Welcome to our column Creepy Crypts, in which our writers exhume the old, the forgotten, and the long dead horror some of us have forgotten...until now...
...The Aztec Mummy (La Momia Azteca, 1957), directed by Rafael Portillo and written by Guillermo Calderón and Alfredo Salazar, kicks off with an experiment in hypnosis, during which Dr. Eduardo Almada (Ramón Gay) probes the memories of his test subject Flor (Rosita Arenas). In doing so he pushes through Flor’s recollections of early childhood and into memories of a past life as an Aztec sacrificial maiden. In the process, the team learn of hitherto undiscovered treasures hidden in the Great Pyramid of Yucatan.
Dr. Almada and his team head off to retrieve these relics, but problems soon start piling up. For one, a notorious masked criminal known as “The Bat” hears of the expedition and hopes to get his own hands on the treasures. For another, the artefacts are guarded by an animated Aztec mummy who, in life, was the lover of Flor’s past incarnation.
The main inspiration for The Aztec Mummy is obvious. Most of this Mexican film’s premise is lifted from Universal’s The Mummy: the ancient maiden reincarnated as a modern woman, her sometime lover resurrected as an animated mummy—it all comes from the Universal classic, and is still clearly recognisable despite the Mesoamerican setting. In fairness, however, the original Mummy series had concluded with Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy in 1955 and the Hammer revival would not appear until 1959; with the Egyptian mummy cycle having hit a slow period, it was just the right time for another culture to have a try at this classic monster.
The film also finds other sources to borrow from, with results that, while still hardly original, become oddly compelling: a scented pot pourri of genre elements. Universal’s films tended to pair the mummy up with a human sorcerer, but The Aztec Mummy gives the latter role to the Bat—a masked criminal straight out of an old-timey comic book, complete with a mystery as to his true identity. Meanwhile, the subplot regarding Flor’s past life is couched in pseudoscientific discourse about hypnotic regression and the psychology of memory (compare this to Universal’s Mummy, where the heroine simply needed to look into a magic pool before remembering her past self).
This latter touch was topical. The film was made at around the time when researchers like Morey Bernstein and the more sceptical Emile Franckel were conducting research into memories of past lives being allegedly recovered through hypnosis. The Aztec Mummy’s prologue presents this as the key theme of the film, with a narrator claiming that the story constitutes “reality and fiction intertwined”.
Those who come to the film from its garbled north-of-the-border release as Face of the Screaming Werewolf (where it was mashed up with footage from a werewolf comedy starring Lon Chaney Jr) might be surprised at just how earnest The Aztec Mummy is, with a sense of conviction running through even its weaker stretches. The flashbacks to the Aztec sacrifice drag on for rather longer than is necessary, yes, but this is because the filmmakers have taken time and effort to invoke pre-Columbian Mexico and want to ensure that everyone appreciates their work. Similarly, the scenes of scientists engaging in passionate discussions about hypnosis may not move the plot forward, but they provide ample opportunity for the actors to get into roles that they clearly take seriously.
The mummy himself is a reasonably effective piece of make-up and costuming, although low-quality DVD prints reduce a lot of his key scenes to a few highlights bobbing around a pitch-black murk (let’s face it, this was never going to be a candidate for a remastered Criterion release). He is no substitute for Boris Karloff—despite his line in distinctly Karloffian growls—but he compares well with the mummies in Universal’s own sequels.
The Aztec Mummy could have been just another cheapjack imitation of Universal; but while clearly derivative, it makes a good effort at emulating that studio at its best. Although it is not entirely successful, its sheer enthusiasm nonetheless manages to rub off.
By Doris V. Sutherland