Monday, February 16, 2015

El sombrerón (1950)

... aka: Man with the Giant Hat, The

Directed by:
Guillermo Andreu
Eduard Fleischmann

The only available print of this extremely rare Guatemalan film - one of the only (partial) horror films of 1950, one of the only horror films ever produced in Guatemala and supposedly the first theatrically-released film from that country - is only available in Spanish and only available in a really, really bad / dark / murky / heavily damaged print. Added to the opening credits are a statement that this was the first sound film ever produced in its home country (an IMDb search reveals that it's the earliest film from Guatemala period currently in their database) and was also shot on 16mm film. The same statement claims the film was donated by Eduardo Fleischmann, the credited photographer, producer and editor (IMDb and other sources also claim he co-directed though I didn't see him listed in the credits for doing so), in the late 1980s and had its picture reconstructed and sound restored at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico and the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala in 1990. I suppose they did the best they could with what they had to work with, but in its current shape, this isn't an easy film to sit through. And truth be told, few outside of very dedicated film buffs are probably going to even bother.

As far as the original credits are concerned, the film is in such bad shape that I had to import screen grabs of them into my photo editing program, do a reverse black-and-white image, hit "darken" about five times and then adjust the sharpness as far as it would go and even then I wasn't able to make them all out. Based on what I could read, I learned that this film is based on a radio theater drama about the legend of El Sombrerón (I'll get to that in a little bit) by José Luis Andreu Corzo. However, it doesn't just stick to that radio program or the specific legend itself but also incorporates elements from the book "Han de estar y estarán," which covers various Guatemalan stories and legends, by Francisco Barnoya Gálvez. Many songs are listed in the credits (yes, this is also - perhaps even primarily - a musical), including three by director Andreu.

El Sombrerón (or, loosely, 'The Man with the Giant Hat') is one of the most famous legends / folk tales in Guatemala. The character, sometimes referred to as Tzipitio, is a short vagabond dressed almost entirely in black who's either a goblin or a ghost, drags along mules or dogs everywhere he goes and wears an ornamental belt and, most notably, a very large hat. The fiend is obsessed with braiding hair and will braid the hair of horses and dogs while he waits for a receptive, long-haired, large-eyed young woman. Once he zeroes in on a target, he will serenade them with his silver guitar and beautiful voice until she gives in and lets him braid her hair. Afterward, El Sombrerón refuses to leave the woman alone. He will keep her up all night with his singing, haunt her by making appearances inside her home, throw dirt and rocks into her food so she cannot eat and basically hound her into an early grave. In the most frequently told tale, El Sombrerón menaces a girl named Susana, leading her parents to cut off all her hair and then have it blessed at a church in order to finally drive the boogeyman away. What this really is is a story designed to scare young women into obedience and keep them away from men, but that's another discussion entirely.

Art based on El Sombrerón runs the gamut from silly...

To fairy-tale like...

To macabre.

Things open with lots of hazy shots of the sky, clouds, trees and cows walking down a path while an entire song plays. A couple of guys; "El Pilar" ranch owner Don Ramón (played by co-director Andreu) and goofball Ciriaco (Paco Pérez), who speaks in an annoying squeaky "comic" voice like he's just hit puberty, argue about the cows. Ciriaco is then busted drinking milk and sleeping on the job, so Ramon sends over his mouthy young female housekeeper Rosalía (Sally Polantinos) to chew him out. While Rosalía washes clothes, a quarter of guys with guitars serenade her as the camera keeps tilting down to show their reflection in the water. Ciriaco is in love with Rosalía, but she doesn't seem that interested so he's hoping his persistence pays off. Elsewhere, a strange, creepy, nameless man with a huge mustache and an even larger sombrero (played by Octavio Paiz) goes to village priest Padre Juan (Julio Urruela) and tells him a long story about something that happened to him thirty years earlier. We then go into partially-narrated flashback mode, and it's a long flashback at that.

In the flashback scenes, a man named Santiago (Luis Rivera) and another guy (didn't catch the name but he's shown to be a mass murderer so we shall call him "Psycho" from here on out) both fall in love with the same woman (didn't catch her name but we shall call her "Floozy" from here on out). Santiago drowns his sorrows in booze at a local tavern and sings a mournful song, then decides to take his drunken ass to a fiesta where we catches "Floozy" and "Psycho" talking. After causing a scene, he's dragged off, tied up to some poles and gets slapped around by "Psycho" after he spits in his face. A friend of Santiago's pops in to club a guard over the head and the two escape into the woods. Meanwhile, "Floozy's" mother (María Luisa Aragón) goes to a monastery to pray and get advice from a monk and then returns home just in time to see "Psycho" stab her her daughter to death. Santiago vows revenge, chases "Psycho" down and the two get into a hilariously sped-up fight with knives, where one ends up dead. Things finally return to the priest and the strange man, where he's revealed to be a ghost, and then we catch up again briefly with Ciriaco, Rosalía and Ramón.

I don't know if it's the result of a butchered print or technical incompetence or what, but this has extremely bad camerawork, extremely haphazard continuity between shots and extremely bad editing. The camera frequently seems to be moving somewhere but suddenly cuts off mid pan and then we're suddenly onto something else. The photography is also as primitive as it gets. We're talking constant overexposure and under and over lit shots throughout; none of which are helped any by the awful source print but obviously would also be present even in a better-quality version. In my research, I did read an anecdote about Fleischmann and his wife supposedly editing the film in their backyard (?!) so maybe that explains it. Either way, this makes even films from the infancy of the silent era look technically proficient. The acting ranges from acceptable to terrible and there are numerous long takes of nothing that will try most people's patience. Add to that constant musical interludes breaking up the action and drama, and the film has a hard time finding any kind of rhythm or building up to much of anything.

Perhaps most disappointing of all is that this has almost nothing to do with the legend I spoke about a few paragraphs above. While this isn't the film's fault, I was still bummed I never got to see a black-clad dwarf goblin with a hair braiding fetish serenading and harassing naive young señoritas. I am however going to be a bit lenient in my scoring here because I don't feel I can give a completely accurate evaluation of the movie as I'm not fluent in Spanish and the print is in such bad shape. This also earns bonus points for being historically important and because it's at times an interesting look into a culture otherwise not represented otherwise at all in film during this same time. Some of the music is also pretty catchy, particularly the song / dance number performed at the party. Yes, I'm pretty much grasping at straws here.

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