The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre (1964)
Studio: Kino Lorber
Release date: October 30th 2018
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
“I thought fear was better than death. It isn’t. It’s only slower.”
When Rod Serling launched The Twilight Zone in 1959, he couldn’t have anticipated the long shadow it would cast over American airwaves for decades. It wasn’t just immediately influential, spawning the likes of One Step Beyond, The Outer Limits, Thriller, and Way Out, but it also instilled a recurring fascination for the format, one that even Serling himself returned to with Night Gallery a decade later. One of these spawns would have been The Haunted, a supernatural anthology series Joseph Stefano pitched to CBS following his success on The Outer Limits. However, a regime change at the studio scuttled the project, leaving Stefano with an unaired pilot. Outgoing CBS head honcho Hunt Stromberg reportedly championed the project anyway, though, leading to Stefano filming additional footage to transform the pilot into The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre for overseas exhibition before the film all but vanished for decades.
Appropriately enough, a film about an investigation into long-suppressed legends became the stuff of myth as tales began to emerge around The Haunted. Supposedly, the show was pulled and never aired because it was too scary for audiences to endure; some insisted the The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre didn’t exist at all, a notion that was only dashed when 8mm copies began to screen at repertory houses. A couple of years ago, however, Kino Lorber left no doubt by giving the film an official release for the first time ever in America, giving audiences a glimpse of an oddity that likely would have been short-lived if it did somehow make it onto the air.
Which is not at all an indictment of its poor quality. Quite the opposite, in fact: The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre is a fascinating, weird, and altogether artful take on ghost stories, so much so that it just doesn’t feel like it would have ever thrived or been done justice on the small screen. From its opening credits, which see the city of Los Angeles dissolve beneath a wave rolling onto the shore, it’s obvious Stefano is establishing a moody, atmospheric tenor instead of delivering a parade of overt shocks. It’s on the shore where we find Nelson Orion (Martin Landau), an architect who moonlights as a paranormal investigator, overlooking the shore from the perch of his chic home. His latest case brings him to the Mandore house, which looms as the exact opposite: an spooky old dark house that rests as the centerpiece of a sprawling, generations-old estate. Henry Mandore (Tom Simcox) is the latest lord of the manor, having inherited the estate from his recently-deceased mother. However, she may not actually be dead: long paranoid about being buried alive, the old woman insisted on having a phone put within arm’s reach of her coffin, and someone’s been making mysterious phone calls. At the behest of Nelson’s wife, Vivian (Diane Baker), Nelson investigates and begins to untangle a labyrinthine thread leading back to an earlier case involving a murder in a Mexican village years before.
Despite its studio polish, The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre feels like it hails from the fringes. There’s something perpetually elusive about it, almost as if it’s constantly slithering away to keep its audience at arm’s length. Its launching point is a familiar, lucid one: phone lines reaching from beyond the grave provided the plot for two Twilight Zone episodes in “Night Call” and “Long Distance Call,” while the gothic aesthetic recalls the likes of The Haunting, The Innocents, and Rebecca (with the latter especially resounding when Judith Anderson enters the picture as Pauilna, the new maid of the Mandore estate). But for all these familiar touchstones, the film is adamant about striking out on its own, weird path, darting through various subplots and fakeouts before arriving at strikingly resonant climax that forces Nelson to reckon with a past failure. The ghosts and demons here also ultimately lurk in the mind, urging on a misguided quest for revenge that puts the film on an eerie, downbeat path that anticipates the looming gloominess of the late-60s.
One has to imagine the eventual television series would have been a bit jauniter and more in lock-step with a premise that sees the suave, beachcombing Landau solving the mystery of the week (and entangling with women on the shore if one odd scene that doesn’t figure into the plot here is any indication). But for the feature version, Stefano and DP Conrad Hall fashion the material into a brooding, abstruse mood piece marked by bravura camerawork that slinks and roves as freely as the meandering script. Hall’s camera often luxuriates on the surroundings, allowing viewers to prowl through the Mandore estate before descending into its dank, shadowy crypt, tracking the path of the supposedly haunted phone line. Clever match cuts foreshadow Paulina’s increasing presence in the picture; for much of the early-going, she feels like the ghost haunting the place, flitting in and out of the frame, lurking like a inky specter. A shot of her looming in all-black, standing in stark contrast to the bright, blown-out, sunlit beach captures the surreality guiding The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre, putting it in the company of 60s nightmarish daydreams like Carnival of Souls and Night Tide.
Like those films, its patient with its overt shocks and scares, unleashing them with an almost surgical precision. The hauntings often swell to a jarring crescendo. So much of the film is pitched at a moody hush, that the appearance of ghosts and demons feel like intrusions. They’re realized with the same kind of superimposed opticals of William Castle’s spook-a-blasts, but what reads as playful in those films feels much more sinister here. The unquiet spirits of the Mandore estate (and beyond) screech and howl to unnerving effect; however, these frenzied bursts are only accents for the lingering, suffocating horror that slowly grips the estate as Nelson digs deeper into the conspiracy that emerges during his investigation.
But it’s really the quieter, more subtle hauntings that ultimately linger here. The lore that inspires the film’s title refuses to stay in the past and resurfaces here, guiding the vengeful actions of two souls who feel they’ve been wronged. What’s striking about it is the film refuses to outright vilify the duo, nor is it eager to vindicate Nelson’s suave skepticism. Instead, the climax here is a fatalistic collision of intertwined souls that ends on a tragic, somber note. If there’s anything sinister about it, it rests in the implication that the past sometimes refuses to relent: once it captures us in its grips, there’s no escape until its ghosts are satiated. This nuanced approach to such material is striking, and hints that Stefano wouldn’t have been content for The Haunted to be a conventional ghost-of-the-week anthology. Who knows if this would have been the case, but, at the very least, Landau’s Nelson Orion would have made for a captivating character for a potential series. Unfortunately--but quite appropriately--we only have this looming specter, a phantom limb of what could have been.
Kino Lorber’s discovery and subsequent restoration of The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre is nothing short of miraculous. Again, this is a film that was believed to be all but lost until a print surfaced earlier in the past decade, putting enthusiasts on the path to this home video release. The long wait was worthwhile: not only did KL restore the virtually unseen theatrical cut, but they’ve also included the original pilot version of “The Haunted.” Each features its own commentary as well: film historian and Outer Limits guru David Schow takes the feature version, while Eric Grayson provides the track for the pilot. Considering the highly obscure nature of the film itself, this is a case where Kino has truly gone above and beyond. Indeed, this is one of those cases where it would have been sufficient just to simply have the film. Quite frankly, this release feels like it should have been a bigger deal back in 2018: The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre is one of my favorite discoveries in recent years, and I only hope to see its reputation grow in time. In an era where it feels like everything has been uncovered, it’s nice to have a reminder that there are still gems like this lurking, just waiting to shine when the light finally hits them.
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