The Headless Rider/El jinete sin cabeza (1957)

The Headless Rider/El jinete sin cabeza (1957)‘I heard my grandmother’s spirit symbolically explaining to me in dream what has to be done to permit her to leave the house and rest in peace.’

People are vanishing in a small Mexican town, and a young woman is tormented by nightmares of a ghostly presence. When her father becomes the latest victim of the wave of disappearances, the local authorities call for help, but assistance arrives in unexpected ways…

The first in a trilogy of Mexican films concentrating on the exploits and adventures of El jinete, a name which translates from the Spanish as ‘The Horseman’. The films were probably made back to back as all were released within a few months of each other and share several of the same cast members and the same director, Chano Urueta. The first is a strange mixture of the supernatural, the Western and the musical, thus ticking several of the boxes likely to appeal to homegrown audiences of the time.

Strange things are afoot in the Mexican township of San Joaquin. Over the previous few months, several prominent citizens have disappeared, their families refusing to co-operate with the authorities after they subsequently receive a mysterious box. Local official Fernando (Jaime Fernández) is out of his depth, so he calls the big city for assistance. This help arrives in the form of La jueza (‘The Judge’), but it turns out this officer of the law is a woman, played by Flor Silvestre, and no, she never gets an actual name despite being the film’s leading lady.

The Headless Rider/El jinete sin cabeza (1957)

‘Please explain what competencies you would bring to our organisation.’

One of Silvestre’s first duties is to lock up handsome stranger Luis Aguilar, who has blown into town, sang a song at the Cantina with a mariachi band, and then proceeded to start a brawl with fat layabout Pascual (Pascual García Peña). Aguilar has eyes for the uptight Silvestre from the get-go, but it’s going to take more than a few knowing looks to win her heart (actually, it doesn’t). Meantime, local landowner Herminio González (Salvador Lozano) is the latest missing person on the books, having been kidnapped by a strange gang who creep about wearing monk’s robes and skull masks. Lozano’s brother, Don Álvaro (Crox Alvarado), waits for news while his niece Juloeta (Patricia Nieto) is plagued by strange dreams of the supernatural.

Plot developments continue at quite a pace. In a refreshing break from the norm, Alvarado actually takes his niece’s concerns seriously. These centre around her conviction that her grandmother has was walled up inside the family home. Alvarado applies to Silvestre for official permission to tear down the wall in question (I guess because it’s a possible exhumation?) and then recruits roly-poly Peña to wield the pickaxe. By the time the tramp has chickened out on the job (he is the cowardly comedy relief, after all!), Alvarado is missing and, when the wall comes down, it’s his body that is standing behind it. Considering that this makeshift burial place has not been disturbed in decades, this only seems to confirm that supernatural forces are at work.

The Headless Rider/El jinete sin cabeza (1957)

‘You’re all eaten away!’

However, Ramón Obón’s screenplay is not finished there. There’s also a disembodied hand on the loose, rising from beneath a table when the Skull Brotherhood prepares to execute Lozano, crawling around Nieto’s bedroom and eventually assaulting her. And, of course, there’s our title character; a white-suited, seemingly headless horseman who spends his time kicking the evil monks around. There’s also a fantastic scene where a spooked Silvestre decides she’ll feel safer sleeping in the empty cell next to Aguilar’s temporary jailhouse accommodations. Leaving aside the fact that she beds down in her clothes and high heels, in the morning, she’s woken by Aguilar singing her a song, accompanied by the mariachi band! I guess they were locked up as well, although maybe he has them on speed dial! Later on, Silvestre wanders outside into the garden and bursts into a song out of nowhere accompanied by a full offscreen orchestra!

Those unfamiliar with Mexican genre cinema will likely be a little confounded by the sudden appearance of the musical numbers here. However, songs were a guaranteed crowd pleaser and often integrated into otherwise dramatic pictures. This meant that many entertainers had dual careers as both film stars and famous singers, which is the case here. Silvestre, in particular, was already a hugely successful recording artist by the time of production and, shortly afterwards, married frequent movie co-star Antonio Aguilar. The couple enjoyed a glittering career of nearly half a century, often performing with their two sons until he died in 2007. She recorded her last album as a tribute to him in 2010 at the age of 80.

The Headless Rider/El jinete sin cabeza (1957)

‘The Milky Bars are on me!’

As you may have guessed, the resolution to all the story’s disparate events is not exactly watertight. Most things are explained, if somewhat implausibly, but some threads just don’t tie up. The most obvious of these are the activities of the disembodied hand. At first, this seems to be a supernatural creature employed by the Skull Brotherhood, particularly as it’s heavily inferred that traitors have their hands cut off before being executed. After Alvarado goes missing, his family receive the mysterious box that all the victim’s families receive. Fernández opens it, and the hand almost jumps out. The official is then distracted by Nieto’s scream from the next room and, by the time he gets back, the hand is gone. Later on, however, it seems that the whole disembodied hand angle was a trick employed by the Headless Rider. Why I don’t know and how I have even less idea. And, if that was the case, what was in all those other mysterious boxes that people received before he turned up in town?

The other obvious puzzle revolves around the scene where the Rider bursts from Alvarado’s coffin. The Brotherhood is indulging in a spot of grave robbing, looking for the man’s missing will when he takes them by surprise. Nothing wrong with that except that Alvarado’s corpse was placed in a wall tomb which we then witnessed sealed up with concrete which the villains have to demolish with a pickaxe. So how did the Rider get in there? Perhaps he has supernatural powers, after all? Maybe, but, once unmasked, it’s revealed that he’s a government agent come to clean up the town! It’s all a little baffling.

The Headless Rider/El jinete sin cabeza (1957)

‘Seriously? You’re going to bid 2 clubs?’

If you can forgive the story inconsistencies, this is all a lot of fun, of course. The leads are appealing, particularly Silvestre (although she’s not given enough to do), and the location work provides an authentic edge to ground the somewhat wild proceedings. There’s also some excellent work from Urueta in his presentation of the Headless Rider. Of course, he’s just a man wearing a black hood, a device often employed by real-life smugglers to keep superstitious locals at bay. However, the director is careful to frame his figure against dark backdrops, which furthers the supernatural illusion.

The second episode of the trilogy, ‘The Mark of Satan/La Marca de Satanás’ (1957), followed a few months later and featured most of the same principal cast, some in different roles.

Good fun with some enjoyable moments and likely to please fans of the more outlandish Mexican cinema of the era.

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