Sunday, October 18, 2009

La Cabeza Viviente (1963)

The Aztec warrior Acatl (Mauricio Garces) must have been quite a guy. Betrayed and killed by a treacherous priest, he gets one of the best burials ever - his head finds its final resting place on an especially nice tablet, the high priest Xiu (Guillermo Cramer) and the priestess of the moon goddess Xochiquetzal (Ana Luisa Peluffo) are buried alive with him to keep him company and an especially enthusiastic curse to keep away those pesky future tomb profaners is spoken, too. And that's still not all! Xochiquetzal gets to wear...THE RING OF DEATH, an eye-shaped, blinking monstrosity that will show exactly who has to be killed when tomb profanation time comes.

And, lo! 1963 a trio of archeologists under Professor Muller (German Robles) enters the tomb and takes everything with them that isn't nailed down, from Acatl's head to Xiu's mummy (which isn't visibly mummified at all, but has his obsidian dagger permanently fixed to its hand) to THE RING OF DEATH.

Nothing of the stuff lands in a museum, instead, Muller keeps it in his home and makes a gift to his daughter Marta (also Ana Luisa Peluffo) of the ring. Even ignoring how problematic this is from a legal perspective, there is also the problem of the curse to take care of. Not even Muller's inspired skepticism will help much when the first of his friends is sacrificed in a classic Aztec rite by the sprightly dead Xiu, with a hypnotized, sleepwalking Marta as a very active participant. Somebody has to carry Acatl's zombie head around on his plate, right?

Will the collective incompetence of Marta's fiancee Roberto (Mauricio Garces) and the police inspector Toledo (Abel Salazar) be enough to save Dr. Muller from his own daughter?

La Cabeza Viviente is a highly entertaining piece of Mexican horror. Its director Chano Urueta (known for more pieces of Mexican pulp cinema than one could mention, some catastrophically bad like The Brainiac, some rather splendid) doesn't delve as deep into Mexican gothic as many of my favorite Mexican horror directors do. Instead this is mostly a pleasant example of pulp storytelling with only the extremely incompetent heroes and the knack for the macabre pointing in a more gothic direction. But that's not much of a problem, since Urueta's direction here is more interested in cheap and friendly thrills than in mood and I'm certainly not one to complain about a film that succeeds at being simple, fast entertainment.

While some people (especially on the IMDB, the site full of people without a clue about cinema writing nonsense about it) might complain about a certain hokeyness of the chills and thrills the film offers, or about its lack of originality, I just can't see these things as much of a problem here. This is supposed to be a fast-paced, old-fashioned monster movie in the pulp spirit of the Hollywood serials, so subtlety doesn't need to apply.

Everybody involved obviously knows this. It shows in Urueta's simple, yet clever direction as well as in the pleasantly melodramatic acting. Especially Peluffo and (of course) Robles know exactly how thick to lay it on, and it truly is a pleasure to watch them really get into the whole silly business as if it were the highest drama. Taking silliness appropriately seriously is one of the great virtues an actor can have.

I wouldn't fulfill my duty as cult film blogger if wouldn't mention the best thing about the film: Garces performance as the disembodied head of Acatl, perfectly encapsulating how just plain wonderful it must be to have an afterlife much like the life of your typical cat. Being carried around on a plate by a pretty woman, taking many nice naps until the time comes to observe a sacrificial ceremony comes, then taking another nap, smiling wistfully, nodding bodilessly - that's what this head's life is all about. I, for one, can't help but wish for this sort of afterlife for myself.

La Cabeza Viviente truly is the best ad for a life as undead head on a plate I have ever seen, leaving the adventures of poor Nostradamus far behind.


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