The Man and the Monster/El Hombre y el Monstruo (1958/1961) **½
Though I still haven’t seen very many of the things, there are two features I’m growing to love about Mexican horror films. Even when they’re reasonably well made and meant completely seriously— indeed, even on those occasions when there isn’t a single masked wrestler to be seen anywhere— there is a sensibility to them that is so fundamentally off-kilter and strange that a south-of-the-border horror movie simply cannot be mistaken for anything else. And whatever their flaws, they seem always to be imbued with a guileless enthusiasm and an utter lack of pretense that makes them enormously refreshing in this era when some degree of hip self-consciousness seems all but inescapable. The Man and the Monster, this warped confection of influences from Faust, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, puts itself forward with complete conviction despite any number of elements that would send a modern North American filmmaker’s tongue groping insistently for the nearest available cheek. Though it is, at best, only partially successful in its aims, and though the temptation to look down one’s nose at it is well nigh irresistible at times, The Man and the Monster nevertheless represents a commendable and imaginative effort.
It is, of course, the middle of the night. A blonde woman (Maricarmen Vela, from The World of the Vampires) demonstrates that she has absolutely no business on Earth operating a motor vehicle by plowing her car into a telephone pole even though the weather is perfectly clear, the driving conditions are fine, and there’s nobody else at all on the road. Blondie gets out of her car and goes off in search of help, the search becoming somewhat easier when she hears the sound of somebody playing an odd, angry-sounding melody on the piano. Following the music leads the woman to what would otherwise appear to be a deserted ranch; the door to the building from which the sound emanates is locked, curiously enough, from the outside. The piano-playing suddenly stops, and the locked door begins to rattle while a man with a deep, breathy, almost feral voice implores the woman outside to pick up the key ring on the ground in front of her and let him out. Blondie stupidly does so, and that’s very nearly the last we see of her.
I say, “very nearly the last,” because the woman manages to drag herself down the road to the vicinity of her car before she lapses into the faint from which she will never revive, attracting the attention of Richard Sandro (Abel Salazar, from The Curse of the Crying Woman and The Living Head), who was just then pondering the mystery of her wrecked and empty automobile. Sandro tries to help the woman, hurrying with extraordinary irony to the ranch where she met her ugly fate. His urgent knock at the main building’s front entrance is answered by a dour and silent woman (The Brainiac’s Ofelia Guilman) who closes the door in his face when he pleads for assistance on the dying blonde’s behalf. Sandro gets nothing better out of the local police, either. The detective who comes to investigate once Sandro finally secures some means of summoning him smugly tells the traveler that the blonde woman died in the crash, and was simply thrown from the car— this despite the obvious lack congruence between the cop’s favored interpretation of events and literally every piece of evidence to be found at the scene of the wreck. The impotently exasperated Sandro drives on to go about his business.
That business, in case you were wondering, is to make the final arrangements for a comeback performance by a reclusive pianist named Stephen Manning (Return to Youth’s Enrique Rambal). Manning dropped out of sight a number of years ago, but the booking agency for which Sandro works has apparently persuaded him somehow to come out of hiding and give a performance in Mexico City. I’m sure it will surprise absolutely none of you to hear that Manning is the one who lives on that ranch we saw earlier, or that matters related to Manning’s planned performance are rather different from what Sandro had been led to believe. As Richard learns when he returns to the ranch the following morning, Manning isn’t staging a comeback so much as introducing a protégé. The pianist claims that a palsy in his hands now prevents him from playing the piano, but that he has taught everything he knows to a talented young woman named Laura (Martha Roth). There are plenty of suspicious wrinkles to this scenario, however. To begin with, there’s that grim lady who gave Sandro the brush-off last night, who turns out to be Manning’s mother; obviously, she’s trying to hide something. Then there’s the portrait on the music-room wall, which looks exactly like Laura even though Manning swears it depicts somebody else. Stranger still is the story Laura tells Sandro as soon as she can contrive to be alone with him— that Manning was lying when he said he could no longer play, and that in fact he locks himself in with his piano nearly every night to play some curious melody which she finds simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. But most importantly, there’s the stuff Sandro doesn’t get to see, like the fate of the incompetent motorist or the mysterious conversations between Manning and his mother that seem to hinge somehow on an unseen third party who hides behind a locked door just a few yards off from the piano.
What’s really going on here is that Stephen Manning did not come by his present musical skill through the usual channels. Though he had indeed been a pianist of some renown, he had always considered himself to be overshadowed by his colleague, Alexandra, whom he loved and envied in approximately equal measure. Alexandra (who, inevitably, is the Laura-lookalike depicted in that painting) never knew of Stephen’s feelings for her, however, as Manning lacked the courage to say anything about them. The love and the lust and the envy built up and up and up, until finally Manning took truly drastic action. Calling upon Satan, Stephen offered his soul in exchange for talent surpassing even Alexandra’s, evidently on the theory that she would return his unspoken love if only he could out-play her. Now normally the Devil hoodwinks his business partners by taking an overly literal interpretation of the deal, but with Manning, Beelzebub tried the more creative approach of sneaking in a whole bunch of fine print. In addition to claiming Manning’s soul, Satan also took temporary possession of his body after the bargain was struck, causing him to kill Alexandra and carry her back to the ranch. Furthermore, whenever Manning plays the piano (or indeed even hears the diabolical melody he now locks himself inside to play every night), he is transformed into a vaguely canine Mr. Hyde figure who will kill anybody who happens along, with the evident exception of Manning’s mother. As for Alexandra, her mummified corpse has remained stashed behind that door across from the piano ever since, the only audience to the virtuoso musicianship for which Manning traded in his soul.
Now with a secret like that, you might think Manning would show a bit of circumspection, especially in front of strangers like Sandro. In point of fact, however, he does no such thing. Jealous of the booking agent’s apparent interest in Laura and freed to run loose post-transformation by an accident involving a lost key, Monster-Manning attacks Sandro at his hotel, killing another guest by mistake before being driven off by the police. He also pays a terrifying visit to Laura, whose escape is equally narrow. Naturally, neither intended victim recognizes their hairy assailant, but Sandro has a hunch that there must be some connection between the monster-man and the Manning ranch. Following up on that hunch, Sandro breaks into Manning’s music room, and stumbles upon Alexandra’s preserved body. Mrs. Manning gets wise to Sandro’s discovery, however, and she manages to get herself, her son, Laura, and the dead woman all away from the ranch and off to Mexico City before Sandro finally succeeds in convincing Inspector Useless to search the place. With no physical evidence of any crime, the police once again head back to the station without accomplishing a single fucking thing, and it falls to Sandro to put the rest of the puzzle together. He’d better work fast, though, because Laura is still in Manning’s company, having absolutely no idea that her beloved mentor and the shaggy beast-man who wants her dead are one and the same.
Yes, it’s cheap. Yes, the monster makeup is terrible. Yes, it often veers fearlessly into abject silliness without giving any indication that its creators recognized that it was doing so. I won’t try to deny any of those things. But all the same, The Man and the Monster is a strangely compelling film. The sets and cinematography taken together are beautiful and effectively creepy. The cast, while turning in performances that are mostly just a bit under- or overdone, play their roles with such conviction that you have little choice but to forgive their faults. The story, despite being built almost solely from recycled ideas, arranges the secondhand material in a unique and unexpected way, and director Rafael Baledon conducts the whole business with nothing less than perfect earnestness. When distributor K. Gordon Murray picked up The Man and the Monster and heaven alone knows how many other obscure Mexican horror films for import to the United States, he was looking for nothing more than a body of low-cost product to sell as supporting features, matinee attractions, and television timeslot-fillers. Nevertheless, Murray treated most of the movies he bought with an unusual degree of respect (especially in comparison to that other frequent peddler of Mexican horror, the infamous Jerry Warren), and The Man and the Monster shows that such respect was at least occasionally warranted.