Director: Roberto Rodriguez
Writers: Fernando Morales Ortiz and Adolfo Torres Portillo, from a story by Fernando Morales Ortiz and Adolfo Torres Portillo
Stars: María Gracia, Cesario Quezadas, Jose Elias Moreno, Manuel ‘Loco’ Valdes and El Enano ‘Santanon’
Index: Weird Wednesdays.
Once upon a time, so long ago that I can’t remember how long, I stumbled onto the surreal joy that is the filmography of K. Gordon Murray. He was an entrepreneur who borrowed a wild combination of children’s movies and horror features from Mexico, dubbed them poorly into English, gave them new, often more outrageous titles, and released them to the American market. I don’t know if I popped my Murray cherry on The Brainiac or The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy, but I revelled in these pictures and was rather happy to discover, on moving to the American southwest, that many of them were easily available in dollar stores. However, I’m a strong believer in experiencing films in their original forms and it was only much later that I started to find some of these Mexican films sans the later Murray treatment. Sadly Mexican movies are rarely available in the U.S. with English subtitles, a poor situation that I really hope starts to change, but those that are tend to make a lot more sense than Murray’s bastardised versions.
This is one of Murray’s signature films, under the title of Tom Thumb and Little Red Riding Hood. The more recent DVD completes the original Mexican title, as Caperucita y Pulgarcito contra los monstruos has more than just our two childhood heroes, it has them facing off against the Monsters, the primary reason why this film is such a blast, in the very title. Let’s have fair advertising, please! If the Mormon family round the corner took their kids to see Tom Thumb and Little Red Riding Hood, they might reasonably think that they would have plumped for a safe family friendly movie, only to be progressively traumatised by the wild array of monsters sprawled across their screen. I would love to be a fly on the wall as they fought for their refunds. Would they be more upset about the Satan-worshipping Queen Witch that they stole from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or the paedophile who gets strung up to be used as a piñata? Maybe the monster who looks like Carrot Top if he was a fish man from Innsmouth.
The reason there are so many monsters is that we kick things off in the Kingdom of Evil. You have to admire the balls of the Queen Witch who runs the place. No doubt it was called something like Chihuahua when she took the throne, but she promptly renamed it to the Kingdom of Evil. Now that’s fair advertising, Mr. Murray! The Kingdom of Evil is, of course, where we can once again meet ‘all the storybook witches and monsters that we have met in fables’. Now, I have absolutely no idea which fables the scriptwriters, Fernando Morales Ortiz and Adolfo Torres Portillo, grew up reading, but I don’t recall the Brothers Grimm writing about vampires and Frankenstein’s monster. Maybe Child Snatcher would have fit in their work, as full as it was of dire warnings to children, and I could see Hurricane Dwarf working for them too, with his signature talent of blowing really hard. But what about Boogie Man, who looks like Sloth from The Goonies but with Groucho Marx’s moustache for eyebrows? Talk about traumatising for children!
Anyway, all these monsters have assembled in the castle of the Queen Witch for the trial of the Big Bad Wolf and the Ogre, charged with, well, being nice. El Lobo only had one job to do but he blew it; instead of eating Little Red Riding Hood, or Caperucita, as she’s known in Mexico, he befriended her instead. A similar fate befell the Ogre, who was supposed to devour Tom Thumb, or Pulgarcito in Spanish, but somehow switched to spinach, ice cream and popcorn instead; sadly, nobody clarifies if that’s one meal or three. Of course, such behaviour isn’t tolerated in the Kingdom of Evil so, after she asks how they plead, the jury pronounce them guilty and the sentence is given: death, when the full moon rises and the wicked owl chirps three times. Why she couldn’t have plumped for ‘the witching hour’, I have no idea. Oh, and she’ll turn those sickeningly pleasant children, as well as everyone else in their village, into ‘gross mice and ridiculous monkeys’. Just because she’s evil. That’s what evil witch queens are supposed to do, right?
Clearly, this was cobbled together from various sources, as tended to be the case with Mexican films of this era, who had little care for copyright infringement. I’m still stunned by the Mexican Santa Claus, in which our space hero collaborates with Merlin, Vulcan and their international child labour factory to produce toys for everyone. Tom Thumb comes from English folklore and dates back to at least the 16th century. Little Red Riding Hood, taken from European fairy tales, predates him by six hundred years or so. The Queen Witch, however, is clearly pinched from Disney rather than the public domain stories they raided, just as Frankenstino is a steal from Universal as much as Mary Shelley’s novel. El Vampiro is just a generic vampire with goofy teeth, like the sort of action figure you’d pick up as a Chinese knock-off for a buck. I have no idea where the child sized El Zorrillo, aka Stinky the Skunk, comes from, but El Enano ‘Santanon’ is surely the best actor in the movie, even stuck in a furry suit for the whole thing.
Now, I don’t know who wrote these subtitles but that one had me confused for a long while. After all, the Queen Witch kicked off a heatwave; maybe the Morning Fairy could use her magic filter to fix everyone’s AC. But no, eventually I realised that this is really a magic philtre, or potion. Similarly, the Big Bad Wolf’s ‘brought idea’ to get out of jail, which he brings up no less than thrice, is a ‘bright idea’ in real English. However, I never did figure out why Tom Thumb keeps seeing mops instead of monsters. That’s going to plague my sleep until I wake up, six weeks from now, with the proper translation on my tongue. It’s hardly fair, of course, of me to pick on the subtitles, when they were probably written half a century on by someone otherwise unrelated to the movie, but it’s certainly fair to pick on what’s in the picture. You know, like the clunky Martian robot which appears out of nowhere to attack Red while she’s stuck in a skeleton. Why Mexicans adored clunky robots in the sixties, I have no idea, but they were everywhere!
Of course, it was 1962 so times were different. Many of the moments that could never happen today were apparently utterly fine back then. For instance, the Queen gradually sends all her monsters at the kids and eventually we get to Hurricane Dwarf. In fact, he catches both Tom and Red, but Stinky the Skunk promptly grabs a torch from its sconce and sets his nuts on fire; then they all pile on and pull out his chest hair. Or are they just tickling him? I didn’t want to guess. Earlier, of course, was Child Snatcher, who is just like the crazy paedophile you might expect, snatching up children in his large net and secreting them into a large sack that he keeps in a cave. Tom is caught, but Stinky literally bends over and sprays the poor pervert until he curls up in a foetal position; then they tie him up, haul him into a tree as if they’re going to lynch him and then beat him with sticks like he’s a piñata. Mexican kids are apparently twisted; I remembered others sleighjacking Santa Claus; no wonder those kids ended up with coal.
While it’s easy to rip this film apart, there are positive qualities. It crams a lot into its 81 minutes, rarely slowing down even when the characters decide to launch into musical numbers. Yes, this is a musical too, though without many songs or, indeed, anything in the soporific Disney vein. The sets are often decent, the Queen Witch’s castle looking like a castle should, and the twisted trees outside in the Kingdom of Evil are delightfully twisted. The props are even better, with the Queen’s fireplace, perhaps the mouth of Hell itself, absolutely gorgeous. It looks like a demon’s head with full length fangs and I want to buy it and build my own castle around it. None of the costumes are up to that quality, especially those of the supporting monsters who roam this Mexican island of lost souls, and the effects are mostly awful, but the lurid Eastmancolor does add a larger than life quality that the movie sorely needed. Nothing matches that fireplace though, even the dragon’s flamethrower.
Of course, if you’re reading this, you’re looking for trash; this is a Weird Wednesdays review, after all! Unlike many of the Mexican movies that K. Gordon Murray brought over the border, like The Brainiac, The Living Coffin and The Aztec Mummy trilogy, this doesn’t really benefit us if we go back to the original. Sure, we hear the high-pitched original voice of El Zorrillo rather than Murray’s own dub as Stinky the Skunk, but that’s not much of a gain. Perhaps we should seek out the originals of the horror flicks he dubbed, but stay with his versions of children’s films. After all, he became ‘the King of the Kiddie Matinee’ for good reason. What’s important is that we psychotronic cinema fans know who he is and experience the surreality of his work, but also that these weren’t really his films, that Mexico churned out bizarre children’s pictures; atmospheric, if batshit insane, horror movies; and, of course, luchador features featuring wrestlers like Santo whom Murray turned into Samson. These are gloriously weird worlds to explore!