From 1956’s The Beast of Hollow Mountain to 2005’s Dead Birds, cinema’s fascination with fusing the horror and western genres has proven to be as resilient as it has bewildering. Perhaps it’s because this was the final frontier for a developing America, a time when making the trek out Pacific way meant facing a lawless and untamed land teeming with strange new perils. That, or it was just cheap to slap some cowboy suits on people, make them run around the desert at night, and call it a film. In any case, it’s not uncommon to see the wild west go weird on the big screen, although it’s not a uniquely stateside concept. 1959’s The Living Coffin hails from Mexico, and in addition to presenting the world of tumbleweeds and bucking broncs with a supernatural bent, it goes one step further by incorporating aspects of its own cultural horror heritage. Having been made on the cheap renders it as susceptible to B-movie shortcomings as something cranked out north of the border, but by and large, this is perfectly tolerable cheese that can even be honestly spooky at times.
Superstition rules the roost at the Hacienda de la Cienaga. It’s been a while since the last owner passed away, yet her wail is still said to echo throughout the property at nightfall, crying in agony for her drowned children. The ranch workers and citizens of the nearby village are petrified with fear, but the hacienda’s new mistress, Maria (Maria Duval) is having none of this mumbo jumbo. Friendly cowpoke Gaston (Gaston Santos) is also skeptical of these ghost stories, having come across bandits lurking about on Maria’s land. The ranch holds a secret that someone is willing to kill for, and with the help of his lazy but loyal sidekick (Pedro de Aguillon), Gaston is bound and determined to dig up just what it is. But with awful murders starting to pile up and Maria’s belief in the paranormal starting to increase, will our hero succeed before she cracks under the strain?
In spite of all its talk about ghouls, crypts, and howls piercing the darkness, The Living Coffin is about as tame as your typical “Scooby-Doo” episode. The premise isn’t far off at all from old dark house mysteries like The Cat and the Canary, as it boasts a sprawling estate, an allegedly supernatural menace, and a protagonist who suspects that other, more earthly forces may be at work. The angle this flick uses to stand out is in borrowing the tale of “La Llorona” — one of the most enduring of all Mexican horror stories — and applying it to the boogey-gal that is its focus. In the end, its inclusion matters little, as any made-up myth would have sufficed the story just as well, but it does help earn some bonus eerie points in The Living Coffin’s favor. The film does an amazing job of turning its slim budget into an asset, playing up the desolation of the hacienda and village sets to creepy effect. It also commits to the idea of the supernatural being a very real possibility for quite a while, making sure that the terror plastered on the faces of our supporting actors is legit as can be. This goes double for Maria, whose crisis of faith and growing insistence that something from beyond the grave wants her dead comes across as plausible and shockingly emotional.
The Living Coffin has more ominous qualities than you might expect, but unfortunately, they’re few and far between amidst the run time-padding piddling-around that makes up the bulk of the picture. Characters taking their sweet time to lumber down becobwebbed corridors sure aren’t in short supply, and while I can appreciate a good old decrepit tomb, there’s only so long I can spend in one before my antsiness starts to act up. The monotony is compounded by the fact that the interim is spent cutting back to gunslinger Gaston, who’s as devoid of charisma as the film’s corpses are of blood. The Living Coffin is one in a handful of horror-tinged westerns wherein Santos played a similar character (if not the same hombre), and although he has the matinee idol look down pat, his lifeless performance doesn’t do much to perk up an already paper-thin role. De Aguillon is cheery and everything, but the second banana he plays is way too silly, even for a lark of a thriller that’s constantly on the verge of having Kay Kyser pop out from behind a book shelf as it is. Their misadventures do spoil some of the movie’s overall tension, but it’s not a total washout, as the story at least maintains your interest in seeing how Gaston’s search for the truth unfurls for the duration of its 72-minute length.
As low-rent as its trappings are, The Living Coffin is cinematic gouda of a good-natured kind. Its roots in the “La Llorona” story could’ve been better exploited, and there an awful lot of go-nowhere patches, but the premise and atmosphere work often enough to compensate a little bit. Quite flawed yet strangely endearing, The Living Coffin is prime rainy-day viewing material.
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