29 More Days ’til Halloween, 2016: THE PHANTOM OF THE CONVENT (1934)

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Well, actually, it’s 28 days until Halloween because I’m writing this at 1am after spending all day preparing this movie for you…but it’s still 29 days ’til in California.

This year I decided that I wasn’t going to just skip over the many wonderful films I find on Youtube just because they don’t have subtitles. I thought they were important enough that my friends should see them and, as a self-proclaimed missionary of horror, I decided that, if they didn’t already have subtitles on Youtube, it was my duty to ADD subtitles and re-upload them (probably illegally).

Well…this was a larger burden than I imagined it would be. These films don’t exactly have published scripts or even official English language DVD releases (BlueRay? Hell no…maybe a bootleg release on a shady website). The subtitles available online through various “Free Subtitles!” sites don’t appear to be written by people who are actually very familiar with the English language and I only speak or write English. Furthermore, the time stamps on the subtitles don’t generally match whatever version of the movie is already on Youtube so each bit of dialogue has to be manually pushed along a little dialogue train trail and resized to synch up with the soundtrack. It’s a pain in the ass.

Nonetheless, this is the sort of mindless activity I actually get a kick out of. I went through the subtitles one by one and rewrote them as best I could. Sometimes I tried to use the Google Translate on my phone when I just knew that the available subtitle was completely off base, but Google Translate was just as likely to tell me that a character in a 1940s Ukrainian village was interested in singing karaoke with Spongebob Squarepants.

So…forgive me for being late with my post today.

Interestingly enough, the movie I was originally going to post today was MEDIUM (1985), a fantastic 80s Polish movie about people who are sucked, against their will, into reenacting a dramatic tragedy that occurred to other people in the past. I added subtitles to that movie…took me two days…and it was immediately taken down by Youtube. I decided to post THE PHANTOM OF THE CONVENT instead without it even dawning on me that they had similar themes. I suppose that makes sense as they are both gothic films. Gothic films tend to usually involve people being haunted by the past. In fact, building upon a definition of gothic literature I read in some academic paper somewhere, I would describe the gothic, in film and literature (different than in architecture), as the narrative condensation of space into a prison and the expansion of experienced time into eternity. The “prison” may be a castle, a mansion, a maze, or even an actual prison. The experience of time is expanded by ghosts (real or just the perception of their reality), the persistence of memory (shout out to Dali!), acts of long bubbling vengeance, visions that link past with present and future, and the plain ol’ unavoidable sequential lock of overlapping fates. I mean, time is eternal anyway…it’s the condensation of space that makes the experience of that eternity a bit more acute in gothic narratives.

THE PHANTOM OF THE CONVENT is an important example of gothic horror, and an important film in general, for many reasons. It was only the second horror film ever made in Mexico. It was made by one of Mexico’s most important filmmakers. Bla bla bla.

It’s 1am and I’m tired.

Here’s what I like about THE PHANTOM OF THE CONVENT as a bullet point list:

Cinematography obviously influenced by Eisenstein’s recent trip to Mexico (…you can view a fictionalized version of his trip in the new Peter Greenaway film, EISENSTEIN IN GUANAJUATO (2015).)

– An  ambiguous moral to the story: one could consider it a stereotypical pitting of the Eve-like “temptress” against a man struggling for his honor, but one might be hard pressed when deciding who is the hero and the villain. Other folks on the nets have pointed out how the vivacious energy of the sexually charged woman is contrasted with the austere confines of the monastery and religious orders. Gothic literature and film always tends to have a subtly critical attitude toward religious repression and the suppression of sexuality (…including female sexuality. In fact, it’s one of the few genres that has been consistently inclusive of female sexuality…plenty of academic nonsense written about that…some of it quite good).

– Creepy Mexican mummies. My favorite kinds of mummies…and the Mexicans know what dead people look like. Compare corpses in their early films with anything in the U.S…

– Coded meanings for the 21st century: note what I said about the gothic and its relation to time and space. Now allow me to get all trippy on you. I would say that cell phones influence our experience of time and space in the same way as a gothic narrative. In our cell phone we seek to compress all of space, but it tends to emphasize the tragic eternity of time as a side effect. I could go into that further but I’ll spare you the spaced-out philosophizing. I thought about this a lot while watching THE PHANTOM OF THE CONVENT (and going quite bonkers watching it a few seconds at a time, over and over, while adding subtitles) because, in this film, the compressed gothic “prison” is actually more than a monastery…it is a “cell.” A monk’s cell, sure, not a cell phone…but it was enough to make me start looking for other links between the two. The way that the “cell” tends to mediate expressions of sexuality and other behaviors of the characters in THE PHANTOM… is interesting when you consider the entire structure of the monastery and its order, central to the plot, as a kind of communication technology mediating the lives of the monastery’s inhabitants. There’s even an old school version of “trolling in the Comments section” that features in the plot and, through an act of transgressive cruelty (read Bataille), unites and transcends the past and the present.

There…that’s all I’m going to go into right now. Feel free to use my ideas to write your own academic paper on the subject. For a film made in 1934 on an obviously low budget, THE PHANTOM… is definitely a milestone of achievement. It’s not as creepy as NOSFERATU or as weird as VAMPYR, but it’s also a more pure example of gothic horror than either of those two. It is my favorite example of true, pure gothic horror from the thirties, actually…but, you know, I was never really a huge fan of the classic Universal monsters. THE PHANTOM… blows that stuff out of the water. It’s like the GRAVE ENCOUNTERS of the 1930s while DRACULA is….ummmm…I’m struggling for a comparison…the remake of POLTERGEIST? Don’t quote me on that…

This is the best copy of THE PHANTOM OF THE CONVENT that I could find. Unfortunately, unless a film is incredibly popular it is unlikely to get the kind of restoration needed to make it a clean, comfortable watch for some contemporary viewers. Buck up. Plug through it. If you need to, imagine all the crackling sounds and blurry images are on purpose…that it was directed by David Lynch. I have no idea how long this will stay on Youtube before it’s taken down, so watch it while you can…

THE PHANTOM OF THE CONVENT (1936)

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This entry was posted in 1930s Horror, gothic horror, Mexican Horror. Bookmark the permalink.

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