Western Film WTF: La nave de los monstruos (Ship of Monsters) (1960)
The Mexican film "La nave de los monstruos" (translated as "Ship of Monsters") was given to me many years ago in an untranslated version by a friend who insisted it did not matter. It was not necessary to speak Spanish to enjoy the film.
He was right, in a way. The film works as sheer bewildering spectacle. For non-Spanish speakers (or those who speak very little Spanish, such as myself), it is possible to follow the film's balmy storyline, and enjoy it. In brief, it is as follows: A spaceship is piloted by two women in what looks to be the sort of swimwear pageant contestants wear. The ship is full of monsters.
They crash land in Mexico and meet a comical singing cowboy. One of the women turns into vampire and frees the monsters, who commit a few atrocities. The remaining spacewoman and the cowboy (along with her robot) battle the monsters, and then, well, I'll spoil the ending: The robot flies off into space, serenading the cowboy's jukebox, who he has fallen in love with.
But there is a problem with approaching art like this. It is possible to treat Mexican film, and especvially Mexican films like this, as some sort of entertainingly beknighted place. It becomes easy to think of something like "La nave de los monstruos" as a sort of outsider art, and delight at a weirdness that we assume is the product of amateurishness.
There is always the risk of this sort of dismissiveness when dealing with Mexican art, but its especially compunded when you can't be bothered to try and understand the context of the art, and especially the language of the art. So while it is possible to enjoy "La nave de los monstruos" as a primitive oddity, it's not really fair to the work.
It also misses the mark quite a bit, because one you get the film in translation, it becomes obvious that the filmmakers knew what they were doing, even within the limitations of a low budget. La nave de los monstruos" is a comedy, and a delightful one.
To start with, the film boasts a superb cast. The singing cowboy is played by Eulalio González, playing a character type he had made popular on a radio series and later movie called "Ahí viene Martín Corona"; in fact, for years González would be known as his character name from the show: Piporro. The role was that of a Northern rachero, with the mannerisms associated with the type: mischievous, good-humored and a bit bullying, as well as the costume of the character, consisting of a cowboy hat and fringed Tamaulipecas jacket.
González is very good in this role, and, in this film, his mischievousness has taken the form of comical barroom lying, which both irritates and delights his fellow villagers. He's a charming eccentric with a daffy comic sensibility, but he's also genuinely charming.
He instantly falls for one of the space aliens, and, one senses, my fall for both but for the fact that he considers that sort of thing "French" and, in his experience, it leads to jealousy that leads to gunfire. The space aliens are played by two former Miss Mexicos: Ana Bertha Lepe, who won the award in 1953 and was third runner-up in the Miss Universe contest; and Lorena Velázquez, who was Miss Mexico in 1960, the year this film came out.
I mention this just as background, because both went on to have substantial careers in film and television. At first, the film seems like it is mostly interested in the actresses' considerable physical beauty, but the two have their own quirky senses of humor. Velázquez, in particular, is a tremendously interesting actress; she seems to be enjoying the whole experience enormously, whether she is piloting a space craft or unfreezing monsters and commanding them to destroy.
And about the monsters: They manage to look both very cheap and very impressive. They are, in fact, prisoners of Lepe and Velázquez, kidnapped to help repopulate the women's home planet, where all the men have died. None of the monsters are happy about this, and understandably. As appealing as it might seem to be taken by two beauty queens to their home planet to spend the rest of your life as a professional stud, it is, in fact, sexual slavery. So the monsters are ill-tempered, and that ill-temper is easily turned against the human population.
The monsters are an apelike brute, a spider-like man, a creature that is mostly massive eyes and brain, and an articulated skeleton that is very clearly a giant marionette. All of the look like what they are, which is costumes, but, that being said, if someone showed up at your door on Halloween in one of those costumes, you'd be stunned. The brain creature, as an example, has tubes running around and through his brain like veins, and you can see fluid pumping through it.
They proved popular enough to pop up now and then in other movies, especially Mexican wrestling movies, and I can see why: I would be delighted to see one of these guys show up in another film, the same way I used to be delighted to see Robby the Robot show up in, say, an episode of "Twilight Zone" or in the background of "Gremlins." It feels less like films are just recycling old props and more like there is a community of fantastic creatures out there trying to make it as film actors.
The film understands what all great low-budget films understand: That when you don't have a budget, you compensate with something else, something remarkable but inexpensive. "La nave de los monstruos" at first seems like it's banking on its daffy plotting and dizzy humor, and that might have been enough. With just those things, the film might be fondly remembered as a comical oddity.
But there is something else as well, and its the film's secret superpower, the thing that makes it more than a goofball b-movie. "La nave de los monstruos" is charming; preposterously so. Much of the plot hinges on characters falling in love with each other, and, of course they do, they can't help it, they're just so damned lovable.
It's no wonder the film ends with a robot falling in love, and singing love songs, to a jukebox. When everything is thing charming, even the props will fall in love with each other. It's so charming, in fact, that in the last scene of the film, the jukebox suddenly springs to life, turns, and sings back to the robot, because how could it not?