Saturday 15 June 2024

The Phantom of the Monastery (1934)

The Phantom of the Monastery (El fantasma del convento) is a 1934 Mexican gothic horror movie. I’m a huge fan of the Mexican gothic horrors of the 50s but I had no idea that the roots of the genre went back so far in that country.

Eduardo (Carlos Villatoro), his wife Cristina (Marta Roel) and their friend Alfonso (Enrique del Campo), are tramping through a forest and they’re hopelessly lost. Alfonso mentions that there should be an abandoned monastery nearby. If they can find it they’ll have shelter for the night. A strange old guy, accompanied by a huge dog named Shadow, suddenly appears. He leads them to the monastery and then disappears.

Oddly enough the monastery doesn’t seem to be abandoned after all. The three wayfarers are tired, cold and hungry and they’re grateful when they’re invited to stay the night.

The atmosphere at the monastery is rather oppressive and just a tad creepy. Director Fernando de Fuentes isn’t in any great hurry. He’s content to build a spooky disturbing mood gradually and subtly but he knows what he’s doing.

It’s hard to say exactly what it is about the monastery that worries our trio of lost trampers, but there are various little things that just seem somehow wrong or odd.

The dog Shadow lives in the monastery. The Father Prior assures his three guests that the dog has never in his life set foot outside the monastery, but just a few hours earlier they saw him in the woods.

The monks seem to be just a little uncomfortable with their three guests. It also becomes increasingly clear that there are strange things going on in the monastery. The monks are worried about something. There are secrets here. There’s a locked cell from which strange noises are heard. There may well be something evil here.

The viewer will very quickly work out what one of the secrets is, but that knowledge just raises further questions. It’s also not clear whether the monks are sinister or whether they are fighting against some evil.

To add a complication it’s obvious that Cristina thinks Alfonso is much more of a real man than her husband. If Cristina and Alfonso are not having an affair the idea has certainly crossed their minds. This is not just a minor romance sub-plot to add some extra interest. The romantic triangle is an absolutely crucial plot element and it is intimately connected with the horror plot.

The sexual tension between Cristina and Alfonso seems to be reaching crisis point and one has to start wondering if the atmosphere of the monastery is influencing their behaviour, or whether there may be a supernatural influence as well. If there’s evil here it may feed off sexual tensions, or it may trigger those tensions. Cristina initially appeared to be a respectable married woman but now she’s behaving like a temptress. The interesting question is whether this is a repressed part of her nature coming to the fore or whether she’s responding to some kind of sinister supernatural influence.

There’s plenty of ambiguity in this movie. To find out whether this ambiguity is resolved or not you’ll have to watch the movie since I’m not going to risk spoilers.

I think the ending is quite satisfactory.

The acting is a mixed bag. Enrique del Campo as Alfonso is a bit melodramatic at times but this is a horror film so that’s not necessarily a serious weakness. The standout performance comes from Marta Roel as Cristina, a woman who is perhaps a temptress or perhaps a victim of temptation.

The visuals are in their own way just as impressive as those in the contemporary Universal horror movies but in a very different style. It’s much more austere, but very creepy.

What really stands out is that this movie is nothing like the Universal horror movies of the same period. Both stylistically and thematically it’s totally distinctive. There’s a mood of religious fanaticism in the monastery which you obviously don’t find in any of the Universal horror films.

This is low-key slow-burn grown-up horror and it involves grown-up relationships that are totally integral to the horror plot. It’s closer in feel to the Val Lewton horror films of the 40s but this was made a decade before the Lewton films. It took Hollywood ten years to catch up with what the Mexicans were doing in 1934.

It’s also noticeable that this is a movie made by people who were not merely competent but also confident. They had their own vision of what a horror movie could be and they were going for it.

I’m not suggesting that this film is better than the 30s Universal movies - it’s just very different in interesting ways and for that reason it’s highly recommended.

The Powerhouse Indicator Blu-Ray offers a very nice transfer with an excellent audio commentary by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman.

1 comment:

tom j jones said...

This sounds fun!!!