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The Living Coffin
El Grito de la Muerte

The Living Coffin
Casanegra / Panik House
1958 /Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 72 min. / El grito de la muerte / Street Date April 24 , 2007 / 19.95
Starring Gastón Santos, El caballo Rey de Plata, Marí Duval Quintí Bulnes, Pedro D'Aguillón, Carlos Ancira, Caroline Barret
Cinematography Víctor Herrera
Production Design Gunther Gerszo
Film Editor Charles L. Kimball
Original Music Gustavo César Carrión
Written by Ramón Obón
Produced by Alfredo Ripstein, César Santos Galindo
Directed by Fernando Méndez

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Casanegra's series of uncut original Mexican horror offerings has yielded some serious discoveries as well as fruitcake delights such as the delirious The Brainiac. This new release carrying the promising title El grito de la muerte (Scream of the Dead, a.k.a. The Living Coffin) turns out to be a horror western with only a slight accent on horror. Perhaps five minutes of a ghostly murderess stalking a Mexican hacienda are interspersed with a formulaic murder mystery conducted by a corny, personality-challenged cowboy hero. Leaden leading man Gastón Santos shares top billing with "Rayo de Plata" (Silver Light Ray) .... a horse. Mexican audiences apparently loved their westerns Tom Mix- style.


Undercover lawman Gastón (Gastón Santos) comes to the García ranch wanting to know about an odd carved idol. The ranch and the nearby town have been deteriorating for a year, ever since the death of the lady matriarch. Young heir María Elena García (María Duval) is troubled by the morbid atmosphere. Her superstitious Aunt Clotilde (Carolina Barret), is convinced that the dead woman is La Lorona, or "weeping ghost" escaped from the crypt. Gastón and his sleepy sidekick Coyote Loco (Pedro D'Aguillón) accompany a doctor back to the ranch and slowly uncover the truth. Is a conspiracy afoot, or is La Llorona really rising from the dead to strangle unlucky victims?

A bloody victim collapses in the swamp (which looks rather parched to us) next to a scary skeletal corpse, as a screaming female voice howls, "My children!" The Living Coffin then devolves into a Mexican version of a Lone Ranger episode. Gastón Santos' buckskin garbed, white hatted 'amateur archeologist' wanders into a haunted house situation. After a number of ho-hum spooky events, he turns out to be (surprise!) a federal agent rooting out a murderous conspiracy. The García household is paralyzed by missing corpses, unexplainable killings and a haunted clock with a dagger stabbed into its dial. The beautiful, available young heiress frets, the ranch manager wishes that the old lady in charge would stop being so superstitious and our noble Gastón relies on a comic-relief pal in a coonskin cap to hold his horse. When the lawman is stuck in quicksand or needs help rousting the local bad guys, that trusty horse comes to his aid like Rin-Tin-Tin. In the film's silliest scene, the white stallion fires a gun by pulling a string, thus fooling the bumbling baddies into thinking that they're surrounded. I don't know of any 30s series westerns that were this infantile: Gastón returns from a soaking in the mud with a spotless leather outfit, and hurriedly explains that he 'spent all day washing his clothes in a brook.'

The Living Coffin's 10% horror content is interesting because the movie is in color, and is fairly careful with its lighting. A few setups use color accents that, if they were a bit more creative, might remind one of Mario Bava's work. Typical is the shot where a large wooden beam blots out the upper reaches of the frame, conveniently blocking our view of the top of the set and the lights peeking over it. La Llorona's initial appearances are actually quite effective, using spooky close-ups of a woman with a weird, dusty-looking facial texture.

The mystery of The Living Coffin resolves into a typical fake ghost gambit to cheat a family of its fortune, in this case, a gold mine. The movie has laughable shoot-outs and a risible saloon fistfight sequence, the kind where the stuntman reels backward from the hero's mighty blow, looks where he's going and then exerts himself to tumble 'out of control' over the bar. The film may not be scary, but it is occasionally funny.

According to David Wilt, star Gastón Santos was the playboy son of the governor of the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí. He was first a bullfighter and then seems to have gravitated to films as a lark. As an actor Santos is a complete wash. He exhibits only two facial choices (calm, distress) and approaches most scenes with an utter lack of expression. The energetic supporting cast can't do much, although Carolina Barret is effective as the frightened, superstitious Aunt. Pedro D'Aguillón's mildly likeable clown isn't going to attract any new fans; the music score makes room for 'wah-wah' type comedy stings when he pulls his 'zany' antics. That aspect of the picture is pretty painful.

Casanegra's The Living Coffin comes in an acceptable full-frame color transfer that's yellowish in interiors and totally screwy on exteriors. Day for Night riding scenes are identical to Day for Day exteriors, except yellower and with more grain. Only the nighttime dialogue material is really attractive. The main title blocks are composed in horizontal rectangles that suggest a widescreen aspect ratio, but many scenes fill the frame with action, indicating either that the movie was creatively re-composed for TV in some printing step, or that it was just sloppily filmed in the first place.

The film has a Spanish language track with optional English subtitles. Casanegra has happily resisted lame commentaries and irrelevant Rock 'n' Roll extras this time around; David Wilt's overview essay of the Mexican horror-western boils down to little more than a list of movies but his bios of the leading players contain good information and insights. However, the tiny text is difficult to read, even on a large projection monitor. Like all Casanegra DVD releases, all menus and even the package cover are bilingual.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Living Coffin rates:
Movie: Fair but amusing
Video: Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Text bios, overview of Mexican horror westerns by David Wilt.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 15, 2007

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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