An ageing scientist searches for an elixir of youth so that he can carry on his scientific researches long into the future. His quest results in a formula derived from a substance found in the human eye, but his decision to experiment on himself has unfortunate consequences…
Late 1960s ‘South of the Border’ horror flick with horror icon John Carradine taking the lead. The direction is in the hands of experienced filmmaker Jaime Salvador, who had more than 30 years of work behind the megaphone. The fact that the results lack imagination, chills and quality are probably not that much of a surprise, but there’s also an absence of the more outlandish elements that make much of Mexican cult cinema of the period so enjoyable.
The film opens in the way that all movies, of whatever genre, should begin; with John Carradine seated behind a desk, introducing the film to the audience, accompanied by a skull named Jack. It’s a brilliantly pointless prologue as it doesn’t inform the story in any way, or even serve to pad the running time for more than a minute. It does provide Carradine with an opportunity to play to the gallery a little, which, of course, makes it essential viewing for anyone with a love of cult cinema. From there, we meet the veteran star in his role as scientist Dr Halbeck, busy at the operating table with his young assistant, Alfonso (Andrés García).
What are they up to? Noting special; just extracting the eyes from a condemned woman (Silvia Villalobos) who is about to be executed. How Carradine has permission to do this, I don’t know, but it is nice to see García following correct surgical protocol by lighting up a cigarette the moment they finish. It’s also good to see the guillotine employed as the chosen tool of state justice. To be fair to the filmmakers, it’s never clearly established where and when the film is supposed to be taking place, but I’m reasonably sure it’s not during the French Revolution.
Carradine needs the eyes because they obtain a substance vital to his experiments into an elixir of youth. As he explains to Garcia, it’s essential to the advance of science, and the human race in general, that he can carry on his great works for as long as possible. However, the sudden return to the household of his pretty young ward Miss Dinora (Regina Torné) makes us suspect that his motives may not be entirely selfless, after all. The girl has been brought up in Carradine’s care after the death of her father, and he’s enrolled her at a local science college. She’s also engaged to the handsome García.
Then, in the space of a minute, director Salvador tips his hand and tells us exactly how the rest of his story is going to pan out. Firstly, we discover that Torné’s father was Carradiune’s old mate, Dr Jekyll! Then, Carradine tells his butler that a previously unmentioned nephew is coming to stay and ‘he’s to have full run of the house.’ Yes, it’s Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale all over again, with only a few and very minor, variations.
Exhibiting the usual sound sense of scientific procedure, Carradine experiments on himself and transforms into the young and handsome Frederick (Miguel Ángel Álvarez), allowing the veteran character actor to disappear from proceedings for almost the entire rest of the movie. Now, you might assume that Álvarez is merely a younger version of Carradine’s character, but that appears not to be the case at all. Instead, we allegedly have two separate personalities in the one body with Carradine able to berate his youthful incarnation via the somewhat ineffectual medium of the off-screen voiceover.
There’s plenty for him to complain about too because Álvarez is driven to kill! Yes, after an hour of passion with a burlesque dancer, he starts to develop the old ‘hairy hands’! It is an original excuse not to hang around afterwards, I suppose, but he returns almost at once to harvest her eyes when he realises his transformation into a monster is out of control. How he gets her eyes home in a medically hygienic manner, I have no idea. I guess he just pops them into his pocket. And why is he turning into a monster, anyway? Was that possible side-effect listed in the accompanying documentation from the pharmacist? And did he contact his professional healthcare specialist to report it?
Carradine’s continued absence from proceedings begins to worry the rest of the cast (as well as the audience) and Torné is especially suspicious when she discovers that the old professor has rearranged his bookshelves! A sure sign of dastardly intent, if ever there was one. A quick trip to the attic turns up some of her father’s old papers and, all of a sudden, García has worked out exactly what’s going on. Without any basis for his conclusions whatsoever. But his immediate elevation to the status of ‘world’s greatest detective’ is short-lived as five minutes later he is completely clueless again. Not to worry, he’s arrived at the solution (again!) by the end of the following scene. All this is news to Torné who blithely leaves a visiting friend alone in the professor’s library to go and fetch ‘a sample.’ Álvarez attacks and drugs the girl, removes her eyes, make his potion, drinks it and disposes of her body in the furnace all in the time it takes Torné to get back! Smart work, that. Álvarez is on form later on, too, when the missing girl’s sister turns up to make enquiries. He offers her a lift to the local cop shop and on the way suavely declares that he’s going to kill her. Never mind the coachman!
If this all sounds ‘so bad it’s good’ then the film certainly does have some wonderful moments. Unfortunately, with Carradine MIA for long periods, it also drags a lot through most of its length. There are also some questionable aspects to the monster makeup, which becomes progressively more ugly and ridiculous as time passes. In certain scenes, Álvarez is undoubtedly performing in ‘blackface’, something that rings more than a few alarm bells in this more enlightened era. There’s also a constant hum and squeaks of electronic equipment in all the laboratory scenes, which quickly becomes quite aggravating. It’s also somewhat curious, considering that Carradine’s entire scientific apparatus is a table full of jars, beakers and test tubes.
The highlight of the entire picture is a brief scene just before the hour mark when Carradine momentarily regains control of his body. Waving his hairy hands about like a manic windmill, he delivers a subtle examination of a soul in torment through a combination of very silly faces and flinging pieces of half-chewed scenery into the back row of the auditorium. It’s a tour de force of ham, and over far too quickly. Much in the manner of the late Boris Karloff, Carradine signed on the dotted line for a bunch of low-budget, Mexican productions in the late 1960s, so perhaps his lack of screen time here meant that he was off shooting another project at the same time. Although it’s more likely, he was putting in some work at a local bar or out at the track. By his own admission, he took a lot of work because he liked ‘liquor, women and playing the ponies.’
A little Carradine goes a long way, but unfortunately, there’s not quite enough to go around here.