[Tearing Through Werewolf Cinema] 'Face of the Screaming Werewolf' Was a Frankensteined Hybrid of Two Films from Mexico
Welcome to a weekly series in which Doris V. Sutherland takes readers on a trip through the history of werewolf cinema...
...In Face of the Screaming Werewolf (1964) a team of American researchers retrieve a woman’s memories of a past life as an Aztec sacrificial victim and head to Mexico to investigate further. Guided by the recovered memories, they find a hidden chamber in a pyramid that contains two mummies—one of which is alive. They subdue the living mummy and take both specimens back to America, but the inanimate mummy is stolen by rogue scientists who attempt to revive it. They succeed, only to find that the mummy is a werewolf! Before long, there is chaos as both a lycanthrope and an Aztec mummy are loose in the city.
If there’s one thing that defines sixties werewolf films, it’s international scope. The United States revived the subgenre in the late fifties, but quickly relegated the werewolf to the role of comedy prop in films like House on Bare Mountain (1962) and The Maltese Bippy (1969); tellingly, the most famous lycanthrope to come out of Hollywood in this decade was Eddie Munster. And so, it fell upon filmmakers of other countries to keep the fuller-blooded werewolves alive. Britain did so with The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), Italy tried its hand with Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory (1962)—but it was Mexico that truly embraced the theme.
Alas, not all of the Mexican werewolf films made it to the English-speaking world. La loba (1965) and the Western-influenced El charro de las Calaveras (also 1965) appear never to have been officially translated. And when the Mexican films did travel north of the border, well, they weren’t always intact. Which brings us back to Face of the Screaming Werewolf.
Behind its brilliant title, this film turns out to be the Frankensteined hybrid of two unrelated Mexican movies: La Casa del terror (1960) (written/directed by Gilberto Martínez Solares with Juan García and Fernando de Fuentes) and La Momia Azteca (1957) (written by Guillermo Calderón and Alfredo Salazar and directed by Rafael Portillo). US producer Jerry Warren spliced footage from the two together, papering over the cracks with some original material in which new characters do a questionable job of explaining the jumbled plot:
Dr. Redding (Ramón Gay) has brought back with him not one, but two embalmed creatures that were discovered in a level of the pyramid located with the help of Ann Taylor (Rosita Arenas). The way it was explained to me, one is an actual mummified inhabitant of an ancient civilisation preserved by a formula unknown to our generation. The other is that of a modern man, placed in the pyramid only recently after an exchange of body fluids with the mummy in an effort to achieve an apparent state of death. A meeting of palaeontologists at Commonwealth Hall has been scheduled for this evening.
On paper, this may have seemed like a workable premise. The two original films had something of a pick-and-mix ethos to them: if La Casa del terror has a mummy being revived as a werewolf, then what harm could there be in adding another mummy for good measure?
Quite a bit, as it happens. La Casa del terror was a comedy, and knew that its premise was silly. Mashing it up with La Momia Azteca is a little like splicing footage from Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein into The Mummy and hoping it’ll still work as a straight horror film.
Jerry Warren seems to have done his best to weave a coherent story out of the two films, but Face of the Screaming Werewolf still ends up riddled with holes. Who are the mummy-stealing scientists? Why do they resurrect the mummy in a wax museum? Why does everyone forget about the second, already-animated mummy until it escapes from captivity? Who is the woman who pops up in the final act to be menaced by the werewolf, after the film’s first heroine is abruptly killed off? If the werewolf is a modern man, then who mummified him and why?
In fairness, that last question does, perhaps, have an implicit answer. In La Casa del terror Chaney’s character was an ancient Egyptian; Warren’s decision to portray him instead as a modern man subject to “an effort to achieve an apparent state of death” may well have been an effort to pass Face of the Screaming Werewolf off as an unofficial instalment of Universal’s Wolf Man series. Chaney’s motive in those films was to find eternal rest, after all, so his apparent self-mummification in Face of the Screaming Werewolf would be in-character.
On the other hand, it’s possible that all of this is just thrown-together tosh which nobody put any thought into whatsoever.
It has to be said, the crew behind La Casa del terror did a good job of emulating Jack Pierce’s Wolf Man make-up, and delivered some good scenes of him on the rampage: the tense sequence of him tailing a woman at night is particularly effective, if you can get past the blatant imitation of Cat People. So it’s too bad that Chaney’s return to his most iconic role arrived in the US as such a garbled mess. Face of the Screaming Werewolf has curiosity value, but you’d be better off sticking to the original two Mexican films—they’re scarcely any harder to get hold of these days.
By Doris V. Sutherland
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