It’s a familiar situation.
Beloved local doctor wants to cure his wife of the deadly disease that has left her slowly wasting away, so with the help of his hunchbacked lab assistant, he’s been stealing the bodies of dead young girls from the hospital so he can extract what he needs from their bodies.
We know it’s only a matter of time before he moves on to the living girls. By number five, in fact.
And we know that the female lead will be his next target before the end of the movie. That’s how it always works.
Except that this is 1936, and in Mexico and that endless series of Mad Scientist films with Boris Karloff had just started and those made by PRC and Monogram with the likes of Lugosi and Lionel Atwill (or John Carradine, George Zucco and J. Carrol Naish, if you couldn’t afford anyone else) were still a long way in the future.
As the incomparable Janne Waas at Scifist points out, Mexican film is still not well documented, and there are a lot of little known but interesting films out there.
Sure, most of them seem to involve masked wrestlers, but that’s another story.
As with most of these films, it is also rather hard to find, although, fortunately, it is available on Youtube. Unfortunately it seems to have been sourced from a badly worn VHS tape — and from what I hear, the grey market DVDs appear to be from that same source. File it under “just count yourself lucky you got it,” which seems to be a frequent fate for genre films (see, for example Captive Women and Port Sinister). Naturally, there are no subtitles available, although (again) fortunately there is an auto-subbed version available, which can be auto-translated. Unfortunately (yet again) the poor quality of the rip means that a lot of the dialogues is missed and random bits of noise get translated. This means that the results are more random than one normally expects.
And, let’s face it, that’s pretty random.
This leads to one rather curious glitch: while most summaries will tell you that the mad scientist is after the girls’ blood, I didn’t get that impression even if I couldn’t even begin to guess what it was he was actually after, thanks to the iffy “subtitles”. I certainly never got any clear information on that one, although one of the clues is that, when the heroine is under his care for a routine appendectomy, he orders some surprising tests, that would not normally be made for a routine surgery. Not that it really matters, I suppose. He’s a mad scientist, he’s after something to help his wife that he’s willing to kill girls for. What else do we need to know?
Although, of course, the details might help us tell this one apart from dozens of other mad scientist films of the era.
However, despite the lousy quality and even poorer auto-subs, there is one thing I’m reasonably sure of: the hunchbacked assistant’s name is Igor.
As you have probably guessed, this one bears a strong resemblance to the sort of horror films that Universal was making at the time. Except that we spend a lot more time with the police than the typical Universal Horror ever did — and there’s a major subplot involving the horde of overzealous reporters working for the main Newspaper. There’s also a lengthy song, giving both major leads a chance to sing a few verses. But then you expect that from a Mexican film.
Another unexpected thing, for those of us north of the border, are the beggars, who play an important part in the plot. Most of them are faking some sort of injury, and we find them hard at work grifting in some the busiest parts of the city — although always with one eye out for the cops. One gets the impression that it was an everyday fact of life at the time.
It all ends with a rather wacky sort of chase, as the police decide that the heroic young doctor is the villain, and chase after him as he rushes to the girls’s aid.
This really isn’t what we’d think of as a horror film, even if there is that trunk full of severed body parts which the villain dumps in an alley. Instead, it is more like one of those fast and breezy old dark house comedies of the era — or perhaps one of the breezier comedy mysteries.
With a few extra creepy mad scientist scenes thrown in, of course.
It is really hard to assess this one because of the poor quality of the surviving version. However, if you love those old mad scientist films this one is worth a look, if for no other reason than to see how our films influenced the films from other countries. It isn’t a great classic, but then very few films are.
It is however modestly entertaining and has quite a few good bits.
Which is more or less what we expect from a Mexican horror film.
(Thanks again to Janne Waas for introducing me to yet another interesting film!)
4 thoughts on “El baúl macabro [The Macabre Trunk] (1936)”
Thanks for the shoutout once again Mark! Loved your take on the movie! But I don’t think he’s called Igor! 😀
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That came up in the auto-translated auto-“subs” and I did hear something like that in the audio. Which, of course, means very, very, very little!
Thanks for the kind words!
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