The Rider of the Skulls – original title: El Charro de las Calaveras – is a 1965 Mexican Western horror feature film written and directed by Alfredo Salazar (writer – and uncredited producer – of Night of the Bloody Apes; Doctor of Doom; Curse of the Aztec Mummy; The Vampire’s Coffin; producer of The Brainiac, in which he also stars; et al). The movie stars Dagoberto Rodriguez, David Silva and Alicia Caro.
It is generally assumed that this movie is comprised of three episodes of a serial edited together.
Part of the brilliance of The Rider of the Skulls is its inane bending of genres: it’s a Mexican Western with a whopping dollop of horror. The Rider of the Skulls (Dagoberto Rodríguez) is the titular hero; a Zorro-esque, cowboy hat-wearing tough guy clad in black clothing marked with skulls. He strolls through a town where a werewolf has been slaughtering the locals. Having beaten up the werewolf, he adopts an orphaned child (and an orphaned fully grown man – more on that later) and rides off into the sunset. The end, right?
Nope, this is not the end of the movie! This is only thirty minutes in…
The Rider of the Skulls – now with two sidekicks – rides across to another village. In this village, a vampire is sucking the blood of the innocent villagers. And guess what? He fights the vampire and even saves the heroine from an eternal life of vampirism. Finally, after skewering the vampire, our hero moves on to another town where he runs into the goddamn Headless Horseman.
And The Rider of the Skulls only gets madder as more monsters show up. While the costumes and monster masks are decidedly shabby, they have creativity that elevates them above their rubbery silliness. I was disappointed to see the werewolf killed off, but the vampire that replaces him is even better. The vampire is both hilarious and genuinely unsettling, mostly thanks to his oddly creepy mask.
The Headless Horseman, the final monster for the Rider to battle, does the impossible by trumping both the werewolf and the vampire with his insane paper-mâché head and his onscreen tiff with God. While The Rider of the Skulls may appear to have no narrative structure, there is a steep climb of nuttiness in its monsters reaching an appropriately mad finale with the horseman and his skull-faced lackeys.
This three-part structure gives the feeling of an old serial (it is assumed it was originally penned as one). The hammy characters also emanate a serialised vibe. First off, we have the Rider himself. Goofy costume and all, the Rider of the Skulls is the perfect hero. Here is a guy who beats up a werewolf, yet still has the kindness to take young Perico, orphaned child of the said werewolf, under his wing. The Rider is himself an orphan, giving him a classic vigilante back-story – although the strange retelling of his past is bizarre (confusedly involving three skulls left behind “in mourning” for the bandits that killed his parents).
But director Alfredo Salazar knows The Rider of the Skulls needs a dash of comedy too and gives us Cléofas (Pascual García Peña). Cléofas, an overweight and cowardly sidekick that the Rider literally adopts, is endearingly irritating and provides the film with many of its “laughs”. I must admit, I genuinely cracked up whenever the bearded Cléofas referred to the Rider as “daddy”.
Being that this is a Mexican film, you’d hope and assume to see some wrestling-inspired fights. And yes, damn right, you do! Better yet, you get to see the Rider fighting supernatural beings! The fights are a bizarre blast of fun, but its the smaller moments of weirdness that make this movie a truly unique experience. At one point, the Rider is led by a witch-woman to talk with “the dead” about the werewolf. The final third of the film is also ripe with oddness.
The woman in possession of the head is an ancestor of the man that killed the horseman. She takes her troubles to a doctor who instantly assumes she is imagining things and tells her to bury the box and forget about it. Later on, when trouble with the head reappears, the doctor quickly changes his tune and launches into a supernatural diatribe that would make the most superstitious among us blush. I love abrupt character changes.
It shocks me that The Rider of the Skulls is not a household name among B-movie movie fans. Not only is it completely bizarre, it is also incredibly entertaining from start to finish. The Rider of the Skulls stands alongside films that break the barriers of good and bad. Films like Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky and Mad Foxes – films that are both bad and brilliant at the same time. They are films beyond labels. I would, without irony, give The Rider of the Skulls a perfect ten.
Dave Jackson, MOVIES and MANIA – guest reviewer via Mondo Exploito
Cast and characters:
- Dagoberto Rodríguez … El Charro de las Calaveras
- David Silva … Luis Alvatierra
- Alicia Caro … Signora Alvatierra
- Pascual García Peña … Cléofas
- Laura Martínez … TBC
- Rosario Montes … TBC
- Carlos del Muro … TBC
- Jose Luis Cabrera … TBC
- Gabriel Agrasanchez … Perico (as Gabriel Agrasánchez)
- Alfonso Ortiz Alfonso Ortiz … Juanito
- Alfredo Salazar … Un campesino – First victim of the vampire (uncredited)