Criterion Prediction #212: The Phantom of the Convent, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Phantom of the Convent (El Fantasma del Convento)
Director: Fernando de Fuentes
Cast: Marta Roel, Enrique del Campo, Carlo Villatoro, Paco Martinez
Synopsis: Three friends, Alfonso, Cristina, and Enrique, are lost while hiking in the forest. Late at night, they are invited by a mysterious monk to take shelter in an old convent. As the night progresses, Alfonso, Cristina, and Enrique are subject to strange behavior, macabre sightings, and psychological strain.
Critique: At first, it felt like a measure of timely or cultural distance that makes The Phantom of the Convent such a compelling experience. After all, it wasn’t the era in which it was made – horror films from the thirties are nothing new, and the story of some lost strangers seeking shelter in a spooky location is all too familiar. There’s a cheeky seriousness at the heart of the film, it’s laden with tropes and decorated with cliches, and yet The Phantom of the Convent carries a sobering theological backbone in its narrative. The film exhibits a genuine curiosity regarding the afterlife and religious intervention making macabre and striking use of catholic iconography and practices a mature (for 1934) sense of sexuality. Director Fernando de Fuentes depicts with stark simplicity the convent practices; monks chanting, praying, self-flagellation, and skulking about is all subtly chilling. And heightening the sense of dread moans and cries creep through the bare interiors.
As the story progresses, the layers of intrigue grow more dynamic, and in lieu of the leering air of the supernatural, a menage et trois arises among the three principal characters. On the one hand, the implication of carnal desire being a function of alleged supernatural intervention, while it could also be a device to draw up romantic intrigue for the sake of filmic conventions. An exciting and unusual exercise in the horror genre The Phantom of the Convent is a crafty tale of gothic influenced horror.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: This lesser-seen classic film from Mexico is difficult to get a hold of, and one thing The Criterion Collection excels in is providing us with elusive movies from around the world. It’s also rumored that The Phantom of the Convent is one of many great films being lovingly restored through the tutelage of Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. Perhaps the third box set will contain The Phantom of the Convent?