Though not quite as frightening as an adolescent summer spent at music camp, Judge Bill Gibron really enjoyed this Mexican horror romp centering around that most evil of instruments...the piano!!!
Tickle the Ivories…to Terror!
When Ricardo, a reporter for a local list looks up the former musical sensation Maestro Samuel, he discovers something odd about the one time celebrity. Not only has he refused to play the piano ever again, but he is building up a young protégé named Laura to take his place. Trying desperately to get more information, his advances are constantly thwarted by Samuel's manipulative mother Cornelia. There is obviously a secret the family insists of keeping, and our intrepid newsie will not rest until he discovers what it is. Turns out, Samuel sold his soul to Satan to defeat a female rival named Alejandra, and after a fatal confrontation, he's destined to live his life in a permanent state of flux. When he doesn't play, he's mild and kind hearted. But the minute he sits at the piano, he is possessed by a spirit of evil that turns him into a raving fiend. It is this difference between The Man and the Monster, and how it will effect Laura, that Ricardo must unravel…before it's too late.
Atmospheric, goofy, and just a tad sentimental, The Man and the Monster is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde crossed with a Hispanic version of the early life of Liberace. Indeed, if you ever wondered how the piano plays into the whole 'sold my soul to the Devil' routine, this is the weird ass Mexican horror film for you. Drowning in the kind of dread that only bold black and white movies can deliver, and reeking of a kind of arch artistic aura, what we end up with is a wonderfully evocative narrative draped in some of the silliest special effects this side of Roger Corman. The Man and the Monster somehow manages to stretch a whisper thin premise into 80 mesmerizing minutes, but not all of the spellbinding comes from the creepshow. Indeed, you'll probably find yourself much more enthralled with the hyperstylized acting (the Maestro is like Mel Welles meshed with Mel Gibson), ridiculous creature make-up, and perhaps the worst fake keyboard work of all time. When a film about musicians allows its actors to basically lay their hands on the 88's and slowly shift them around in arrhythmic randomness, you know it's more concerned about the boos than the believability. As a matter of fact, The Man and the Monster is so devoid of realism that it turns into a kind of freaked out fairytale, a perplexing parable about a famed virtuoso, a passionate protégé, and the domineering mother/hirsute horror that comes between them.
One things for certain…director Rafael Baledón sure loves his unusual cinematic approaches. His sets are large, open spaces that seem to maximize the very edges of the frame, while his use of light is sparing and shadow-inducing (the better to get away with his Chia Pet creature creation). His performers are given limited acting options (Maestro…be worried; Laura…be afraid; Mother…be a biz-nitch), and he has an abnormal fascination with the feline form. That's right, all throughout The Man and the Monster, the Maestro's mom carriers a big black cat, and at any given moment in the narrative, she is prone to toss the poor beast across the room like some manner of animalistic exclamation point. Even better, there are odd beats when the beastie pounces out of nowhere, suggesting a supernatural presence that really doesn't exist. A great deal of this movie plays out in this manner…i.e. suggesting things that don't have an actual rationale or reason for being…but that's also part of its magic. We are enthralled to see what Baledón will do next, what that corpse is doing in the closet, and how our newspaper reporter Ricardo will figure everything out without doing a single bit of investigation or deduction. Truth be told, he more or less stumbles into the conclusion, getting vital information literally handed to him at the very last minute.
And still, there is something sly and sinister about this film, a tone that tells us that, all silliness aside, some serious spit is about to go down. Thanks to the grave looks on the characters' faces, the uber-emotional pitch everyone is playing at, the singular moments of macabre machination (the opening sequence where a growling voice from beyond a locked door demands release) and outstanding sense of place, we get swept up in the story being told and can't wait for the next narrative twist on the horizon. Sure, Baledón is basically making schlock…but with a measure of classical music majesty. Indeed, the various piano pieces really amplify the tone of terror, their inherent drama driving the film forward. Even when our main character turns into the Latino version of Bigfoot, we excuse the kitsch because of all the other cinematic facets in the foreground. Sure, there will be viewers who come at this expecting fear, only to find full blown foolishness and a really surreal sense of scariness. But The Man and the Monster is a movie that shouldn't be dismissed outright. Instead, it can be savored from any interpretation of the word 'dreadful'.
As part of their ongoing desire to bring Mexican horror movies back from b-movie purgatory, Casanegra gives The Man and the Monster the kind of DVD release all old fashioned scary movies should hope for. From the pristine 1.33:1 monochrome image to the crystal clear (and well subtitled) original Spanish language track, this 1958 film never looked or sounded better. The bonus features may be sparse…a movie poster slideshow, a set of cast biographies, a radio spot, and a stills gallery…but it is indeed welcome. While a little more context would have been nice…say a commentary from a genre scholar or an overall documentary on the Hispanic horror scene…the flawless transfer and optional English dub soundtrack are reason enough to celebrate. In the long lineage of obscure terror titles, The Man and the Monster may be one of the most unusual. It is also one of the most enjoyable.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Casa Negra
• Classic Mexican Horror Movie Poster Slideshow
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