Santo vs. the Killers from Other Worlds/Santo contra los asesinos de otros mundos (1971)

‘Careful, daughter, that is a very dangerous substance.’

A mysterious killer targets victims vital to the nation’s economy, and the head of National Security is told to bring legendary wrestling crimefighter Santo into the case. However, before he can begin his investigation, the agency’s private television network is hacked by a man claiming responsibility and demanding ten million dollars in gold bars…

After his last few movie outings battling the dark forces of the supernatural, headhunters and undead mummies, it was time for the Man in the Silver Mask to get back to fighting aliens. In a career of more than fifty films, Mexico’s most famous real-life wrestler favoured crime lords and monsters of horror more than he did extraterrestrials. However, when he jumped into the science-fiction arena, it was usually worth the price of admission. But not always for the right reasons.

National Security Chief O’Connor (Marco Antonio Campos) is not having the best of days. A wave of murders in the capital has claimed the lives of four citizens, one a John Doe, but the other victims are essential to the economic wellbeing of the country. His superiors demand that he call in Santo, whose first request is to see the autopsy reports. Campos is happy to oblige and sends secretary Sonia Fuentes to get them. Rather than stay with our two principals, the camera follows her down the corridor instead. She goes into an office and picks up the files from a table. Then she brings them all the way back again and hands them to O’Connor. She doesn’t interact with anyone on the way, and the sequence is entirely pointless. But it does add a precious 30 seconds to the running time!

However, Santo and Campos don’t have time to sit around and chat. The agency’s broadcast frequency gets hacked, and here’s the villainous Malkosh (Carlos Agostí) appearing on the TV with his demands. Ten million in gold bars, or the killings will continue. Neither Santo nor Campos goes for it, and the 24-hour deadline expires without incident. Then top scientist Dr Chamberlain (Carlos Hennings), his daughters and lab technicians are wiped out in another incident. The government decides to pay up, and the ransom is sent via cargo plane to a remote airstrip. However, Santo is hidden on board and plans to surprise the villain when the plane lands.

Santo’s cinematic adventures were never known for their high production values, but the sudden descent into the territory of the micro-budget here is genuinely terrifying. Agostí’s pet alien killer is brilliantly portrayed by some extras or crew members flailing about under a dirty tarpaulin. Yes, it looks exactly as bad as it sounds. The last time the Earth was in such peril was when students under an old carpet menaced humankind as ‘The Creeping Terror’ (1964). And the creature is front and centre from almost the first moment of the film. Director Rubén Galindo doesn’t even bother to have it lurk in the shadows, mitigate the effect of its shoddy appearance with some clever camera angles or just keep it off-screen for a while. Nope. This is it. This is our monster. Live with it.

There are some other wonderfully bonkers examples of bad movie hilarity too. The ten million dollars of gold bars are portrayed by a stack of mismatched grey boxes in the cargo plane fuselage. If we let that pass, I’m still worried about how Agostí intends to move them, given that all he has at his disposal are three minions and a family car! I hate to think what those bars will do to the suspension. Still, the vehicle is handy as Santo runs into it and gets knocked out, waking up to face Agostí seated on a golden throne! Our villain proposes a challenge instead of killing the great man when he’s unconscious. Because, of course, he does. Combat against three mighty warriors that Agostí conjures out of thin air with the push of a button. Nice tech, Agostí!

Santo defeats the first two, both musclemen armed with various gladiatorial weapons. More issues arise with the third one, though, who turns out to be a bloke in a hazmat suit wielding a flame thrower! Kudos to the great man for this scene, as the jets of flame look like they get mighty close on occasion, and I doubt health and safety were the production’s greatest priority. It’s also worth asking exactly where this combat sequence is supposed to be taking place. The ground looks like gravel and sand, and we see what appear to be stars in the night sky. However, if it’s meant to be outside, it would probably have been an idea not to have Agostí and his minions close to the painted backdrop. Big shadows thrown across the sky tend to make it look a little bit like an inside wall.

Eventually, we discover that the monster is the creation of Dr Bernstein (Carlos Suárez), whose experiments on a lunar rock sample activated dormant micro-organisms resembling soap suds. Some of the rock falls into the hands of Suárez’s right-hand man, Boris Licur (Juan Gallardo), who explains very clearly to his pretty blonde lab assistant (Patricia Borges) that the germs will reactivate if exposed to air. As soon as he leaves the room, she removes the cover for no apparent reason and turns her back on it to do some sciency stuff at a bench. Smart move! The soap suds are on the march again. We don’t see them transform into a tarp, though, which is disappointing.

There are a few other things worth mentioning. Santo works out Gallardo’s secret location from the types of shoes one of his henchmen wears. We get one of the worst’ dummy falling from a building’ effects you could wish for, and composer Chucho Zarzosa peppers the soundtrack with random electronic noises whenever he feels like it. There are also enough examples of flagrant time-wasting to earn a dozen yellow cards from a FIFA referee. Finally, there’s a scene where Santo escapes from a room filled with empty cardboard boxes that very nearly outsmart him. He repeatedly tugs at a half-open door, not realising that one of the half-squashed cartons is caught behind it. Come on, Mr Director, couldn’t you afford just one retake?

Rubén Galindo co-wrote this film and sat in the director’s seat, and it’s a little surprising to find that he had quite a long career in both roles, stretching from the early 1970s to the mid-90s. He even crossed paths with the star again, co-helming the far better ‘Santo vs the She-Wolves/Santo vs. las lobas’ (1976). On writing duty on both projects was Ramón Obón, who enjoyed an extensive association with Mexican cult cinema, beginning with Julián Soler’s portmanteau horror ‘Panic/Pánico’ (1966). Projects in a similar vein followed, some of which attracted American star John Carradine, such as ‘Diabolical Pact/Pacto diabólico’ (1969) and ‘The Death Woman/La señora Muerte’ (1969). His association with the wrestlers of Lucha libre ran in the family as his father had created the character of masked superhero La Sombra Vengadora (The Avenging Shadow) for a movie serial in 1954. This fictional persona was adopted, with a slight costume change, by real-life wrestler Rayo de Jalisco.

It’s a little sad to see Santo reduced to such a poverty-stricken effort, but its entertainment value cannot be denied. Essential viewing for fans of the great man.

Questa libertà di avere… le ali bagnate/This Freedom to have Wet Wings (1971)

‘Dialogue touches on interests at every level, from entertainment to engagement.’

A writer runs into an old girlfriend and uses the opportunity to blackmail her middle-aged lover with some compromising photographs. The trio are interrupted by a young hippie girl, who seems to promise sexual satisfaction to all, but is more interested in working on her own agenda…

Highly obscure, small-scale psychodrama from Italian writer-director Alessandro Santini that was never released outside his homeland (the English language title above is merely a literal translation of the original). Its inclusion in reference works on Giallo film are possibly based more on available plot summaries than viewing, as its credentials as a horror/murder mystery are slim at best.

Embittered, unsuccessful writer Pierre (Mark Damon) runs into old flame Miriam (Femi Benussi) by chance at a gas station. The fire still burns for her, and she invites him back to her luxury pad, which is paid for by affluent, middle-aged publisher Robin (Franco Silva). At first, he suggests they could persuade Silva to publish his novel, but instead, he opts to slip her a sleeping pill. While she’s knocked out, he paints flowers on her naked body and rings Silva to tell him that she’s seriously ill. The businessman rushes over, bringing personal physician Ariannino Markapopulos (Piero Mazzinghi). Damon ambushes Silva with his camera whilst the publisher examines Benussi’s unconscious body, and the writer threatens to use the shots for blackmail.

When Benussi recovers, she’s not too pleased by all this and goes to make coffee in the kitchen. The smell of a good brew-up attracts passing hippie Silvia (Rita Calderoni), who wanders into the house, bringing some like-minded friends who proceed to party. Doctor Mazzinghi leans into the scene a little too hard and recites passages from his book about war and peace. When they eventually leave, Calderoni remains, first setting her sights on Damon before learning that it’s Silva with the fat bank account. Jealousies and tensions run high, and the thoughts of one of the protagonists turn to murder.

Santini’s picture is very much a relic of its time, and it’s clear that the writer-director was more concerned with artistic endeavour than commercial returns. Opening with references to the ongoing national student unrest, we meet Damon’s writer, a layabout and dilettante, on the make for ready cash to fund his sharp-suit, sports car lifestyle. A chance meeting with old girlfriend Benussi, now a rich man’s long-term mistress, provides an opportunity. However, his blackmail scheme is about as well-developed as the drama that the film has to offer. The photographs he takes of Silva, and the naked Benussi are about as racy as tea and crumpets at the vicarage, and he doesn’t even have any film in his camera!

The inclusion of the hippies is also gloriously silly, with Calderoni only appearing in the story because Benussi makes a damn fine cup of coffee! These hep cats are only in the film for ten minutes anyway, and their total contribution is to indulge in some half-hearted, semi-naked writhing on the lounge carpet while Mazzinghi reads excerpts from his boo. ‘For I have found the peace microbe!’ he exclaims, looking like someone just hit him in the face with a fistful of recreational substances. It’s not precisely compelling drama, and that’s the issue with Santini’s film. It’s nearly all talk and semi-pretentious talk at that. Pretty obviously, he’s trying to make points about society, wealth, the generation gap and personal freedoms, but it’s all buried in obscure verbiage. Damon talks a lot about freedom, for example, but it’s unclear whether he is talking about spiritual freedom or financial freedom; certainly, his actions would suggest the latter.

But here’s the big question; is this really a Giallo movie? Putting labels on films is kind of redundant, but it’s undeniably convenient as a way to focus viewing habits, so let’s address the question. Any claim that the film has to that description has to be based on the last ten minutes of the running time. Damon’s blackmail scheme never goes anywhere and never looks like it will, despite its apparent position as the driving force behind the story. We’re left with the climactic scenes surrounding possible murders, which are somewhat inconclusive. The film is bookended by two scenes where a dishevelled Damon performs as a street singer. Is the entire story then simply a visualisation of his fictional song, or is he narrating the action as an extended flashback? No doubt, Santini was making another point, but it’s hard to care one way or the other.

Damon is the only bright spot in this dreary enterprise as he tries hard to bring some personality and layers to his one-note character. The rest of the cast has even less material to work with, although it’s nice to see Benussi as a blonde for a change, and she does make an impact in her scenes with Damon. Ultimately, everything is sunk by the listless screenplay, which limps on from one pointless conversation to the next, with little development and an almost complete lack of dramatic weight. As for its qualification as a Giallo, you’d have to stretch the definition pretty far to include it.

Damon is best remembered as the young hero of Roger Corman’s classic adaptation of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1960) and for a similar role in Mario Bava’s iconic ‘Black Sabbath/I tre volti della paura’ (1963). He also took the title roles in Spaghetti Westerns ‘Johnny Oro’ (1966) and ‘Johnny Yuma’ (1966) and appeared in several further examples of 1960s Italian genre cinema. In the mid-1970s, he moved behind the camera to become a producer, first securing a big success with the fantasy adventure ‘The NeverEnding Story’ (1984). An incredibly diverse slate of projects followed, including the controversial ‘9½ Weeks’ (1985), cult horror piece ‘The Lost Boys’ (1987) and ‘Monster’ (2003), which provided Charlize Theron with an Oscar. As of 2022, he has more than half a dozen projects in the post-production stage.

Giallo completists, beware! This is not likely to be your cup of blood by any stretch of the imagination.

Ursus in the Land of Fire/Ursus nella terra di fuoco (1963)

‘Do you believe an animal can rule human beings?’

An uneasy standoff exists on the borders of an ancient kingdom, with a tribe of shepherds under constant threat from soldiers of the King. A plot makes it seem that the peaceful settlers attempted to kidnap the King’s daughter, so the Princess is sent out as bait to trap their unwary leader…

The sixth film in the loosely connected series based around the exploits of muscleman Ursus. His literary origin, rather than biblical or mythological, allowed him to be conveniently placed in any ‘ancient world’ scenario that producers chose. Here, he turns up in the usual vague location and time period. American actor Ed Fury makes his last of three appearances in the role, finding himself with a brand new cast and director Giorgio Simonelli.

Princess Diana (Luciana Gilli) is out for her usual morning ride along the border of her father’s kingdom when a rattlesnake spooks her horse. Her unconscious body is thrown into a river, but she’s fished out by Ursus (Fury). He’s the leader of the shepherds who live across the water in the neighbouring lands. The big man hands her over to General Hamilkar (Adriano Micantoni) and her cousin Mila (Claudia Mori), who witnessed the incident but did nothing to help. Back at court, Micantoni convinces doddering King Diego Pozzetto that Fury’s rescue was an attempted kidnapping and that it’s time to deal with the shepherds once and for all. Persuading the reluctant Gilli to act as a lure, his soldiers pursue Fury to a nearby volcanic region where a landslide buries him within the side of a mountain.

Expecting praise from the King when he returns to court, Micantoni finds instead that he’s in deep trouble. Not only is the Land of Fire taboo, but his troops killed the holy man who tried to prevent their sacrilege. Pozzetto turns the General over to High Priest Lotar (Nando Tamberlani), who pronounces a sentence of death. However, the verdict is carried out on the priests instead, with only Tamberlani escaping via a secret passage from the temple. Realising he has nothing left to lose, Micantoni kills the King and assumes the throne, believing Princess Gilli slain trying to escape.

Micantoni tries to spin events in a positive light, but, of course, the populace isn’t happy. Mori suggests a tournament to distract them but, by now, Fury has dug himself out. Gilli isn’t dead after all (surprise, surprise) and links up with Fury. It’s only now we find out that the two grew up together and that she’s always had a thing for him, which makes her lack of belief in him at the beginning of the story somewhat hard to swallow. In the best ‘Robin Hood’ tradition, they go to the tournament in disguise, and Fury’s attitude lands him a gig fighting five of the kingdom’s most formidable warriors. Triumphant, he’s still thrown in the dungeon, and Micantoni decides to kill off Mori and marry Gilli to legitimise his reign.

Fury’s first two outings as Ursus may not have boasted a great deal of creativity in the story department, but they did manage to sidestep the more well-worn clichés of the genre. Unfortunately, that’s not the case here. Perhaps aware of the predictability of developments, director Simonelli leans more into the violence of the tale. Although there’s nothing too graphic, warriors do plunge into the inevitable pit of spikes at the tournament, and Mori takes a whip to Gilli in the dungeon. Something she seems to enjoy far too much.

The actors who brought their talents to Fury’s two previous appearances in the role (albeit as different characters) do not return for this third round, and their replacements are definitely off the substitute’s bench. Mori fares best, but then the ‘evil queen’ in Peplum is usually the part with the greatest opportunity to shine. Unfortunately, the script does not provide her with the chance to turn Fury to the dark side, although it’s heavily implied that she’s more than willing to try. However, one tired development that is present and correct is Fury getting chained to ‘The Big Wheel’ with the other slaves. Some mention is made of a gristmill, though, so perhaps it’s actually connected to something on this occasion.

Fury was born in Long Island and travelled to Los Angeles in his early twenties to compete in bodybuilding contests. His screen career began with a string of uncredited appearances over a decade before he finally got billed for a small appearance in Universal ‘B’ Western ‘Raw Edge’ (1956). There was a more significant role in the bad movie classic ‘The Wild Women of Wongo’ (1958), but, perhaps figuring he was not on the fast track to success, he followed in the footsteps of compatriot Steve Reeves to Italy. It was an intelligent move, his impressive physique resulting in second-billing to Australian actor Rod Taylor in comedy ‘Colossus and the Amazon Queen/La regina delle Amazzoni/ Queen of the Amazons’ (1960). He was then cast for the first of his three turns as Ursus and a couple of other Peplum roles. As the craze for musclemen ran out of steam in the middle of the decade, Fury returned to America and played bits on Network TV shows such as ‘Star Trek’, ‘Mission: Impossible’ and ‘Columbo’, his last small screen appearance being on a 1979 episode of the original ‘Fantasy Island’. Seventeen years later, he came out of retirement to play a character called ‘Ur-So’ in Donald F Glut’s poorly received comedy ‘Dinosaur Valley Girls’ (1996).

A workmanlike Peplum but a step down from previous entries in the series.

El Vampiros Sangriento/The Bloody Vampire (1961)

‘Ah, and a bit of Venus’ navelwort, so they have good dreams.’

Count Cagliostro studies vampires in secret, always searching for the family of Frankenhausen, whose bloodline is cursed with the taint of the undead. Meanwhile, the housemaids of a neighbouring Count are prone to sudden disappearances…

After Abel Salazar’s ‘El Vampiro’ (1957) was a runaway success, Mexican film producers hurried to embrace the supernatural, particularly stories involving the undead. Few of the wave of vampire movies that followed strayed far from the 1931 Lugosi template, which Salazar had adopted, but occasionally some new flourishes and ideas emerged.

Meet Count Valsamo de Cagliostro (Antonio Raxel), a descendant of the original occult scientist whose fame spread throughout the royal courts of Europe in the 18th Century. Although history doesn’t record his run-in’s with the undead, it was a large part of his work, particularly after his second wife was burned at the stake after an encounter with the notorious ‘Vampire of the Moon’. Raxel has dedicated his life to tracking down this creature, establishing that vampirism is a curse passed down to each first-born son of the House of Frankenhausen. Aiding him in his quest are his own ‘Scooby Gang’; daughter Inez (Begoña Palacios), her betrothed, Dr Riccardo Peisser (Raúl Farell) and chamberlain, Justus (Pancho Córdovam, here billed as Francisco A. Cordova).

One of their near neighbours is Count Siegfried von Frankenhausen (Carlos Agostí). He has kept his invalid wife, Countess Eugenia (Erna Martha Bauman), locked up in the house since their marriage and return from the country, leaving daughter Brunhilda behind to be raised by her grandfather. But getting good help seems to be their main problem as housekeeper Frau Hildegarde (Bertha Moss) spends most of her time procuring new housemaids from tavern owner Lupe (Lupe Carriles). The only qualifications they need to possess are good looks and no close family ties. No red flags there, then.

Coincidentally, it turns out that Córdovam’s best drinking buddy is Lazaro (Enrique Lucero), the personal servant of Countess Bauman. When she has a funny turn one night, he fetches Doc Farell, and the gang realise that Agostí just might be the vampire that Raxel’s been looking for all these years. Unfortunately, the occultist is off on a trip somewhere, so they decide to investigate themselves. Fortunately, Córdovam and Lucero drink in Carriles’ bar (it’s a small world!), and it’s an easy job to get Palacios installed as the Frankenhausen’s new housemaid.

Writer-director Miguel Morayta was a veteran filmmaker with no prior credits in the horror genre. However, he does bring some new ideas to the table. There are two kinds of vampires; the ‘living’ and the ‘dead.’ Agostí is an example of the ‘living’ kind, active and feeding. The ‘dead’ are his victims, laying in their graves in a cataleptic state, rising only when their progenitor is despatched. This is an interesting concept if a little awkward. Despite having less than a handful of vampire brides, Agostí talks of wiping out humanity with his army of bloodsuckers. Yes, I guess everyone has to start somewhere, but given that his followers can only take up arms once he’s been finally staked, it seems strange that he’s so enthusiastic about the idea.

Raxel also advocates a scientific approach in eliminating the waiting dead. According to his research, their blood contains a substance called Vampirina that destroys red blood cells, which need to be replenished for the creature to survive. This substance can be eradicated with Boric Acid, made from the roots of the black Mandrake. This notion is a neat tie-in to folk myths about the plant, addressed in the film’s opening sequence when the Scooby Gang harvest the roots from the ground beneath a hanged man. None of this informs the main action in any significant way, but it’s nice to see such attention to detail in the script and an effort to put a new spin on such familiar lore.

What drags the film down is the second act when Palacios goes undercover in the Frankenhausen household. The gang spend an awful lot of time trying to establish Agostí’s bloodsucking credentials. This is a problem because the audience knows he’s the vampire from the get-go, and it’s not that exciting waiting for our heroes to catch up. Also, it’s so blindingly obvious! Bauman as good as tells them so, but Farell prefers to entertain Agostí’s contention that his wife is mad. And just how many ‘Frankenhausen’ families are there in Mexico? Is the name the country’s equivalent of ‘Smith’ or ‘Jones’ then?

Morayta excels when sowing the seeds for the sequel ‘La Invasion de los Vampiros/The Invasion of the Vampires (1962), providing just the right amount of information, so it’s not clumsy or obvious, but pays off in the next film. There’s also good cinematography from Raúl Martínez Solares, which helps mount an impressive introduction to our supernatural antagonist. While on their expedition to collect the roots, our heroes are interrupted by the passage of Agostí’s horse-drawn coach. The vehicle passes in slow-motion and silence; not an original idea by any means, but stylishly handled, and Morayta doesn’t make the mistake of returning to the device again and again. There’s also an unusual soundtrack from Luis Hernández Bretón, who mixes discordant music with passages of choral singing to produce an unsettling effect.

Morayta began his directorial career in the 1940s but hit his stride with the social commentary of ‘Vagabunda/Tramp’ (1950) and biblical epic ‘El mártir del Calvario’ (1952). Work in many other genres followed, such as comedy, romance, adventure and musicals before entering the horror arena. Later on, he delivered the memorable escapades of ‘Dr. Satán’ (1966) and horror-comedy ‘Capulina contra los monstruos’ (1974) featuring the popular Mexican comedian. He left the industry in the late 1970s and died in 2013 at the age of 105.

While it may observe genre conventions pretty faithfully, moments of invention and professionalism make this offering a definite cut above many of its contemporaries.

Killers Are Challenged/A 077, sfida ai killers/Bob Fleming: Mission Casablanca (1966)

‘I’ve been kissed better by my Dachshund.’

Three international scientists have been collaborating on a new energy source that will make fossil fuels redundant. Two of them are murdered, and the third decides on plastic surgery to hide his identity. The CIA assign their best agent to take him into protective custody, but his mission becomes complicated when enemy agents target the scientist’s wife…

Frustrating spy-jinks from director Antonio Margheriti in a French-Italian co-production that stars US actor Richard Harrison as this week’s ‘Bond on a Budget.’ It’s a sequel of sorts to ‘Secret Agent Fireball’ (1965), with Harrison reprising the role of operative Bob Fleming, this time on the loose in Casablanca and tangling with the usual mixture of guns, gorgeous girls, and low-budget gadgets.

Inventing a new energy source for the benefit of humanity is fine in theory, but scientists Maxwell and Boroloff soon discover the drawbacks when they are rubbed out. Remaining partner Coleman (Marcel Charvey) disappears, booking himself a session with a plastic surgeon to change his face. The CIA get wind of his location and send top agent Bob Fleming (Harrison) to bring him in. After some reluctance on Charvey’s part, Harrison succeeds in having him delivered to Geneva economy-class via some knock-out drops and a coffin. However, hostile forces are closing in on the egghead’s estranged wife, Terry (Wandisa Guida).

Of course, Harrison gets the job of protecting Guida, but it’s far from an easy gig. Wheelchair-bound oil magnate Tommy Sturges (Aldo Cecconi) will pay anything to have the discovery suppressed and has hired a criminal gang to do the job. Harrison goes on the offensive by romancing their beautiful but fairly hopeless operative Moira (Mitsouko), whose heart isn’t really in her work anyway. She soon incurs the displeasure of handler Halima (Janine Reynaud) and the unseen boss of the outfit. Several attempts are made on Harrison’s life, and he finds himself indebted to the mysterious and sexy Velka (Susy Andersen), who seems to have a knack for turning up just at the right moment.

In terms of plot and execution, this is pretty much your standard Bond riff of the day; scientists in the crosshairs, an invention of global consequence, a series of captures, escapes, fights and gunplay. However, Margheriti’s film does have some interesting elements, especially considering the Italian connection. Not always noted for their national cinema’s favourable presentation of women, here it’s the fairer sex in the ascendancy, albeit not too overtly. Although Harrison is the nominal lead and displays the usual smug arrogance of the alpha male secret agent abroad, he’s often shown as less than capable as the sexy Andersen, who saves his life more than once and out-manoeuvres him at every turn. He’s also very slow to tumble to the identity of the head of the gang, who are almost entirely women. Of course, they bring in men for the strongarm stuff, and oilman Cecconi provides the bankroll, but otherwise, it’s the girls in charge.

Having the men mainly reduced to delivering the physical aspects of the film works well here because Margheriti knows how to shoot action. The fight scenes are athletic and surprisingly violent, with Harrison and his various opponents performing well. The film’s highlight is an extended barroom brawl that displays the director’s familiarity with classic-era Hollywood Westerns. There’s a wonderfully humorous slant to all the mayhem, which is echoed in knowing moments elsewhere in the film. This includes the inexplicable presence of an English taxi driver who ferries Harrison around and thwarts the bad guys with a car horn that shoots jets of foam! Unfortunately, these comedic moments are too few and far between, with most other events coming across as serious, even rather downbeat on occasion. Because Margheriti doesn’t commit more to the comedy, it creates a tonal clash that can make things feel disjointed.

This is even more unfortunate because it’s plain that Andersen really gets the humour, giving the audience a playful, knowing femme fatale who thoroughly enjoys her work. There’s a natural sexual chemistry in her scenes with Harrison too, who plays the lover with other women elsewhere in the film but never with such conviction. The remainder of the cast fade into the background somewhat, although Guida scores as the ice-cold Terry. A bigger budget would undoubtedly have helped as the stunt work is mainly limited to dummies diving from high places and an empty car falling into the harbour at the climax. Gadgets are also in short supply, restricted to various bugging devices and a bomb hidden in a cigarette lighter.

The fact that the finished product is a cut above most of the spy shenanigans emerging from Europe in the wake of ‘Goldfinger’ (1964) is probably down to the team of Margheriti and scriptwriter Ernesto Gastaldi. Margheriti was a veteran of genre cinema whose solo debut in the director’s chair was science-fiction adventure ‘Assignment: Outer Space’ (1960). He worked extensively in horror, Giallo, Peplum and Spaghetti Westerns, also delivering another Eurospy, the disappointing ‘Lightning Bolt/Operazione Goldman’ (1966). His films are sometimes cheesy, often uneven, but almost always entertaining in some way.

Gastaldi is celebrated as one of the foremost screenwriters of the Giallo, with premium entries such as ‘So Sweet…So Perverse/Così dolce… così perversa’ (1969), ‘The Strange Vice of Mrs Wardh/Lo strano vizio della signora Wardh’ (1971), ‘All the Colors of the Dark/Tutti i colori del buio’ (1972) and ‘Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key/Il tuo vizio è una stanza chiusa e solo io ne ho la chiave’ (1974). He also directed his own classic example, the unfairly overlooked ‘Libido’ (1965). Like Margheriti, he worked in many other commercial genres, including science-fiction with ‘The Tenth Victim/La decima vittima’ (1965) and the Spaghetti Western with ‘I Am Sartana, Your Angel of Death/Sono Sartana, il vostro becchino’ (1969). There were also Peplum projects such as ‘Perseus Against the Monsters/Perseo l’invincibile’ (1963) and horror for the likes of iconic director Mario Bava with ‘The Whip and the Body/La frusta e il corpo’ (1963).

Andersen had a surprisingly brief career given her excellence here, debuting as Suzy Golgi in ‘The Warrior Empress/Saffo – Venere di Lesbo’ (1960). A role in the ‘I Wurdalak’ segment of Mario Bava’s classic portmanteau horror ‘Black Sabbath/I tre volti della paura’ (1963) was followed by four releases in 1964 which was her busiest year by far. After this excursion into the Eurospy arena, she made only four more films, finishing her screen career opposite Klaus Kinski in crime drama ‘Gangster’s Law/La legge dei gangsters’ (1969).

One of the better examples of the Eurospy, although more concentration on the comedic aspects would have helped elevate it further.

The Devil’s Mask (1946)

‘If that date of yours turns out to be an Indian with her head missing, let me know, will ya?’

A shrunken head turns up in the wreckage of a crashed airliner. The famous explorer who donated similar artefacts to the city museum has been presumed dead for months after disappearing in the jungle. His wife hires two private detectives as she feels her life is in danger. Almost at once, an assassin with a blowgun begins a killing spree…

Before the advent of television in the 1950s, the premier source of home entertainment was radio, and dramas that combined crime, thrills and chills, were some of the most popular. ‘I Love A Mystery’ ran from 1940 to 1944 initially and was successful enough to be adapted into a short series of three films from Columbia studios, all directed by Henry Levin.

Airline official E.R. Willard (Edward Earle) has a lot to cope with after one of his company’s commercial stock footage flights crashes with no survivors. A headache he doesn’t need is the unclaimed freight and luggage from the burnt-out wreckage, especially when one box contains a shrunken head. This strange article was on its way back to South America, where it came from, but there’s no paperwork to confirm the sender or its exact destination. Earle calls in Detective Captain Quinn (Thomas E. Jackson) to take charge of the article, but he’s unsure what to do with it.

In the absence of a better idea, the policeman offloads the head on Raymond Halliday (Richard Hale), the curator of the city museum. It makes sense as the establishment has a display of shrunken heads already. These were donated by famous explorer and big game hunter Gordon R. Mitchell (Frank Mayo), who is presumed dead after vanishing on his last expedition. While making this gruesome delivery, Jackson runs across two old friends; private eyes, Jack Packard (Jim Bannon) and Doc Long (Barton Yarborough). The client they are waiting for turns out to be Mayo’s wife, Louise Mitchell (Mona Barrie), who feels threatened by some mysterious, intangible presence. Part of her problem is that stepdaughter Janet (Anita Louise) believes that she murdered Mayo with the assistance of the explorer’s assistant, Prof. Arthur Logan (Frank Wilcox).

Accepting the case, Bannon and Yarborough are immediately suspicious of young Louise’s boyfriend, Rex Kennedy (Michael Duane). He has a questionable personal history and keeps busy following Barrie around. When she and Wilcox arrange a slideshow of their last safari for the detectives’ benefit, the house party is attacked with a blowgun. The assailant escapes through the garden, killing butler John (John Elliott) along the way with a poison dart. Louise begins to believe that the culprit is her father, especially after Duane takes her to see quack psychiatrist Dr Karger (Ludwig Donath). When Bannon and Yarborough expose the medical man as a fraud, she turns to her father’s old colleague Leon Hartman (Paul E. Burns) as the private eyes build a case against Duane.

The unparalleled success of Val Lewton’s ‘B’ picture horror unit at RKO Pictures made other studios sit up and take notice. Several were already showcasing monsters in the mould of Universal’s classic creatures, but Lewton and his associates were ringing the box office bell with a different approach. Significantly for the minor studios, their brand of subtle, unseen terrors could be delivered at a minimal cost. Popular radio shows already had name recognition, so they were an obvious choice for big-screen adaptation in the Lewton manner. As well as ‘I Love A Mystery’, Columbia chose to produce a series of films based on ‘The Whistler’ show, and Universal also tried their hand with the ‘Inner Sanctum’ imprint.

The first film in the series, ‘I Love A Mystery’ (1945), had soft-pedalled any significant supernatural or unusual elements and, as a result, had bordered on the banal. Perhaps that’s why this follow-up film is far more blatant with its Lewton references. The screenplay, by Charles O’Neal, attempts to mix elements of ‘Cat People’ (1942) and ‘The Leopard Man’ (1943) with a whodunnit mystery and, for the most part, is quite successful. That’s hardly a surprise when you realise that O’Neal penned the screenplay for Lewton’s tale of suicide and devil worship in modern-day New York, ‘The Seventh Victim’ (1943).

None of the story’s events has anything to do with the real world, of course, but director Levin conjures the same ‘fairytale’ atmosphere that permeates the Universal horror cycle to help the suspension of disbelief. The action takes place in a series of stylised, shadowy interiors such as the museum and Burns’ taxidermy workshop, where he keeps a live leopard in a cage! The pace helps paper over some of the more egregious contrivances in the story, and the cinematography of Henry Freulich adds a delicious Noir feel to the visuals.

Unfortunately, any chance of serious cult status is derailed by our leading men. Both Bannon and Yarborough had played their parts on the radio show but are far less effective here. Bannon, in particular, is decidedly robotic, his monotone line delivery making his successful radio career perhaps the biggest mystery of all! Yarborough does a little better, but O’Neal’s script gives his character little to do apart from delivering a succession of half-baked wisecracks. Performances elsewhere are fine, but the lack of a charismatic focus can’t have helped the series’ prospects. Only one other film in the series followed, ‘The Unknown’ (1947), while rivals’ The Whistler’ and ‘Inner Sanctum went close to double figures each.

Bannon is best remembered today as the last actor to play cowboy ‘Red Ryder’ in a series of independent low-budget Westerns. He also played in the unusual subterranean science-fiction adventure ‘Unknown World’ (1951). Afterwards, he made the successful transition to television, where he racked up dozens of credits as a guest star on popular Network shows and took recurring roles on programmes like ‘Champion the Wonder Horse’ and ‘Casey Jones’. Yarborough continued into the early 1950s in primarily uncredited roles and can also be seen briefly as the ill-fated Dr Kettering in Universal’s ‘The Ghost of Frankenstein’ (1942).

Director Levin never really fulfilled the promise he shows here but rose sufficiently in the studio hierarchy to helm ‘Jolson Sings Again’ (1949), the sequel to Columbia’s smash-hit ‘The Jolson Story’ (1946). Subsequent assignments included entertaining prison thriller ‘Convicted’ (1951) with Glenn Ford and Broderick Crawford, so-so Noir ‘Two of a Kind’ (1956) with Edmond O’Brien and Lizabeth Scott, and hit fantasy epic ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ (1959). The 1960s brought fun Eurospy ‘Kiss the Girls and Make Them Die’ (1966) and a couple of the Matt Helm superspy series starring Dean Martin. He finished his career on television, directing episodes of the US network soap opera ‘Knot’s Landing.’

Highly enjoyable, brisk ‘B’ movie entertainment, but with some reservations.

The Price of Death/Il venditore di morte (1971)

‘You’d have to be a millipede to satisfy everybody.’

The saloon in Appleby is held up by three masked men on the same night as a young Mexican woman is brutally stabbed to death. Only one of the gang escapes the botched heist with his life. The blame falls on a local troublemaker, who is found guilty after trial and sentenced to hang. His lawyer hires a notorious gunman to help prove his client’s innocence…

Unusual attempt to spoof the Spaghetti Western from writer-director Lorenzo Gicca Palli, who throws significant elements of the Giallo thriller into his offbeat mixture. Genre stalwarts Gianni Garko and Klaus Kinski are along for the ride in this Italian production filmed at the Elios Studios in Rome.

It’s a busy night in the one-horse town of Appleby. Pretty young Carmen Morales (Franca De Stratis) is home alone making supper when she’s attacked and murdered by an unknown assailant. Over on main street, fun times at the saloon are on hold when three masked men burst in with guns demanding the evening’s proceeds. It looks like a bloodless heist until one of the patrons comes downstairs unexpectedly, and the bullets start to fly. Two of the gang are shot dead in the street outside by arriving Sheriff Tom Stanton (Luciano Catenacci), but the third escapes. The finger points toward local bad boy Chester Conway (Klaus Kinski), and in no time at all, he’s up before Judge Atwell (Alfredo Rizzo) and a jury of his peers. Convicted after a show trial, he is sentenced to hang.

Convinced of Kinski’s innocence, defence lawyer Jeff Plummer (Franco Abbina) hires old friend Mr Silver (Gianni Garko) to investigate and find the real culprit. The parents of the murdered girl have already retained his services as that crime has seemingly gone unnoticed by the official forces of law and order. From the start, Garko faces anger and resentment from the townsfolk and no co-operation from Catenacci. Everyone seems convinced of Kinski’s guilt, from sawbones Doc Rosencrantz (Luciano Pigozzi) to churchman Reverend Tiller (Giancarlo Prete), from fire and brimstone reformer Mrs Randall (Laura Gianoli) to her husband, Banker Randall (Luigi Casellato). The one person willing to help is saloon owner Polly Winters (Mimma Biscardi), and that’s only because she’s Kinski’s ex-lover and wants to hang him herself!

For a modern audience, this is an oddball film that never achieves a consistent tone with either its drama or its comedy. The opening murder is lifted straight out of the Giallo playbook, being shown almost exclusively from the killer’s point of view. We get hands clutching at De Stratis’ throat, her agonised, screaming face and her unsuccessful defence with a kitchen knife. Likewise, the heist and its gunplay are played as a straight action sequence.

Things start getting seriously weird at Kinski’s trial, which is presented as a farce. Blowhard defence attorney Abbina is constantly interrupted by the Prosecutor (Andrea Scotti), and Judge Rizzo repeatedly fines Abbina for protesting about it. Witness Biscardi gives her testimony dressed in a yellow trouser suit and big hair, looking like she stepped into a 1970s boutique on her way to the courtroom! All this is somewhat baffling to a modern audience. It’s a satirical dig at the judicial system, obviously, but it’s remorselessly heavy-handed, and there’s a suspicion that some of the humour may have been inspired by real-life events of its time. Whatever the intention, it comes right out of left-field after the serious opening.

Garko’s investigations lead to the exposure of further smalltown hypocrisy; everyone is sleeping with everyone else, and those that shout loudest for high moral values are the most guilty of sin. Uptight harpy Gianoli is bankrolling Biscardi’s bordello/saloon on the quiet because they are secretly sisters. The diary of the call girl killed in the robbery prompts a bidding frenzy amongst the town’s leading citizens when it’s publicly auctioned by Sheriff Catenacci. It’s highly probable that the writer-director had an axe to grind when it came to figures in authority, both those in the political arena and self-appointed guardians of public morals.

There’s some good potential for sly comedy here, but it’s so broad, overdone, and relentless that it quickly loses its impact. However, it’s only fair to reiterate that some of the satirical barbs may have been lost to the passage of time and the film’s journey across international boundaries. One example is when Garko’s mission takes him out of town to a gold mining camp where he rescues a man from a lengthy comedy beating. Who is he, and what is his function in the story? The audience never finds out because he is shot dead less than a minute after Garko gets him back to town, and he’s never mentioned again.

That’s not to say there are not some enjoyable moments here, just that they never coalesce into a coherent whole. It seems as if there may have been an intention at some stage to present a freewheeling satire of movie tropes and conventions of all kinds, but the finished product only hints at this possibility. When we first meet Garko’s Mr Silver, he is hanging out with two bikini-clad lovelies, and a cool drink in a tall glass in the same way James Bond might wait for the inevitable call to duty. He even works out with an uncredited Japanese martial artist who repeatedly throws him to the mat before a frustrated Garko lays him out with a straight right to the jaw. Again, none of this goes anywhere or comes up again in the rest of the film. Of course, this scattershot approach to comedy can work, but not when other parts of the story play as straightforward drama.

Fortunately, the principal cast keeps things watchable, and Gicca Palli doesn’t allow a lot of time to ponder the many unresolved plot threads and general incoherence. Garko and Kinski were veterans of the Old West by this time, and both give reliably charismatic performances. However, Kinski enthusiasts may be disappointed by his role, as he spends almost his entire screentime ranting and raving in his jail cell. Similarly, Giallo fans are likely to find slim pickings here. Yes, there’s a string of murders committed by a hooded killer whose identity is revealed at the climax, but this part of the plot often feels strangely incidental.

The handsome Garko had been appearing on the Italian screen for almost a decade before his big break arrived with a leading role as Sartana Liston in Spaghetti Western ‘Blood at Sundown/1000 dollari sul nero’ (1966). The character name stuck, and his starring role in ‘If You Meet Sartana… Pray for Your Death/Se incontri Sartana prega per la tua morte’ (1968) led to his leading three of the subsequent films in the series. By then, he had also played gunslinger Django and, later on, he made a one-off showing as supernatural gunman Holy Ghost in ‘Uomo avvisato mezzo ammazzato… Parola di Spirito Santo’ (1972), a character usually portrayed by Vassili Karis. In later years, as the genre declined, he moved increasingly to television, including an unlikely guest appearance in Gerry Anderson’s science-fiction series ‘Space: 1999’. Although his big-screen credits became more occasional, there were still leading roles in hamfisted space opera ‘Star Odyssey’ (1979), Bermuda Triangle close ‘Encounters in the Deep’ (1979) and opposite Lou Ferrigno in Luigi Cozzi’s wonderfully trashy ‘Hercules’ (1983).

A satirical mash-up between Spaghetti Western and Giallo presents possibilities, but what emerges is an unbalanced, unsatisfying experience.

Madness – Gli Occhi Della Luna (1971)

‘You are a vulgar woman. I am leaving, and I hope I never see you again.’

Three patients escape from a psychiatric facility, and one of them strangles a prostitute. As the authorities throw out a dragnet, the murderer holes up in a luxury villa on the outskirts of town. It’s unoccupied, but the owner has planned a weekend house party for a large group of her friends…

Woeful, micro-budgeted Giallo that was not released outside Italy. Thought lost for many years, a beaten-up copy surfaced in 2007 at a film library in Bologna. Production information is scarce, but it remains the only film credited to director Cesare Rau.

Incarceration in a secure hospital unit doesn’t sit well with handsome, thirty-something Paolo Lupi (Thomas Hunter). Persuading fellow patients Arnaldo Catani (Paul Sheriff) and Vincenzo Morgia (Pietro Zardini) to breakout, the trio overpower an orderly and head for the street. Meanwhile, alpha male Valerio (Guido Mannari) picks up foreign blonde Eveline (Merlene Mayer) at a rock club when he’s there with friends. She might not be able to speak a word of Italian, but she sure likes to dance! The group head out to a late-night house party, deciding to rendezvous at the remote villa owned by Francesca (Francesca Romana Coluzzi) over the coming weekend.

Meanwhile, the escape from the institute has gone according to plan, but Hunter is keen to free himself of his middle-aged companions and goes it alone. Zardini is eventually recaptured while taking a siesta on a park bench, and Sheriif gets run down by a police car. After rough sex with a prostitute (Ada Pometti) turns violent, Hunter picks up another woman on the street who takes him back to her apartment. He strangles her when she initiates sex, taking refuge afterwards in Coluzzi’s villa. When the group arrive for their weekend fun, he’s hiding in an upstairs room. The cool cats hang out, groove to funky music and bicker while the killer steals food from the kitchen. Then blowhard Lou (Benjamin Lev) brings out the sugar cubes, and the group drop acid. The following day, Coluzzi finds dancing diva Mayer has been strangled.

This is an underdeveloped doodle of a project that bears some signs of being a compromised production. Despite a brief 79-minute running length, there’s more than one inconsequential scene of chit-chat which leads nowhere. These scenes might have been intended as character development, of course, but it’s unlikely in a film where the protagonists are so poorly introduced that we don’t even learn most of their names. More probable is that the film ran out of money and all the available footage needed to be included in the final cut, whether relevant or not.

Supporting the notion of an incomplete film is the inclusion of several scenes with journalists Fausto Valerio and Gianni Milito. They discuss the ongoing situation with the escaped patients and the status of the police manhunt. The room where they sit is empty save for a desk, telephone and a map on the wall. They take no other part in the action and never interact with other cast members. It’s a familiar device for boosting an unfinished film to feature-length. There’s also a lot of early footage of the club scenes, with house band Capsicum Red belting out their song ‘She’s A Stranger’, which reappears on the soundtrack with depressing regularity at various points in the story via radio and cassette player. Murder victim Mayer dances almost her entire part in the film!

Information about the film being scarce has led some sources to suggest that director Cesare Rau was merely a pseudonym for co-writer, cinematographer and production manager Alfredo Lupo. Rau has limited other credits, and one of these is linked to Lupo. It’s also been reported that Germana Di Renzo, who co-authored the screenplay with Lupo, was married to the director. However, other sources suggest that the two were not the same man.

Similarly, commentators who have not seen the film suggest that our young party animals are all hippies, but that’s not the case. Yes, they drop acid, but it only results in the most lacklustre orgy ever committed to film. These kids dress sharp, drive sports cars and own property. They are the children of privilege, and all that interests them is getting a few kicks, not expanding their minds or taking on the system. The music they groove to has more in common with FM-Radio rock than the counterculture stylings of bands like the Grateful Dead or Iron Butterfly.

Most of the cast don’t have a lot of other credits and some have none at all, but there are a couple of exceptions. Lev appeared in just over a dozen films in a 9-year career, notably with a bit in Sergio Sollima’s ‘Violent City/Città violenta’ (1970), where he shared a prison cell with Charles Bronson. There was a more substantial role in Mario Caiano’s Giallo ‘Eye in the Labyrinth/L’occhio nel labirinto’ (1972).

Hunter’s first featured role, and only his second big-screen appearance, was as the lead of Spaghetti Western ‘The Hills Run Red/Un fiume di dollari’ (1966), which co-starred Hollywood veterans Dan Duryea and Henry Silva. After this auspicious beginning, he topped the cast lists of several war pictures and other Westerns. However, by the early 1970s, he was appearing in films such as Freddie Francis’ ‘The Vampire Happening/Gebissen wird nur nachts – das Happening der Vampire’ (1971). As the acting roles diminished, he switched to the typewriter. Co-writing credits followed for Edward Dmytryk’s revenge thriller ‘The ‘Human’ Factor’ (1975) and science fiction picture ‘The Final Countdown’ (1980), which starred a time-travelling Kirk Douglas.

All told, a pretty wretched enterprise, with little to recommend it.

Frankenstein (1910)

‘I shall create into life the most perfect human being that the world has yet known.’

Two years after leaving for college, scientist Frankenstein is ready to embark on his daring experiment to create life. Although he is successful, his creation has the appearance of a monster. The academic flees, returning to his home town where he plans to marry his fiancée Elizabeth. However, the creature is not far behind…

The first cinematic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s famous novel, this 12-minute silent picture was produced by the Thomas Edison Company in New York. Director J Searle Dawley also wrote the screenplay, which is presented on a small number of sets with a minimal cast, but still manages to make its’ mark over a century later.

Academic Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) departs from home to travel to college, leaving his intended bride Elizabeth (Mary Fuller). Two years pass before the night when he is finally ready to conduct his ambitious experiment: the creation of life. The intention is to create beauty and perfection, but the results are far from it. Phillips is repelled by the monster (Charles Ogle) when it enters his bedchamber and escapes the city to return home. He tries to bury his memories and marry Fuller, but Ogle’s creature is not so easily dismissed.

Obviously, the film’s place in the history of horror, and cinema itself, is impossible to deny. It’s the first baby steps of a genuine cultural phenomenon that has encompassed hundreds of movies, television shows, stage adaptations, comic books, further literary adaptations and appearances in every conceivable corner and medium of the entertainment world. The themes and incidents of the story have also been the inspiration and basis of more rip-offs, homages and knowing references than perhaps any other character in literary history. The mad or misguided scientist was born with Frankenstein.

That’s a heavy legacy for any first film to shoulder, especially one of a vintage of more than 100 years. The surprise is that it holds up so well within that limitation. Credit here must go to writer-director Dawley, particularly for his screenplay. Boiling down a novel of almost 75,000 words into just 12 minutes of screentime is no laughing matter, but he sensibly distils the action into three swift acts: the setup, the creation and rejection of the creature and the wrap-up at Frankenstein’s home. It’s an elementary summary of the tale, but it’s not as if Dawley had much wiggle room, given the short runtime. More significantly, he does come up with a couple of nice, creative touches which are pretty original.

The most immediately striking element of Dawley’s film is the creation sequence. Rather than having the creature assembled from various spare parts looted from local boneyards, this monster is grown inside a cauldron. During the process, the creature rapidly takes on muscle, bulk and form, added during frequent cutaways to the watching Phillips. This is very different from the usual approach where the scientist endows the life force into an inanimate body via various fizzing electrical devices or a convenient lightning storm. The approach may have been due to the limitations of what Dawley had to work with, but it’s undeniably a little gruesome and quite effective if you make allowances. It also serves as a vague precursor to the kind of body horror that is a staple of the genre today.

The other interesting spin on the material is foreshadowed by one of the intertitles before the creation sequence, which states: ‘Instead of a perfect being, the evil in Frankenstein’s mind creates a monster.’ This statement suggests a much closer link between man and monster than the mere application of electric current. Publicity material issued at the time presented a very literal reading of the following events. These culminate when Ogle literally vanishes into thin air because ‘The creation of an evil mind is overcome by love and disappears’. To modern eyes, this suggests that the monster represents his creator’s twisted psyche, that it’s birthed and sustained by his unhealthy obsession with forbidden knowledge. After all, one of the film’s final shots has the creature only visible in a mirror as his creator’s reflection. There is nothing shown of any scientific method because Frankenstein is literally ‘playing god’, creating a man in his own image, which proves to be far from divine. He is trespassing on the Lord’s domain, but, unlike the ‘hero’ of Shelley’s novel, he faces no real consequences for his hubris.

Of course, Dawley’s film has all the limitations of cinema produced in its era. The acting is over-demonstrative for the most part, and the camera remains fixed in one place in a single shot for each scene. However, Ogle does attempt to infuse his creature with some pathos, and his clutching hands do recall the pathetic gestures employed by Boris Karloff in his iconic portrayal. Also, it’s tempting to believe that ‘mirror shot’ may have inspired German writer-director Paul Wegener’s landmark horror entry ‘The Student of Prague/Der Student von Prag’ (1913), produced just a couple of years later. After all, the creature’s status as the scientist’s doppelganger or Mr Hyde to his Dr Jekyll is heavily implied.

The film was thought lost for many decades, but a print was preserved by a Wisconsin film collector. Although acquired in the 1950s, it was only 20 years later when he realised its extreme rarity and the film was restored and preserved for all time. Generally, the output of the Edison Studios is not highly regarded, but Dawley was a prolific director, making more than 200 short films for the company before this Shelley adaptation. He did try to convince Edison to produce more extended subjects, but the famous inventor dismissed the suggestion, believing that audiences would not have the inclination to watch or the attention span required. Frustrated with that lack of vision, Dawley spent time with Adolf Zukor’s Famous Players Film Company, where he directed further literary adaptations such as ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1913) and ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ (1918). One of the founding members of the Motion Picture Directors Association, he directed his last feature in 1923 before becoming involved with the emerging technology used in sound films. In later life, he worked on the Arizona Republican newspaper, writing a regular column called ‘Sweet Arts of Sweethearts’, which covered the ‘courtship, betrothal and wedding customs’ of various cultures around the world.

Essential viewing for those interested in the history of film horror.

The Witch’s Mirror/El espejo de la bruja (1962)

‘The satanic rays of the moon will return to death what belongs to death.’

After killing his first wife, a handsome doctor remarries, unaware that his housekeeper knows the truth and is planning vengeance. She invokes the victim’s spirit, and the subsequent supernatural occurrences culminate in a horrific accident to the murderer’s new wife, sending him further down the path of crime and punishment…

A rollercoaster of horror from director Chano Urueta that brings to the brew a heady mixture of witchcraft, murder, grave robbing, satan worship, animal transformations, premature burial, a mad scientist and ghostly visitations over 75 minutes of glorious madness. Although some Mexican genre pictures of the period could be accused of being a little light on plot, that’s certainly not the case with this screenplay by Alfredo Ruanova and Carlos Enrique Taboada.

The film opens with Voiceover Man doing his best to convince the audience of the immemorial existence of witches and their powers. This helpful information is relayed over drawings that look rather like they’ve been executed by Heironymous Bosch. It all proved a tad too strong for the US distributor who cut this prologue entirely, flinging us straight into the action. Concerned young wife Elena (Dina de Marco) has gone to godmother and old family retainer Sara (Isabela Corona) for some advice, knowing that she is a witch with the power of prophecy. Our first clue that the housekeeper may have moved beyond such commonplace talents is the size of her scrying glass. Rather than a shard or sliver, it’s a full-length dress mirror that fills with smoke and a weird, demonic figure.

De Marco is aghast when Corona explains that someone is trying to kill her, and things get worse when she’s shown the culprit in the mirror: her husband, Dr Eduardo Ramos (Armando Calvo). At first, she refuses to believe it but fears the worst when he prepares her a nightcap. Staring into his eyes, she drinks the poisoned milk and falls dead to the floor. In short order, he brings home wife number two, Deborah (Rosita Arenas), but the family home is still filled with de Marco’s favourite tuberoses, and Corona has vowed vengeance. Rather than just being a witch, she can hit up Satan (or one of his demons) for a quick catch-up, turn herself into an owl or a cat and walk through walls.

It’s not long before things are going bump at all hours of the day in the Calvo household with the piano playing itself, Arenas’ flower arranging plans falling prey to time-lapse photography, and de Marco going walkabout from her open grave, which is conveniently visible from the house! This all results in her manifesting to Arenas via the mirror, the increasingly frantic Calvo breaking the glass with a naked flame and his young bride being engulfed by the resulting fireball. Although this might be supposed to be the film’s climax, we’re only halfway through by this point. Arenas survives the immolation but with a hideously scarred face and hands. Then, without any foreshadowing whatsoever, the audience discovers that Calvo is a brilliant plastic surgeon and research scientist! Only he can restore Arenas’ beauty, but the road to recovery is littered with corpses, black magic and other inconveniences.

The Mexican horror craze of the mid-20th Century was spearheaded by hard-headed actor-producer Abel Salazar, who delivered a succession of such pictures after hitting box-office gold with Dracula remake ‘El Vampiro’ (1957). All contained standard horror elements and devices, inspired mainly by the success enjoyed by the classic Universal monster cycle but rarely were so many combined in one film. Early events suggest supernatural horror with Calvo’s murder foreseen by witch Corona who pleads unsuccessfully with her dark master to intercede on behalf of her goddaughter. It’s no dice, and the following scene is arguably the best in the film, at least by usual filmmaking standards. De Marco drinks her poisoned milk while staring into Calvo’s eyes, hoping it’s not poisoned but suspecting that it is and accepting her fate if he no longer loves her. She really sells this moment, and it would provide an excellent grounding for Calvo’s subsequent mental deterioration if we were in an ordinary movie.

After that, we’re quickly into ghostly goings-on as Calvo brings new love Arenas to the house, having evaded the law somehow. The film never tells us how he manages it, as de Marco’s death seemingly has no consequences except the supernatural ones that befall our main protagonists. Director Urueta doesn’t allow these shenanigans to overstay their welcome, though, as we move swiftly into ‘Eyes Without A Face/Les yeux sans visage’ (1960) territory. Yes, Calvo and new assistant Gustavo (Carlos Nieto) take regular trips to the graveyard and dig up the fresh corpses of young women so the doc can use their skin to repair the damage to Arenas.

But the film isn’t finished yet. Not by a long chalk. One convenient case of catalepsy later, and we’re on a nodding acquaintance with Maurice Renard’s science-fiction/mystery novel ‘The Hands of Orlac’, which was most famously filmed as ‘Mad Love’ (1935) with Peter Lorre. Throw in ‘The Beast with Five Fingers’ (1946), dead girls propped up in a walk-in fridge and Calvo failing to notice that large owl perched just below the ceiling of his backroom laboratory while he operates and there you have it. The plots of several different films and horror stories vigorously mixed into a mad cocktail of Gothic terror.

However, it’s not just the disparate collection of different horror plots crashing together that makes the results so enjoyable. What’s key to the entertainment value is that the film has no sense of its own absurdity; it’s all played completely straight without any trace of a wink at the audience. Urueta delivers some elegant camera moves, and he and cinematographer Jorge Stahl Jr create some quite stunning gothic imagery using little more than shadows and smoke. The score by Gustavo César Carrión is solid, and the production design is excellent, cluttering Corona’s satanic altar with an impressive array of folk art and curiosities, including a large, slow-moving spider that provides no story function, only atmosphere. Rather than being a product of factory filmmaking, it seems some genuine technical care and attention was given to the project.

Similarly, the cast is all good. The stand out is Corona, who is imperious as the witch, with a nice line in sly glances and dry humour when required. Often the essence of her character is not conveyed by the dialogue, rather the manner of her delivery and facial expression. Calvo is also fine in his role, which betrays more depth than the average movie mad scientist. At first, he appears to be a simple, heartless killer, but after the deed is done, we discover that he and Arenas were not actually lovers but in love and that she knows nothing about what he did to bring them together. His love remains constant, too, even when she is disfigured; everything he does is for her. Considering what happens to Arenas, it all seems rather unfair; after all, she’s not to blame for anything; she just has lousy taste in men. She is even disgusted when she finds out what her husband has done, although her moral outrage does take a backseat once she realises that he’s been successful and she has her looks back!

Producer Salazar liked the movie so much that he married leading lady Arenas, and she left the big screen the following year. Before his death after a long illness in 1995, she appeared in several roles on Mexican television, beginning in 1987, but retired permanently afterwards. Calvo was the son of award-winning Spanish actor Juan Calvo and split his career between Spain and Mexico. He’d already appeared as the Police Inspector in ‘The Hell of Frankenstein/Orlak, el Infierno de Frankenstein’ (1960) but became most familiar in Spaghetti Westerns such as ‘Ringo’s Big Night/La grande notte di Ringo’ (1966), ‘Two Crosses at Danger Pass/Due croci a Danger Pass’ (1967) and ‘Django Does Not Forgive/Mestizo’ (1971). There were also notable supporting roles in films based on Italian fumetto (so-called ‘black’ comics) that included ‘Kriminal’ (1966) and, as another Police Inspector, in ‘Satanik’ (1968).

For sheer extravagance in plotting and some surprising technical accomplishments, this is one of the most entertaining Mexican horrors of the period and is thoroughly recommended. Great fun.