Historian of Horror: Hot Town, Summer in the 60’s

On a regular basis when we were kids, my brother and I were shipped off from Nashville to visit our grandmothers and cousins for a few weeks every summer so our parents could get a well-deserved rest from our shenanigans. Today, I suspect that would be considered child abuse at best, given that we were ferried by either car or train to a small town in Northern Alabama in the days before the pervasive hum and whir of air conditioning could be heard everywhere. 

The funny thing is, I don’t remember the heat being all that oppressive. There were lots of electric fans, and open windows, and sleeping in upstairs bedrooms under thin sheets, while the distant sound of a train whistle carried us away with it into slumberland after long discussions about girls and Auburn football and whether or not it were possible to tip one of my uncle’s Black Angus bulls. It’s not, by the way, and given how much at least one of them resented the attempt, it’s a wonder any of us are still alive.

Good times.

Even better, for the voracious consumer of popular culture that I was even at the tender age of eleven, was that a marvelous new invention did arrive in Athens about 1969, one that would not make it to Nashville for another sixteen years. Nowadays, cable television is almost quaint, but in those halcyon days of three channels, it was a magic carpet ride that carried me for that brief, hot period beyond the Lawrence Welk schmaltz and Mike Douglas talking about God knows what with people you’d never heard of and soap operas that for some reason didn’t feature vampires, and all the other adult programming that pervaded the local airwaves of the tiny town to which we were remanded into durance vile for those few weeks.

I’m exaggerating, of course. We had lots of fun with the cousins, and occasionally with the kids who went to the Baptist and Methodist churches in which our grandmothers were virtually matriarchic figures. But there are times when you just want to turn on the TV, and it was in Athens that I first encountered What Lay Beyond.

Athens is about halfway between Nashville to the north and Birmingham to the south, and twenty miles west of Huntsville, which at the time had, I believe, one television station. If the weather conditions were just right, you could almost pick up a Nashville station and maybe two Birmingham stations, but you couldn’t count on it. Which is exactly why the first rudimentary cable system I encountered was in tiny Athens. Its original purpose was apparently to bring those distant network affiliates (and their commercials) out into the hinterlands.

I have no idea at this late date which of the ten buttons on my grandmother’s cable box I pressed to find the old horror pictures I was already enamored of, but I sure figured it out at the time. A few days into our enforced vacation, I had started missing the daily after-school movie, the Big Show on Channel Five from which I normally got my fix. When I discovered something close enough to it to serve in a pinch, I latched on to it. I remember seeing old-time movie star Jon Hall stomping around in a rubber suit in Monster in the Surf for the first time on whatever channel it was, along with the big-headed BEMs from Invasion of the Saucer Men and a string of pictures that were rather clumsily dubbed into English and with the credits in Spanish.   

I had never seen Mexican horror movies before. The Big Show was full of Universal monsters and Hammer horrors and Japanese behemoths stomping model cities flat, but nothing like this new thing I’d found. I don’t recall any specific titles from that summer more than fifty years ago, but I do remember that they were fun, and spooky, and some of them starred masked wrestlers. I was a big fan at that age of the local wrestlers who popped up on TV back home, Jacky Fargo and Tojo Yamamoto and that crowd, so I gleefully absorbed the adventures of Santo and the Blue Devil as they battled a variety of monsters and mad scientists that summer, while my grandmother was off working at the local newspaper where she was the society editor. I’m sure she would have disapproved, had she known. 

But isn’t that the best part?

The Mexican horror movies weren’t there on her cable box the next time I visited Athens. It was years before I saw any of them again. It took the internet to bring them back into view, and while I understand the draw those specific films must have had on my eleven year old mind, this much older geezer is looking for something a little more sophisticated. And, just as one should never judge classic North American films by, say, the Bowery Boys, one should look for a higher level of fright-inducing Mexican cinematics with an expectation that one would find it.

One did.

I will admit that, despite my early exposure to Mexican films, I am not yet as conversant with the national oeuvre as I am with, say, French or Japanese filmmaking. I suppose it does take a while to get all the way around the world and back close to home again in exploring world cinema, even with the wonders available online. I am of course familiar with the great films made by Spanish ex-patriot Luis Buñuel during his time in Mexico from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. The Exterminating Angel is the closest I can think of to Buñuel having made a genre film, but I’m not really sure it can be classified as a horror film. I might take a gander at it in this space down the road, anyhow, but for now, let’s look, as we would pretty much have to in regards to North American horror films, at the middle range of overall cinematic quality.

And there it is that we find a number of quite good Mexican horror films in the early 1960s, on a level with anything being done in the genre by Hollywood filmmakers such as Roger Corman or William Castle, if not, in some cases, better. (Notice how nimbly I wriggled out of including Psycho in that category? Hitchcock was a director on a par with Buñuel, and like the Spaniard, not really a horror director, per se, no matter how he might have dabbled in its pleasures.)

I will speak in future of Messers Corman and Castle. For now, let’s speak of la Llorona.

The Weeping Woman, in English. An old Mexican folktale about an abandoned mother who avenges the betrayal of her unfaithful husband/lover by murdering their children. She regrets her act when denied entry into Heaven, and is fated to roam the Earth in search of her dead children. Since they are beyond her reach, she seeks to replace them with the children of other mothers, with dire results all around. It’s one of those cautionary tales meant to keep the younguns of Mesoamerica in line. I have no data as to how well it works. What I do have is some Mexican-made films I want to have us all take a look at.

I’m not in this instance concerned with the numerous recent North American and Mesoamerican cinematic examinations, of varying quality, of the ancient legend. And by recent, I should point out that I mean anything since about 1980. When you get to my age, that’s when the cut-off date between old and new falls. Hell, I’m so old, cougars are barely legal.

Can I get a rimshot? No? Oh, well. Never mind.

I want to examine in this space three of the earliest films that were constructed around this legend – 1933’s La Llorona, 1960’s La Llorona, and 1963’s The Curse of the Crying Woman. There is one from 1947 I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy of yet, La Herencia de la Llorona, but I hope to correct that oversight in the very near future. I expect I’ll address that one in a coda to a future column if you would all be so kind as to be patient with an auld phart.

The first la Llorona film, indeed the first Mexican horror film, was directed by Ramón Peón, one of roughly seventy films he made over a long career. La Llorona is not a bad film, but production-wise, about on a par with one of the better Hollywood Poverty Row studio films of its period. Some of this impression could be a simple lack of a good, restored copy, given that I’ve only been able to find a rather fuzzy presentation on YouTube, along with poorly synced subtitles to match. Maybe. The running time, like many of the la Llorona films of all periods, is taken up with an extensive flashback of the original legend as it unfolded in the late 16th Century. There is a second flashback to an even earlier, similar legend, that of la Malinche. She was the Aztec translator for and lover of Hernando Cortez, who also responded to being treated shabbily by killing the children she had borne the Conquistador almost a century before la Llorona began to weep. I’m not sure that segment adds to the overall quality of the film, but it does have some interest as a historical artifact. None of the other pictures I looked at for this column featured that older tale.

I think I might have just noticed a few eyes glaze over there a moment ago when I mentioned Poverty Row. My wife has been complaining for forty years now that I tend to throw out terms without always explaining them. I promise I will take a long, loving, terrified look at the old Hollywood studio system in the not-too-distant future, including what that phrase meant in the history of our genre. For now, you only need to know that Poverty Row was the collective noun for small, cheaply run and often fly-by-night independent studios mostly clustered along Gower Street in Hollywood that produced, at best, grade B movies. Westerns, serials, gangster pictures, and low-grade but often quite enjoyable horror pictures poured out of these movie mills, some shot in a matter of days on budgets that wouldn’t pay for a good used car today.

Moving on. That first La Llorona film has placed around the two flashbacks a contemporary story involving descendants of the original family, and the peril to the newest member, Juanito, on his fourth birthday. According to a legend related by the mother’s father, every first-born child in that line of descent disappeared on their fourth birthday, carried away by la Llorona. A mysterious, cloaked and masked figure lurks around the set, peering through secret panels and other such conventions of the Old Dark House sub-genre. It has comic relief, red herrings and all the trappings of better, and worse films. The climax reveals – Spoiler alert! – that it has been a trusted servant that has been possessed by the evil spirit of la Llorona. It had been she who was behind the several thwarted attempts to make away with the little boy.

As I stated above, not bad. Competently acted and directed, with a brisk but not rushed pace, it’s an enjoyable film of its period, with all the technical limitations inherent to that era. I just wish I could have found better subtitles, as my Spanish is not much better than at a ‘decipher-the-menu’ level. I suspect if I had been able to, I’d rate this one at C+. As it is, it’s a solid C.

The identically named version from 1960 is, structurally, very similar to the first film, but technically on a much higher level. I could easily see this coming from a North American studio of the caliber of Columbia or a second-tier Universal unit in that same time period. In fact, it reminds me, stylistically and technically, of one of the better William Castle vehicles, without the distracting gimmicks. A solid, well-made film, very enjoyable. I liked that the identity of la Llorona is made clear during her repeated attempts to do away with the child in this version. The build up of suspense for every attempt is handled with stylistic flair and subtle, gradual make-up effects at least as good as a contemporary Hollywood picture of its kind and time. B+

That leaves us with what is perhaps the most problematic of the films under consideration, The Curse of the Crying Woman, AKA La Maldición de la Llorona. Problematic in that it doesn’t exactly fit thematically with the others, being closer in tone and storyline to one of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe adaptations. Still, it’s quite an attractively mounted film, albeit in black-&-white rather than the color productions Corman was making by 1963. Otherwise, the influence is obvious. Its historical setting, in this case, the mid-to-late 19th Century, the mise en scene, the acting, are all seemingly in keeping with the style Corman had established north of the Rio Grande. And yet, its departures from the basic legend make it hard to judge as a la Llorona film. 

Oh, boy, I did it again, didn’t I? Mise en scene is, simply put, everything in a film or play that isn’t acting or dialogue. Costumes, set design, props, lighting, music, etc. Clear as mud? Moving on.

This time out, the spirit of la Llorona is lurking around an ancient house, waiting to displace the soul of her nearest available female descendant. At the exact moment of her twenty-fifth birthday, the latest in the line is fated to pull a spear out of what looks like a Medieval torture device known as a Catherine Wheel upon which the decayed corpse of the original la Llorona has been pinned since she was executed for her crimes. That will free the spirit of la Llorona to possess the young woman so she can carry on her demonic career. The somewhat convenient escape of the insane former owner of the crumbling house, up until the climax locked away in the bell tower, scotches the evil plans by strangling the villainous aunt so that the heroine can escape with her less-than-hypercompetent husband. 

Good, solid filmmaking of its kind and era. I rate it a B. 

I hope the populace doesn’t object to my comparing these efforts of the Mexican studios to the contemporary output of Hollywood. I’m making the perhaps unwarranted assumption that the majority of the folks likely to read this are more familiar with North American horror films, and that that familiarity might provide some context for fitting these three pictures into the overall history of the genre. If I’m incorrect, feel free to let me have it with both barrels in your comments. I’m a tough old codger. I can take it.

Until next time, be afraid. Be very afraid.

13 Questions with Patricia Santos

13 questions

As the Season Finale looms right around the corner, we thought it would be best to feed your horror hungry minds with a name familiar to Horror Addicts…Patricia Santos Marcantonio. Thought this is her first time to be featured as an author, Patricia made her HA debut in 2012 as a Guest Blogger with her post about La Llorona. She has also had her novel The Weeping Woman reviewed by our very own David Watson and was even had The Weeping Woman featured as one of our Free Fiction giveaways!

pmPatricia stated that she was both, “honored and excited” to be featured on HA. Excitingly enough the “short” Patricia will be sharing with us for episode 96 is an excerpt of her novel The Weeping Woman. Not wanting to give away too much information, all I could get out of Patricia was a small description about the excerpt. “It’s what I call my Mexican exorcism scene. A healer is removing a curse from a young girl. Pretty creepy. You’ll never look at a snake the same way.”

The inspiration for Santos’ novel came from her own childhood. “The Mexican folk tale of La Llorona.  It’s the story of a beautiful and selfish woman who drowned her own children. She was turned into a horrible apparition and is doomed to walk the night looking for her children. My parents told me the story when I was a kid and it scared the hell out of me.  The character is fascinating because she is evil, but also heartbreaking. I’ve also written a play and short story about her.”

Not only has Patricia been working on horror novels but darker children’s books as well, such as her book Red Ridin’ in the Hood. “I took fairy tales from around the world and retold them with Latino characters and culture to create a new take on them.  With each fairy tale, I had to come up with a central theme as a starter. For Example, Hansel and Gretel to me is about the tenacity of children.  I’m very proud of that book which made it on the reading list of many school districts. One story from the collection also is in a textbook. I have also written a middle-grade book about two resourceful sisters who hunt ghosts. They are scared and delighted because they discover a ghost in their new school. I’m looking for a publisher for that one.”

And Santos doesn’t stop there, her skill range from journalism to school books to writing screenplays. “I was a longtime reporter, but quit three years ago just to write. I love it. Being a reporter for all those years did teach me how to meet 16231423deadlines, write quickly and do research–all useful to a fiction writer. I also write screenplays and have placed in the top percentages in many contests. I have written and produced four short films. One of those is homage to bad sci-fi horror movies called “Attack of the Killer Potatoes.””

Like most of you Horror Addicts out there, Patricia’s love of horror grew from many of the classics. “I have so many favorites—mostly the ones that have distinct characteristics. The monster in “Alien.”  Boris Karloff’s “Frankenstein.” Anything zombie. Hannibal Lecter. The ants in “Them.” Christopher Lee’s  Dracula. The hotel in “The Shining.” James Arness’ “The Thing.” And of course, “Dexter,” who I will miss. I also love anything by H.P. Lovecraft and “Tales from the Crypt.”

Patricia’s future goals are simple, “to continue to be a storyteller and sell books, of course.” And continue she does, “A mystery involving Jack the Ripper, a John Grisham-drama, and also a graphic novel collection of horror and suspense stories called Suena Street. Suena means dream.”

For more information on Patricia Santos Marcantonio, be sure to check out these websites:
http://patriciasantosmarcantonio.com/
http://www.amazon.com/Patricia-Santos-Marcantonio/e/B001IXO71G
http://theweepingwoman.com/

Free Fiction Friday: The Weeping Woman

16231423For this week’s Free Fiction Friday selection we have Patricia Santos Marcantonio’s, The Weeping Woman. We have two copies of this great paranormal mystery to give out. All you need to do is be one of the first two people to leave a comment on this blog post and the book is yours. Here is a reprint of my review if you need me to persuade you to get your free copy:

Every culture has their ghost stories and one Mexican legend is the tale of La Llorona, The Weeping Woman. There was once a beautiful woman named Maria who had two children but was never married. She fell in love with a man but he did not want her kids, so Maria drowned them in the river. God punished her by taking away her beauty and leaving her to wander the earth yelling “where is my children.” To this day, kids  scare each other by saying “if you don’t watch out La Llorona will get you.”

This is the legend behind Patricia Santos Marcantonio’s The Weeping Woman. In San Antonio, children are going missing and detective Blue Rodriguez believes someone is copying the story of La Lorona.  Blue is a cop with a tortured past and when she is close to a dead body she has the ability to see what they saw and feel what they felt before they died. The kidnappings are taking place in her old neighborhood and to make matters worse, there is also an arsonist torching the city. Blue gets paired up with FBI agent Daniel Ryan and together they investigate several false leads before they figure out who is kidnapping the children. The kidnapper has powers of her own and has a connection to Blue. Blue has to face down her demons and come to terms with her past in order to save the children from The Weeping Woman.

What really made this book good was the characters, they are all three-dimensional with good back stories. The main theme of The Weeping Woman is that everyone has secrets in their past and even though you may try to hide them, they effect everything you do. The way the author proves her point is by showing how all the characters are all tortured  by their past .

For example, the arsonist wants to burn buildings down but you start to feel sorry for him as you hear why he does it. Also there is a drug dealer and you see how bad he is, but as you get into his background, you understand him and feel for him. Also the reaction he had when he helps lead the detectives to the missing kids, proves he is not all bad. There was also a suspect in the beginning whose last moments are described and you can’t help to feel compassion for him even though he was a bad person. Patricia Santos Marcantonio must have done a lot of research for her characters because they all seemed very real to me. Blue’s abusive mother and the arsonist’s drug addicted sister were excellent characters and I loved how Blue’s mother reacts when Blue stands up to her.

There were several sub plots in the story and Patricia does a great job weaving them together. There is also a point about loosing faith and getting it back again that I liked.  The Weeping Woman is an excellent tale that masterfully combines horror and mystery. The characters are great and the story line is like a Criminal Minds episode geared towards a horror fan. If you like a mystery with a paranormal twist, check this one out.

If you want a free copy of The Weeping Woman, please leave a comment below.

The Weeping Woman

16231423Every culture has their ghost stories and one Mexican legend is the tale of La Llorona, The Weeping Woman. There was once a beautiful woman named Maria who had two children but was never married. She fell in love with a man but he did not want her kids, so Maria drowned them in the river. God punished her by taking away her beauty and leaving her to wander the earth yelling “where is my children.” To this day, kids  scare each other by saying “if you don’t watch out La Llorona will get you.”

This is the legend behind Patricia Santos Marcantonio’s The Weeping Woman. In San Antonio, children are going missing and detective Blue Rodriguez believes someone is copying the story of La Lorona.  Blue is a cop with a tortured past and when she is close to a dead body she has the ability to see what they saw and feel what they felt before they died. The kidnappings are taking place in her old neighborhood and to make matters worse, there is also an arsonist torching the city. Blue gets paired up with FBI agent Daniel Ryan and together they investigate several false leads before they figure out who is kidnapping the children. The kidnapper has powers of her own and has a connection to Blue. Blue has to face down her demons and come to terms with her past in order to save the children from The Weeping Woman.

What really made this book good was the characters, they are all three-dimensional with good back stories. The main theme of The Weeping Woman is that everyone has secrets in their past and even though you may try to hide them, they effect everything you do. The way the author proves her point is by showing how all the characters are all tortured  by their past .

For example, the arsonist wants to burn buildings down but you start to feel sorry for him as you hear why he does it. Also there is a drug dealer and you see how bad he is, but as you get into his background, you understand him and feel for him. Also the reaction he had when he helps lead the detectives to the missing kids, proves he is not all bad. There was also a suspect in the beginning whose last moments are described and you can’t help to feel compassion for him even though he was a bad person. Patricia Santos Marcantonio must have done a lot of research for her characters because they all seemed very real to me. Blue’s abusive mother and the arsonist’s drug addicted sister were excellent characters and I loved how Blues mother reacts when Blue stands up to her.

The only thing I didn’t like about the book was that there was a love story between two characters that I thought was out-of-place. I felt it slowed things down and there was already a good love story between Blue, her sister and their aunt. There were several sub plots in the story and Patricia does a great job weaving them together. There is also a point about loosing faith and getting it back again that I liked.  The Weeping Woman is an excellent tale that masterfully combines horror and mystery. The characters are great and the story line is like a Criminal Minds episode geared towards a horror fan. If you like a mystery with a paranormal twist, check this one out.

Guest Blog: Patricia Marcantonio – La Llorona

How La Llorona scared and inspired me

As a kid in Pueblo, Colorado, I lived down the street from a cemetery, which to any horror fan is like living near Disneyland.

The cemetery was old. A six- foot tall stone and crumbing fence surrounded the place which we ignored during the day. But nighttime was another matter. Facing our street was a black iron gate in the cemetery wall and lone light above that Llorona Graphicthrew off a yellow illumination not only attracting bugs but evil.  Just inside the gate was gravestone with the name Frankenburg or something like that. To us, however, it became Frankenstein’s resting place, or unresting place.  We used to dare each other to touch the stone and live to tell the story. I tried once. My fingers grazed the cool marble. I swore I heard Frankenstein moan, or maybe it was Frankenburg.

Before the days of zombie videos, my friends and cousins tried to outdo one another in scaring the socks off each other in the evenings before our parents called us in for the night. And as Latinos, we specifically terrified each other with sightings of La Llorona.

We all knew the story of La Llorona, which had been told to us by our parents. As a result, the variations are many but this is the one my sister and I heard. The story starts with a beautiful, selfish woman who loved to party and keep company with men. One day, she drowned her children so she could run off a man. God swept the babies to heaven, but his wrath fell upon the woman. Her once lovely face turned demonic from her wickedness. Her hair became white as mist and gnarled as angry snakes, and her eyes were blood red from incessant weeping for her lost children. She called in a hideous squeaky voice, “Where are my babies? Where are my babies. ” La Llorona means the weeping woman.

Though not exactly a cozy bedtime story, the tale was meant to keep youngsters away from strangers. But to us, the weeping woman was just another monster from which to hide or run from. In fact, she ranked right up there with vampires and Frankenstein. (The zombie craze had not yet hit back then.)

In front of the cemetery, the cousins would yell, “It’s the Llorona!” We would spin and swear we could see her, or at least imagine seeing her. Dragging twisted feet and wearing a dirty ragged white gown. We’d scream out of the very real fear—for it is that when you are nine–that she would indeed grab us with claw covered hands and take us to hell or drown us like she did her poor children.  We’d scatter, then return the spot under the cemetery light and wonder what other monster we could spot.

Those were the good times.

I owe a lot to La Llorona. She scared me then and was part of the inspiration for me becoming a writer. Hers was just a darned good story. It also made me want more horror tales.

I stayed up reading “Tales from the Crypt” and H.P. Lovecraft.  Sure, I loved to read fairy tales and all those other good kids books, but give me a good scare every time.

I never missed Friday night horror movies on TV. One night when my father worked a late shift,  my sister, my mom and me huddled together watching the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” We trembled when an unformed alien body oozed out of one of those bizarre pods. We didn’t want to close our eyes in sleep and I was tempted to look under my bed to make sure there were no pods.

Ah, what memories.

As I grew up, my love of horror continued. Vampires were among my favorites. Not the cute Edward Cullen kind, but the bloodsuckers whose eyes were gorged with blood from their latest victims. To this day, I am a particular fan of Christopher Lee’s version in the British Rank Films. Now that is one vampire you don’t want to see outside your window.

My love of the horrific in books, graphic novels, television and movies continues. Why? It is true.  The more scared you are, the more you feel alive. But there is something else. Perhaps, it is because of a sad humanity behind the monsters and creatures. An unfairness when a man grows hair and fangs through no fault of his own, when you happen to move into a house built over a cemetery, when the devil has its eye on you, or you’re stuck in a spaceship with a malevolent alien. There is also bravery in how people face a Michael Myers, Jigsaw, anyone carrying a chainsaw, and a zombie licking its lips for your brain.

I do write children’s books, dramas, and romance. But horror is well, special, all because of La Llorona. She inspired me, and her tale is part of my culture and childhood. I have written about the weeping woman in a short story, play, and now a novel. She taught what it was like to be scared.

Sometimes, my husband and I walk our dogs at night. Up ahead under a street light, I still wonder if La Llorona lurks in the shadows, crying for her doomed babies, claws out, and ready to strike.

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Patricia Santos Marcantonio grew up with a family of storytellers. Her children’s book “Red Ridin‘ in the Hood” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) earned an Anne Izard Storyteller’s Choice Award and American Library Association Starred Review, and was named a Best Collections to Share – Wilde Awards. Her screenplays have hit the top percentage in several contests, including MORE Women in Film, Screenwriting Expo 5, Women in Film Las Vegas and the Phoenix Film Festival contest. Her new horror novel, “The Weeping Woman” has been released by Sunbury Press, Inc.

You can find more at www.theweepingwoman.com and www.patriciamarcantonio.wordpress.com.