The 1956 Headless Rider feature JINETE SIN CABEZA (THE HEADLESS RIDER aka THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN)proved a particularly effective blending of the crime, western and horror genres. The action opens in 1931 with a starkly lit, traveling shot of a line of skull masked "monks" proceeding openly through a darkened town. This bizarre scene mimics the painstaking use of atmospheric lighting that has proved a strong point of the Euro horror film from Dreyer to Franco, and instantly imbues the film with a distinct aura.
The grim figures proceed to a secret tribunal where, presided over by a disembodied hand, they pass judgment against a terrified victim. The hand continues to pop up throughout the film, repeatedly emerging from a narrow drawer, creeping through the shadows and even swarming over a door, which it manages to slam in the hero's invisible face.
Another weird touch involves a corpse (Crox Alvarado) found concealed within a wall in the heroine's hacienda. After briefly lying in state, the body is duly removed for burial. This, however, is by no means the end of the deceased man's participation in the action. As a peon rather desultorily seals the dead man's corpse into its crypt, the body unexpectedly appears in the heroine's home. It subsequently reappears before her at the local church and returns yet again at the end of the film, to help vanquish the skull-faced legion.
The Headless Rider appears, and begins ferreting out the sinister hooded brotherhood. It quickly becomes evident that the eerie avenger is a mortal man dressed in light colored clothing, with his face swathed in a tight fitting black hood that makes it "invisible" in the dark of night. However, many of the scenes incorporating the hero are carefully framed to place his head and shoulders against a black background. Other shots simply focus on the approaching Rider's legs or other parts of his body.
These simple gambits work surprisingly well and, coupled with the fact that the Rider remains mute throughout much of his early screen time, invest the mysterious champion with a distinctly supernatural feel which makes him one of the more interesting Mexican mystery heroes.
The creeping hand is also used effectively throughout the film. Particularly jarring is an early scene in which a mysterious package is delivered to the dead man's home. While the local doctor and the dead man's niece inspect the nearby opening through which the corpse had been removed, local lawman Don Fernando (Jaime Fernández) begins to unwrap the padlocked box.
His hesitation in opening the strongbox makes it obvious that something is about to happen. Still, a quick cut to the others discussing the discovery of the corpse acts to partially diffuse the tension. The camera shifts back to Don Fernando as the case's lid springs open and the hand catapults up like some macabre jack-in-the-box. This brief shift of focus serves to imbue the scene's predictable payoff with an extra punch.
In another nicely conceived scene, the cloaked villains remove a coffin from its sealed tomb, in order to retrieve a clue to the location of a treasure, which has been concealed on the enclosed body. They laboriously remove the casket, only to discover the Rider waiting inside.
As in the earlier scene in which the dead man unexpectedly appears in the bedroom, the casket has been clearly established as being sealed into its crypt, so the emergence of the waiting enmascarado comes as a complete surprise.
The Headless Rider returned in CABEZA DE PANCHO VILLA (THE HEAD OF PANCHO VILLA) and LA MARCA DE SATANAS (THE MARK OF Satan), also released in 1956.
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