Wednesday 3 November 2010

The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy (1958)

Director: Rafael Portillo
Stars: Ramón Gay, Rosa Arenas, Crox Alvarado, Luis Aceves Castañeda and Jorge Mondragón
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

What makes The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy so utterly unique is that it's a bizarre example of compound insanity, a convergence of two strange filmmaking choices. The first is that all three entries in the Aztec Mummy trilogy were shot back to back in 1957, a money saving concept that Roger Corman would later employ frequently, often following the usual process to make one film but then shooting a second on the same sets. Sometimes he would even reuse leftover sets from bigger budget productions to lend an air of class to his cheaper films. Mexican producer Pedro Calderón had successfully pioneered the back to back concept in 1956, turning out three musical comedies with the same cast and crew in less than a month, so a year later, Calderón's brother Guillermo decided to do the same thing, hiring director Rafael Portillo to shoot Attack of the Aztec Mummy, Curse of the Aztec Mummy and The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy back to back.

The second, far more surprising choice was for each of the films to have precisely the same story yet do so catering to different genre conventions. Attack of the Aztec Mummy is a horror movie, including reincarnation, past life regression and an ancient curse in addition to its title monster. Yet Curse of the Aztec Mummy and The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy adds a masked luchador (or Mexican wrestler) to the mix and The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy ventures into science fiction territory with its radium powered robot. To add to the chaos, these three films told the same story in a different way using an increasing amount of footage from predecessors, because the filmmakers shot about two pictures worth of material but released three movies. The second film includes scenes lifted directly from the first, while the third in turn lifted from both the first and the second, potentially as well as footage that the second had lifted from the first. Are you confused yet? Well, you soon will be.

Now, by necessity, I'm going to have to do something similar in building this review, because so much footage was reused that this becomes a review of the trilogy as much a single picture. The first film ran 80 minutes with all new material. The second ran 63, most of which was also new. It begins and progresses like a sequel, only venturing back to old footage when the villain explains to his minions what they'll be doing and why, filling in background after being put conveniently in the right place to learn it. This third film, however, runs 65 minutes but contains 45 minutes of recap and only 20 minutes of new story. It tells the story of the trilogy in shorthand, so watching this first then venturing backwards to the other films has the effect of allowing us to breathe, as events don't unfold at the breakneck speed the compressed recap versions do here. Building a film mostly out of recap also means a truly insane amount of dialogue.

So, taking a deep breath, here goes, noting that I'll be able to explain much that this film doesn't because the filmmakers didn't see fit to include all the necessary facts in their choice of recycled material. Like most viewers, I saw The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy long before its predecessors, as it is generally more readily available through K Gordon Murray's dubbed English version, so I initially puzzled about who a bunch of characters were, why they appeared out of nowhere and why the rest of the characters knew who they were but apparently didn't want to tell me. So you, my readers, can take the roles of Dr Diaz and Dr Estelle, arriving at my lavish Mexican casa after the opening credits, and I can be Dr Eduardo Almada, your humble host, to explain in flashbacks within flashbacks about the Aztec breastplate and bracelet which are now once more of concern as serious events are about to unfold. 'Allow me to go back in time...'

Five years ago, in the first film that Mexican audiences at the time saw a few months earlier, the first Congress on Neuropsychiatric Investigation didn't go too well for Dr Almada, who was there to present a paper on regression to past lives through hypnosis. It's worth noting here that in the original film, there's much more about why they rejected him outright before he could present anything. Science is a strange beast in the Aztec Mummy movies! Dr Almada went to a scientific congress, the fiancé of the daughter of the president of that congress, to present a paper about some theories he had that he'd never managed to actually try out, as nobody had proved willing to submit to hypnosis for him to experiment on, perhaps because he explained how dangerous it all was. So after this failure, his fiancée Flor promptly volunteers, without any reason given as to why she had never done so before. From that decision spun the first picture.
Now, the congress didn't reject him because he had never actually experimented on his theories, they rejected him because the concept of reincarnation was beyond the pale for these scientists. You might agree with that call but these are the same scientists who later in that film explained how important ancient curses were because, and I quote verbatim, 'in the realm of the dead, the secondary malignant spirits are always ready to follow the orders of the ruler of darkness.' I saw that as notable: astral powers taking advantage of curses, perfectly scientific, but reincarnation, nonsense. Anyway Almada hypnotised his fiancée that night, with the aid of Dr Sepulveda (Flor's father) and his own assistant, Pinacate, who, and I kid you not, was a rank coward during the first film, fainting after the experiment at the shock of it all, only to become the costumed superhero of the second as the luchador El Angel, precisely none of which is mentioned in the third.

Hypnosis unveiled that in a previous life, Flor was Xochi, an Aztec girl destined from birth to be sacrificed as a virgin to the god Tezkatlipoka. She's resigned to her fate, even though she loves a great warrior called Popoca unconditionally, but he entreats her to run away with him instead. Before she can even think about an answer, the priests come and take them to the lower temple of Tenoxtitlan to be punished. Popoca was buried alive, cursed for all eternity, while Xocha was sacrificed after all, wearing a breastplate and bracelet that indicate where the Aztec treasure is buried. You know, like you do. At least she gets a good sendoff, with an exotic singer, primitive flute and drum accompaniment and a flower dance. There's much more of this in the first film, highlighting just how poor the choreography really was. The costumes, especially headdresses, are awesome though, explaining the high ceilings. I really wish I could have seen these in colour.

Now, just in case you're getting a feel for the tone of this film, rightly suspecting that Popoca the great warrior will become the cursed mummy of the title, protecting the breastplate and bracelet worn by his beloved while she was sacrificed and so also protecting the Aztec treasure, yaddah yaddah yaddah, the tone promptly changes. Dr Krupp, a famous scientist who has only been in a single frame thus far in the entire film, at the congress that rejected Dr Almada, is revealed to be a terrible bandit named the Bat, the villain of all three films in the trilogy. He was conveniently at Almada's house to listen to the entire experiment and thus hear about Aztec treasure. Why was he there at such a convenient time? Well he was conveniently there snooping when Flor decided to volunteer too, so naturally was able to conveniently be there when the experiment happened. How recursive do you want to get? Let's just add that nobody noticed him in his pulp Bat outfit.

While everyone believes the results of the experiment immediately, Almada realises that nobody else will unless he can provide proof, so off they trek to Flor's lead to find that proof in the ruins of the pyramid of Teotihuacan, in the form of the breastplate and bracelet. Nobody suggests that such artefacts wouldn't be proof anyway, because Almada could always have found them first in a hidden temple in a ruin or at a Mexican thrift store and then conjured up a story around them afterwards, but no, the detractors all believed the moment they saw gold. Scientists, remember! I should also explain about the young boy who is inexplicably part of the Almada party working their way through the spiderwebs and secret tunnels to the lower temple. I initially assumed he was some sort of lackey, there to carry the picks and shovels so Dr Almada can be a tomb raider, but the first film explains it's his younger brother Pepe who can't keep his nose out of anything.

In the end they discover the skeleton of Xochi, which is mysteriously intact, having not collapsed into the expected heap of bones over the pressure of centuries. It is worth mentioning though that this, by far the worst in the trilogy, did at least cut out some of the idiocy of its forebears. For instance, the Aztec mummy appears quickly here, almost as quickly as Almada removes the breastplate from Xochi's bones. In the original film, this wasn't the case. Almada had got all the way back to his house with it, even proved his case to the scoffing scientists that rejected him at the congress, only to realise that he had left the bracelet behind. It's like Indiana Jones taking the tablet with commandments one to five on it but leaving six to ten behind for another trip. Scientists, you know. So it was on the return trip to collect the bracelet that the mummy showed up, shuffling in from the darkness like Frankenstein's monster and moaning rather like him too.
It's worth mentioning that the Aztec mummy doesn't look remotely like the mummy that Boris Karloff immortalised in the 1932 Universal film. Obviously he isn't swathed in bandages because he isn't Egyptian, but he has long ragged hair and actually looks like he had been buried alive. It's an effective look, but what's really interesting is what his actions suggest as inspiration. It isn't just the footsteps and moans that remind of Frankenstein's monster, he also reacts to light in much the same way. Yet, and I haven't quite figured this one out yet, he also cringes from the Christian cross, Dr Sepulveda apparently forgetting that he's a mummy not a vampire and the newly resurrected Popoca being too rusty after his centuries of entombment to realise that Aztec mummies cursed in Aztec ceremonies really ought not to care about foreign religious imagery. Strangely this mummy thus seems to be a hybrid of vampire and Frankenstein's monster.

While Popoca is the movie's monster, Dr Krupp is the villain of the piece. Don't forget that this is no straight horror picture, it's a construct of horror, sci-fi and luchador genres with a grounding in pulp crime, so the Bat has to be back soon. The Bat is rumbled at the end of the first film and the ensuing press not only about his identification, but his arrest, escape and eventual demise in his own death chamber, means that nobody in Mexico could possibly have been ignorant of Dr Krupp being the Bat. So naturally it's a complete surprise to Dr Diaz and Dr Estelle, two of his former colleagues, when Almada lets them in on the secret. You know, I respect the concept of shooting all three films in a trilogy back to back but writers really ought to pay attention to the basic logistics of the world they create. Perhaps the reason the Bat has stayed at large for five years is that he had a mysterious ray to wipe the memory of everyone in Mexico. It would fit.

Now we're fully a third of the way in, Dr Almada's recaps finally make it through the first movie to start on the second, with a wealth of missing explanations. Sure, Almada explains that Krupp, in possession of the artefacts, blackmails him into translating the hieroglyphics, but on my first viewing I couldn't help but wonder why Pinacate was dressed in a wrestling outfit and how the mummy knew to throw the Bat into his chamber of death. These visuals come out of nowhere and are quickly forgotten. Instead we have to figure out how the Bat, who naturally is slated to be the villain here as in the other films, manages to survive his own snake infested chamber of death. Even if you're willing to believe everything else I've thrown at you thus far, surely you won't believe that he escapes by opening the previously non-existent door in the back wall of the chamber. Who the hell puts an escape hatch in the wall of a chamber of death?

Maybe the same sort of master criminal who collects his men and then goes straight to Almada's house to summon Flor by remote control hypnosis, that's who. This one came completely out of the blue too but in fairness, the Bat did kidnap and hypnotise Flor in the second film so that she could lead him to the lower temple just as she had her husband in the first. How that grants him remote control ability I have no idea, just as I have no idea how his next act is supposed to work. 'I order you to pick up the mind waves of the Aztec mummy,' he tells her, 'and tell us if you can lead us to it.' She does, so presumably once you've been regressed to a past life by hypnosis, you magically acquire a homing beacon to your love of that life through some sort of telepathy. Does this make any sense to you? Me neither. Anyway, because we've been shown how Popoca is afraid of crosses, naturally he's camping out in a cemetery full of them.

While we all collapse into despair, let me point out that the completely insane plot aside, there's much to enjoy. Most obviously the sets look great, especially Almada's house which I'd certainly buy for a peso. Most of the picture was filmed at the CLASA studios, home to the earliest classic Mexican horror movies, shortly before it went out of business. The budget was low, especially if you factor in how little new footage there was and how the cast and crew was already in place, but it looks better than a B movie, let alone a Mexican B movie. Comparisons to Universal horror go far beyond just the monsters and further reexploration of the Frankenstein story. I should add a caveat here about the robot, because he hasn't shown up yet and so we are blissfully unaware as yet about how frickin' low budget he's going to look. Robots in Republic serials looked better than this, which goes as far into school fair cliché as to have light bulbs stuck to his head.
The acting is hardly Oscar worthy but it's far from cringeworthy too, with Ramón Gay proving as capable as any low budget lead of the day. He comes across like a more generic Vincent Price, a cultured man with a cultured voice who was popular with the ladies. After a long apprenticeship that saw him appear in over forty films in six the years from 1946 to 1951, he found success in a string of horror movies, also including The Witch, Cry of the Bewitched and The Curse of the Doll People. His last film was Jerry Warren's Face of the Screaming Werewolf, released posthumously as he had been shot dead in 1960 by the estranged husband of a Mexican actress, Evangelina Elizondo. For my part I couldn't stop watching Luis Aceves Castañeda, who plays Dr Krupp with notable relish. He doesn't remotely have to exert himself to be villainous because he's rather like Orson Welles as Mephistopheles, so would look villainous getting out of bed in the morning.

Technically, there's little to complain about. Lighting and sound are capable throughout: we can see and hear everything without a stretch, though there were a few scenes in the Teotihuacan pyramid in the first two films that were so dark that it was difficult to fathom what was going on. Even the cinematography is solid, though the camerawork shines mostly by staying remarkably unobtrusive. Really the problems with this film come from the strange circumstances that led to its creation and the consistently awful decisions taken when putting it together. Given that the recaps of the first film that we see in the second make complete sense, it's all the more amazing how wrong everything goes here. Even the character decisions are nonsense. Pinacate is wasted here, merely wandering around graveyards in a bow tie and Clark Kent glasses like a gentleman TV presenter. I didn't enjoy him in the other films but at least he did something!

You might also remember that this movie is called The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy. Technically, if you translate the Spanish, it's The Aztec Mummy vs The Human Robot, to highlight the relative importance of the two characters, but the same question arises. We've had a bunch of scenes with the Aztec mummy, but we haven't seen hide nor hair of a robot and we're two thirds of the way through the film. Nobody has even mentioned one. In fact the first slight hint at such a thing doesn't arrive until twenty minutes from the end, when Almada finally gets to the point. The Bat has reappeared after five years and has stolen a corpse, a brain and some radium. Almada and Pinacate have tracked down his lair in two days and they aim to go and stop the Bat from doing whatever he plans to do. The doctors now have the story to take to the police if they don't return which turns out to be a good idea because they get caught in less than five seconds. No kidding.

And so, finally with fifteen minutes to go until the end credits, we really begin with the new story, which as you can imagine is hardly going to be in depth. The tagline of the film translates to 'See the relentless machine battle the gruesome corpse,' but we have the conventions of a host of genres to cater to first, so we can be sure there isn't going to be a heck of a lot of battling. We have to watch Krupp in his Bat cape outlining his plans like a James Bond villain. He must emote like a mad scientist and laugh insanely. They have to tell him he's meddling in God's realms. It's like every cliché is here, in a weird Dracula, Frankenstein, Mummy, Scarface, James Bond, Robot movie. The only thing missing was zombies. And with five minutes to go, the robot sets out on its quest to give the film's title some validation, stumbling around the cemetery with difficulty, as if the man in the suit has trouble moving without falling over, given that its legs don't bend.

I have to admit that I have a soft spot for this movie. It's so schizophrenic that it's surreal, utter lunacy from beginning to end but utter lunacy in an unpredictable manner. We're kept on our toes wondering just what they're going to throw into the mix next. Most of the dialogue is as out there as the unfolding events, though unfortunately the finalé is restricted to a few screams, but there are also gems to relish. I could see Ed Wood leaning forward in his chair mouthing some of them, like what Dr Almada comes up with when first entering the lower temple. 'We are the first to enter in here,' he orates. 'A world that has slept for centuries awakens with our arrival. Finally we will know the truth.' Technically more consistent than its predecessors, in every other way it's a jumble of epic proportions, a picture that had no reason to exist other than to allow Guillermo Calderón to match his brother's achievement in shooting three films at once. That isn't enough.

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