The Phantom of The Convent/El Fantasma Del Convento/The Fantasy of The Monastery (1934)

The Phantom of the Convent (1934)‘I begin to think those monks are up to something…’

A trio hiking in the mountains are lost in the woods when they are saved by a mysterious stranger and his dog. He takes them to a run-down monastery and suggests that the travellers ask the monks for shelter for the night.

Unusual, serious-minded supernatural drama from Mexico, a country whose cult cinema items usually involve silver masked wrestlers grappling with vampires, werewolves and various other outlandish creatures. Not so here, for director Fernando De Fuentes’ takes a fairly common piece of universal folklore and fashions it into a genuinely creepy drama with a surprisingly modern filmmaking technique.

The story begins deep in the woods with Eduardo (Carlos Villatoro) being rescued from a gully by wife Cristina (Marta Ruel) and best friend Alfonso (Enrique Del Campo). He’s fallen after the hapless threesome have wandered off the path in the dark, being completely unequipped for their impromptu hike. Villatoro is not a happy man; he’s tired and hungry and hadn’t wanted to come in the first place. But salvation is at hand in the form of a stranger in black and a large dog called Shadow. He deposits them at the gates of a tumbledown monastery and promptly vanishes, giving Villatoro another reason to complain. They are taken in by one of the monks, who takes them to his leader. And this is where the film begins to score.

The Phantom of the Convent (1934)

‘For those about to eat…we salute you!’

For a start, the location is excellent. The interior architecture allows Fuentes to create some exciting shot compositions and fine contrasts of light and shadow. The wide passageways and tall ceilings create an impressive sense of scale, and the stone walls convey a sense of antiquity and permanence that it would be difficult to match in a studio setting.

The dynamics of our three main characters are simple but telling. Ruel is getting fed up with her husband’s constant whining and would rather be with Del Campo, something that Villatoro is beginning to suspect. Del Campo also has the hots for Ruel, who seems keener than ever once they enter the cloistered halls. Here they are treated to a frugal dinner by the strange monks, only two of whom speak. The meal is interrupted by the need for a sudden ritual and followed by an explanation from the Father Prior (Paco Martinez). The story he tells of the fate of the monk Rodrigo and the cell with the huge cross nailed across the door curiously reflects the trio’s own situation and relationships. An odd coincidence. Or is it?

The story is nothing remarkable on the page, being a rather slight tale of the temptations of the dark side, but it’s brought to life thanks to the look and feel of the film. At times it echoes Carl Dreyer’s much-trumpeted early classic ‘Vampyr’ (1931), but scores over it because of better pacing and technical skill. Performances are restrained and well-judged, particularly Ruel, and is there anything creepier than silent monks? Fuentes selects some appropriate faces for these wordless holy men; lined and ancient and with eyes that seemingly reflect decades of abstinence and prayer. When they do communicate, it’s with sweeping hand gestures, graceful and precise, almost courtly but somehow unsettling.

The Phantom of the Convent (1934)

The silliest trousers contest entered its final stages with a clear favourite…

The camera work is also surprisingly fluid, if a little clumsy on occasion. It’s interesting to look at movies from the early years of the sound era that originated in places other than Hollywood. Tinsel town films had a static quality to a lot of their setups at this point, which people tend to assume was down to the cumbersome nature of the camera equipment. It often gives these films a stilted and creaky feel.

But other nations and filmmakers don’t seem to have had that problem. Just compare the camera movement in Tod Browning’s ‘Dracula’ (1931) with the Spanish language version, which was shot on the same sets at night after Lugosi and co had gone home. There’s no contest. The Spanish version is far better. Given the fact it was a directed by an American, George Melford, perhaps it was simply a conscious decision by the main studio heads not to innovate but to remain tied to very conventional techniques?

One thing did bother me about this film, though. Is this ancient holy building a convent or a monastery? The dialogue identifies it as both at different times, and its various titles use both terms. But there’s not a nun in sight. Confusing. A mistranslation from the Spanish? No, the explanation is far simpler. The word ‘monastery’ is from the Greek meaning ‘to live alone’ and is commonly used to describe a building used by a religious order set apart from the rest of the world. On the other hand, the word ’convent’ is a Latin word meaning ‘to convene or gather’. It’s only in English speaking countries that the term is typically used when referring to the living quarters of a women’s religious order. Historically it could also refer to religious houses occupied by men.

Not quite a lost classic, but a genuinely accomplished and forgotten spooky tale that deserves to be revived and celebrated.


One thought on “The Phantom of The Convent/El Fantasma Del Convento/The Fantasy of The Monastery (1934)

  1. The Mystery of the Ghastly Face/El misterio del rostro pálido (1935) – Mark David Welsh

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s