Rosita Arenas and the Aztec Mummy

Kevin Killian

This weekend is filled with sci-fi and horror pictures from Mexico’s silver age, as curator Steve Seid presents El Futuro Está Aquí: Sci-Fi Classics from Mexico at the PFA Theater. I can definitely recommend La momia azteca contra el robot humano, a garbled and dubbed and beloved version of which played in U.S. theaters when I was a boy. We kids thrilled to The Aztec Mummy vs. the Human Robot, arguing all summer which of the eponymous monsters was scarier, which less evil. The humanness of the robot made him seem almost sympathetic (like the Tin Man of Oz, the robot has a human actor’s face set squarely onto its blockhead, so some have said we should refer to him with more accuracy as the “Android Robot,” or the “Human Android,” but how much sense does that make, Donna Haraway?) And yet the Aztec mummy, “Popoca,” has its own claims to the human: he was once a man, and he was once in love with the beautiful princess Xochitl, and their love defied the class hierarchy upon which Aztec civilization was based (or so you would guess from this movie), so both were destroyed. Lucky Princess got to be reincarnated and is now the top scientist’s wife, “Flor,” only she doesn’t know about her Xochitl past—but she knows something’s up.

“Flor” is played by the gorgeous Rosita Arenas, who was sort of like the Mexican version of Hollywood’s Jeanne Crain or Gene Tierney. (Arenas, still alive at age 77, actually hails from Caracas.) Arenas could play a normal heroine and give her a pinch of spunk and grit; she is winning opposite top comic Cantinflas in El señor fotógrafo (1953), while in Bunuel’s El Bruto (also 1953), she unknowingly falls for the man who killed her father, and her love triggers the brute’s moral regeneration. Yet often, like Crain or Tierney, Rosita Arenas is haunted by the past or by some mistake within her own genes.

Though Aztec Mummy is often listed among the world’s 100 worst movies, I always enjoy it, if only for its romantic dilemma of a woman torn by her allegiance to her present husband (Dr. Almada), and two critical kids, while somewhere in her mind she’s also living the emotional life of an Aztec Princess with all the violence, trauma and splendor that connotes. The Bat (the evil scientist who is trying to use her connections to the Aztec Mummy to spring the zillion-peso breastplate he guards in his tomb) hypnotizes Flor to leave her middle class south Mexico mansion and walk into the town’s spookiest cemetery at midnight, leaving her designer slippers caked in mud the next morning. “I wasn’t out last night, darling!” she coos, all innocence, but her avenging little daughter, 7, accuses her, pointing and glaring at her mother the way children in Salem were encouraged to do. The movie was made during the 50s and echoes of Cold War guilt and innocence seem to pervade it like a noxious stink.

As though the Aztec Mummy and the Human Robot aren’t enough terror for one movie, there’s the Bat, played by an actor (Luis Castaneda) who seems to have caught all the hammiest mannerisms of late Orson Welles, popping eyes, dramatic throat clearing, huge capes. Really, he does Orson better than Orson. Moviegoers will want to know that the present film is actually the culmination of an entire Aztec Mummy trilogy, but you needn’t have watched either predecessor to know what’s happening, because the characters laboriously explain in detail every bit of back story, complete with ten-minute flashbacks made up of footage rifled from the other movies.

It must be terrible to have your own blonde children point to your mud-covered feet and accuse you of something sinister, when you don’t even know how the mud got there. Your husband and his Watson-like assistant, Pinacate, analyze your slippers at a soil lab and find out that the mud you have tracked into 1957 has shards of marble in it, the kind of marble found only in mausoleums. That’s how they retrace your steps and uncover the Bat, the Mummy, and the human robot that the Bat has constructed laboriously to kill the Mummy with. The farther away director Rafael Portillo moves the story from your romantic triangle, the less interesting the film grows, but cinema has more than one kind of revenge, Rosita Arenas: and this is yours.

The Aztec Mummy vs. the Human Robot screens at PFA Theater on Saturday, June 26 at 7:00 p.m.