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.

Des Monjes/Two Monks (1934)

‘May the Devil get out from the house of the Lord.’

The monks at a remote monastery carry out a ritual to banish evil after it seems that one of their order has become possessed by Satan. Eventually, the monk appears to recover, and the Prior sends in a travelling priest to comfort him. But when the monk recognises his visitor, he violently attacks him…

An unusual and stylish drama often identified as one of the first Mexican horror films. Director Juan Bustillo Oro certainly conjures up enough atmosphere and startling images to enhance this tale of thwarted romance, madness and revenge.

Brother Javier (Carlos Villatoro) is a troubled soul, ranting and raving in his cell until the fellow monks in his monastery believe him possessed by evil. As they walk the passageways chanting, ringing bells and splashing holy water, they are relieved to be told that his latest fit of madness has passed. The Prior (Beltrán de Heredia) decides that a visit from the just arrived Brother Servando (Víctor Urruchúa) is in order. After all, he has an unmatched reputation from eloquence and piety. But when rruchúa enters the cell, Villatoro chases him out, wounding him in the head with an icon of Christ on the cross.

After the altercation, a repentant Villatoro asks that de Heredia absolve him. He explains that Urruchúa is his old friend Juan, who wronged him years before, and tells the old man the story. It begins with Villatoro as a struggling composer, wracked by consumption, whose only joy in life is the presence of pretty neighbour Ana (Magda Haller), to whom he writes his songs. When she resists her parents’ plans for an arranged marriage, they throw her out in the street and, aware of his feelings for her, Villatoro’s mother, Gertrudis (Emma Roldán), takes her in. Not surprisingly, as time passes, the two youngsters grow fond of each other and plan to marry.

Enter Urruchúa as Villatoro’s best friend Juan, back from years of adventuring abroad. The three quickly become inseparable, but Roldán becomes suspicious that all is not as it seems. Urruchúa suddenly announces a departure for parts unknown but arranges that Villatoro is away from home for the evening. When he returns ahead of time, he finds Urruchúa and Haller in each other’s arms, and tragedy follows. The Prior refuses to grant absolution to Villatoro until he hears the other side of the story and goes to see Urruchúa, who relates the facts from his point of view.

The beguiling device of events told from different viewpoints was rightly lauded in Akira Kurosawa’s landmark ‘Rashamon’ (1950). Although it’s surprising to find it already in use a decade and a half earlier, it can be traced back as far as ‘The Woman Under Oath’ (1919). The difference in Oro’s screenplay (co-written with José Manuel Cordero) is that the two principals do not dispute the facts. The twist is that Villatoro does not have possession of the facts that prompted them. The only flaw in this conceit is that his ignorance of a prior relationship between his intended and his best friend is a little hard to swallow. Some justification for this would have been welcome.

The notion that this is a horror film can be attributed almost entirely to the style with which Oro delivers the tale. After all, there are no actual supernatural elements and only one brief instance of violence, although it is graphic for its time. Oro’s striking presentation is immediately apparent in the opening scenes in the monastery. Of course, the gothic architecture and the spartan interiors help with the atmosphere, but the director takes it to the next level. The set dressing and props are minimal but well-chosen, the massive pipe organ and towering statues that are prominent in the climax being particularly striking.

Oro continues this aesthetic in the flashback scenes. The rooms of Villatoro’s home are large and mostly empty, furnished with only his piano, heavy drapes and a few pieces of scattered furniture. The feeling imparted is that of a theatrical stage, an impression heightened by the director’s preference for long takes, minimal dialogue and stretches of silence. There’s also fine examples of visual storytelling; Villatoro’s relapse into sickness indicated by crumpled music pages on the floor and the fantastic final scenes where a chaotic procession of masks suggests a descent into delirium and madness. Many of the scenes in the monastery seem lit by little more than a flickering candle, giving the shadows a sense of endless depth as if there is nothing behind them but deeper darkness.

This approach to the material might have been expected from a veteran director of silent pictures, but Oro had directed only one, ‘Yo soy tu padre’ (1927). This was only his third picture, the second being ‘Godfather Mendoza’ (1934), which he wrote and directed with Fernando de Fuentes. The same year he worked in a writing capacity on de Fuentes’ superb ‘The Phantom of the Convent/El fantasma del convento’ (1934). As both films seem set in the same location and both feature Villatoro and the elderly de Heredia (in his only two screen appearances), it seems likely they were shot back to back. Augustin Jiménez was cinematographer here and shot stills for de Furntes’ film, and Max Urban gets the music credit for both.

Oro had a long career in domestic Mexican cinema with over 30 years of writing and directing credits. Sadly, it seems he received no international recognition during his lifetime. Only a handful of his films, such as ‘Lo que va de Ayer a hoy/The Witch Came From Yesterday To Today’ (1945) and ‘Del Brazo y por la calle/Arm In Arm Down The Street’ (1956), were released outside his homeland. As this particular example was restored by the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, it’s hoped that more of his work receives attention in the future.

An unsung triumph of world cinema that should be recognised and celebrated.