The Mystery of the Ghastly Face/El misterio del rostro pálido (1935)

‘It is forbidden for the living to enter the land of the dead.’

A research scientist obsessed with a secret project has turned his son into a devoted assistant. Despite the young man’s wish to marry his childhood sweetheart, they embark on a dangerous expedition into the jungle. Eight years pass, and they are presumed dead, but the scientist suddenly returns alone…

Early Mexican horror film from director Juan Bustillo Oro, which contains some interesting influences. Carlos Villarías stars, along with future director René Cardona.

Being the son of brilliant research scientist Dr Galdino Forti (Carlos Villarías) is not easy. Pablo (Joaquín Busquets) has sacrificed his passion for music to his father’s great work, helping out at all hours in the old man’s private laboratory. His one consolation is his forthcoming marriage to childhood sweetheart Angelica (Beatriz Ramos). However, even this is snatched away when Villarías suddenly announces the necessity of an arduous research expedition into the depths of an uncharted jungle.

The trip is expected to take five years, so Villarías engages old colleague Dr Julio Montes (Miguel Arenas) to look after his affairs in the interim. As the years pass, hope for their return fades. Then, out of the blue, Villarías reappears with the sad news that Busquets has died on the way. However, houseguest Ramos hears the young man’s violin playing during the night. Villarías dismisses it as a grief-induced hallucination, but the following night, she sees a strange, pale face looking through her bedroom window.

Although Mexican horror cinema is now primarily remembered for its gloriously goofy parade of monsters, vampires and masked wrestlers that began their march across the big screen in the late 1950s, there are a handful of examples of more serious work from the preceding years. Here, writer-director Bustillo Oro whips up a concoction that takes one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lesser-known Sherlock Holmes stories (to name it would give away too much!) and seasons it with a touch of Universal’s classic ‘The Black Cat’ (1934).

At first glance, the premise is a standard one; a misguided scientist with a dubious agenda working secretly to some unknown end. The film even starts in a cemetery with the midnight exhumation of a corpse, not that this makes an awful lot of sense with what comes afterwards, although it does help to establish the conflict within Busquets’ character. Inclined toward art rather than science, he chooses to put his own needs second to his loyalty to his father, with ultimately tragic consequences. Bustillo Oro rather hammers home this theme in certain places, and it’s interesting to consider that it may have reflected some issues in his personal life.

The film still identifies as a straight horror mystery, though, and it does recycle some tropes that were already becoming somewhat familiar. The audience sees little of the scientific expedition, but what is presented is predictable enough. Villarías and Busquets are searching for the mysterious ‘Black Lake’ in the jungle, but, of course, it’s ‘forbidden’, and the native chief refuses to let anyone show them the way. When one tribesman finally agrees, he quits the moment he sees the usual ‘skull on a stick’ at the head of the trail. There’s also plenty of creeping about in darkened corridors at the Doctor’s house and a love interest in waiting for Ramos. This is Luis (Cardona), the son of Dr Montero, who grew up with her and Busquets and has been holding a torch for her since the creation of the universe.

It’s the production design of the Doctor’s home where the influence of ‘The Black Cat’ (1934) is primarily visible. Although the building can’t hold a candle (or a budget!) to Hjalmar Poelzig’s incredible home in the Universal classic, there’s still an Art Deco feel to it, most obviously with the wall clock that appears prominently in some shots. The personal dynamic between Villarías and Arenas is also similar to that between Karloff and Lugosi in Edgar G Ulmer’s film, although Bustillo Oro’s script doesn’t spend enough time on it.

Perhaps significantly, Villarías was very familiar with the Universal horror cycle, having played ‘Dracula’ (1931) in the Spanish version of Tod Browning’s famous film. That was shot on the same sets in the evenings after the English-language version had wrapped for the day. Although the Spanish actor proved to be no Lugosi in that role, it’s interesting that his performance here does echo the great star’s work in some places. It’s particularly reminiscent in some of the quieter moments when his character appears at his most reasonable, rather than in the later scenes when it’s clearer that he’s crazier than a soup sandwich.

It’s a genuine surprise when the aim of the Doctor’s work is finally revealed (if you haven’t read the Sherlock Holmes story), but it’s also a bit of a letdown. The problem is that it doesn’t really lead to anything, just the identity of the mysterious figure that’s been stalking Ramos, and that’s not exactly a shock. It also doesn’t make for a final act with any spectacle, which, again, makes everything seem anti-climactic.

The biggest issue with the film, however, is the condition of the print that’s available to view. It’s in very bad shape, which makes a full appreciation of the film rather difficult. In particular, it’s disappointing to be robbed of details of the interior sets; no doubt Carlos Toussaint’s production design can’t compete with Charles D Hall’s work on ‘The Black Cat’ (1934), but it would be nice to see it clearly. Perhaps a better copy of the film is out there somewhere, and restoration may be possible at some point in the future. We can only hope.

For genre fans, it is fun to see Cardona in just an acting role. He had directed a few films by this point, but it wouldn’t be until 1938 that he launched his filmmaking career in earnest. Over the following years, he left his fingerprints all over Mexican genre cinema, delivering numerous projects starring iconic masked wrestler Santo, stand-alone horrors such as ‘La Llorona’ (1960), and comic book films like ‘The Batwoman/La mujer murcielago’ (1966). He amassed a credit list of 147 movies in a 58-year career. Not content with that, he fathered René Cardona Jr, who followed in his father’s footsteps with just shy of 100 films of his own in many similar genres. Want more? Junior’s son, René Cardona III, chalked up 84 directing credits before his premature death in 2021.

Bustillo Oro first entered films in 1927 at the age of 23. His work first achieved notice when he collaborated with writer-director Fernando de Fuentes on ‘Godfather Mendoza/El compadre Mendoza’ (1934), a historical drama about the Mexican Revolution. The duo continued to work together, delivering the terrific horror ‘The Phantom of The Convent/El Fantasma Del Convento/The Fantasy of The Monastery’ (1934) and the superb ‘Dos monjes/Two Monks’ (1934), which Bustillo Oro also directed. Box office success followed with ‘In the Times of Don Porfirio/En tiempos de Don Porfirio’ (1940), the same year he guided comedian Cantinflas to international success with ‘There is a Detail/Ahí está el detalle’ (1940). Nostalgic family drama ‘When the Children Leave/Cuando los hijos se van’ (1941) was another big hit, along with ‘Memories of Mexico/México de mis recuerdos’ (1944). Sadly, subsequent projects never reached such heights of popularity again, and he finally retired from the industry in 1969.

Worth seeking out if you’re a fan of Mexican horror cinema or just horror films of the 1930s in general.