The Living Idol

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THE LIVING IDOL should have been called ‘The Living End’, as this is one bizarre movie. The last of just a handful of pictures directed by the estimable stylist Albert Lewin, it sadly was the living end to his career as a director. He also came up with the story, wrote the screenplay and acted as producer, none of those point positions for this wackiness doing him anything like credit.

Exploring an Aztec pyramid in the Mexican Yucatan, a team of archaeologists find a jaguar idol, which has a dramatic, unsettling physical and psychological effect upon the young daughter of the team leader. When he’s crushed by a toppling statue, his associates take the woman under their care, and one falls in love with her. The senior member of the group believes the girl is being taken over by the spirit of the jaguar, and in his obsession over understanding tradition he goes to drastic ends to prove it. That’s about as mild a description of this hallucinogenic nuttiness as can be offered without spoiling the bad-movie fun to be had by submitting to the plots 101 minutes of hold-the-human-sacrifice S-T-R-A-N-G-E.

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‘Juanita’ the predestined jaglady is played—in a semi-cat-atonic state of pop-eyed woodenness—by Liliane Montevecchi, a 23-year-old French ballerina-turned-actress who’d made an impression as a sexy Gypsy temptress in Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet. Ordinarily lithe, for one reason or another she’s oddly pudgy here, and topped with dorky hair styling. Her flummoxed gringo fiancé is covered by Steve Forrest in his first role as a lead; the dismal failure of this movie may have been what kept him relegated into secondary parts afterwards. Rotund British enunciation-dispenser and real-deal Renaissance character James Robertson Justice gets most of the long-winded dialogue, including—besides superflous narration—a lengthy lecture, complete with slides, an episode that skips simple momentum requirements of the plot and presumes to actually teach—or opine—the by-now dizzy audience. The smart Justice was likely happy to be in a film project from the intellectual, speculative writer-director Lewin, but he plays with the excitement level of an Art History substitute unsure if he’s at the right High School. His character is named ‘Dr. Alfred Stoner’, which should be a clue. Sara Garcia, famous in Mexican cinema for playing grandmotherly types (between 1917 and 1988 she worked in 148 films), does duty as his wife, but she’s dubbed here so she sounds like someone doing an impression of Maria Ouspenskaya (the wizened old ‘Maleva’ from The Wolfman). Well-regarded Mexican actor Eduardo Noriega plays the guy who gets smushed by the statue. His voice is also clearly dubbed so he sounds as Mexican as Montana. *

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Thanks to having ace Jack Hildyard as cameraman, at least there are some impressive visual elements, with location shooting done at Uxmal in the Yucatán and in Mexico City, showing off the then brand spanking new University. The opening music scoring from Rodolpho Halffter is not bad, and big-cat fanciers get a lot of close-up shots of jaguars, including some fairly wild displays of their penned-up frustration.

Though the weirdness cost just $360,000, it only made $350,000, so with the outlay for  prints, advertising and distribution the studio ended up recording a loss of $339,000. The movie carries a certain fascination, but you might need a neck massage afterwards, due to all the head-shaking it will provoke. Your abs, however, will get a good workout from guffaws.

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* After small parts in The Young Lions and King Creole, the exotic Ms. Montevecchi’s film career sputtered into TV gigs, but she rallied in a big way with 9 years in the Folies Bergere, then numerous triumphs on Broadway and in cabarets. The toast of a number of stages, she passed away in 2018, at 85.

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Later known mostly for TV work, Forrest was Dana Andrews’ younger brother. The same year this oddity was released Dana starred in another macabre movie that is now justifiably regarded as a classic—Night Of The Demon/Curse Of The Demon.

Given credit as director of “Mexican scenes” is the legendary René Cardona, among whose estimable 145 credits over a 52-year career are found such immortal offerings as Santo vs. the Head Hunters (he did at least six ‘Santo’ epics), Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy, Night Of The Bloody Apes and Survive!  The kind of stuff that just can’t be made up.

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