Monday, July 17, 2017

The Phantom of the Convent (1934), by Fernando de Fuentes

I'm going to tell you all something depressing: I have almost exhausted my supply of horror movies from the '30s and '40s. It's not depressing because I'm going to be running out of these kinds of movies, it's depressing because I've watched so many of them. The ones that have appeared recently on the site are only the tip of the iceberg...remember, I tend to review stuff on this site that I like. Well, fortunately, I've not quite done mining out these decades, as it turns out I've been blinded by American-centrism, and forgotten that other countries made low-budget horror films in the '30s and '40s. I've tried to get into some of the British scare films from this time, particularly those featuring camp legend Tod Slaughter, but this is one time where British sensibilities are too overwhelmingly mild for me. I need something that has teeth in its mouth and meat on its bones. Well, as it happens, there was a short string of horror movies made in Mexico in the 1930s that erupted in seeming response to the likes of Dracula and Frankenstein. (After all, Spanish-speaking Mexicans would have had access to a Dracula all their own, due to Universal's shot-by-night alternate Spanish version of Dracula.) Recently I've worked through as many of these '30s Mexican fright films as I can get my hands on, which is tough given that, surprise, many of them have been lost. Unfortunately, for me at least, fewer still among them have ever been given English subtitles. I've been able to decipher some of them thanks to some of the English and French cognates I can pick up now and again, but otherwise I'm reliant on physical presentation and online plot synopses. One of the ones that has gotten an English translation, however, is 1934's The Phantom of the Convent. Even if this movie wasn't available with subs, it would still stand out among its brethren, but I am infinitely grateful for whoever subbed this film. Phantom of the Convent is a fascinating, eerie, legitimately good horror movie with some complicated psychology, which I'm perpetually stunned has not left grander scars on the face of cinema.

Alfonso, Eduardo, and Cristina are a trio traveling in the mountains somewhere. The wimpy Eduardo is married to Cristina and is uncomfortably aware of the attraction she shares with Alfonso, who is his best friend. This sort of tangled red string is not the sort of thing you want to have when you end up stranded on the mountain in the middle of the night, nor when a mysterious stranger and his spooky dog show up to offer you shelter at the monastery that's supposed to be abandoned. This is the very fate that befalls the three, and it turns out that that reports of the abandonment of the ominously-named Monastery of Silence are indeed exaggerated. However--as if the imposing black-clad stranger or the too-huge eyes peering through the door weren't enough tip-off--it becomes clear that something is amiss in the Silent Convent. The three find a cabinet that is partially tipped over; they fix it, but as they leave the room Eduardo glances back and sees it's been restored to its initial position. They also come across a monk who is flagellating himself, which we only see in shadow. Eeriest of all is the monk's cell which is blocked off with an enormous cross, which is either covered in scratches or what seem to be strips of flesh...that we can't tell makes it worse. Above the cell is an enigmatic Latin message about the damnation of those who succumb to carnal sin, and before our heroes are properly prepared, they begin hearing agonized moans from within...

It is here that the monks properly welcome the three with an enormous banquet, wherein they all but reveal they are the living dead. Strangely, the three don't seem to care, as they are all beginning to undergo certain changes...Eduardo is becoming more cowardly, while Alfonso and Cristina grow even bolder about their extramarital lust. Still, what questions they do have for the monks are met only with standoffishness, at least until a wind begins to blow through the Monastery. The monks then go on about having to stop "him" and embark on a complex prayer ritual. Now they are willing to explain what has happened to their monastery. Long ago, there was a brother among them named Fray Rodrigo. Rodrigo coveted his best friend's wife, and despite knowing the evils of such, he made a pact with Satan to kill his friend and make his wife fall in love with him. For this, he was haunted by guilt, and eventually the Dark One came for him. The monks tried to bury his body, but every time they did, it would return to its cell, to the place its owner had been killed in.

The monks then received a curse from God, that they must pray until Rodrigo's soul was cleansed, no matter how long it took. During this time "the Evil" would raid the monastery at night and make the weird psychological hell it is today. Despite all of this knowledge, however, it becomes clear that Alfonso cannot escape the archetypical mold left for him by the wife-loving Rodrigo. And that brings him to a desperate, terrifying encounter with the awful things that lurk in Rodrigo's locked-up cell...

Most of the '30s Mexican horror movies I watched before this lacked the sheer distinctiveness that this movie possessed. Much like their northern counterparts, many of them were made to make a buck, and that was all. Of the selection I watched, I only found interest in the sci-fi thriller The Dead Speak, about a "mad" scientist's quest to prove the reality of forensic optography, and The Macabre Trunk, which may be the first horror movie to feature a scientist who harvests "glands" to keep his female relative living/young--it precedes the extremely similar Bela Lugosi flick The Corpse Vanishes by six years. What I think helps The Phantom of the Convent stand out is its uniquely Mexican identity--more properly defined as a Hispanic Catholic identity. One German review I read (one of the few available online of the film) made the same comparison I did, that the sinister monks and the monastery that is their tomb are highly reminiscent of Amando de Ossorio's Blind Dead series. And with that connection in mind, you begin to see a critique of Catholic strictness arise in Phantom that director Fuentes shares with Ossorio's zombie Templars. Fuentes gives us a universe where God curses a large group of his most devout followers for the trespass of one of them, forcing them to beg him for this fallen man's forgiveness long past the point where any of them would have wanted to die. What's more, God then allows his greatest adversary to add to their misery relatively unchecked, held back only by constant prayer. As for the sinner himself, who died guilty for what he did? He is denied eternal rest within the grave, constantly reanimated to return to his place of penance. And that's before the Devil starts latching onto your soul and bringing out your absolute worst attributes!

Regarding those attributes, there is some implicit and unfortunate misogyny in this movie--at least, I see it as such. The person who becomes most obviously affected by the monastery's corrupting influence is Cristina--and specifically, the monastery makes her more lustful. Alfonso lusts for her too, but he also has his own "No, Johnny's my best friend" moments of resistance. Making the film's sole female character a symbol of lust is bad enough; that she is more strongly affected also suggests she has less internal resistance to the supernatural forces. This was sort of a thorn to me, as was the movie's tendency to repeat conversation points unnecessarily. Otherwise, the whole film was tightly scripted, filled with mystery and some spectacularly horrific imagery.

The ending made me realize I'd heard a variant of this story before; and that story, in turn, claimed to be based on a common folk tale. That is one thing I've noticed about these Mexican horror films--even the less-interesting ones have a much more clear-cut tie to folklore than their counterparts from the States. The Dead Speak's story of "the dead man's eyes" is older than Frankenstein and many of its inherent ideas, while two of the more famous entries in this era of Mexican horror include adaptations of the La Llorona story. Such is also the case with Phantom of the Convent's delving into Catholic lore to build its world. American movies surely conformed to the same type of archetypes as the mythos the Mexican filmmakers were drawing from, but it also seems like American movies had several extra layers of bullshit. The Macabre Trunk, with its parallels to the pretty-darn-batshit Corpse Vanishes, is one of the crazier ones, as is, seemingly, The Mystery of the Ghastly Face, which I found incomprehensible due to a lack of subtitles and plot synopses. (It may be the Mexican Face of Marble, but don't quote me on that.) It seems that Mexican filmmakers particularly enjoyed tapping into their roots in the Spanish-speaking world, probably because that's what their audiences wanted, whereas our American films can't be linked to one culture in particular.

Catholic unease aside, Phantom of the Convent has enough raw atmosphere and psychosis to make it a worthy equal to any of the great horror films that modern audiences love. Actually, this may be one of my new favorite horror films of all time in a way that almost makes me feel guilty reviewing it on a site dedicated to garbage. But the A-List is also about celebrating the obscure, and Phantom is a film that is undeserving of the obscurity it has today. I say that often, but it takes a movie like this to remind me of when it really counts.

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