The Vengeance of the Crying Woman/Santo Y Mantequilla Nápoles en La venganza de la llorona (1974)

Jose Angel tries to break Mitsunori’s physical strength by hitting him on the soft parts.’

A professor enlists the help of a famous masked wrestler to find a fabulous lost treasure and break the curse that has plagued his family for generations…

One Mexican legend goes up against another, as celebrated luchador Santo faces off against the folk fable La Llorona. Director Miguel M Delgado referees as past and present clash in this battle of the titans.

The stakes are high when academic Professor Esteban Lira (Alonso Castaño) attempts to recruit Santo to his latest expedition; 80 million pesos, in fact. That’s what 100,000 gold doubloons will bring in today’s market. Castaño has a map of their location; it just needs decoding with a medallion buried almost 300 years ago with a Spanish noblewoman. Santo baulks at the suggestion; he doesn’t defile tombs and steal from the dead. Castaño isn’t going to keep the money, however, he will hand it over to the Institute for Child Welfare so that they can build hospitals for sick children.

The Professor explains that the buried noble is none other than Doña Eugenia Esparza (Kikis Herrera Calles), the legendary La Llorona. The story goes that she murdered her own sons in retaliation against their father, Don Juan de Gonzaga, who married someone else. She then made a pact with Lucifer to obtain the necessary poison through his Witch (Marcia Montes). At the same time, she stole money from de Gonzaga that belonged to the Spanish Crown and hid it away, hoping that he would be accused of the theft and executed. If de Gonzaga escaped judgement, however, Lucifer would grant her the power to return from the grave and slay every firstborn son of his family until the end of time.

If all that wasn’t enough(!), Castaño is a direct descendant of the de Gonzaga family line, and his eldest son was strangled to death under mysterious circumstances. Now, he fears for his grandson’s life, Carlitos (Jorgito Rodríguez). The good news is that the curse can be broken if the treasure is used to benefit children, hence his intention to donate the cash to charity.

Entries in Santo’s long-running film series aren’t usually noted for a wealth of plot detail. However, screenwriter Francisco Cavazos does his best to make up for it here with a first act of almost solid exposition. It is eased with flashbacks, but there’s still a lot to get through. It is all a little awkward, but then again, the writer is attempting to mash the plot of ‘Santo and Dracula’s Treasure/Santo en El tesoro de Drácula’ (1968) together with the folk tale of La Llorona. Also, he’s retaining the element of generational revenge so beloved by Mexican genre cinema and present in the ghost’s first cinematic incarnation, Ramón Peón’s ‘La Llorona/The Crying Woman’ (1933).

There is more to the story, of course, once the audience gets past all this setup. Unbeknownst to the good Professor, his assistant has sold him out to criminal kingpin Don Severo Segovia (René Cardona) on the promise of a share of the treasure. It’s all bad news for little Rodríguez and the rest of Castaño’s family; daughter Sonia (Sonia Cavazos), granddaughter Marita (Alejandra Murga) and secretary Lilia (Ana Lilia Tovar), who might actually be another daughter as well, but I’m not too clear about that. Neither of the young women is Rodríguez and Murga’s mother; she’s off on holiday somewhere with their father.

Presumably, Blue Demon wasn’t answering his phone this time around, so Santo recruits a new sidekick from the sporting world: real-life undisputed World Welterweight Champion José Mantequilla Nápoles. And the great man also needs to take care of a couple of pretenders in the square ring; first, a grappler named El Dragon and next, El Adonis. All this might be a bit much for the average, everyday hero, but it’s just another day at the office for El Santo!

As was the case in some of the later films, probable budget restrictions prevented staging of actual wrestling bouts in an arena, so here they come courtesy of ‘Studio B’, and everyone tunes in to watch them on TV. This is a tad unfortunate for Castaño as everyone’s glued to the box when he gets a less than friendly visit from the vengeful Calles. Later, she reverts to human form and moves into the house next door (just go with it) so she can lure the younglings away with promises of toys and candy.

There’s a lot here for fans of the series to enjoy, and there are some excellent moments and sequences. La Llorona’s tomb is in a cave just off the highway, and her coffin is just propped up against the wall. The girls trail our heroes to the site in their car without being seen, and no one notices Cardona’s thugs bringing up the rear of the convoy in their vehicle. La Llorona also appears with the helpful assistance of her dry ice roadie.

Nápoles isn’t much of an actor, and this is his only screen credit. The script tries to cast him as a comedy sidekick, but it’s never sufficiently developed. There are a couple of nice moments when his real personality seems to break through, and it would probably have been best to go with that. It is great that these two legends of Mexican sport got the opportunity to share the screen, though. They also prove their credentials as influencers per extraordinaire by sporting some stylish, outstanding examples of eye-catching leisurewear.

It’s also an iconic moment when Santo and Cardona face off in his office, considering the latter could usually be found behind the camera instead of in front. As a director, he delivered several entries in the series, and many other genre movies, including his own take on ‘La Llorona’ (1960). His Don Segovia is outwardly suave and reasonable, but, of course, he’s not to be trusted. It’s a beautiful moment when he finally loses patience with his goons and tells them: ‘If any of you could think, then you wouldn’t be working for me’, which is an enlightening comment on his entire organisation.

The main weakness is that the plot’s two elements don’t mesh satisfactorily in a dramatic sense. The climax sees Santo occupied at the Institute of Child Welfare, handing over the doubloons while La Llorona makes her final assault. In fact, the only time he meets her in the film is when she’s still taking a nap in her coffin. I guess it would have been difficult for him to fight a woman on screen, especially an incorporeal one.

Considering he was in his mid-50s at this point, Santo’s athleticism is truly impressive. Nápoles is obviously quick with his fists, and you can only hope for the health of the stunt crew that they had time to teach him how to pull his punches. Born in Cuba, Nápoles debuted in the ring in 1958, fighting as often as once a month, and was building an impressive record when professional boxing was banned under the Castro regime. Relocating to Mexico, he resumed his career and, despite the occasional defeat, eventually put together a 20-fight unbeaten run on his way to winning the undisputed world title in April 1969. He defended it successfully five times before losing on an early knockout to Billy Backus about 18 months later. Nápoles won the return bout and remained champion for four and a half years until his final defeat and subsequent retirement in December 1975. For 40 years, he shared the record for the most wins in unified championship fights in boxing history with Muhammad Ali.

The story is a little awkward, but it’s still a lot of fun and one of the better entries in Santo’s later film career.

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.