Back in January I stopped over in Tampa to check out Grindhouse Video, a new movie store that had just set up shop. Generally speaking, my tastes lean more towards dustier and Gothic fare than sweaty exploitation, but GV had some pretty tempting titles in stock and I was just very pleased to see a specialty store of this order in an area (relatively) close to my home base. Chief among my purchases were three Casa Negra titles, one of which, THE MAN AND THE MONSTER (El hombre y el monstruo, 1958) is the subject of today’s review.

Along with the supernatural whackery of THE BLACK PIT OF DR. M (Misterios de ultratumba, 1959) and the gloriously trashy monster of THE BRAINIAC (El barón del terror, 1962), THE MAN AND THE MONSTER had been on my shortlist of south-of-the-border horror films to check out by virtue of its narrative involving a pithy piano player (Enrique Rambal), a self-admitted “sublime mediocrity,” who sells his soul to El Diablo to possess the musical prowess of his idol (Martha Roth) whom he kills and keeps shuttered in a closet as a captive audience only to have a hex placed on his head that forces him to transform into a bushy-faced fiend with a lust for the blood of senoritas whenever he fulfills the urge to tickle the ivories.

Helmed by Mexican journeyman director Rafael Baledón, THE MAN AND THE MONSTER fluctuates between spritely flights of the macabre and interlocking procedural scenes that are drier than an old tortilla. It hits the ground running with its clever prologue: when a woman crashes her car outside a foreboding hacienda, she goes seeking help but comes to a locked door where a man fervently whispers for release. Spotting a clutch of keys and wanting to do right as a Samaritan in her own plight, she opens the door… and the camera zooms in on her screaming face, the title card revealing to those not yet in the know that the occupant she has just loosed is decidedly inhuman.

The film has technical merit through the use of some impressive photographic effects (a flashback explaining Rambal’s curse plays the events over an image of the actor’s leering face with flames underlining the montage) and a few expressionistic settings. The script by star Abel Salazar’s brother Alfredo–scribe behind several Aztec Mummy and luchadore films–lacks focus and logic at times but is bolstered by strong thematic touches (Rambal’s devotion to his mother reaches an apotheosis when the beastly pianist is cooed back to human form like a child getting brought down from a particularly monstrous tantrum) that makes it a cut-above its modest pedigree. It’s in the rote scenes involving Salazar’s heroic Ricardo snooping around and trying to piece it all together that the melody loses its drive.

Like a 50s horror comic brought to life, Baledón’s film contains just enough patented silliness and pulpishness to make it memorable, at least for the titular creature that resembles nothing so much as a Mr. Hyde muppet given to chuckling with gusto and the occasional obscenity (“Open the door, God damn it!”) and for the poor gatto that is repeatedly yanked off-screen by wires to simulate cheap jump scares. The finale with the monster running wild at his symphony of Tchaikovsky’s ROMEO AND JULIET makes for a boisterous albeit short romp.

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