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Thursday, 3 March 2011

Curse of the Aztec Mummy (1957)

Director: Rafael Portillo
Stars: Ramón Gay, Rosa Arenas, Crox Alvarado, Luis Aceves Castañeda and Jorge Mondragón
Curse of the Aztec Mummy is the second in the Aztec mummy trilogy but it tends to be the one that viewers see last. Until recently, the last of the three films, The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy, was the easiest to find, readily available in dollar stores everywhere in an English dub courtesy of K Gordon Murray. Only in 2006 when BCI released the entire trilogy in a cheap box set were its predecessors made available to the masses, both in dubbed and subbed formats and with notes by David Wilt. Naturally when you can finally see a trilogy, you start at the beginning, so by the time folk watched the others they had plenty of expectations, most obviously because movie three is comprised for the most part of footage from movies one and two, so even though they hadn't seen this film, they'd seen parts of it. What is likely to surprise them considerably is how far off their valid expectations are. This is not the film you expect it to be.

Admittedly, for a while it plays like a straight sequel. The Bat, unmasked at the end of the first film as the sinister Dr Krupp, who apparently had so many similarities to the pulp villain that it's insane to think nobody could make the connection to begin with, has been arrested and jailed. However, after the police captain fails to get anything out of an interrogation, possibly because almost the entire Almada entourage is in the room at the time, right down to Dr Almada's little brother Pepe, he transfers him somewhere, thus providing the ratlike Tierno and his colleagues with a good opportunity to spring their boss. That they do in a gangster shoot out, but then we discover that we're not in a horror movie any more, at least not the sort we might expect having seen the other two films. Following Dr Krupp and his gang is a masked luchador in a posh car, who valiantly joins the fight but ends up on the losing side, left in the dirt as the villains ride off.

He's El Ángel and while he doesn't seem to be played for comedic effect, it would seem that he's a pretty poor excuse for a luchador superhero. I have no idea when or why he was written into the script, but beyond the actor playing the part having been a real luchador for some time prior to his movie career, he doesn't seem to fit at all. Most obviously, the character within the suit is notably without it not just in the first movie, whose story takes place prior to this, but also in the third, which comes afterwards and includes this story in its recap! Those with sharp eyes will see El Ángel stripped of his mask in some of the recaps in The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy and Dr Krupp uses the name once in dialogue. Here's where to find explanations for those unexplained anomalies. Naturally it's child's play to fathom his identity as only one character is mysteriously absent whenever El Ángel is around, but everyone is surprised anyway when he's unmasked.
Beyond the new and unheralded luchador angle, which the rest of the cast take utterly in stride, we get far more attention to the pulp crime angle this time, with Dr Krupp, who had previously kept his real identity secret even from his own men, ready to leap into pulp serial action to find the breastplate and bracelet which serve as the McGuffin to all three movies and thus the Aztec treasure whose location is inscribed upon them in hieroglyphics. After conveniently being in the right place at the right time in the first movie to hear about the treasure, he's conveniently in the right place at the right time in the second too to discover that it's back in the lower temple of the pyramid of Teotihuacan. The only catch is that he doesn't know where the lower temple is so he kidnaps Flor Sepúlveda in order to replicate the experiment her fiancé had conducted on her to regress her back to the Xocha persona who knows the place well, having been sacrificed there.

If anything, this is the only film in the trilogy to really have a focus. Initially assuming from the unholy mess of a third movie that Dr Almada is the hero and the Aztec mummy is the monster, the first highlights that really Dr Almada's opponent is Dr Krupp, making them hero and villain, while the monster occupies an entirely separate position outside the morality of the main story. He just abides, a cursed creature doing what he was cursed to do. He doesn't go on rampages, he simply makes sure that the artefacts he's tasked with protecting stay protected. Once done, he goes and lies down somewhere and ignores the fact that he's in a movie, because that's all he cares about. Here, at least there's a firm dynamic in the Almada vs Krupp battle and Dr Krupp gets to find some depth as a pulp villain, compulsively stroking his Satanic goatee as he tells Flor that the Aztec treasure will allow him to become immortal. Cue maniacal laughter.

While he's never original, he is at least suitably villainous. He's sane enough to know that Flor will resist his attempts at hypnosis, so he conjures up a serum that will compel her to submit. He blackmails Dr Almada into translating the hieroglyphics on the breastplate and bracelet only to ruthlessly go back on his word. Well, you wouldn't ever trust a man who has a chamber of death in his secret lair, would you? Yes, he has one of those too, naturally full of writhing snakes. It's the supposedly capable but inevitably inept El Ángel who gets thrown in there first but after the floor retracts he gets saved by... nah, I'll leave you that cliffhanger. Suffice it to say that it's the wussiest escape a superhero has ever made from certain death in the entire history of film. No wonder the third film ignored his existence: the filmmakers probably noticed the laughter in the crowd to their attempt to build a character into something other than comic relief.
Curse of the Aztec Mummy is the shortest film in the trilogy, running a meagre 63 minutes, two less than its successor, but at least most of its footage is original. While The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy gave up two thirds of its running time to reused footage and recaps of what had gone before, here there's only a relatively short section of recap, provided by Dr Krupp to his men to explain just what they're going after and why. In many ways the opportunity to recap in this film is the only valid reason he was put in the right place at the right time in the first one. However he does a fair job, letting us enjoy the exotic scenes leading up to sacrifice in the lower temple yet again with thankfully sparse commentary. The mummy is underused, not even appearing until fifty minutes in and then in the dark, this film inheriting the bad lighting for mummy scenes that the first suffered from. This is a movie monster well worth seeing, after all.

As to the cast, it's the same as the others, of course, Jorge Mondragón racking up his second of three co-starring credits even though his character died at the end of the first film. There's less Dr Almada here and more Dr Krupp, more Flor and even more Pepe, Almada's little brother who appeared out of nowhere in the third film without explanation, but has a good deal to do in the first movie and especially here in the second. He's a nosy parker, who wouldn't be out of place in the sort of B movies Hollywood set in newspaper offices. Mostly this one is for the pulp fans, the folk who watch Republic serials or low budget Hollywood movie series as well as the folk who get a kick out of Mexican wrestling movies. No, El Ángel doesn't add a single thing to the plot except our disbelief at why he's there. Yet this is a genuine picture, a sequel that spins a variation on its predecessor and stays a long way up the ladder of quality from the nightmare that followed it.

1 comment:

raincoaster said...

Just watched it. Am I reading too much into that last scene, where Flora and whatsisname are embracing and the unmasked Angel is hugging...well, spoiler alert. I'm getting a way gay vibe there.