Welcome to another installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be sharing various pieces of underappreciated scary books, comics, movies, and television to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.
Strange and Fantastic Tales of the 20th Century is a look back at the weirdest and most off center movies of the 20th century. From head turning horror to oddball science fiction this column examines the films that leave audiences not knowing what to think.
The 1969 Mexican horror film El Libro de Piedra (The Book of Stone) centers around a lonely young girl and her imaginary friend. Sylvia is a little girl whose friend is Hugo, a statue of a boy in a long robe who appears to be reading from a large stone book. The family quickly dismisses her imaginary friend as just a figment of Sylvia’s imagination, but her father soon comes to believe that there may be something far more sinister at work. Directed by Carlos Enrique Taboada, El Libro de Piedra is a fantastic tale not only because of its subject matter, but in the manner this situation is handled by the adult characters.
Eugenio Ruvalcaba (Joaquin Cordero) is a very rich and powerful man. He hires a tutor for Sylvia because she contracted meningitis a few months ago and the doctors believe she should be homeschooled until she has made a full recovery. Julia (Marga Lopez), the tutor is somewhat skeptical of this since Sylvia appears to be a very active and healthy little girl, but she agrees to tutor Sylvia. Eugenio’s demeanor is very stern. It is hard to tell if he is neglectful of his daughter or if he is afraid of her. His new wife Mariana is certain that Sylvia does not love her and Eugenio tries to remain objective during their disagreements and keep his home peaceful. Yet, when Eugenio and Mariana speak with Julia separately, they both indicate that there is something wrong with Sylvia and both seem fearful of her.
Julia arrives at the elegant home with the expectation of helping a little girl adapt to a new situation. In true horror movie style, she is warned by the maid and the gardener that while the courtyard may be beautiful there is an otherworldly presence , “Alguien que no es de este mundo.” The communication in El Libro de Piedra is one of the most captivating aspects of it. It is typical for the outsider to report the remarkable events and the reports are usually met with disbelief or even anger for discovering some dark secret. In El Libro de Piedra, Julia is almost looked to for validation. Eugenio and Mariana do not directly divulge that Sylvia’s imaginary friend is a statue, they let Julia find that out on her own. Julia remains calm and puts her focus on Sylvia. It is this almost too logical approach that heightens the tension in this film.
Julia bears witness to some bizarre behavior. Sylvia is often seen looking fearfully towards empty corners, she’s overheard giggling by herself, and Julia has even had glimpses of Hugo that she dismisses as part of her imagination. Sylvia makes predictions about the future. She is happy to learn her godfather has arrived for a visit because Hugo has told her that he brings gifts for her. Indeed, her godfather brought her a new doll. Sylvia puts her trust in Julia and enjoys their time together. This positive relationship wins Julia favor with Hugo. During a walk by the lake, Julia loses a cameo necklace. She is visibly heartbroken to lose this item and Sylvia comforts her by letting her know Hugo will find it. Later that evening, Julia wakes up to the sound of someone in her room and finds that her cameo has been returned. The way Julia learns the information prepares her for the more disturbing acts of the supernatural to come. During a geography class, Sylvia asks about a town in Austria. Later on it is revealed that Hugo is Austrian and his father was a warlock who turned Hugo to stone. The book the statue holds is a book of spells. This revelation is pretty crazy and far beyond what the adults expected of Sylvia.
Occult dealings play a major role in the story as Mariana begins to experience painful cramps in various body parts. The doctors cannot seem to find what is wrong with her. Julia later discovers that Sylvia has used her new doll for spell casting and is purposefully hurting Mariana. Again, Julia divulges Hugo’s history to the family during one of Mariana’s attacks. Information is delivered methodically and is received without much emotion. The characters, with the exception of Mariana, react calmly, but with a need to take action. It is very cool they way everyone behaves, almost as if not to wrinkle suits or dresses. It is the retention of this composure that makes the ending particularly shocking. After a night of Hugo wreaking havoc on the family, Eugenio and Julia come to a horrific realization that there is a new child statue in the yard. Spoiler alert: es la niña Sylvia!
El Libro de Piedra is very stylish and so are the characters. They are all very well-dressed and adorned in 1960’s fashion. Almost the entirety of the film is set in the house or in the courtyard. It is not your typical haunted house. It’s a very posh and modern home with a large yard complete with a lake, abandoned monastery, and of course, a demonic statue. There’s an elegance to the film in its setting, but also in its handling of the situation. While most horror films, especially of that era, tend to disregard the words of women and children, El Libro de Piedra not only believes women and children, but relies on them for the truth. Watch this film in your most mod 60’s outfit, with a skeptical eye, and a magic charm to ward away evil children and their statue friends.