November 01, 2011

El Hombre Bestia (1934)

Despite being a country that quickly adopted cinema as an art form, Argentina's filmmakers weren't too keen of venturing into the fantastic genres, and the themes of Argentine cinema remained based on the country's literary tradition. Comedy and drama derived from theater were the prominent genres of the silent era, and the arrival of sound didn't do much to change this, as it only meant that Argentina's rich musical culture would finally be translated to the screen. However, one man decided that Argentina could also produce fantastic stories, and in the early 30s began to produce what would become as Argentina's first horror film. That man was journalist Camilo Zaccaría Soprani, and the film was titled "El Hombre Bestia", an independent production done without money or talent, but perhaps with lots of passion. The film was presumed lost for almost 70 years, until it was finally found and released again in the year 2002. While it's good to see it again, this may be a case of a film whose historical importance is greater than its artistic value.

The story of "El Homre Bestia" (literally "The Beast Man") begins with Captain Richard (Saverio Yaquinto), a brave pilot during World War I, whom is forced to land in the jungle, crashing his plane. The captain survives, but is unable to return, and uses his survival skills to live in the jungle, when he becomes more and more savage as years go by, eventually transforming Richard into a feral man not too different from Tarzan. Twelve years after his plane crashed, fate plays on Richard's favor and another plane lands in the island. The savage Richard murders the pilot and uses the plane to return to civilization, however, loss of fuel forces him to land in the house of the strange Dr. Marchessi (Raúl D'Angeli). Now, Richard immediately captures the attention of Dr. Marchessi, who becomes interested in his beastly traits and manages to inject an experimental formula in the unsuspecting Richard. The formula transforms Richard into a crazed monster driven by lust, and begins to kidnap beautiful young ladies.

The screenplay, by C. Z. Soprani himself, is basically a collection of the many bizarre adventures that captain Richard endures, from his days as a pilot to his survival in the jungle, and later to his dealing with Dr. Marchessi and the manhunt that the families of the kidnapped girls organize to stop him. In fact, a lot of things happen in the barely 50 minutes of runtime the film has, clearly an indicator of Soprani's desire of creating a tale of action and adventure that had a bit of everything. Unfortunately, it all feels forced and contrived due to the poor organization the story has. And so, the tone and mood of the movie varies in every segment, as it initially begins as a tale of adventure which soon becomes a strange horror film as the story unfolds. In fact, Richard himself goes from being the film's apparent protagonist (the film often bears a subtitle translated as "The Adventures of Captain Richard"), to transform into essentially one of the villains, as Dr. Manchessi's formula makes him even more savage.

Like Carl Theodor Dreyer's classic "Vampyr", Soprani's "El Hombre Bestia" is somewhat of an hybrid of a silent film and talkie, with some scenes having intertitles and texts to follow the plot, while others have the recorded audio of the dialogs. However, unlike Dreyer's surreal tale of vampirism, in Soprani's film this is done without real care, and instead of looking more like a mere budgetary decision than like a purely artistic choice. And looking the film, it seems like budget was behind most of Soprani's directorial decisions, as it seems like many different scenes where done in the same locations, and Soprani shows a taste for borrowing archival footage for the most complicated scenes. Soprani's visual style feels closer to silent cinema than to the kind of filmmaking that was being done in the early 1930s, and the cramming of the many adventures of captain Richard is done without real care or sense of pacing, resulting in a tacky narrative that seems disjointed and even incoherent at times.

Acting in "El Hombre Bestia" is pretty poor, which given the lack of experience of the performers may be understandable. Like the whole visual style of the film, the acting also feels more at home in a silent film, even in the scenes where there's sound. Saverio Yaquinto, who plays captain Richard, isn't really that bad, playing efficiently the stereotype character of the feral man so often seen in many silent films about jungle adventures. Certainly he seems hammy in his role, though in his case this is more likely the result of a pretty poor direction, as his role becomes merely physical, and limited to performing stunts. The real problems begin with the actors not playing a silent feral man, which would mean everyone else, as they are all wooden at best, and atrocious at worst. Raúl D'Angeli, who plays the evil Dr. Marchessi is perhaps the worst offender, delivering a truly uninspired performance. Nevertheless, all things aside, in the end it all comes down to C. Z. Soprani's terrible job as a director.

Certainly, "El Hombre Bestia" is plagued with problems that make its enjoyment somewhat difficult. For starters, it's bizarre plot that includes almost every element from American adventure serials (war scenes, jungle peril, mad scientist, monster on the loose, detectives, and the list goes on) all crammed in about 50 minutes of footage, is something to consider. Without regards for logic or coherence, the story moves from episode to episode moved by weird circumstances that truly defies the strongest suspension of disbelief. Even for its time, it's a great leap to think of "El Hombre Bestia" seriously, which leads to the other problem the film faces: for a 1934 production, it feels more than antiquated, it's certainly archaic. Beyond the fact that its an hybrid of a silent film and a talkie, its plot sounds like something from the early years of silent cinema, where everything was new and unexplored. While certainly its low budget is behind many of its problems, it's not a valid justification for most of the many illogical things that take place in the film.

Probably when Camilo Zaccaría Soprani decided to make "El Hombre Bestia" he hoped it could rival with the popular American serials. It's definitely the style of film he attempts to reproduce in his movie, but sadly his ambitious were way beyond his skills. Still, the passion and love for the genre that Soprani had, can really be felt through its mish mash of outrageously weird scenes. The first horror film made in Argentina, "El Hombre Bestia", failed to find an audience and was quickly lost in time. It would take eight more years until Argentina could release its first masterpiece of horror (Manuel Romero's "Una Luz en la Ventana"). As a historical film, "El Hombre Bestia" is invaluable, as the action/horror film it wanted to be, it's pretty forgettable.


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