Wednesday, June 23, 2010

El Terror de México: NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES (1968)

It's odd that with Mexico being so close to the largely cloistered United States, we rarely see much of their cinematic output. It may surprise many American horror fans, but some of Mexico's horror films from the ‘60s and ‘70s can stand toe-to-toe with their European counterparts. Even the ‘80s brought in some classics.  Granted none of it is going to match the level of technology and financing wielded by Hollywood, but then again, I’m not much for that sort of thing anyway. The higher the budget and the amount of technology required to make a film has an inverted correlation to the intelligence and creativity. If I’m going to watch a movie that is short on smarts, I’ll take a low-rent exploitation flick every time.

Rene Cardona Sr was a Cuban immigrant to Mexico who in the span of his 82 years on this planet directed somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 films, acted in almost as many and put his son (Rene Cardona Jr) and grandson (Rene Cardona III) to work in the business. Cardona’s film career, starting in 1925 and continuing until 1982, spanned countless genres but predominantly stayed in the realm of the fantastic. From pirates and terrorists to zombies and santa claus… Yep, that’s right. He made a film about Jolly Saint Nick throwing down against The Devil's minions with the help of Merlin the Magician. And what do you need for a film with that high concepts like that? Luchadores! Many, if not most, of Cardona’s output starred the superheroes of pre-modern Mexico, the stars of the famous Lucha Libre. NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES is no exception, except here there are no famous Lucha stars.

Originally, and more accurately, titled THE HORRIBLE HUMAN BEAST, this film is one of those jaw-dropping drive-in classics that many people like myself, stumbled across in the video store back in the ‘80s. It’s lurid, cartoonish cover screaming to be rented and promising things that presumably it would never deliver. You could look at the black and white pics on the back of the Gorgon box and think “it’s from the ‘60s, it’s gotta be tame”, and you would be wrong. Even H.G. Lewis had trouble one-upping Cardona’s classic with his subsequent gore efforts THE WIZARD OF GORE (1970) and THE GORE GORE GIRLS (1972), and to be totally honest, I’d take Cardona’s flick over either of those two.

The film opens with a female Lucha match between a red outfitted Lucy (Norma Lazareno) and a blue-clad Elena (Noelia Noel). These girls can take some bumps, and after many punches, kicks and flips Lucy throws Elena out of the ring in front of her police lieutenant boyfriend Aurthur (Armando Silvestre). Arthur looks at the fallen wrestler and cries out “this woman has been hurt!”. Sure enough, Elena's got a skull fracture, which puts her under the care of  a successful surgeon, Dr. Krallman (Jose Elias Moreno). In an ironic twist of fate, Dr. Krallman's son is bedridden with leukemia. Doe-eyed Julio (pronounced by the dubbers as “Joo-lee-oh”, Agustín Martínez Solares) is abandoned by the doctors who have given him not even days, but hours left to live. This just doesn’t sit well with pops who decides, with the aid of his not-very-hunch-backed assistant Goyo (Carlos López Moctezuma) to kidnap a gorilla from the local zoo to use for a heart transplant! The logic here being that a new heart is needed to pump new blood that is uncontaminated by leukemia. Sounds good on paper anyway! It should be noted that the film uses extremely graphic stock footage of a real heart transplant operation that is something of a stark contrast to the cheap, but effective gore effects used in the rest of the movie.
All goes according to plan except for the fact that once the operation is done Julio mutates from his prettyboy self into a stocky grappler with a face that looks like an ape... or rather he and Ben Grimm from the Fantastic Four were separated at birth. One of the two, you decide. Naturally nobody that ugly could be a nice guy and our Ape Man promptly escapes to engage in (as the trailer cries) “an orgy of terror”! I don't know about any “orgies”, but holy crap is this dude pissed off about something and everyone is going to pay! Well... everyone except boys with groceries that cheerfully whistle. Other than that? It's on like Donkey Kong!

If drive-in movies were the only way you learned about human culture you would probably come to the conclusion that the female of the species lives most of their lives in the shower... and that there are a lot of bizarre non-human or quasi-human creatures who find them to be the most desirable thing on the planet to attack, since "attacking" is the only things that those creatures actually do (clearly Ape Man is not going to be holding down a desk job any time soon). Sure enough, the first apartment our Ape Man picks to bust into has a girl in the shower and Ape Man makes the most of it by throwing her on the bed and clawing her to death while seemingly having his way with her, creating a blood-drenched mess in a seemingly completely different apartment than the one he originally attacks her in! Also, Ape Man must be pretty damn dexterous in the nether-regions as the strategically placed towel never leaves her lap and even better, he makes sure that before exploring his animal passions, he carefully moves the towel so that no bearded clams are on the menu.

After Dr. Krallman manages to get Ape Man back to his basement laboratory he exclaims “I was prepared for everything, but not for this!” Ummm... really? You didn’t figure your kid would mutate into a homicidal ape-man? Huh. His learned analysis of the problem is that the heart is too strong for a human and that the blood pumps so hard into the brain that it damages the “superior parts” causing a transmutation to a primitive self! Of course, he realizes, if you were to transplant a human heart from a live donor, you could reverse the process and Julio would return to normal. And who better to donate than a wrestler who has had a head injury? To justify the fact that he is planning to kidnap and ostensibly kill one of the hospital’s patients, Dr. Krallman tells Goyo that because of her head injury, even if she does live, “she’ll be an idiot for the rest of her life.” Amigo, if that is your criteria for selecting donors, you don’t have to go to a hospital! Of course this doesn’t work, but because it’s an open heart surgery, it’s a good excuse to show off Elena’s lovely toplessness.

It doesn't take very long for Ape Man to make a comeback and the rampage begins a new! While some of Cardona’s earlier work has flirted with the drive-in staples of blood and boobs, none before or since whole heartedly embraced the exploitation elements like NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES. The blood flows in torrents and the gore is every bit as graphic as the Italian genre classics that followed it some 10-15 years later. In particular there is a scene where a man has his eye gouged out of its socket in extreme close-up that would later be mimicked in Antonio Margheriti's CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE in 1980. Some effects are rather amusingly inventive, such as in a scene where a police officer is instantly killed by having his scalp ripped off. This effect is achieved by having a mess of blood and prosthetics underneath a bald actor’s toupee. As silly as it is, I have to give them props for even coming up with it.

The movie wallows in drive-in exploitation and cobbles them together with elements from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” and even pays low-budget homage to KING KONG (1933) in the film’s final moments, with a strangely blasé child taking the place of Fay Wray. It all makes for a south of the border drive-in classic that even three generations of Cardona’s have never been able to top.

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