Time for another trip “South of the Border” for your Favorite Catgirl, as I pursue another of director Carlos Enrique Taboada’s classic Mexican ghost stories, 1969’s “El Libro De Piedra” or “The Book Of Stone”.
Seems like I just keep finding these old gems of Mexican horror cinema. Never released here in the US with English subtitles, I’ve been lucky to find wonderful English subbing by other fans of the genre. Lucky me!!
Our synopsis goes along these lines: “Julia Septién (Marga López) is hired as the governess of a strangely odd young girl, Sylvia, as she recovers from a near fatal illness at a remote estate in the countryside. Sylvia’s emotionally distant father, Eugenio, and a new stepmother, Mariana worry that she may be mentally unbalanced because Sylvia insists that she plays with a little boy named Hugo that no one ever sees. The adults all believe Hugo merely to be a figment of her imagination, nothing in reality but a stone statue by a nearby lake. When strange mysterious and terrifying things begin to happen, all of which seems to be the doing of Sylvia’s “imaginary friend”, the adults finally begin to wonder if Hugo may be more than just her imagination after-all.”
The classic sort of movie is just the kind of ghost story I like… more suggestive and creepy than outright gory. The more of director Carlos Enrique Taboada’s work I manage to find, the more amazed how little he’s known here in the US. But not to worry… a certain crazy Catgirl is ready to do something about that.
So… lucky you, if you want to know if this is your sort of movie experience too, all you have to do is “Read On” and let Neko fill you in on all the details!!
As with our previous film, “Hasta El Viento Tiene Miedo”, it all starts in a very classic way with the arrival of Governess Julia Septién (played by Marga López) at the isolated estate of Eugenio Ruvalcaba (played by Joaquín Cordero). He and his new bride Mariana (played by Norma Lazareno) have a problem…. His daughter Sylvia (played by Lucy Buj) is recovering from a near fatal bout of meningitis and has become…. how shall we say… somewhat odd.
Not that there isn’t a lot of perfectly innocent reasons for it. She’s been sick and nearly died…. also, she’s a lonely child confined on this rustic estate without any other children her age to play with during her recuperation… and she’s got a brand new Stepmother to deal with. Isn’t that enough to make any child unsettled? So she’s created an “imaginary friend” to help her cope…. a little boy named Hugo, modeled after the angelic looking statue near the lake on the estate. Sounds harmless, right?
The only problem is… things aren’t as dire as they might seem. For example, her new Stepmother, Mariana, isn’t the evil witch of our story. Far from it… she’s actually a lovely woman desperate to make friends with Sylvia and prove she can love her as much as any “real” mother would. But Sylvia isn’t having any of that… and treats her with an almost open contempt and rebuffs any and all efforts to bring them closer so they can live as a family.
Given the problems Mariana has had, her father has finally hired Julia to provide some well needed care and discipline for his daughter, giving her both education as well as hopefully the companionship she desperately needs as well as perhaps finding out why Sylvia has become so moody and strange lately. Boy… does she have her work cut out for her.
From the first… Sylvia lets Julia know she’s not wanted around the estate. However… Julia is a strong woman and confident that she can overcome the hostility Sylvia displays towards most everyone around her. There’s some hint that the possibility of little Sylvia being mentally disturbed echoes some earlier tragedy with Julia’s own daughter, briefly alluded to but never fully explained. That’s a shame… as it might have helped reinforce the sympathy one begins to develop towards her character once the truly weird stuff starts happening. It affected her deeply… as one scene in which Sylvia’s father, almost out of options seriously considers having his daughter sent to an asylum for help, shows us. Julia nearly panics at the idea… and strongly urges her employer not to do it. Both Carolyn and I wanted to know the back-story behind this… but it’s never really brought up again.
Not that there’s really any time for it. After Julia’s arrival, all the story’s supernatural stuff starts happening with a vengeance. No, no, no… we’re not talking all that bloody, gory, pea-soup vomiting “Exorcist” kind of 70’s Euro-horror supernatural stuff… this here is a more restrained and “atmospheric” ghost story from an earlier time. Instead, our nasty ghost, Hugo, sneaks around in the guise of a big ol’ lizard slowly corrupting the poor innocent Sylvia into the sort of evil that creeps up on it’s victims from behind. You see… it turns out he’s the petrified son of a Medieval Austrian sorcerer entrusted with the guardianship of his father’s evil book of spells. Wicked Black Magic spells that he’s teaching little Sylvia….. Ohhh, crap. That’s just going to suck for soooo many reasons…..
First off… our budding little witch leads Julia off for a day trip to an abandoned church nearby the estate. Sounds harmless… but then she tricks Julia into trying to rescue her from a perch waaaaay atop the crumbling structure. The perfect opportunity for lizard Hugo to scare her into a fall that ought to fix her lil’ red wagon but good. Of course Julia survives this… never even figuring out it was actually a serious attempt to kill her at all. Next… her father’s best friend Carlos (played by Aldo Monte) arrives from the city to visit his old friend and his goddaughter. He brings his new dog, Yago along fro the trip. Yago takes one look at haunted, evil little Sylvia and freaks out. So much for the two of them hitting it off and becoming fast friends like Uncle Carlos hoped. Naturally… it isn’t long before poor Yago turns up dead… apparently frightened to death by some unknown terror.
Then… borrowing a little Voodoo from Hugo’s evil book, Sylvia steals one of her Stepmother’s scarves and casts a spell upon the doll her Uncle Carlos brought her, a spell designed to torture and torment Mariana with a series of terrible wracking pains that no medicine can fix to drive her away. Maybe even to kill her if needed. Eventually Julia finds the doll… and ends that spell, finally aware of the evil that Hugo and Sylvia are up to… but no one will believe her fears. Still… the possibility that Sylvia needs real psychiatric help raises itself once more. But, rather than go that route, Uncle Carlos comes up with the great idea that maybe Sylvia will be better if only the statue of Hugo is removed from the estate. Dumb idea Carlos…. You just know he’s gonna be the next to die before that can happen, right?
One flaming car crash later and Hugo makes darn sure Uncle Carlos is out of the picture… permanently. Eugenio and Julia have to go into town to see to the identification of the body, so naturally Mariana is left to watch little Sylvia by herself… Oh, there are servants around of course, but you just know that’s not going to be of any real help. Nope… not at all. Determined to be a good wife and mother, Mariana abandons her attempts to be Sylvia’s friend, by now genuinely a wee bit afraid of her, opting instead as a last resort to be a firm authoritarian figure that perhaps will give Sylvia someone to respect if not to love. Not a good choice…. Hugo decides to materialize and with Sylvia’s help, lures our poor Mariana to the lake where Hugo can kill her by drowning.
In true Gothic Ghost Story fashion, Sylvia’s father and Julia arrive home just in time to find Sylvia and Mariana missing. Dispatching the servants to search for them, the two hurry to the lake only to find Sylvia standing over poor Mariana’s sodden body by the lake’s edge. Eugenio snaps at finding his beloved wife’s body… and one look at the smiling statue of Hugo sends him into an unreasoning rage. While Julia tries to hold frantic Sylvia in check, he smashes the statue of Hugo to bits with a sledgehammer left by Uncle Carlos’ workmen. Seeing her “friend” destroyed is too much for Sylvia, who screams and collapses, fainting dead away. So… all should be back to normal… right? Awww, c’mon… all you Gentle Readers should know by now that all stories like this always have a “twist” ending….
Yep…. It’s “Spoiler Alert” time, as Neko doesn’t want to ruin things for those of you intrigued enough to give this film a look-see for yourselves. (Don’t say I didn’t warn ya… Hehehehe!!)
The next day brings the family doctor to the estate… who tells Eugenio that Sylvia will awaken from her hysterical coma soon enough, but that she’ll never really completely recover unless they leave this place… the scene of so much trauma.. and start life a new someplace fresh. He finally relents, and by evening they’ve packed up and made all the arrangements…but…. Then Julia finds Sylvia missing! Frantically they rush to the ruined statue of Hugo, figuring she may have gone back there only to encounter the final horror of the film. Gone is wicked, evil Hugo, but now a new statue…. of little Sylvia herself… guards the evil “Book of Stone” in his place….. forever.
Brrrr!! For a slower paced film… the ending of this one certainly delivers, even if the rest of it shies away from any real gore or violence. I can tell you, your Favorite Catgirl liked this one a lot, and I indeed give it a well deserved 4 “Meows” out of 5 for being an excellent little classic ghost story like they just don’t make too much anymore. Mind you, it’s a simple story, and not without it’s flaws or problems with logic or narrative, but all in all it’s easy to follow and certainly well worth a watch.
The DVD itself? Unfortunately….. it’s one of those older films that has never been properly cared for over the decades, and the print I saw for this DVD was showing it’s age. Never subtitled into English, I had to rely on some fan subs for this one, re-syncing them to the Region 1 & 4 South American budget release. It’s a copy that definitely has some flaws… dropouts in the audio track at times… obvious film breaks and splices, and that gloriously faded look of old technicolor film stock. Still, if you can ever get the chance to see this one, Neko can definitely recommend it for some classic ghost story chills and thrills.
Unfortunately… I haven’t been able to locate a Trailer for it as yet, but don’t worry, I’ll keep lookin…..