Wednesday 15 March 2017

Little Red Riding Hood and Tom Thumb vs. the Monsters (1962)

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?
Well, where there’s evil, there has to be good. Little Red Riding Hood is a real girl, though her dialogue feels dubbed except when she sings with an adult voice. Maybe it is hers; after three outings as Caperucito, María Gracia grew up and married José Domingo, Placido’s eldest son. And yes, this is a sequel, folks! It follows Little Red Riding Hood, or La caperucita roja, in 1960, and Little Red Riding Hood and Her Friends in 1961, though Caperucita y sus tres amigos could be translated as Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Amigos; now that would have been a film! Tom Thumb is a real boy too, though he’s initially shot using camera tricks to make him look only six inches tall; the scenes of him climbing up a table leg are excellently done. However, the effects budget clearly wasn’t going to let that continue, so he’s quickly rendered normal size by magic. He’s Cesáreo Quesadas, who first played Tom Thumb in Pulgarcito in 1958, making this a sequel to two series. So associated was he with the part, he later took Pulgarcito as an occasional stage name.

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.
There’s one more steal before we can get moving. With El Lobo and El Ogro locked up in the Queen’s dungeons, complete with iron balls chained to their legs, it falls to Stinky, the Wolf’s loyal little squire, to run for help. She (I assume she’s female) quickly locates our two heroes, though Red’s initial suggestion of, ‘Let’s visit the Queen Witch and ask her not to be so evil,’ is hardly called for. At this point, the Queen has already cast a spell, poured a concoction into the Singing River and made the weather hotter so everyone needs to drink. Given that this water is red not clear, the townsfolk clearly either all need glasses or deserve to be turned into mice and monkeys. Now we see where Red’s brains come from! Maybe if Mexico appointed Ambassador Red to ask Mr. Trump ‘not to be so evil,’ all talk of the wall would end. Anyway, Stinky suggests they visit the Morning Fairy, who’s like Glinda the Good but with a magic wand made of fireworks. So, in this Snow White vs. The Wizard of Oz tale, our heroes quest for the Queen’s magic filter.

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!
What stuns me most here is that this was supposed to be a children’s movie. Even if we ignore the whole monsters angle, which is a tough prospect given that Boogie Man is enough to scare the bejesus out of adults, let alone kids, it veers wildly between English pantomime and Japanese gameshow. I’ll throw out a couple of examples. That ‘brought idea’ of the Wolf’s is to pretend that he has Panfleta the millionaire flea in his hand and that suckers Boogie Man into opening the cell and idiotically allowing them to escape. That’s stupid on every level, but it’s quintessential pantomime and I could almost hear the kids in the audience willing El Lobo on! However, they’re later tied to a torture rack, ready to be sent into a pair of circular saws, when the Queen orders torment before death. That means tickling their bare feet with feathers, force feeding them far too much water and then tickling them again until they pee like racehorses. Through their mouths. Onto each other. And their torturers. Here, I heard a commentator in stitches.

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.
It’s worth mentioning here that the torch Stinky grabbed contained real fire, just like the Dragon of Avernus breathes real fire in dangerous quantities; I kept waiting for the set to catch fire or the costumes of the actors in it. At one point, this dragon shoots an impressive flame right at the head of the Big Bad Wolf, which is an actor in a fursuit. What did the insurance cost on this picture? Was there flame retardant material on Mexican shoots in 1962? How many stuntmen died of first degree burns? Inquiring minds want to know. The filmmakers did realise their priorities. The Dragon of Avernus is two guys in a cheap pantomime horse outfit with a cheap papier maché dragon mask that has a fully functional frickin’ flamethrower mounted inside it. Perhaps Tom Thumb was magically grown to adult size as Películas Rodríguez had blown their effects budget on a flamethrower. Did María Gracia stop playing Caperucita because she was supposed to be on fire throughout film four, Flaming Red Riding Hood vs. the Human Torch?

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.
The other aspect that surprised me is the quality of some of the actors. Nobody really acts well here, because it’s all larger than life lunacy but there are some great actors in the cast. Surely the best visible actor is Ofelia Guilmáin, Spanish by birth but who fled her home country after the rise to power of General Franco, so all her movies were Mexican. Naturally, she worked with other ex-pat Spanish filmmakers, like Luis Buñuel, which leads to the suitably surreal situation that this was the middle of her three pictures of 1962, in between The Exterminating Angel, one of the best films ever made, and The Brainiac, which would surely be one of the worst if it wasn’t so much lunatic fun. José Elías Moreno, who plays the Ogre, was a veteran character actor famous for his versatility and his macho men; it’s ironic that he’s best known today not for quality titles such as Black Wind, Mexico’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film in 1967, but trash like Santa Claus, in which he played the title role, or Night of the Bloody Apes.

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!

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