The Phantom of the Monastery (1934)
Directed by: Fernando de Fuentes
Written by: Fernando de Fuentes, Jorge Pezet, Juan Bustillo Oro
Starring: Carlos Villatoro, Enrique del Campo, Marta Roel, Paco Martínez
AKA EL FANTASMA DEL CONVENTO, THE PHANTOM OF THE CONVENT
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY
RUNNING TIME: 85 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
Alfonso, Eduardo and Eduardo’s wife Cristina get lost when exploring a forest near an abandoned monastery, a place where eerie happenings are rumoured to have occurred. A rather strange monk finds them and takes them to said monastery. It certainly looks abandoned at first but is actually inhabited by an order of monks who are taking a vow of silence. Eduardo is frightened and wants to leave, but Alfonso wishes to stay and eat with the monks. But soon even he becomes unnerved, in particular by a room which he’s forbidden to enter, a room that has a large cross keeping the door shut and from which one a man’s wailing emits. The Father Superior explains that the room was once inhabited by an adulterer whose curse still pervades the place. Talking of adultery, Alfonso and Cristina very much like each other….
Made as a follow-up to La Llorona which was a big commercial and critical success in Mexico [so that’s one country where horror was appreciated in those days then], The Phantom Of The Monastery repeats some of its elements, such as an eerie human cry, a curse that carries on down the ages, and a theme of guilt. The earlier film made some mileage out of a black robed and hooded figure; this one gives us a whole order of them, in fact some of the most effective shots of monks silently going about their business in the cinema, oozing mystery and repression. Indeed Fernando di Fuentes’s film gives us something that Ramon Peon’s film didn’t; oodles of atmosphere, achieving a neat balance between Gothic fantasy and naturalism by its evocative photography of a real desiccated monastery in a film which only seems to employ sets sparingly. It’s smaller in scale and therefore doesn’t aim as high as La Llarona, and is probably one that will be enjoyed more by horror fans [Val Lewton could have almost made it!] as it’s a lot more focused on chilling the viewer even if a lot of it is build up with the pay off, while extremely frightening for the period, being fairly short by comparison. It is of course a version of a very popular horror premise which had already appeared many times in literary form. And it’s also a parable of sorts which can be interpreted as a warning against adultery and/or giving into one’s base desires, but it seems to me that it’s a bit more complicated than that, even though screenwriters Fuentes, Juan Bastillo Oro and Jorge Pezet deliberately seem to leave a lot unexplained or just hinted at. Indeed one could probably explain certain things in several different ways. A surprising number of elements from this turned up in many later non-Mexican horrors, but that’s probably more of a case of some ideas being universal rather than filmmakers being directed inspired by it.
La Llorona had shots of the tunnels and the altar which its killer ran around in behind the credits; this one actually has part of a scene from the film playing behind the words, our three protagonists watching monks moving around, hopefully unseen. Then the main cast members are introduced one by one in poses before we find ourselves in a studio forest and Eduardo is being rescued by Alfonso from falling into a ravine, and it’s weird; it seems like the first part of the scene is missing. No scene-setting; we’re immediately thrown into the action. Eduardo understandably doesn’t like the area and wants to go home. However, Alfonso is enjoying the experience and, hey, there’s that monastery that’s nearby. With very subtle looks and actions, the dynamic between Eduardo, Alfonso ande Christina is nicely established with more subtlety than you’d probably get in a British or an American movie of the time. Cristina may be married to Eduardo, but is drawn to Alfonso who’s more adventurous and manly. Is Eduardo the first of those many horror movie characters who warn of trouble to come and are of course ignored? He whines and moans for much of the first half, something which only succeeds in drawing Cristina ever more to Alfonso, with whom she always seems to agree, while Eduardo seems unaware of what’s going on between the two. “I know the way” says a voice to them in the forest, and a man suddenly appears with his dog Shadow who barks as they approach the monastery. The man acts strangely, as if he’s hypnotised. “When the soil harbours no impure desire, there is nothing to fear in the house of God”, says some writing just inside the front door, which really does partly let you know what’s going to happen. Apart from the monk who answered the door and one spotted in silhouette flogging himself who looks rather like the Devil, the place seems deserted. “Eduardo, why didn’t he fall in the ravine”? says Cristina to Alfonso, which is a bit of a surprise.
But then the monastery has quite a few surprises; this mysterious room with its [male this time] wailer, a shadow of a bat, its labyrinth of corridors which seems to change and therefore make leaving very difficult, the tilted cupboard on a rock and, last but not least, its crypt of upright empty coffins that have recently been slept in for a long period. The answer to the latter is immediately obvious, and I reckon it would have been even to 1934 audiences. And if it wasn’t, then dinner plates that then have just ashes in them and a skeletal hand would have made it even clearer. This is all fine, because if anything we’re chilled a bit more than we might have been if the essential nature of these monks was kept a mystery, and many things such as the reappearance of Shadow inside the place but described as a different dog remain mysteries. Alfonso really wants to dine with the monks, and eventually gets his wish, but he makes the mistake of holding Cristina’s hand at the dinner table – or rather she holds his. This isn’t seen by Eduardo, but it’s most certainly seen by the Father Superior [played by Paco Martinez who played the Don Fernando de Moncada in La Llarona and is similarly a provider of exposition] who is clearly not happy about it. He then explains the history of the room. Once upon a time, a man named Roberto turned up at the monastery, tortured by something he’d done. He’d wanted his best friend’s wife, and, finding a book that tells of how one can achieve their greatest desire, he’s gone ahead and committed this adultery. Roberto’s stay in the room didn’t end well, which hits Alfonso hard. However, as personality changes seem to take place, Roberto eventually finds himself in the room anyway doing things by some sort of instinct, and the climax is finally upon us.
The script is able to gives us not one but two major surprises, then a leisurely coda which was probably thought necessary so that viewers could relax and process what they’d just seen. One detail remains that suggests it may not have been all a dream. It’s nice to see that Mexican screenwriters weren’t above using popular Hollywood cliches. So is the story, a story that can be told in a few sentences yet which is incredibly rich in detail and suggestion, chiefly a cautionary one? Well, there’s a lot of backing to support this, though it’s notable that, when things in the present day seem to be heading close to things that happened in the past, it’s the woman who makes the moves. Marta Roel has an enticing quality about her that’s midway between an icy femme fatale and a far more earthy seductress, with very telling smiles, though we never get to understand her character, to the point of not always knowing when she’s possessed [if she is at all] and not possessed. You could say that there’s a misogynistic element here, with the story not so much warning us against sleeping with somebody you shouldn’t but warning us against wanton women who will get not just us but many others into considerable trouble, though I doubt that Fuentes, Oro and Pezet intended this. The details of the deal that’s made are very vague. One immediately thinks of the likes of Faust, so I guess it’s supposed to be with the Devil and maybe the name wasn’t allowed to be mentioned. After all, there’s a scene where a strong wind is heard and even opens a window. “He is getting nearer” he says, but what or who is “he?” That’s either explained or not explained depending on how literal you decide to take things.
In fact the whole thing is quite vague really. Saying that of course, one can piece some things together with a bit of imagination, or at least make some guesses as what’s really going on. The poor monks appear to be trapped in a kind of limbo because of this curse which has been brought on them by this naughty man who came to live with them as a friar to atone for his past sin. The next visitors to the place are pulled in and seem destined to repeat the events of the past, with the monks seemingly powerless to stop this even though them doing so would probably set them free. It’s even possible that Alfonso, Eduardo and Cristina aren’t the only trio who become caught up in this. Some of this is remarkably similar to Lisa And The Devil which was made nearly four decades later, though do we really think that Mario Bava and his producer and co-screenwriter Alfred Leone would have seen this, seeing as it was virtually unseen outside of Mexico back then? Unlike La Llorona, The Phantom Of The Monastery wasn’t released to American cinemas. However, this may have been just as well, seeing as the finale would have probably been deemed to be too ghoulish for American audiences of the time by the MPAA, in particular the dwelling on the face of what is the first of countless movie Mexican mummies. Shots would have no doubt been removed, weakening the scene in the process. The makeup is a very fine job; admittedly not very realistic but certainly uncanny and disturbing.
As with La Llorona, the performances are surprisingly restrained, while Max Urban’s music score is again not always placed well or particularly appropriate to what’s taking place on screen, though it does work better overall, largely due to its reliance on simple harmonies and motifs with a dark feel rather than the more upbeat, even jaunty, backing to what we had before. Fuentes seems to have more control of his material than Peon and, even if he can’t quite raise the proceedings into a genuine classic, he almost gets there. Something about his film has resonated strongly with me and I think it will be the same for others who check out this slow but enticing and thought-provoking little chiller. It’s probably a better film than La Llorona even if I did rather like that film’s misshapen structure and sense of trying to cram too much into its running time, qualities that many will probably and understandably see as flaws but which I often see as plusses. Both should be seen by anybody who considers themselves to be a true horror fan.