May 24, 2011

Museo del Horror (1964)

During the last half of the 1950s, Mexican cinema showed a renewed interest in the horror genre after the success of Chano Urueta's "La Bruja" (1954) and "El Monstruo Resucitado" (1955), two low budget horror films that combined classic horror elements like Gothic horror and pulp science fiction, with a noir urban atmosphere and a very Mexican flavour. A series of low budget horror films followed them, result of the efforts of producers Abel Salazar and Jesús Sotomayor, which working with low budgets but with great enthusiasm, developed a new style of horror filmmaking and nurtured the talents of directors such as Fernando Méndez and Rafael Baledón. This productive era for Mexican horror would last until the 70s, and produce several films of great interest. Amongst them was "Museo del Horror" (1964), a film produced by Jesús Sotomayor and directed by Rafael Baledón, which was basically a mix of Warner Brothers' "Mystery of the Wax Museum" (1933) and "House of Wax" (1953), spiced up with the Gothic-noir flavour of Mexican horror.

Set in Mexico City during the early years of the 20th century, "Museo del Horror" (literally "Museum of Horror") begins with a series of kidnapings taking place through the city, the victims always being young attractive women. The police seems to be unable to catch the killer and the population begins to live with fear. Marta (Patricia Conde) is the daughter of the landlady (Emma Roldán) of an old lodging-house, and she begins to be prey of the paranoia. Specially since several of her mother's tenants could be the killer, being all single and lonely men: the odd doctor Raúl (Julio Alemán), whose experiments require female corpses, the old mysterious embalmer (Carlos López Moctezuma) or the charming actor Luis (Joaquín Cordero), forced to retire from the stage due to a limp leg. The three of them become suspects by the police, but the killings continue. In the meantime, Raúl pursues Marta's love, but her eyes are set on Luis, who has turned his artistic talents to the creation of highly detailed figures for the local wax museum.

Written by José María Fernández Unsáin, at first sight it would seem that "Museo del Horror" is nothing more than a regional clone from André De Toth's 3-D classic "House of Wax", but even when the premise of the story is basically the same, scriptwriter Fernández Unsáin develops his story in a completely different fashion. For starters, the plot has been returned to its origins as a murder mystery (as was the original "Mystery of the Wax Museum" film), but with the very Agatha Christie plot device of having several characters gathered as suspects. The tenants at the lodging-house become the collection of suspects, and Marta, the unwilling participant in the solution of this mystery. The dialog in the scenes at the lodging-house is particularly good. The addition of the love triangle adds an interesting element that, despite some bits of exaggerated melodrama (in the typical style of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema), fits in the story surprisingly well, and gives the film's climatic ending a more emotive tone.

With a great eye for atmosphere and a pretty good timing for suspense, director Rafael Baledón continues the dark, ominous visual style he mastered in his previous horror film, the remarkable "La maldición de la Llorona" ("The Curse of the Crying Woman"), and delivers a Gothic murder mystery that manages to be entertaining despite its shortcomings. As written above, the mystery surrounding the identity of the killer is the center of the story, and Baledón manages to sustain it through the film in a very suspenseful way. The work of cinematography, by seasoned veteran Raúl Martínez Solares, is of truly great quality; with a great use of light and shadows to create heavy atmospheres of mystery. The scenes inside of the museum have a haunting beauty with a darkness that contrasts with the apparent comfort of the lodging-house. The film has also some striking sequences that look very good despite the obvious low budget. Baledón keeps the tone serious, avoids the camp (that seems to be abundant in Mexican horror films) and manages to get some good performances by his cast.

The cast is for the most part good, and it's also one of the main reasons the film works. Patricia Conde is appropriate, if a bit restrained in her performance as Marta. However, she is quite natural and believable as a young woman in love with a suspect of the crimes. Unfortunately, her character is not as well defined as the rest, and at times is nothing more than a damsel in distress (perhaps something to blame to more conservative social values). As the doctor Raúl, Julio Alemán is effective, although clearly overshadowed by Joaquín Cordero's Luis. Alemán is a tad wooden, while Cordero's presence makes him steal every scene he is in. In a way, this does help the story's development, given that Marta's heart is for the brooding actor Luis instead of the more rational Raúl; but still, Alemán comes down when facing Cordero on screen. Another scene stealer is clearly character actor Carlos López Moctezuma, whom as the mysterious embalmer, López Moctezuma delivers his classic performance as a "man you love to hate".

Perhaps the greatest problem in "Museo del Horror" is that, even when scriptwriter Fernández and director Baledón do put a lot of care in the developing of the mystery and that it honestly has a good share of originality, the story does become a bit predictable, specially if one has seen "Mystery of the Wax Museum" or "House of Wax" (and there's even a Santo film released the previous year based on the "Wax Museum" films). Nevertheless, the story's predictability doesn't prevent the film from being an entertaining murder mystery, thanks in part to the way Baledón presents the story and the stylish look the movie has. The love triangle is an interesting addition to the mystery, with Marta divided between two men who seem to represent opposite and colliding sides: the rational yet cold doctor Raúl, and the emotional and passionate actor Luis. One plays with corpses and the other with wax figurines. Without spoiling much, it could be said that the film shows that the extremes of those sides can lead to dark, insane and dangerous situations.

Certainly, "Museo del Horror" may be of a lesser quality than Baledón's masterpiece (the aforementioned "La maldición de la Llorona"), but like that film, it offers a very particular view on horror, clearly influenced by Universal's Gothic horror from the 30s and the popular pulp novels of crime and mystery fiction. Of course, one can't help to compare it to the Warner Brothers' films that served as basis for it but, while apparently similar, "Museo del Horror" has a its very own personality, an identity shaped by the growing urbanity of Mexico city and perhaps closer in spirit to the films noir of the period than to the classic Gothic films that inspired it. A minor gem, "Museo del Horror" offers a new and fresh take on a familiar horror story.


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