PopMatters has been avidly following Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray series called Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of Exploitation Films. The two latest additions qualify on one level as serious works of art, albeit applied to the purpose of exploitation. These films reward our attention and, at their best, impress and surprise us.
Roland Price and Harry Reviers’
The Lash of the Penitentes (1936)
Volume 9, The Lash of the Penitentes (1936), resurrects what’s basically an ethnographic documentary about the Penitentes, people who practice an Easter ritual in New Mexico villages. In a practice disapproved by the Catholic Church, they enact Christ’s Stations of the Cross by carrying large crosses and being flagellated. We also see folk dancing, hand-carved saints and figures on homemade altars, and a game involving a half-buried rooster that gets seized by horseback riders.
All this footage is credited to Roland Price, “the vagabond cameraman”. Producer Harry J. Revier saw the potential for an indie movie, and he wasn’t thinking of a documentary on quaint folk customs of the Mexican-American persuasion. He must have thought such a project wouldn’t pack in the crowds, and he may have been right. Instead, he and Price shot new footage with actors, probably directed by Revier, to wrap the ethnography within a flimsy story about a reporter who learns too much about the “secrets” of the “cult” and gets himself shot.
Revier’s inspiration was a nine-day-wonder in February 1936, when a reporter writing on the Penitentes was murdered by his 15-year-old houseboy. The boy told a fishy story, quickly disproved, implying that masked Penitentes might have shot the victim. Then he confessed that he did it for the guy’s money. Kino’s curator-producer Bret Wood provides more info on the case in his commentary.
For exploitation purposes, the murder was a godsend. This was enough to sow sensation about the “secret cult”, and Revier perceived a ripped-from-the-headlines hook for the picturesque docu-footage that had been sitting around for a while. By the end of the month, he’d shot a few days of new scenes, and the film was soon in theatres.
Even that might not have been enough. The pièce de résistance is a brief sequence in longshot with a rear view of a woman stripping naked and being whipped as she climbs on a cross. Until then, only a bunch of shirtless men were getting the lash. The woman’s footage is only found in the original 48-minute version, The Penitente Murder Case, here rediscovered for the first time in over 70 years.
What most viewers have seen since the initial engagements is the cut-down 35-minute edition released a few years later, The Lash of the Penitentes, and the red-blooded male viewers who forked over their shekels on the poster’s promise of a lipsticked senorita with a rose in her hair being whipped by, we kid you not, a lion-tamer in a fedora. They must have felt burned. This is the “tamer” version, all right. They should really have been furious if they were lured in by the trailer, which includes whole scenes of lecherous drama nowhere in the picture.
That trailer shows a shapely heroine posing nude for an artist called Manuel. Then she’s being attacked by one Chico–not the same Chico who’s the movie’s houseboy–and her little brother Felipe brains Chico with a rock. Then comes a frontal shot of the woman tied by the wrists for a whipping, seemingly as penance for being so sexy. We repeat, none of this is in the film, which tells us this footage was either lifted from elsewhere or — and this feels likely — it was shot for this trailer years later. There’s no reasonable way to fit it into the film’s narrative. Promoters weren’t above such shenanigans.
The trailer and well-worn cut-down version are included as bonuses. I believe the only thing in the shorter version that’s absent from the longer cut is a shot of the shadow of a gallows. The Library of Congress print of the complete version, which apparently nobody knew they had until Wood discussed it with them, is in beautiful shape. In light of this revelatory print, Wood discusses the movie’s confused history and tries to lay its rumors and speculations to rest.
The Penitente Murder Case opens by making the point that newsboys and the general public can’t pronounce “penitentes” and don’t know what they are. “Well, I never heard of Ethiopia until Mussolini went over there,” explains one defensive matron. If this is intentional social critique of American ignorance, she’s saying a mouthful. The shorter version shuffles all this prologue material to the end.
We’re introduced to natty reporter George Mack (Jose Rubio, Latino actor playing non-Latino) in what turns out to be the start of a flashback that structures the picture. Arguing with a skeptical editor about the Penitentes, Mack name-drops the Vagabond Cameraman’s footage, which he’s about to live through in person after he arrives in New Mexico by train. He’s accompanied by an impenetrably accented man and woman whom we’ll never see again, and he hires a local assistant named Chico–all uncredited, but hold that thought.
Then comes the documentary footage. The photography is gorgeous, sometimes majestic, a link between Sergei Eisenstein’s unfinished Que Viva Mexico, which saw some footage released in 1934, and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet, 1957). The ethnographic value is genuine, and participants clearly have no problem showing off for the camera. So much for secret rituals.
Even the new scenes are well composed, showing the eye that Revier would bring to Child Bride (1938) in Volume 5 of this series. This raises the question of whether Price is truly “the vagabond cameraman” who shot the older footage or whether it was some unknown artist. We can’t know.
We’re left to wonder what a serious documentary would have been like if we didn’t have to sit through the clumsy dramatic stylings of Mack and Chico, and they’re not the worst element. That prize goes to the narration, credited to writer Zelma Carroll (about whom little is known) and delivered in plummy tones and occasionally flubbed takes by Billy Bletcher.
It’s difficult to convey how irritating he is, but we’ll try. In a superior tone, he cues us with words like “crude” and “primitive” while looking at lovely folk art, and he drops heavy-breathing phrases like “a quivering heap of torn and bleeding flesh” and “the stern and simple earnestness of these people is indeed pitiable”. On the other hand, he’s quite understanding about the rooster game, declaring it better than golf because “you can eat the rooster”. Ay caramba.
Late in the day, the brief footage of the naked woman causes peeping Mack to grin with glee and find it impossible to keep his hands to himself. “What a story! Chico, great stuff!” he burbles, stroking Chico on the cheek. That’s probably when Chico decides he needs killing.
In the dialogue, this woman is identified as the “local girl” we saw in the older footage of the folk dance, though of course, she’s not the same. Possibly Revier used the actress who played the briefly glimpsed, thickly accented tourist from the train since she would’ve been handy.
The film’s most amazing irony is delivered in a tour-de-force of style: a 360-degree pan around a column of chained men who are getting beaten, strangled, slapped, everything except whipped, and they moan and sweat and writhe with sadomasochistic frenzy equal to religious transport. The shorter version chops this astonishing orgy to nothing. Is this image of official torture and abuse by legal authorities intended as a comparison with the religious ceremony, which after all evokes a case of capital punishment? If so, this movie’s a lot smarter than it sounds.
Apparently at a loss for how to end the picture, the filmmakers close on a burning cross (!) while our narrator wails, “Wake up, America! Here in our own country, we can see the very heart of Africa pounding against the ribs of the Rockies!” Say what? Is the movie now drawing ironic parallels to the pseudo-religious claptrap of “Christian” cults like the KKK? There’s no way it’s being that smart, but we might.
Rubio is the only actor with onscreen credit, along with narrator Bletcher. The IMDB credits can’t be trusted, as they refer to characters who aren’t here and who may appear in the trailer. I have no idea of IMDB’s source for characters called Raquel, Chico, and Manuel, nor veteran character actor Josef Swickard, who was pushing 70, as one Dr. Taylor. Neither that actor nor character is within a mile of the picture, though Swickard worked on Revier’s The Lost City (1935), also scripted by Zelma Carroll.
As we’ve mentioned, the houseboy is Chico, and so is an unrelated guy in the trailer, which is where we also find Manuel of the erotic triangle. This leads me to guess that the actor listed as Chico isn’t the houseboy, and that Raquel (one Marie DeForrest, who has one other credit) is possibly the trailer’s heroine and not the film’s unnamed tourist. This question could be settled if we could establish whether DeForrest spoke clear English, as the trailer woman does and the tourist doesn’t. Her companion isn’t listed, nor Mack’s editor, and these roles are just as important. There’s simply no reason to credit these credits.