While he usually enjoys any jaunt South of the Border, Judge Bill Gibron was simultaneously pleased and perplexed by this goofy Mexican Horror-Western.
Destined to Make Clotildle a Newborn Baby Name Sensation.
Hoping to discover the source of some very precious stones, Cowboy Gastón and traveling companion Crazy Coyote end up at a remote hacienda, the birthplace of a local legend. Seems an anguished mother who lost her children in a quicksand mishap (isn't that always the case…) died, vowing revenge on those whom she believed caused her sadness. Before she passed, she created two statues of a crying figure. It's these items that have Gastón's attention. Like clockwork, the lady rises from her tomb and starts strangling everyone involved. It has frightened the surrounding population, who now calls her "The Weeping Woman." While living relative María Elena García is unimpressed with the story, she gets a wicked wake-up call when her aunt is brutally slain. Only Gastón believes there is a realistic reason for everything going on, and sure enough, he discovers the answer. A gang of villains is ransacking the surrounding countryside, looking for the vein of gold the hacienda sits on. So why the spirit? They are hoping that superstition and fear will ruin the transfer of the estate, leaving them free to find the secret stash. All it takes is a reanimated corpse and The Living Coffin to drive the townsfolk insane.
You've got to give the Mexican moviemakers of the late 1950s some credit. Only they could find a way to take a standard Western contrivance…bad guys using ghosts and ghouls to scare property holders away from their gold rich lands…as a doorway into the macabre, local superstition, and the living dead. With its eerie setpiece sequences and morbid curiosity over premature burial, you'd expect The Living Coffin to be a lame Edgar Allan Poe rip off. Instead, it's your standard oater, complete with bar room brawl and six shooter firefights, with just a little paranormal peculiarity added in to flaunt cinematic conventions. In some ways, this is the kind of movie that Abbott and Costello or The Three Stooges would have made almost exclusively for laughs, but since the Latinos take their myths very serious (what culture doesn't) the concept of the 'Weeping Woman' is elevated to the status of a scary movie icon. Parading around the hacienda in nothing more than a bad oatmeal scrub mask and a blousy nightgown, she's either the worst specter ever captured on film or the Aztec Mummy's afterlife beauty consultant. Along with the visage of a crippled old lady whose floor tapping cane is supposed to create the sound of impending doom, these are some of the strangest spirits ever to inspire the heebie jeebies.
But it's not just the spooks that are off kilter and odd here. The entire narrative is overly complicated and purposefully mucked up, all in an attempt to keep the last act denouement as fresh and exciting as possible. Of course, it doesn't work. We are several steps ahead of Cowboy Gastón and his bumbling sidekick Crazy Coyote (actually, make that "LAZY" Coyote…all this dude wants to do is catch some Z's), and have the paranormal problem figured out long before the rest of the cast stumbles upon the secret. While director Fernando Méndez made many genre titles throughout his career, this is one monster mash-up that just doesn't quite jive. Part of the problem is the lack of backstory. Since it was made for a specific audience, the underlying legend of the Weeping Woman was probably well known to viewers of the era. So our director determines that we don't need more than a cursory comment about the gal…called Clotilde here…before rushing right into a standard saloon brawl. As a fighter, Cowboy Gastón makes an excellent punching bag. Unlike Timex, he takes a licking…and then passes out. Similarly, the town's doctor is a drunken coot who responds to almost any emergency by sucking back a few sassafras shooters. All we need is the hobbled deputy and the good natured madam and we'd be right back in the mild Wild West.
Yet it's because The Living Coffin embraces these very archetypes so feverishly that we enjoy the far more freakish elements within the story. Granted, our heroine's (a know-it-all named María Elena García) sudden switch from skeptic to true believe is so swift it almost causes a sandstorm. She even comments to Gastón that the rapid conversion has fried her nerves. But it's nice to see such an overly broad character arc. Similarly, Crazy Coyote is so fixated on taking siesta that he should become a spokesman for Craftmatic Adjustable Beds. He can make a bunk out of a few chairs, several bales of hay, or his horse's saddle. Speaking of steeds, Gastón has one of those magical mounts that acts like Lassie in times of trouble. This is one fine equine, especially when it can point you in the direction of a dead body, a fake phantom, or the hidden passageway to an underground hideout. Frankly, our four legged hero does more detecting than our chapped one…and, naturally, he doesn't even get an extra carrot in his feedbag for his efforts. If you can get beyond all the lunkheaded lunacy, the moments of mindless nonsense, and the sequence where Gastón fights the bad guys with the help of his horse, the animal firing its own pistol to provide cover (no kidding), you'll adore The Living Coffin. It's not creepy so much as cracked, and it won't stop being wonky until it figures out how to solve its minor mystery.
Unlike other titles in Casanegra's collection, The Living Coffin comes with some inherent transfer issues. In 1958, especially in Mexico, color b-films were almost unheard of. That explains why the 1.33:1 full screen transfer has so many age issues. The print is faded and dull, hardly as dynamic as the monochrome releases in the catalog. While it's not unwatchable, you'll be wondering about the original condition, considering this is hailed as a polished remaster from source elements. The sound situation is much better. The Dolby Digital Mono 1.0 (Spanish) is very good, with easily understandable dialogue and excellent English subtitles. There is also a dubbed version, in case you want to experience a little Saturday matinee madness. As for added content, the bonuses are sparse but satisfying. We get a photo essay on Mexico's fascination with Cowboys and Monsters, while the cast biographies and stills gallery gives us limited insights into the production and the performers participating. Again, a scholarly commentary would have helped us understand the place of this film in the overall landscape of Mexican moviemaking, but it's a relatively negligible complaint.
Though its mixture of horror and horse opera never quite succeeds, The Living Coffin is still an enjoyable example of Mexican madness. It may not give you the shivers, but it won't directly disappoint you either.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Casa Negra
• Photo Essay: Cowboys and Monsters: The Mexican Horror Western
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