Let’s go south of the border and picture us a little scene. It’s a sweltering hot day in the Mexican countryside. The buzzards glide low over a smokey cantina where 5 sweaty men sit chewing their cigars and sipping warm beer. They are arguing over something, let’s listen in.
Writer 1 slams his hand on the table rattling the half-empty bottles and scaring away the flies, “No, that’s a terrible idea, we should make a movie like The Creature From The Black Lagoon. We could make a killing with a costume like that! I know this pond where…”
Writer 2 Interrupts Writer 1 and leans his chair onto its two back legs. “Nah, costumes are expensive, let’s do a gothic mystery in an old house with candles, like a Vincent Price melodrama, with lots of twists and …
Writer 3 interrupts Writer 2, and shoots back a dirty glass of cheap tequila, “That’s too old fashioned I’ve been watching what those hip kids in the US are watching, we should do something like Scooby-Doo! We could have the bad guy hide in the Creature From The Black Lagoon costume!”
Writer 4 spits on a scorpion as it makes its way across the patio. “No, no, no we need something we know will sell, let’s do a western, with horses, lots of horses!” Writer four looks wistfully into the distance as if transported to a spiritual place.
Writer 2, “man, that guy gives me the creeps every time he talks about horses.”
The fat producer tips back his sombrero and with a sly smile settles it, “Sounds like we can work with that.”
Writer 2 “You like my gothic idea?”
Producer — “I don’t really like any of the ideas but if we shove ’em all together into one movie I think it might sell. Maybe add a funny fat guy for comic relief, like that gringo, Costello.”
Writer 4 burps up a little beer and pleads “but…”
But the producer scratches his stubble and cuts the writer off “No buts! I’m puttin’ up the pesos for this picture and I’m gonna get what I paid for!”
Writer 3 loses his balance and collapses backward onto the floor.
This is how I imagine the making of The Swamp Of Lost Souls all began. It was made in Mexico in 1957. The director was Rafael Baledón who had already made more than 40 films. The writer was credited as Ramón Obón which must have been some kind of anagram to represent the table full of writers I so accurately portrayed above.
The Swamp Of Lost Souls is actually one in a series of movies made by the Alameda Film Company about Gastón Santos the cowboy detective. Gastón was played by a sandy-haired heart-throb who went by the same name. I was unable to find any other monicker. Gastón was the hero of many other movies like The Living Coffin, The Black Pit of Mr. M, and The Young and Beautiful Ones. He’s a clever cowpoke who’s not afraid to use his fists even when he is in a gunfight and has a loaded gun on each hip. Everyone in The Swamp Of Lost Souls is armed and the most they ever do is knock each other out with the gun handles.
There isn’t much point in relaying the plot. It’s a mixture of all the tropes I’ve mentioned. What is interesting is that the style and feel of the film actually changes depending on which trope it is using. The gothic trope has carefully composed vignettes with deep focus and melodramatic poses.
The old widow of the house is blind and stands to inherit a million dollars from her husband’s untimely death. That’s the gothic part, now we ad the Scooby-Do part. Her husband is not dead, he is lurking in the lake in a big rubber monster suit. Why he isn’t just hiding in a hotel room somewhere we shall never know, but he comes out periodically to menace someone or send a morse code message to a receiver who is never revealed.
There is plenty of underwater footage of the beast and even a fight scene against Gastón in a speedo. Strangely the pond is brown and murky when you see it from above, but is bright blue underneath the surface almost as if it were filmed in a swimming pool somewhere.
Then there are the horses. Yes, a western should have horses, but this one is pretty horse heavy. There is a bunch of boring stock footage of a rodeo, and tons of traveling scenes between locations, but what puts it over the top is the dressage. There are several scenes where we just get to watch a horse prance around while everyone looks on. I suppose for the dressage enthusiast it might be fine, but to stop the plot and watch horsies dance is a little weird. There’s something a little off about writer 4. There is even a Lassie Come Home horse sequence which, to tell the truth was kinda compelling.
For all its weirdness the whole move is is still entertaining. The switches in tone, the nonsensical plot, the mash-up of genres keep the movie hurdling forward and even with such a riotous patchwork of genres, there is a theme that emerges. It’s a tried and true theme that is present in many horror films. Basically, it’s the old country mouse v.s. city mouse story. There are the down to earth, wholesome, but superstitious country folk who fear the monsters and ghosts and there is the city slicker scientist or detective who dismisses the world of the supernatural.
In movies like these, the conflict rarely resolves. The peasants are seen as wise because they recognize what is happening, but it is the scientist who knows how to defeat the monster. You can overlay dynamics like colonizer and colonized, or underclass vs upper class or tradition vs modernism but it is interesting that even in a simple and mostly mindless film such as this the dynamic is given enough ambiguity to explore different points of view. It’s almost never the case that one simply wins out over the other.
The Swamp Of Lost Souls is essentially a mash-up. The elements are all stereotypes and unoriginal tropes but it takes itself just seriously enough to provide a smidgen of substance. It was entertaining enough to make me look for another Gastón Santo adventure, and there are plenty.
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