Saturday, March 7, 2020

La momia azteca (1957)

... aka: Attack of the Aztec Mummy
... aka: Aztec Mummy, The
... aka: Il risveglio della mummia (The Awakening of the Mummy)
... aka: La momia (The Mummy)

Directed by:
Rafael Portillo

Dr. Eduardo Almada (Ramón Gay), a special guest at the "First International Congress of Neuro-Psychiatric Research" in Mexico City, has just returned from Prague where he's been researching hypnosis. There, he was working on developing a theory that someone's past life can be revealed utilizing a technique called hypnotic regression. The only problem he has now is finding a research subject willing to be put under. It could be dangerous. Dr. Almada is basically laughed off the stage by his skeptical colleagues for even broaching the subject and returns home a defeated and discouraged man, though not one ready to give up just yet.

A potential test subject has to meet numerous criteria in order to withstand the experiment. They must be young, healthy and both physically and mentally strong. That automatically excludes Eduardo's mentor Dr. José Sepúlveda (Jorge Mondragón), who's old and frail, and his colleague Pinacate (Crox Alvarado), who's a bit of a wuss. However, Eduardo's fiancée, Flor (Rosita Arenas), who also happens to Sepúlveda's daughter, is ideal and perfectly fine with being their guinea pig. She's given a drug cocktail intravenously and then hypnotized by a combination of a spinning wheel, a metronome and Almada's calming voice. They first tap into her 6-year-old self, back when her family nickname was "Muñeca" ("Doll") and then count back to zero. From there, they enter her previous life and count forward to her 20-year-old self.

In Flor's past she lived on the island of Tenochtitlan and was an Aztec maiden by the name of Xochi. Xochi was marked from birth to die as a sacrifice to her village's God, which is the highest honor for her people. However, she was supposed to remain out of sight but instead fell in love with a warrior named Popoca (Ángel Di Stefani). When the tribe discovered what was going on, Popoca was fed a special elixir to keep him in a suspended state and was buried alive. Instead of dying for her God, Xochi instead got to die in shame; stabbed through the heart with a dagger. Recalling all of this makes Flor's heart stop, but she's revived with oxygen and a drug to stimulate her respiratory cycle. Though the experiment was a success, experiencing death and a small taste of the afterlife has Flor a bit rattled.

Unbeknownst to the scientists, a criminal mastermind by the name of El Murciélago, or "The Bat," (Jesús Murcielago Velázquez) watched their entire experiment through a window. Bat, decked out in a black top hat, black cape and black mask, runs a network of thugs and is rumored to dabble in science himself, though his work involves vivisection and skin grafts to create monsters (something we never get to see here). Bat orders his men to bug the Almada home because their research could be of future use.

Now wanting actual proof of Flor's past life, Dr. Almada decides the best thing to do would be to find the tomb of Popoca / Xochi and retrieve a breastplate they were buried with. Flor and a male servant of Aztec origin both warn against this as it could bring great misfortune to their home, but a man of science is a man of science. He doesn't have time for that superstitious nonsense! The gang travel to the island and to some ruins. Flor is able to lead them right to the burial tomb. They find a hidden entrance behind some bricks and another hidden door and finally make it to the ancient temple. The breastplate is removed from Xochi's skeleton and they return home, where Almada is able to present it as evidence to his colleagues, including the skeptical Dr. Krupp (Luis Aceves Castañeda).

Rumor has it that translating the hieroglyph on the breastplate will lead to the whereabouts to a hidden treasure. However, one also needs a bracelet to decipher it, and that's something The Bat and his main thug Tierno (Arturo Martínez), who've been keeping close tabs on their activities, are especially interested in. Almada, his future father-in-law and assistant return to the pyramid, where they realize their thievery has brought Popoca back as a growling mummy. If only someone had warned them! It manages to slowly shamble its way to the Almada residence that same night where it scoops up both its breastplate and Flor and returns to the temple where it plots to sacrifice her.

The reincarnation / hypnotism aspects here were clearly influenced by the famous Bridey Murphy case, which was also the inspiration behind Roger Corman's delightful (and underrated) THE UNDEAD (1957). Both of these were released shortly after the best-selling novel The Search for Bridey Murphy and the Hollywood film adaptation of the same name. Other films like The She-Creature (1956) and Fright (1956) were also made to capitalize on Bridey Murphy and some actually even managed to beat the Hollywood version to theaters. This aspect also happens to be the most interesting part of the entire film, which isn't really a good thing considering most viewers want to see, ya know, an Aztec mummy.

While this isn't too poorly-made, and the exteriors, Aztec costumes and mummy design are actually pretty good, this film suffers a lot from being exceptionally poorly paced. It takes an entire hour of this 80 minute film for the mummy to even be shown and even then it is barely visible and not involved in much of the action. Seeing how the first sixty minutes is slow-moving and talky, this rushes through the finale in record time with the police simply pulling over The Bat in their police car, doing a quick unmasking and then exiting stage left, while the heroes end up at the temple to "fight" the mummy, which involves whipping out a crucifix and then a stick of dynamite and is over in less than two minutes. Boo! Of course, no mummy worth its grain in sand can be kept down for too long...

This was the first of a trio of films that required much time padding to even be expanded that far. Both of the sequels: THE CURSE OF THE AZTEC MUMMY (1957) and THE ROBOT VS. THE AZTEC MUMMY (1958), utilize a bunch of "flashback" footage from this film to push their running times to over an hour. Oddly, both Curse and Robot were English-dubbed for U.S. theatrical and TV release while this original film never was. Instead of being released in its original form, it ended up in the hands of Jerry Warren, who spliced footage from it into his mishmashes ATTACK OF THE MAYAN MUMMY and FACE OF THE SCREAMING WEREWOLF (both 1964). Going by the amount of posters available, this seems to have received a fairly wide release in Italy under the title Il risveglio della mummia / "The Awakening of the Mummy," which credit the direction to "King Miller." Robot was also released there under the new title Il terrore viene d'oltretomba / "Terror Comes from Beyond the Grave." All three movies are now available on BCI Eclipse's Aztec Mummy collection.

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