Most of us have some idea of what a schlocky 1950s sci-fi movie made for next-to-no money looks like. It’s usually in black and white, on some kind of cheap set, actors in homemade costumes and practical special effects that wouldn’t convince most modern-day viewers about the movie’s ridiculous story of aliens, mad doctors or vampires. These are the movies that bring to mind Ed Wood, giant Gila monsters or men in Halloween costume-grade monster suits.
Of course, these movies exist just about anywhere there was film production at that time — not just from the U.S. — but few countries tried to one-up the off-Hollywood misfits like Mexican filmmakers. Not long after the first schlock waves caught U.S. drive-in theaters by storm, they made their way south of the border where Mexican filmmakers like Rogelio A. González would take inspiration for a sci-fi movie of his own, the truly out of this world La nave de los monstruos (The Ship of Monsters) from 1960.
We first board La Nave de los monstruos on Venus, where Gamma (Ana Bertha Lepe) and Beta (Lorena Velázquez) are sent across the galaxy to kidnap eligible men with which to repopulate their male-less planet. After acquiring an odd bunch of suitors, a malfunction forces their rocket to crash in Chihuahua, Mexico, where they met a friendly singing vaquero Lauriano (Eulalio González aka Piporro to his fans), who’s known around town as a man with a fondness for spinning tall tales. The locals won’t believe him when he’s telling the truth about the Venusian women, the monsters they have onboard and a plot to destroy their planet. In addition to cowboys and aliens, this movie features a vampire, a dance number, a romantic subplot, a monster built out of a human skeleton with the skull of another creature, a Martian with an oversized brain (attention Mars Attacks! fans), a robot assistant named Tor that can barely walk and a kid brother sidekick to Lauriano for extra jokes.
González, with over 70 credits in his over 30-year career, didn’t just stick to sci-fi movies. He made his directorial debut with El gavilán pollero starring none other than Pedro Infante, one of Mexican cinema’s biggest stars from its Golden Era. The director, screenwriter and sometime actor made numerous dramas and Westerns, which perhaps explains the singing vaquero in a sci-fi movie — although that may have also been the idea of writers José María Fernández Unsáin and Alfredo Varela Jr.
For its 15th edition, Fantastic Fest, the largest genre festival in the U.S., presented a triple feature of Mexican horror movies as a special sidebar in their lineup. Although there were no Mexican films in the main competition, there was a package of shorts from the country and a lecture from Mexican horror movie programmer Abraham Castillo Flores, who had a hand in bringing La nave de los monstruos to Austin, Texas. Mexican filmmakers Gigi Saul Guerrero and Issa López were a part of the festival’s juries this year, which marked López’s triumphant return since Tigers are Not Afraid premiered at Fantastic Fest two years ago.
As Mórbido Film Festival programmer Abraham Castillo Flores explained in his lecture on Mexican horror cinema, the filmmakers in the era that produced La nave de los monstruos reveled in their low-budget production values. According to Castillo Flores, these directors wanted to show off the wires and cheap special effects as a kind of badge of honor. They could make monsters fly, and here’s how they did it. Other movies from the time also made use of cheap costumes and DIY practical effects, so La nave de los monstruos is not the only one to capitalize on a curious audiences’ taste for this new kind of thriller. In the same presentation, Castillo Flores explained the movie’s Frankensteined genre hybrid as an attempt to appeal to all audiences. Show some monsters for the kids, a romantic subplot for the grown-ups and a singing cowboy facing off against a vampire from outer space in a musical number for the grandparents — it is a movie that truly has something for everyone.
Although the movie’s campy schlock silliness may prevent it from getting any serious recognition, La nave de los monstruos is a wildly energetic oddity that defies expectations. González’s wildly charming performance as the vaquero makes a perfect foil to Lepe and Velázquez’s stiff space babes double act. His character is a Mexican spin on the U.S. cowboy hero, who tends to be more stoic in nature. In this version, our man in the spurs and 10-gallon hat is smart-mouthed, quick-witted, and love-crazy. He’s a romantic at heart who teaches the Venusian women about love and how it must be earned, not taken, as their orders demanded they kidnap men from the galaxy. There’s even a clever visual joke about Tor, the clumsy giant robot assistant, who also finds love on earth. The monsters’ costumes may not exactly be terrifying, but they’re not unimaginative. At my screening, they made people laugh, the cowboy made them cheer, and by the ending title card of “Fin,” there was enthusiastic applause and whistles. In the middle of a festival full of scares, creeps and bumps in the night, here was a genre movie that could focus on the fun.
La nave de los monstruos screened at Fantastic Fest.