Thursday 3 March 2011

Attack of the Aztec Mummy (1957)

Director: Rafael Portillo
Stars: Ramón Gay, Rosa Arenas, Crox Alvarado, Luis Aceves Castañeda and Jorge Mondragón
'How far can the human mind fathom the mysteries of the hereafter? No one knows.' Nobody will know after they watch this film either, the first in a trilogy of Aztec mummy movies shot back to back by producer Guillermo Calderón in Mexico in 1957 and released almost as quickly in 1957 and 1958. This is by the far the best of them, partly because it's an entirely original film, those following cannabilising their predecessors to increasing degrees, and partly because it's a little different from other horror movies released during the same era. It took its spark from a current fad that dealt with regression through hypnotism to past lives, but built that into a fire based on Universal's take on both Frankenstein and The Mummy, as transplanted to a native setting in the kingdom of the Aztecs. It also frames all this in a pulp crime story featuring, almost inevitably, a villain called the Bat, so you can hardly accuse it of being conventional.

The Bat has an overly convenient habit of being in the right place at the right time. He's at the first international congress on neuropsychiatric investigations, though we don't know that at the time, to watch the rejection of Dr Eduardo Almada, who has come back to Mexico to present his theories on how hypnotism can be used as a mechanism to regress patients to previous lives. He's rejected not because he hasn't actually tried any of these theories out, due to an inability to find a volunteer willing to risk the extreme danger to mental health he highlights is possible, but because such regression implies a belief in reincarnation which is truly beyond the pale for these scientists. Remember that as this review runs on. So Almada leaves, rejected even by a congress whose president is his future father in law, Dr Sepúlveda, who sees him as his 'favourite disciple' and who cautioned him not to give such a flimsy presentation to begin with.

So how to bulk it up? For a start, Almada's fiancée Flor promptly volunteers for the experiment, though we can't help but wonder why she never did so before. Sepúlveda is willing to assist, as is Almada's assistant, the cowardly Pinacate, and so we begin. The Bat conveniently overheard these plans so turns back up to watch proceedings, though why we have no idea. Nobody sees him hanging around in the window in his pulp Bat suit, complete with hat, mask and cape, but there are far more outrageous problems with the plot than that, trust me. Flor is taken back to when she was a twenty year old girl called Xochi, consecrated from birth to be sacrificed as a virgin to the god Tezkatlipoka. Not a bad first discovery for Almada's regression technique, huh? He's only eight moons away from her sacrifice, so naturally he jumps forward to that event as it can't possibly cause his fiancée any trauma, right? You know, like dying while under hypnosis.

The experiment with both a whirligig and a metronome, is interesting to watch, though it has far too much slow counting, but it's not as interesting as what unfolds in the lower temple of the Teotihuacan pyramid. Here we witness exotica actually conjured up by the ethnic descendants of those depicted, unlike most exotica, which came out of the imaginations of lounge musicians and Hollywood screenwriters mostly based on sailors' yarns and pictures in National Geographic. The bad side is that it's really no better, with a terribly choreographed flower dance and a singer who tries for Yma Sumac but doesn't have either the range or the charisma. She's accompanied by a small group of musicians, one of whom plays a flute and a drum at the same time. It's very primitive but fun to watch. What's really fun to watch are the costumes, which are vastly ornate with headdresses based on peacock fans. I'd love to see all this in colour.

Playing the double role of Flor Sepúlveda and Xochi is Rosa Arenas, who looks the same in both parts but does demonstrate some notable flexibility during her sacrifice. She's all for it, though the warrior Popoca who she loves unconditionally wants to take her away from inevitability. He fails dismally because he really should have done that a little earlier than the day of sacrifice, so ends up forced to drink an elixir that will send him mad then buried alive, tasked with protecting for eternity the breastplate and bracelet his girlfriend wears as she dies. Naturally these are gold and are inscribed with hieroglyphics that identify the location of the Aztec treasure, because why wouldn't they be? Can anyone think of a reason why that would be a bad idea? Anyone? Anyway Xochi gets sacrificed, Popoca gets walled up and poor Flor has to endure the death of her former self, left floating, a soul out of a body, until her fiancé calls her back.
Venezuelan born Arenas does a capable job but she's no great actor. She'd been acting since 1950 but was nowhere near as prolific as her co-stars, who racked up long filmographies. She found herself in a string of genre movies at the end of her career, partly because she'd married Abel Salazar, who had really kicked off the modern Mexican horror genre with The Vampire in 1957. Only two were with her husband: The Witch's Mirror in 1962, which he directed, and The Curse of the Crying Woman a year later, in which they co-starred as husband and wife. As Flor she's pleasing to the eye, as Xochi she's a little more but she's unable to steal the film back from Ramón Gay, who channels Vincent Price as Dr Almada, and Luis Aceves Castañeda, who exudes the villainy of the Bat. Remember him? He'll be back. We're talking Aztec treasure here, and no self respecting mad scientist/pulp villain could resist Aztec treasure.

Unless I missed a reference, we find out about the treasure 54 minutes into the picture and the mummy shows up six minutes later, shuffling around for a while to build suspense. There have been a number of attempts to build suspense thus far but most of them fail, because while it's great to see more footage of most of these scenes than the compressed versions recapped in the third film, The Robot vs The Aztec Mummy, a few of them run too long. We get too much of the Almada party wandering around the pyramid in the dark trying to find the lower temple and thus the artefacts that will prove Flor's story and Almada's theories. We get way too much of Pinacate because in this film he's an embarrassing attempt at comic relief, fainting after the experiment and resisting danger the way you'd expect Scooby and Shaggy to do. He's a mouse not a man, he freely admits. If only he was that small, we could ignore him.

Fortunately the Aztec mummy is someone we don't want to ignore. He's a memorable monster, far more inspired by the Universal version of Frankenstein's Monster than their Mummy, as his movements and moans are notably reminiscent, especially when cringing away from light. For some bizarre reason he cringes away from a cross too, which makes no sense to me, but that's a small price to pay for such a unique monster. The character's success is partly due to his look, a wizened face framed by ragged hair atop a period costume, looking for all the world like he was really buried alive. Partly though it's because he wins, in a sense making him the hero over the more obvious Dr Almada. It doesn't matter whether it's Almada or the Bat who tries to steal away the breastplate and bracelet, even Almada's daughter Anita who takes a fancy to it back home, he blindly does what he's cursed to do and he's done. He's a sympathetic monster.

For the most part the various genre conventions play well together. The ancient curse is handled capably, the mummy used judiciously and the past life regression embued with interest. The Bat is a fair pulp villain, clichéd but interesting, with a suitable costume and a videophone to talk to his minions. He even has a more capable assistant in the tall, ratlike Tierno than Almada has in the annoying Pinacate. What doesn't work is the consistency of the story, which has more leaps of logic than can be counted, something that only gets worse as the trilogy progresses. Above all the use of science is terrible, the scientists who reject reincarnation outright being perfectly fine with supernatural curses and astral powers. 'In the realm of the dead, the secondary malignant spirits are always ready to follow the orders of the ruler of darkness,' they suggest, which must bring a new meaning to the word 'science' that I've been hitherto blissfully unaware of.

Character motivation is terrible, not reaching the level of the serials that it comes to resemble over the course of the trilogy, though the actors are capable. The technical side is varied, with great sets on one hand and bad lighting on the other. The finalé is a joke, apparently tacked on because the running time was adding up and they ought to wrap the first story up so that they could make a start on the second. What survives above all is the creature, who abides eternally and made an impact on horror cinema in Mexico. Mummies are probably more prevalent there than any other monster except vampires, though they appear in many forms. Popoca returned only for the remaining two Aztec mummy films but others followed in his wake in very similar storylines, such as in The Living Head, The Wrestling Women vs The Mummy or Santo in the Vengeance of the Mummy, even as recently as the 2006 Mil Mascaras vs The Aztec Mummy.

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