(5/10) In a nutshell: Clearly a passion project of sorts for director Chano Urueta, The Monster, as it’s been labelled with the US DVD release, was a pioneering Mexican medical sci-fi movie upon its release in 1953. Made with virtually no budget the movie is clunky and the script absolutely zany, but holds up thanks to strong acting and a well-built eerie atmosphere. The star name was the ill-fated Czech immigrant Miroslava, or ”the Marilyn Monroe of Mexico”.
El monstruo resucitado (1953, Mexico). Directed by Chano Urueta. Written by Adruino Maiuri, Chano Urueta. Starring: Miroslava Sternova, Carlos Navarro, José Maria Linares-Rivas. Produced by Sergio Kogan, Abel Salazar for Internacional Cinematográfica. IMDB rating: 5.8/10.
First of all, please forgive my long absence, I’ve been stressed out by my day job as a magazine editor and haven’t had the energy to do the blog well, and decided it’s better to not do it at all than to do it poorly. But now I’m back with yet another look at an obscure horror sci-fi film. With this last of my review of 1953 I’m tackling something of a cult classic with Mexican horror lovers – El monstruo resucitado, directed by Chano Urueta. It’s literal translation is The Resurrected Monster or The Revived Monster, and it’s been released on DVD in the US simply as The Monster. It is also sometimes referred to as El monstruo Dr. Crimen.
Made in 1953, El monstruo resucitado is often considered to be the first so called medical sci-fi horror film of Mexico. I would beg to differ, and claim that the first medical sci-fi was The Dead Speak, or Los muertos hablan, made as early as 1935 (review). But certainly El monstruo was the film that would set the template for much of the Mexican horror genre for the decade to come.
Just as the US science fiction films would be propelled by the horror genre in the thirties and forties, so were the Mexican sci-fi propelled by the US Frankensteins and mad scientists of previous years (as well as the famous luchadores, whom we’ll get to later on the blog). El monstruo resucitado was really the starting point of a decade-and-a-half of Mexican horror and science fiction films, almost always made on minuscule budgets and with very few artistic highlights. That such a messy movie as El monstruo is considered a minor masterpiece of the genre says much about its overall quality.
El monstruo resucitado is considered Mexico’s first serious take on the Frankenstein mythos, and it is more inspired by James Whale’s 1931 movie (review) than the novel. But in truth, it is very much an amalgamation of the rich history of the Universal monster movies of the twenties, thirties and forties. In tone and atmosphere the film is perhaps closer to The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and there are nods to The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933, review), as well as a number of old horror film tropes found in early zombie, ape-man and mad scientist movies, as well house of wax-type films, and European expressionist movies like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Hands of Orlac. There’s a definite kinship to Michael Curtiz’ disturbing early colour movie Doctor X (1932, review).
Set in what seems to be a European town, we meet young reporter Nora (Miroslava) who complains to her editor Gherásimos (Fernando Wagner) that she can’t find any good story to report about. The editor suggests she answer to a mysterious ad in the paper, placed by a scientist looking for an assistant. Nora meets up with the placer of the ad (José Maria Linares-Rivas), who turns out to be a spooky man in a black cape and hat, decked out in a face-covering disguise reminiscent of the invisible man, but in black. Sensing a story, she accepts the job offer and is taken through a cemetery to the man’s draculaesque castle, where she is greeted by a skulking servant called Misha (Alberto Mariscal) and an array of wax figures of beautiful women.
The mysterious man turns out to be Hermann Ling, a brilliant plastic surgeon with a horribly deformed face, that he hides from the world. In a long monologue he explains how he had helped numerous people in his life, but the scorn and hatred he received for his horrible visage has led him to develop a deep hatred for his fellow humans. As proof of his brilliance as a surgeon takes Nora to his very frankensteinean lab (sans spark generators) to show her a two wax busts – one of a man injured in a fire, and one of the same man after the surgery. Hoping to win Ling’s confidence and get her story, Nora convinces Ling to take off his mask – which Ling reluctantly does – and reveals his face, something of a combination of Lon Chaney’s take on the phantom of the opera and the elephant man. Nora faints. After waking up, Nora apologises for her tactlessness, and kisses Ling on the forehead, which in turn sends Ling into a euphoric chase through the castle, laughing and shouting to himself all the way, uncovering all his mirrors, crying with delight. Finally he has found a woman who loves him!
But love turns sour, as Ling later stalks Nora to the restaurant where she meets her editor, and tells him she has stumbled upon the scoop of the century. Confronting her in the cemetery, Ling chases Nora through the gravestones and back to the docks where he first met her, and accidentally kills the wrong woman, giving Nora the chance to escape.
And it isn’t really until now that we get the Frankenstein element of the plot. You see, it turns out that Ling just so happens to have the body of a handsome young man called Sergei Rostov (Carlos Navarro) in his lab. As well as an ape-man called Bremmer in his basement (because no self-respecting mad scientist would go without an ape-man, or at least a gorilla, in his basement). With the help of Misha Ling transplants the life-force of the ape-man to Sergei, turning him into a zombie – which naturally is controlled by Ling’s thoughts. Ling then sends his new creation – christened Ariel – to charm Nora and lure her back to the castle. Ling informs Nora that as a punishment he is going to perform surgery on her and deform her face in the manner of his own. But the three minds inside poor Ariel’s head are too much for Ling to hold control over, and for a minute the old Sergei takes control, and aided by his newfound ape-powers confronts Ariel. But will he keep his animal side from attacking Nora? And who will save the day? Watch the movie and find out.
Luciano Urueta Rodriguez, as Chano Urueta was christened, had been dabbling with horror prior to El Monstruo, especially well remembered are his 1939 films The Sign of Death and The Night of the Mayas. The former was a collaboration with Mexican superstar Cantinflas, whom I have written about in the review of El supersabio (1948). These two films are considered to be central works for the birth of the Mexican fantastic cinema, a much stronger genre than science fiction, represented today by directors like Robert Rodriguez and Guillermo del Toro. But in the thirties and forties Urueta was primarily known as a skilled adaptor of literary works, such as The Count of Monte Christo. He was also one of the pioneers of the lucha libre or Mexican free wrestler films, extremely popular from the early fifties onward. The luchadores were perfect both as heroes and villains, and would be featured often in both science fiction and horror movies, many of which Urueta directed. The first lucha libre movie was Joselito Rodriguez’ Huracán Ramirez, released in 1952, and it was soon followed by Urueta’s The Magnificent Beast (La bestia magnifica, 1953). In the sixties Urueta turned the wrestling star Blue Demon into a movie star with the movie Demonia azul (1965), and subsequently had him starring as a hero in a number of films. But Urueta covered almost every genre conceivable – from sci-fi horror to romantic dramas, historical epics and westerns to light comedy.
Never considered an auteur on par with the great directors of the golden age of Mexican cinema, like Fernando de Fuentes or Luis Buñuel, Urueta was one of a handful of very influential filmmakers shaping the genre cinema of Mexico in the fifties and sixties. The Witch (La bruja, 1954) can be considered a medical sci-fi in the vein of El monstruo resucitado and was sort of a warm-up for one of the most important Mexican horror movies, The Witch’s Mirror (El espejo de la bruja), released in 1962. 1962 also saw the relese of the film that is probably Urueta’s best known film outside of Mexico, The Brainiac (El barón del terror), a trashy sci-fi horror movie about a brain-eating monster arising with the arrival of a comet. Apart from Demonio azul, two of Urueta’s Blue Demon films can be considered science fiction: Blue Demon contra cerebros infernales (1968) and Blue Demon contra las diabólicas (1968). Urueta co-wrote the superhero film El incredible profesor Zovek (1972) and had a bit-part as an actor in another one, called Kalimán, el hombre increíble (1972).
Actually, an international audience may recognise Urueta better as an actor, thanks to his appearance in a number of Hollywood films made in Mexico, such as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), as well as the Robert Mitchum film The Wrath of God (1972). Urueta had contacts in Hollywood, thanks to working there with odd jobs in the early thirties. He also spoke English, as well as other five other languages, thanks to studying in Europe prior to ending up in the film business. His grandson Marco Urueta in an interview with Corre Camara remembered him as an intellectual with a huge library, and that he taught philosophy and arts at UNAM, the national universtity of Mexico. According to Marco, his grandfather was ”an atheist who could quote the bible”, and promoted the use of birth control pills and condoms as early as the fifties. He had also studied law and held a pilot’s licence.
The original draft for El monstruo resucitado was written by Italian expat Andruino Maiuri, who would later make a name for himself in Italian genre cinema, with films like Mario Bava’s Diabolik (1968), Enzo B. Castellari’s The Big Racket and Sergio Corbucci’s The Con Artists (both 1976). Urueta would rewrite it, but I haven’t found any clues as to how much he changed. The script, as you can read above, is more than slightly bonkers. No, I’ll take that back: the script actually makes no sense whatsoever from a viewpoint of logic – but neither does it have to. Very little actually happens in the movie – most of it is Dr. Ling rambling on and on on different topics – a rather gutsy solution, since the face mask Linares-Rivas wears really isn’t the most animated of facial makeups we have seen up to this point in movie history. Remember, this was 20 years after the Universal monster classics.
In fact, it isn’t so much makeup as it is a rigid Halloween mask that has been slapped on to Linares-Rivas’ face. In close-ups one can even see the actor’s own mouth move through the mouth of the mask, while the mask’s lips remain nearly immobile. The actual design of the mask isn’t half bad, though – resembling a mix between the phantom or the opera and the elephant man. But it is all to Linares-Rivas’ immense credit that Dr. Ling becomes such a riveting character. His dark, raspy voice has a command that rivals that of Claude Rains’ in The Invisible Man, and he doesn’t need the face at all to convey what the character feels at any given moment. But one does wonder if Chano Urueta didn’t slap together the mask himself, since it takes some suspension of disbelief to imagine that Luis Buñuel’s trusted makeup artist Armando Meyer would have let anything so amateurish pass from his hands.
José Maria Linares-Rivas was a well-established veteran of Mexican cinema at the time, and had worked with most of the country’s most prominent directors – although mostly with supporting roles. He was nominated for an Ariel award (the Mexican Oscar) for best supporting actor twice (1950 and 1954), and was given and honorary award for his work in 1955 after his death. But although he had over 50 percent of the lines in the movie, he was only third-billed. Second-billed was Carlos Navarro, as the zombie/romantic interest. Navarro was something of a Mexican heart-throb and won the Ariel award for best supporting actor for his work in Doña Perfeta in 1951. IMDb seems to have its facts mixed up, as it gives his year of birth as 1906, which would have made Navarro 47 years old in 1953, which he clearly isn’t. It also lists his year of death as 1984. Meanwhile, Spanish Wikipedia says that Navarro was born in 1921 and died in 1969 – and true enough, IMDb lists his last movie as being released in 1969.
The top-billed actor of the film is Miroslava – or Miroslava Sternova as her full name was, a Czech blonde bombshell who was perhaps better known for her glamourous looks than her acting – although she did star as a leading lady in a whole slew of Mexican B movies. Something of a tragic heroine of her own life, she fled the Nazis in her home country after being briefly interned in a concentration camp in 1939, and sought refuge in Scandinavia before moving to Mexico in 1941, where she won a national beauty contest, which led to her studying acting in Los Angeles. Although she quickly became fluent in Spanish, her accent and European looks led to her becoming typecast. Her first role in a big movie was a small supporting role in the Mexican-American film The Adventures of Casanova (1948), directed by Roberto Galvadón. Other noteable appearances were in pioneering female filmmaker Matilde Landeta’s Streetwalker (1951), Galvadón’s Las Tres perfectas casadas (1953) , which was entered into the Cannes Film Festival and Fernando de Fuente’s Escuela de vagabundos (1955), which is considered as one of the finest Mexican comedies of all time. She starred in a handful of Hollywood films, of which the best known is Jacques Tourneur’s Stranger on Horseback (1955), where she was the leading lady.
Miroslava’s crowning achievement, both artistically and commercially, was her top-billed performance in Luis Buñuel’s The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955), which was to become her last film, as she committed suicide the same year by overdosing on sleeping pills, while allegedly holding a picture of Spanish bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguin – her love interest that had recently married another woman. It was her second suicide attempt – the first was when her then-husband turned out to be a closeted homosexual. Miroslava also had numerous affairs with high-profile Mexican entertainment stars. After her death she became a cult figure, billed the Marilyn Monroe of Mexico. In 1992 she was portrayed by American TV and film star Arielle Domasle in the Mexican biopic Miroslava. In El monstruo resucitado Miroslava does a decent job and readily holds her own against Linares-Rivas, in a role that is a refreshingly active and independent female portrait in a time when women in genre pictures were often reduced to wall flowers.
In other roles can be seen, for example, Fernando Wagner who also appeared in the sci-fi movie Anonymous Death Threat (1975). Alberto Mariscal made the jump to the director’s chair, directing or co-directing a dozen sci-fi tinged lucha libre movies. Stephen Berne appeared in four other sci-fi movies: Asesinos, S.A. (1957), The Body Snatcher (1957), El castillo de los monstruos (1958) and El superflaco (1959). Producer Sergio Kogan went on to produce The Body Snatcher and the other producer Abel Salazar made the cult classic The Brainiac with Urueta.
The thing that holds the movie together is its eerie, claustrophobic atmosphere, helped tremendously by the cinematography of the prolific Victor Herrera, best known for Gavladón’s La baraca (1945) and Sidney Salkow’s Sitting Bull (1954). The most elaborate set piece of the movie is Dr. Ling’s huge laboratory, which is beautifully designed by renowned, multiple Ariel award winner Gunther Gerszo. The design of the movie tells of its minuscule budget. This is most obvious in scenes which are meant to take place outdoors, but are obviously studio-bound. When Ling is chasing Nora by the docks, the filmmakers have crammed in a rather too small blown-up photograph as a backdrop much too close to the action, so it almost looks like a mural. It’s not quite as bad as the dock scene in The Man from Planet X (1951, review), but not far from it. But Gerszo also manages to use the budgetary constraints in his favour, creating an expressionistic dreamlike atmosphere reminiscent of Whale’s Frankenstein with its plywood headstones and two-dimensional sets. But sometimes it just looks cheap and silly. Gerszo also provided his talents to sci-fi films like El supersabio (review), The Body Snatcher, El castillo del monstruos, El superflaco and La marca del muerto (1961).
As opposed to some of the no-budget Z movies cranked out by Hollywood at the same time, El monstruo resucitado never comes across as a lifeless programmer, though. Clearly some amount of passion has gone into the making of this film – creating the first Mexican sci-fi monster movie. The acting is good across the board and the film has clear signs of some talent behind the camera. Nevertheless, the script is meandering and absurd to a point, and the direction sometimes comes off as clunky and clumsy. Due to obvious time and space restrictions the cinematography is rather static and stiff, which all the smoke and dim lighting can’t redeem. The film is an absolute treat for mad scientist buffs and aficionados of Mexican genre cinema, but might be a bit much to swallow for a mainstream audience.
El monstruo resucitado (1953, Mexico). Directed by Chano Urueta. Written byAdruino Maiuri, Chano Urueta. Starring: Miroslava Sternova, Carlos Navarro, José Maria Linares-Rivas, Fernando Wagner, Alberto Mariscal, Stephen Berne, Manuel Casanueva, Carlos Robles Gil. Cinematography: Victor Herrera. Music: Raúl Lavista. Editing: Jorge Busto. Production design: Gunther Gerszo. Makeup artist: Armando Meyer. Sound: José de Perez. Special effects: Jorge Benavides. Produced by Sergio Kogan, Abel Salazar for Internacional Cinematográfica.