I’ve been watching and reading about horror movies for a long, long time. So it’s really gratifying when I come across something I didn’t realize even existed, and what is more, is entertaining for all the wrong reasons. Of course, the flip side of that is information about such a thing is dreadfully hard to come by – almost as if the people involved wanted to pretend it never happened.
Such a thing is El Charro de las Calveras, or The Rider of the Skulls, as we gringos say. The Rider of the Skulls is an archetypal masked horseman, riding around with nothing better to do than fight monsters. He gets his name from his origin story: his parents were killed by bandits, and then one night a skull flew through the window. No, no, I’m kidding, he tracked the bandits down and wears a skull decal for each one he brought to justice. This “justice” is never defined, but since they’re skulls, I’m assuming due process was not involved.
But wait, you’re saying, what is this about fighting monsters? Yes, that is apparently his mission statement. The Rider of the Skulls seems to be three episodes of a failed TV series stitched together without much art (“without much art” is a description which will hold for the entire movie). It is comprised of three stories, or episodes, and during its course we will find that The Rider of the Skulls is the worst possible choice for fighting monsters.
In the first episode, The Rider of the Skulls takes on a werewolf with some pretty lamentable makeup. The Rider stays with a local family while he investigates by walking around while the werewolf is off killing somebody somewhere else. We know that the werewolf is the head of the family, which everybody should have realized since Pop never changes clothes between wolfing out and returning to normal. Luckily, there’s an old witch hanging around who resurrects a corpse to explain to the Rider who the werewolf is, and by that time the Mom has gotten killed because our hero is an idiot. Hell, the werewolf is killed by falling off a cliff! By the time the episode is over, the Rider is saddled with the orphan he caused, Perico (Gabriel Angrasanchez), and the worst Odious Comic Relief sidekick since Cheaplaffs Johnson, the dead family’s manservant, Cleofas (Pascual Garcia Pena).
The Rider removes his mask so the two will know his true identity, revealing handsome actor Dagoberto Rodriguez, who had a good career through the 70s. This is likely because I firmly suspect that Dagoberto cut and ran after this pilot episode.
This first part will more than serve to let you know what you’re in for: Exterior sets you’re going to see over and over again, shabby monsters (though the werewolf transformation actually shows some imagination: Pop turns into a skeleton and then into a werewolf. There is no real effort made to put the skeleton in the same spot or position as the two end points, until the very last time, when somebody seems to have gone oh yeaaah), and a resounding determination to not even attempt day-for-night. Not even the usual dodge of taking the lens down a couple of f-stops. Everything takes place in the noonday sun, with only dialogue to let us know it is supposed to be night. This gets really hilarious when they encounter their next monster, a vampire. “It will soon be dawn! I must return to my coffin!” Yeah, follow your lengthy shadow to it.
The vampire is a rubber bat (I’m pretty sure I owned this particular model in 1965) who turns into a guy in a sad bat mask. If that wasn’t enough for you, it’s pretty obvious that The Rider of the Skulls is a new guy with a more concealing mask, and Dagoberto wasn’t the only actor who wised up, because Perico is “off at school”, so the Rider and Cleofas have picked up another orphan, Juanito (Alfonso Ortiz), because honestly, somebody has to be competent in this group. It won’t be Cleofas, who spends a full minute shrieking and running from a flapping rubber bat on a string.
The Vampire is fixated on a pretty girl whose father he just killed, and, just to prove that the Rider is the worst hero ever, turns her into a vampire while he’s out walking around. (The Witch from the first episode also apparently declined to return, so he’s especially clueless now) The vampire takes her to an all-too-familiar graveyard, where he informs her “You have to die,” and puts her in a coffin beside his. The next “night”, she rises, and turns into a rubber bat to lure the Rider to his well-deserved doom. We finally have the obligatory fist-fight with the monster (the Rider loses. Again.) while Cleofas has a chance to run screaming from a woman in a nightgown. The rider does eventually spear the Vampire in the back because we’re running out of time, and fortunately the whole “You have to die” thing goes away if crap vampires in crap masks are killed.
Where can the Rider possibly take us now? What supernatural menace could he face and be worthless against? How about a headless horseman? Sure, why not!
This headless horseman rig is actually pretty good (I’d even rate it more effective than the one in The Night Stalker TV series), except that when the horse dramatically wheels about, the cape blows up, and for a second you can see the guy’s real head. Oh, well. Can’t have everything, especially in The Rider of the Skulls.
So the horseman was a bandit who was executed for his crimes, but a scientist desecrated his grave, cutting off his head to study his criminal brain. The box containing the head has wound up in the possession of the doctor’s daughter, where it does anti-social things like yell “Re-attach me to my body!” and crop back up after it’s been buried. The Headless part of the bandit, of course, is roaming the countryside at night, killing people until its head shows up. The daughter takes the head to the village where the execution took place, and the Horseman reclaims his head, which does not put him to rest, like you thought it would.
This portion has the best efforts put into the effects (yeah, for this movie, they should be called “special efforts”), like that headless rig and the Horseman’s two accomplices, executed along with him, who keep creeping around in black monk robes and skull masks. They are the most effective thing in the whole movie. The Horseman’s actual head squanders all that good will, though.
The Rider, of course, screws up and gets captured, and at this point even God has had enough and intercedes. Yep, just like Indiana Jones, God has to strike down the two accomplices with lightning and have a shouting match with the Horseman while Juanito unties the Rider. The Rider can then have a clumsy swordfight with the Horseman with the single best-shot scene in the movie.
This whole lamentable exercise is the work of writer-director Alfredo Salazar, who was responsible for writing all the Aztec Mummy movies, and a score of others, including some El Santo flicks. Salazar had his heart in the right Halloween place, but it has to be admitted that his execution of this idea was a horrorshow all on its own. I’ve seen him described as “The Ed Wood of Mexico”, and I have to say… that comparison is not undeserved.