes just leave it there, no matter how cool it is. Those Aztecs mean business.

 

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