El Fantasma del convento is a Mexican horror movie, but it is nothing at all like the sort of film most people associate with the words "Mexican horror". Many people are aware that the great Mexican gothics of the 1950's and early 1960's were made to draw mass audiences after a serious downturn in the Mexican movie industry. But fewer people realize that Mexico had a serious horror tradition well before that time. The first Mexican horror film was an adaptation of the popular folk tale of la llorona, called (appropriately enough) La Llorona; it came out in 1933. Other horror films that preceded the horror boom of the late 50's include El Baúl Macabro / The Macabre Trunk (1935), La Herencia de la llorona / Legacy of the Wailing Woman (1947) and the hallucinatory psychodrama El Hombre sin rostro / The Man without a Face (1950). Many of these early horror films were of extremely high quality, and El Fantasma del convento, though it dates from 1934 and is the second Mexican horror film ever made, is among the very best of them all. You will find no cheap theatrics and funny-looking rubber monsters here.
And this brings us to yet another point I'd like to clear up before beginning the actual review: remember that the concept of the "living dead" was a good deal different in the pre-George Romero days than it is now. You can't approach movies like White Zombie, I Walked with a Zombie, Zombies on Broadway or Zombies of Mora Tau expecting something along the lines of Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things or a Lucio Fulci film. But here again I'm going to ask you to suspend your expectations, because El Fantasma...'s approach to death and undeath is unusual even for its time.
The film begins in a forest, where our three principal characters have become lost. Eduardo has just fallen into a ravine, and calls out to his wife Cristina and their friend Alfonso to help him out. The shaky camerawork here seems to suggest an early attempt at creating the effect of a hand-held camera, though the sheer bulk of sound movie cameras at this stage made real hand-held camerawork impractical.
There's probably a metaphorical aspect to Eduardo's problem — any story that opens with its characters lost in the woods is likely to suggest Dante's Inferno; but beyond that, Eduardo has stumbled into a different kind of pit, and one that his wife and best friend are unlikely to pull him out of. Cristina, we soon learn, finds her husband too bland and timid, and she and Alfonso have developed a mutual attraction that threatens to turn into a full-blown affair. But Eduardo, bumbler that he is, doesn't see what's going on right under his nose.
Night has fallen, and with Eduardo exhausted by his accident it seems unlikely the trio will find their way out of the mountain woods in the dark. Alfonso suggests they seek shelter in a nearby ruin that he's heard of: the remains of an abandoned monastery. Eduardo wants no part of that idea: he's heard that strange things happen there.
All at once, a stranger interrupts them. He's a tall, pale man dressed head to toe in black, and nobody has any idea where he could have come from. Behind him follows a very large dog. The man in black tells them that he is going to that very monastery, the home of the Order of Silence; and that if they want to follow him, he can lead them there in safety.
Again, Eduardo doesn't seem very keen on going (much to Cristina's disgust). But the mountain can be dangerous at night... and when the pale man starts to walk off without them, the three lost ones hurry to catch up to him.
As soon as the monastery comes into view, the pale man's dog begins to bark mournfully. "Be quiet, Shadow!" warns the man. On ahead, Eduardo sees lights appear in the windows of the supposedly abandoned ruin; he goes to ask the pale man what this could mean, but is unnerved when the stranger already knows what he had intended to ask.
The party arrives at the door of the monastery, and the pale man waits for them to knock. The first three raps on the door bring no response — but when the three turn around to look for the pale man, both he and the dog have vanished from sight. Turning back to the door, they find a pair of eyes glaring at them from the peephole. The door swings open, and a monk appears to ask them their business.
Alfonso explains that they would like permission to spend the night in the monastery. The monk lets them in, but warns them that they must (so to speak) wipe the filth of the world off their spiritual feet before they enter the house of God — and here Alfonso and Cristina exchange what they think are furtive glances.
Inside, the monastery seems less desolate than it had appeared on the outside. It's still cold and intimidating, but at least it's in better repair than it had seemed. As Eduardo, Alfonso and Cristina wait for someone to show them to their rooms, they notice something strange: a large cabinet at the far end of the room is leaning precariously. Alfonso goes to fix it, and discovers that a piece of wood meant to prop it up has fallen out of place. However, when the monk reappears to lead the three young people away, Eduardo casts a glance over his shoulder — and sees that the cabinet has soundlessly resumed its tilt.
The monastery is a gloomy place. One of the other monks has left his cell door ajar, and as Eduardo, Cristina and Alfonso pass they see by his shadow that he is flagellating himself. His moans of pain are the only sounds that break the silence. After the first monk has lead them to their (separate) cells, Alfonso and Eduardo get together for a hushed conversation about their surroundings. Eduardo is frankly terrified of the place, but Alfonso thinks it's merely a little austere.
As Alfonso leaves Eduardo's cell, Cristina beckons to him from the doorway of hers. She begs him to come in and, ahem, comfort her — noting with scorn that Eduardo isn't up to comforting her himself. Alfonso thinks she's crazy, cozying up to him in a place like this. He breaks free of her grasp as a monk appears in the hallway; making his excuses, he follows the monk, hoping to get some answers from him about their peciliar accomodations.
As you might expect from the Order of Silence, he gets no replies.
However, after he's followed a couple of the friars down the corridors, he finds himself in front of a very strange room. A lantern is lit outside the door, but the door itself has been blocked off by an enormous and ancient-looking wooden cross,. Over the door is a Latin inscription from Jeremiah. I am unable to trace the Biblical quotation by the verse they say it is; the closest I've been able to come up with is this, from a few chapters earlier: CURSED BE THE MAN WHO MAKES FLESH HIS STRENGTH, AND TURNS FROM THE LORD. As Alfonso stands by the blocked door, he hears the sound of unearthly sobbing coming from within. As he leans in toward the door, a gnarled hand reaches in from out-of-frame and grasps his shoulder: it is one of the Brothers of Silence, who gestures with wordless contempt for Alfonso to go away. Now.
In the meantime, Cristina and Eduardo are in the middle of an argument — but they are shocked into silence by the sudden appearance of a bat-shaped shadow on the wall of the cell. The shadow never seems to change its shape or intensity, no matter where Eduardo moves the candle which is the room's only light source. As the pair watches in astonishment, the shadow slowly fades away. By now, even Cristina is thoroughly unnerved, so she and Eduardo go off together to find Alfonso.
Together again, the trio decide they might be better off taking their chances with the mountain. Unfortunately, they can't quite remember the way out. They seem to recall it was down a flight of stairs, and over Alfonso's objections Eduardo insists they go down down the first stairway they find.
This turns out not to be the way out after all. At the bottom of the stairs is a large room, against the walls of which are propped more than a dozen empty coffins. Alfonso goes to investigate them: there used to be something in them, he says, and they've been here for a very long time. So intent is he on investigating that he doesn't notice what Eduardo sees: a monk has come in behind them. The monk acidly informs them that if they could leave their curiosity in the crypt for the time being, the Prior and the other monks are awaiting them.
The Prior turns out to be a grim, intense-looking old man, who stands at the head of a line of silent monks. Beside the prior is a familiar-looking dog, which barks when it catches sight of the visitors. "Be quiet, Shadow," warns the prior. Later on, Alfonso asks about the dog, and the Prior states that he was born in the monastery, and never leaves. Alfonso tries to explain that just outside the monastery, he'd seen — but the Prior interrupts him: Shadow was born in the monastery, and he never leaves.
The Prior summons the trio to take their dinner with the monks. Together they file into a large room, where a long table waits. The meal is meager to begin with, but it's made all the more unbearable for the outsiders by the silence. Alfonso attempts to question the Prior about the monastery and its inhabitants — after all, he stammers: the idea of such a cloistered community, in this day and age...? The Prior's response is basically: you want me to break the silence of the monastery for stupid questions like this??
All of a sudden, a strange wind begins to howl through the monastery corridors. The window in the great dining hall is thrown open by the blast. The monks look at one another in consternation, and the Prior stands up at the head of the table and calls them to action. Warning the trio to stay where they are, he goes to a cabinet and takes out an enormous crucifix. Then the monks follow him out of the room, in as great a hurry as their dignity will permit.
Left behind, Eduardo and the others make a surprising discovery about the food the monks have been eating: if they thought their meal was austere... Unwilling to be left alone, they decide to sneak after the monks and see what's going on. They follow the procession to a chapel, where the monks kneel in fervent prayer. The Prior stands at his lectern, raises his eyes to heaven in an agony of supplication, and begins to chant.
On the other side of the chapel stands a black bier, and on top of the bier is a black coffin. This part of the chapel, strangely enough, is completely empty: the monks don't go anywhere near it.
All at once, the sinister wind stops. The Prior ceases in mid-chant, takes down the enormous crucifix, and announces to the assembled brothers that their prayers may have been heard; praise God for His mercy. Alfonso, Eduardo and Cristina rush back to the dining hall before the procession of monks gets there.
But, of course, the Prior is no fool. He knows the ceremony in the chapel has been spied upon. As soon as he has restored the crucifix to its cabinet and bade the monks go back to their meals, he turns to the visitors and gives them the full brunt of his disdain. So they're curious about what has happened? Well, then, the Prior will give them enough information to more than satisfy their curiosity.
Many, many years ago, there had been a monk in the Order of Silence named Brother Rodrigo. Brother Rodrigo had come to the Order under the cloud of some terrible sin, but he refused to confess to his sin or give any hint about what it might be. Years later, the nature of his transgression became known: he had discovered a book on Satanism and black magic, and used it to steal the wife of his best friend. Rodrigo's friend had been found dead, with the marks of a burning claw around his throat. Horrified by what he had done, Rodrigo buried himself in the monastery, hoping for God's forgiveness.
As the Prior tells his story (accompanied by brief but very effective flashbacks), Eduardo looks on in horror. And no wonder: Eduardo has caught sight of the hand of the monk across from him, before the monk hides it again in his sleeve: it's a bloodless, leathery claw, like the hand of a mummy! Alfonso, for his part, looks distinctly uncomfortable as the tale unfolds, and we know why; but Cristina thinks both Eduardo and the prior are being ridiculous. She assumes that the Prior has guessed her attachment to Alfonso, and is trying to intimidate her; and as for poor foolish Eduardo? She takes a pin out of her lapel and scratches the word COWARD onto the table; then she gestures surreptitiously to Alfonso to see what she's written.
If the Prior notices any of this (and how could he not?), he finds it beneath him to comment. His story goes on: Evil, he says, does not forgive. The unconfessed sin lay in Brother Rodrigo's soul, wasting him away, until at last he was found dead in his cell — with the marks of the burning claw around his neck as well. The Order had conducted the usual rites of burial and interred Rodrigo's remains in the sacred ground of the monastery.
But the ground rejected him. Days, months, even years after each re-interrment, Rodrigo's body would appear again in its cell. An unearthly wind would blow through the corridors to announce his return, and the sound of Rodrigo's hopeless sobbing would begin again from behind his door. The monks had sealed his cell with a wooden cross; and ever since that time, down through the centuries, it had been the duty of the Order of Silence to pray to God that Rodrigo be granted forgiveness and peace.
As the Prior finishes, a solemn rapping comes at the door. A monk enters, and whispers something to the Prior. It's been in vain, announces the stricken Prior; the sobbing has returned. Their prayers have not been answered, and now Brother Rodrigo is back. He dismisses the three visitors; the meal is ended.
Once again in Eduardo's cell, Alfonso tries to make sense of what they've seen. Their conference is cut short by a monk: according to the rules of the Order, there may never be more than one person in a cell at any time. Please, says the monk, respect the silence of the monastery. Alfonso goes back to his cell...
...and finds Cristina waiting for him. Cristina begs Alfonso to make love to her, and at first Alfonso is eager to do so. But Alfonso is having deep regrets about fooling around with his friend's wife, and the Prior's story has made him even more uneasy. Furthermore, he is starting to think that Eduardo's terror may be the only sensible reaction to the things they've seen. Cristina is furious at his rejection and goes storming out.
After she leaves, it's only a matter of minutes before Alfonso's resolve begins to weaken. He creeps back to the door of Cristina's cell and begs her to let him in. He's sorry, he says; he does love her after all. He was a fool for having said what he did. But Cristina either does't hear him or is still angry, and her door stays firmly shut.
Alfonso turns and is about to go back to his cell — but then, a strange look crosses his face. Rather than return, he finds himself walking silently to the cell with the cross in front of the door — the cell of the cursed Brother Rodrigo. He bends to listen, but this time, there is no sound from the cell.
And then, the door swings open. Pitch blackness waits within.
Alfonso takes the lantern from outside the door and slips past the huge wooden cross into the cell. He holds up the lantern and inspects the tiny chamber: there's a table, with an old dusty book on it, and a cot. And on the cot is a man-shaped bundle wrapped in a sheet.
Just as the lighting and the photography make us almost feel the cold of the cell, so too does it seem to us that the thing in front of us is really, truly dead. When Alfonso goes to unwrap it, we are confronted with a corpse as convincingly dead (in my opinion) as any motion picture prop has ever been made to appear. Its withered arms are crossed over its chest; its mouth has dropped open to expose rotten teeth within. Its eyes are dark and sunken, and there is a curious sheen to its pallid skin. There appear to be claw marks on its neck. Oh, please, I remember thinking when I first saw it revealed, please don't let that thing get up and stalk Alfonso across the room. I was very upset at the thought of something so clearly dead coming back to some semblance of life — but I comforted myself with the realization that if it had come back to life, we would have heard a lot more about this movie... because it would have been very far ahead of its time in its depiction of the Walking Dead.
Alfonso moves away from the horror he's unveiled, and goes to the cabinet at the other end of the cell. As he opens it, the door falls off its hinge, startling both him and us. Within are many old books and papers; Alfonso starts rifling through them, and we can guess what kind of book he's looking for. The camera moves back to the thing on the cot, and...
... and oh god oh god it moved that thing — that dead thing — it moved...!
While I'm busy changing my underwear, let me explain my decision to go on and reveal all the rest of this movie (those who wish to see the rest of film for themselves may stop reading here).
The main reason is because the film is so very hard to find. It's difficult to believe a horror film this good has remained a secret for so long outside Mexico. Then again, its unique atmosphere makes it much different from either the horror movies of its time or the sort of things we're used to today. Very little actually happens in the film — much of the plot involves people talking to each other rather than doing things, and what action there is is extremely slowly paced. It's the technique involved that makes the film so compelling, not only in the way it's shot and lit and paced, but also in the way the cast manages to bring to life the complex emotions that make the story so powerful.
But this brings me to my second reason to "spoil" the film: even if you do get your hands on a copy of it, chances are it will not have any English translation. I've been unable to locate one, at any rate. This review is based on my poor understanding of Spanish, along with a little basic common sense and some knowledge of how these kinds of stories usually play out. I may have made some significant errors in my interpretation, but I know I'm at least close; if I can save prospective viewers a little trouble understanding what's going on in the film, I may convince more people to track it down and watch it. After all, we're unlikely to get any English-subtitled video release until there's an actual demand for it. Even in this Age of DVD, when the words "forgotten horror classic" seem to have less meaning by the day, there are still some great films that have been largely ignored outside their home countries. This is certainly one of them.
You're still here? All right, then. The corpse on the pallet doesn't actually get up and stalk (much to my relief). Rather, its mummified arm slowly unfolds itself from its chest, and lands with a dull smack on the cover of the book on the table. The inference is clear: Hey, stupid, says the cadaver, the book you're looking for is over here.
Alfonso returns to the table and lifts the book from under the rotten claw. He opens it, and read in it a sort of invitation from Satan himself. There's no need for rituals and pacts signed in blood, the book suggests. The Devil is already within your heart, and all you need do — if you are strong enough — is call on him. Then he will grant you that which you most ardently desire (OK; it's either the Devil writing or Rhonda Byrne — assuming there's a difference).
Alfonso looks up from the book. That which he desires most ardently — Cristina, he thinks at first. But no; that's not right... technically, he already has Cristina. What he really wants is not to gain something, but to have another something removed... something that's standing in his way. "Eduardo," he whispers — and the book responds: letters begin to form themselves in blood across the pages. HE WILL DIE, they say.
And when Alfonso looks back at the table, the cold hand that rests there is no longer dry and withered. It's Eduardo's hand, and Eduardo is now lying on the cot in place of the hideous corpse of Brother Rodrigo. Across Eduardo's throat are the marks of a burning claw...
Most horror films, and in fact most films in general, have a trivial view of death. This is not a bad thing: we count on entertainment to insulate us from the Big, Terrible Things of life, of which death is likely the biggest and most terrible.
Still more rarely was death depicted with any kind of realism in films (let alone horror films) of the 1930's: think of Béla Lugosi's Dracula being staked off-camera; or of dying heroes on the battlefield, making one last inspirational speech before peacefully closing their eyes (to the accompaniment of choirs and massed strings); or remember the countless shooting victims in gangster films, clutching their unmarked shirts and falling daintily to the floor. Phooey. Very little in those early Hollywood films comes close to the real, brutal, soul-crushing ugliness of death.
But El Fantasma del convento is a bit different from the kind of thing we're used to from Hollywood, even in our own time. Perhaps it's a reflection of Mexican culture's considerably different approach to death, compared to ours in America; in any case, at this point the film takes away the ghastly cadaver of Brother Rodrigo (which was graphic enough), and replaces it with the even more horrible corpse of Eduardo.
And here is a surprisingly realistic depiction of a dead man. Eduardo doesn't just look like he's just drifted off to blissful sleep. He's been thrown back onto the cot, his clothes and his features in equal disarray. His mouth is hanging open; his eyes are staring into nothingness (he's obviously more convincing from a distance than in close-up, where his shining eyes betray him; but hey, I have to give the movie credit for trying!). There is a livid clawprint on his throat. As Alfonso backs away from this all-too-believeable corpse, the cell door begins to swing shut of its own accord. Soon Alfonso is trapped — not only trapped in the dismal cell, the latch on the door springing back each time he attempts to open it; but also trapped forever by the knowledge that this, this horror, was his heart's deepest desire. Alfonso sinks to the floor in a faint.
Dawn comes, and the camera follows the first rays of the sun over the mountain, into the convento and up to the door with the wooden cross. Alfonso begins to awaken — mercifully, on the outside of the cell. As he picks himself up and starts walking back through the monastery corridors, he hears Eduardo's voice calling his name. The sound brings back to him the horrors of the night... but then he realizes the voice is not coming from within the cell. Eduardo — very much alive — and Cristina emerge from a different hallway. Eduardo is taken aback by the warmth of his friend's greeting... yes, of course he's alive; what did Alfonso expect?
Cristina, for her part, seems like a much different person from the desparate seductress she'd been the night before. She clings to Eduardo's arm, and treats Alfonso with friendly disinterest. But the change in Cristina is mild compared to the change in the monastery itself. In daylight, it appears to be in far worse disrepair than they had thought the night before.
The three go to pay their respects to the monks before they leave. However, by day the monastery is deserted; the only person they find on the premises is an elderly caretaker. When they ask him to take them to the Prior, the old man looks at them as though they were drunk: there are no monks or priors here, he says.
Cristina tries to point out to the caretaker the places they'd been just last night, but the old man insists nobody has been in that part of the monastery for years. When Cristina demands to be let into the room the old man says is the refectory, or the dining area, he obliges them... and the room is a complete ruin, obviously untouched for a very long time.
But Cristina is able to reveal, under a century's worth of dust and debris, the place where she carved the word COWARD onto the table (though how she explains this to Eduardo, I wasn't able to figure out).
The caretaker stands for a moment scratching his chin, and then he nods as though he's just remembered something amsuing. Of course, he says, there are monks here, and a Prior, too. Why don't they all go to see them? He leads them down a familiar flight of stairs; then, with a broad gesture of welcome, he introduces the trio to the Order of Silence...
The coffins aren't empty any more. Just as the food the monks ate seemed to turn to dust as soon as they left the refectory, so too have the monks returned to dust.
Here again, the film confronts us with very realistic human remains. This time the effect is more disturbing than horrific, as we think back to the withered hand Eduardo glimpsed at dinner. Three living people have spent the night among the walking dead, though as I promised at the beginning of this review, this are not the kind of walking dead we might expect from a horror movie of any era. But did the dead rise to meet the living, wonders Alfonso; or did they themselves, for one night, go to join the dead?
It may seem to you that Alfonso, Cristina and Eduardo got off a little easily, considering the uncompromisingly grim atmosphere that prevails until the epilogue. This was probably the only ending El Fantasma del convento could have had at the time it was made, and it's not that much of a disappointment; I suppose we might understand that the monks' pleas for mercy have interceded on Alfonso's behalf instead of the damned Rodrigo's. But the conclusion is still unsatisfying for a number of reasons. For instance, if Alfonso's experience in the cell was a dream or a hallucination, at what point did he fall into it? There's no real indication — and yet the other two experienced some of the same things Alfonso did before the final episode, so not all of it was a dream. Even more confusing is the sudden change in Cristina. We understand that Alfonso has seen the error of his ways... but then again, he was having second thoughts even before the Ghost of Damnation Yet to Come showed him the consequences of his desires. Cristina, on the other hand, is still stuck in a marriage with a man she doesn't respect. When she takes his arm and walks with him into the sunrise, we're not convinced the ending is going to be as happy as it seems, nor the resolution as permanent.
Still, in spite of the strained upbeat ending, El Fantasmo del convento remains a grim, serious and atmospheric shocker. Part of its curious power comes from its refusal to explain everything: the incidents of the dog, and the leaning cabinet, and the shadow of the bat (which is the only really unsuccessful gesture in the whole movie) add to the dream-like unreality of the monastery; but if they have some deeper meaning, we never find out what it is. Another factor that sets the film apart from many of its contemporaries is the lack of comic relief, which would have ruined the tone. Every aspect of the film — from the interaction of its deeply-flawed main characters, to the inclusion of the supernatural, and even to the little inexplicable bits that punctuate the plot — is taken absolutely seriously.
A film about a haunted monastery might have been interesting enough. The fact that the ghost is a wailing corpse that won't stay buried — well, that adds a whole new level of horror to the story. But the movie goes still further: the ghost is haunting zombies. Even if the movie hadn't been as well thought-out, as well acted, or as atmospherically shot as it is, this premise alone would have made it one of the most interesting horror films of its time. I don't understand why this classic film remains unknown; I think it's fully deserving of mention alongside the great Universal horrors that were its contemporaries.