Thursday, April 9, 2020

LA BRUJA (1954) Movie Review

La Bruja (1954) d. Chano Urueta (Mexico) (82 min)

When Dr. Boerner (Julio Villareal) refuses to sell his revolutionary anti-aging formula to a trio of enterprising businessmen (Ramon Gay, Charles Rooner, Fernando Wagner), they send two thugs to his laboratory to procure it by means fair or foul. Unfortunately for all involved, the doctor is not home and the villains murder his daughter Myrta when she attempts to stop them from entering. Wracked with grief, Boerner seeks out Paulesco (Luis Aceves Castañeda), the king of the gypsy underworld, and calls in a favor (the good doctor saved the criminal’s life the night Myrta was killed) to enact his revenge. By transforming the horribly malformed Nora (Lilia del Valle) into a stunning beauty and passing her off as a visiting countess, Boerner plans to lure each of the businessmen to his respective doom….

Combining elements of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Freaks, and Fritz Lang’s M, this is a fascinating, dark, and well-told morality story that packs a punch and keeps the viewer guessing. Urueto who also adapted Alfredo Salazar’s story, keeps the narrative flowing with a number of standout dramatic sequences (Paulesco’s “Tribunal of the Night,” where swift and brutal justice is meted out) and inventive camera angles (Boerner framed by his chemistry equipment, the beggars laughing manically directly into the lens).

On the downside, the time-lapse transformations are clunky and the makeup is crude, but for a film that seems to follow the “Vengeance by Science” playbook (a la The Devil Bat), even seasoned fans will not see all the twists and turns coming.

As the wronged scientist, Villareal delivers a severe portrait of a respectable citizen driven to extremes, but it is Valle’s standout turn as the woman labeled “La Bruja” simply because of her physical deformities that stays with us. Masked behind thick makeup panels, such that only her right eye is visible, and buck teeth, the skilled and soulful actress still manages to exude the loneliness of someone who has never before known love or self-respect.

Once her lovely visage is on full display as the Countess, we sense the undercurrent of nervousness and desperation that this new life (and face) could disappear in an instant. (As she quickly learns, the doctor’s potion only works for a limited amount of time, adding a “Cinderella at the ball” ticking clock to the proceedings.)

With over 100 directing credits, Urueda would dip his toe into the horror pool several more times over the course of a career that spanned five decades. In addition to his most renowned genre effort, 1962’s The Witch’s Mirror, Urueda delivered a 280-minute horror/western serial The Headless Rider (1956), and helmed several luchadore (aka masked wrestler) movies, including Blue Demon Contra el Poder Satanico (1965), Blue Demon Contra Cerebros Infernales (1966), and Blue Demon Contra las Diabolicas (1967). He could also be seen onscreen from time to time, but is probably best known to English-speaking audiences for his appearances in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

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