Museum of Horror/Museo del horror (1964)

‘I’m learning that God made a mistake in attaching tongues to women.’

A mysterious figure dressed in black abducts a young woman walking home at night. The police are baffled by her disappearance, the latest in a series of such incidents. Their attention becomes focused on the residents of a local boarding house and a former actor who now runs an unusual museum close by…

Elements of the ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘Wax Museum’s horror combine in this black and white Mexican picture directed by genre mainstay Rafael Baledón. There’s also a significant ‘whodunnit?’ vibe as screenwriter José María Fernández Unsáin presents the audience with a series of clues and red herrings on the way to the mystery’s final solution.

Pretty young nurse Marta (Patricia Conde) lives with her mother, Doña Leonor (Emma Roldán), who runs a small boarding house. By day she works at the hospital with fellow resident and unofficial fiancée, Dr Raúl (Julio Alemán), but she’s attracted to the new boarder, Luis (Joaquín Cordero). He’s a once-famous actor whose career ended after an on-stage accident that left him hobbling around on a walking stick. He still owns the theatre down the street but has converted it into a museum to make ends meet. His unusual exhibition consists of life-sized figures from theatrical history, both actors and characters, but all women. Hardly a moneyspinner, you would think, but he seems to do alright.

The list of residents is completed by the grumpy Professor Abramov (Carlos López Moctezuma) and the entire company decamp for a night out at Club La Paloma. The entertainment is provided by blonde bombshell Norma Ramos (Olivia Michel), who returns their visit by coming to live at the boarding house. Meantime, Conde is giving Alemán the brush-off and cosying up to the gloomy and complicated Cordero, intrigued by his air of mystery and tragic backstory. Local police Comisario (David Reynoso) is still on the track of the missing women, though, and when Michel joins their number, he closes in for the kill.

When Mexican audiences went monster crazy in the late 1950s, film producers quickly flooded the market with appropriate products. Often, they were thinly-disguised re-workings of familiar properties, notably the Universal classic monster series. But other horror hits were also in their sights, and here, it’s Warner Brothers ‘The Mystery of the Wax Museum’ (1933) and its 3-D remake ‘House of Wax’ (1953) starring Vincent Price. Sadly, the resulting film is nowhere near as remarkable or as entertaining, coming off as a distinctly second-hand grab bag of unfocused ideas thrown quickly together.

What the film does well is keeping the audience guessing about the killer’s identity. Of course, the off-centre Cordero is our primary suspect, what with his strange line of business, expressions of self-loathing and mysterious past. He’s one mixed-up dude, that’s for sure. But, hang on, why is Alemán paying grave robbers for fresh corpses to use in ‘secret work’? And why does he have a head in a jar in his private laboratory? Come to think of it, as a hospital doctor, why does he have a laboratory at all? Old misery Moctezuma also turns out to be an authority on embalming, and he’s carrying out ‘secret experiments’ as well. He might not have a head in a jar, but he does curare in his room. As a deadly poison, that seems to have little to do with his field of research. So many mad doctors, so little time.

All these circumstances do push the suspension of disbelief, but perhaps it’s little surprise that events feel contrived, and the characters and their backstories are barely sketched out. The script is one of 17(!) writing credits attributed to screenplay author Unsáin for 1964, and the years on either side contain another 20 between them! That’s seriously impressive, of course, but the quality is bound to suffer amidst so much quantity. As a result, the denouncement here lacks emotional punch because we’re not really invested. There’s little more to the characters beyond their function to move the story along.

However, there’s still some enjoyment to be had here. The killer’s disguise looks a little like Lon Chaney in ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (1925), and he has an underground workshop in catacombs beneath a cemetery. Access is gained through a crypt and an upright coffin (complete with corpse!) that opens like a door. There’s also an interesting scene where Alemán tries to win back Conde and diffuse her fascination with the melancholic Cordero. It’s very nicely played, especially by Alemán, who comes over as possessive, patronising, needy and narcissistic all at the same time! It’s a little character moment, but it does help undermine the handsome actor’s expected status as the story’s hero and reinforce the audience’s suspicion of him. Whether he turns out to be the killer or not is almost irrelevant, we just don’t want Conde to end up with him! A dream sequence also seems to exist solely to lift a few scratchy frames from Mario Bava’s ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1961).

The film mostly gets by on the brisk direction of veteran Baledón and a cast stuffed with names from the heyday of Mexican horror. Cordero played ruthless scientist Dr Campos in ‘Santo vs the Evil Brain/Santo contra cerebro del mal’ (1958), the first film starring the legendary masked wrestler. He doubled as lead villain and monster in ‘The Hell of Frankenstein/Orlak, el infierno de Frankenstein’ (1960), messed about with Yetis in ‘The Terrible Giant of the Snows/El terrible gigante de las nieves’ (1963), werewolves in ‘La Loba’ (1965), zombies in ‘Dr. Satán’ (1966) and its sequel, a killer robot in ‘Wrestling Women versus the Murderous Robot/Las luchadoras vs el robot asesino’ (1969) and tackled a ghost in ‘The Book of Stone/El libro de piedra’ (1969).

Alemán starred in the 1959 vampire serial ‘The Curse of Nostradamus’, which was compiled into four feature films in the early 1960s. He also joined luchador Neutron in ‘Neutron the Atomic Superman vs the Death Robots/Los autómatas de la muerte’ (1962), repeating his role for ‘Neutron vs the Amazing Dr Caronte/Neutrón contra el Dr Caronte’ (1964). Reynoso enjoyed supporting roles in many horrors and genre vehicles and, most memorably, backed up luchador Blue Demon in ‘Blue Demon Versus the Infernal Brains/Blue Demon contra cerebros infernales’ (1968) and ‘Blue Demon vs The Diabolical Women/Blue Demon contra las diabólicas’ (1968).

Moctezuma had a supporting role in ‘La Llorona’ (1960), and the next version of the same folk legend ‘The Curse of the Crying Woman/La maldición de la Llorona’ (1963). He had his own encounters with luchadors Neutron and Santo in ‘Neutron Battles the Karate Assassins/Los asesinos del karate’ (1965) and ‘Santo vs the Strangler/Santo vs el estrangulador’ (1965) and the direct sequel ‘Santo vs the Ghost of the Strangler/Espectro del estrangulador’ (1966). Further horrors followed with ‘Night of the Bloody Apes/La horripilante bestia humana’ (1969) and ‘The Vampires of Coyoacan/Los vampiros de Coyoacán’ (1974) which starred two other luchadors, Mil Máscaras and Superzan.

A slightly anonymous horror-thriller that mixes familiar genre tropes efficiently enough for some decent entertainment.