Monsters and Matinees: Meeting The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre

Meeting The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre

Louise Mandore was just a child when she wandered off during a family funeral and accidentally locked herself in a burial chamber. The experience left her haunted by nightmares and with a lifelong fear of being buried alive.

She made sure that would never happen.

Her will mandated the following:

  • Five doctors had to examine her and sign the death certificate.
  • Her body would not be embalmed.
  • The coffin lid would remain open, never to be closed.
  • And one last thing: A phone had to be within arm’s reach of the coffin with a direct line into the bedroom of her son, Henry, so she could call for help by dialing the code H-E-L-P (it’s engraved on a nearby cross in her tomb).
Telephones loom large throughout The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre including the one in the room of Henry Mandore (played by Tom Simcox), that is a direct line to his mother’s crypt.

Darn, if a year after Louise dies, that phone doesn’t start ringing in Henry’s room, with the sounds of a sobbing woman on the other end.

That crying – loud and jarring – is the first thing heard in The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre, a noise uncomfortably repeated throughout the atmospheric 1964 horror film.

Those opening seconds over grainy images of a cemetery will abruptly shift to overhead views of a large city as dark, dramatic music plays. But wait – the mood changes again. Large waves wash away the cityscape to reveal a beach where a man walks, looking casually chic and handsome in a pullover sweater. The music is carefree and romantic and then abruptly goes all bleak and bombastic again. That shifting tone will continue, keeping us unsettled as the story unfolds.

Walking toward us is Martin Landau as Nelson Orion, the credits announce, then listing “guest stars” like Judith Anderson and Diane Baker. Great cast but guest stars? What’s going on? Is this a television series?

Yes and no.

Martin Landau is a steady, impressive presence as an architect who restores forsaken houses – and people – in The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre.

The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre was the pilot for a planned anthology TV series to be called The Haunted by Joseph Stefano, known for writing Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and for his writing and producing on The Outer Limits TV series. This explained why Ghost felt like a nicely done extended episode of The Twilight Zone. (I am not as familiar with The Outer Limits, hence the TZ reference.)

Stefano did Ghost after leaving The Outer Limits and brought some crew members with him. In addition to the notable cast, it also featured the skills of composer Dominic Frontiere and director of photography Conrad Hall (Oscar winner for Butch Cassidy and the Sunshine Kid, Road to Perdition and American Beauty). There is talent here.

* * * * *

Young married couple Henry Mandore (played by Tom Simcox) and Vivia (Diane Baker) live on a large 100-acre family estate with a mansion that would be right at home in a gothic horror film like The Haunting.

Judith Anderson adds to the creepy factor as she lurks about a large mansion as the housekeeper to Tom Simcox and Diane Baker in The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre.

Vivia returns from a three-week trip to take care of charity donations made by Henry’s mother to find him traumatized by those sobbing phone calls. (Henry has been blind since birth.) To ramp up the unease, there’s scary new housekeeper Paulina (Judith Anderson) who terrifies Vivia at first sight, walking out of the shadows with heavy eye makeup and a scowl. Paulina is always quietly lurking about like a specter as she peers out from behind doors and bushes, unnervingly sits in a corner just watching and skulks about the cemetery.

It’s in the cemetery at midnight that Vivia meets Nelson Orion (we’ll just call him Orion because it’s a cool name) at her husband’s request, thanking him for not dismissing her call as a prank. She doesn’t believe in ghosts – nor, surprisingly, does our paranormal investigator – but they are both willing to research the sobbing phone calls to help Henry. Orion, an architect who makes a sizable living at his trade and does this on the side, won’t charge a penny if it is a “real” haunting, but if it’s a fraud, he says, he will tell the police.

A young wife (played by Diane Baker) is frightened by strange occurrences.

They enter the impressive mausoleum, which is the size of a house with multiple rooms, stairs and artifacts. It would be almost homey if it wasn’t inhabited by the dead. As they nonchalantly walk and talk along the dark hallways toward the burial chamber of Henry’s mother, the camera also follows someone traveling the corridors, sobbing. Doors blow open and slam shut, but only the viewer is aware of this at first. Then the force bursts into the mother’s tomb attacking Orion and Vivia, all whirling winds, screeching violins, shrieks and cries. It is terrifying to watch Vivia flail and scream like a madwoman as she bats away at some sinister entity. (Baker is terrific in this film.)

What just happened? They aren’t waiting around to find out, but Vivia has left her purse behind and runs back to get it. Then she inexplicably sits, opens the purse in the tomb and pulls out a vial as everything starts up again: the lightning, the wailing wind and now a visit by a blood-splashed ghostly figure in a black shroud.

Vivia, who clearly has issues, loses it again with this second incident and spends the night at Orion’s ultramodern beach house perched on a cliff to recover. (It’s not clear why he took her there and not home – there is not a romance between them.)

Martin Landau, left, and Diane Baker are terrorized by an unseen force in The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre. This scene is inside a crypt where a telephone sits near the coffin of a woman who was terrified of being buried alive.

The next morning, she is soothed after drinking from that black vial, and is then transfixed by a painting of Mission at the Sierra de Cobre on Orion’s immense gallery wall of artwork. He explains his skills were once needed there to solve the legend of a bleeding ghost and a murder. It did not go well as we later learn because our creepy housekeeper just happened to be there at the same time. Paulina calls Orion a charlatan because he failed to “exorcise the bleeding ghost” in Sierra de Cobre and wants him gone. But Orion’s not going anywhere until he can help – and that means helping everyone.

As an architect, he works on the restoration of old, forsaken homes and this “hobby” does the same by restoring people. His belief is that everyone is haunted by something, real or imaginary, and that’s true of these people. Henry wants a paranormal explanation because if it’s not his mother haunting him, then he’s going mad as his father did. Vivia, who is prone to nightmares, seems especially sensitive to paranormal activity and doesn’t handle it well. The mysterious Paulina has something boiling beneath her cold exterior that is ready to explode.

Though only Henry has heard the phone calls, they are all together when a loud and deep banging starts in his room, making a large window seat rumble and cushions fly. Henry and Vivia are terrified, claiming that’s the sound of Louise Mandore pounding her way out of the coffin. Even the skeptical Orion believes it was a psychical disturbance (a phrase he likes to use).

So, what’s really going on?

We’ll get information fast as Orion seeks the truth in his calm, matter of fact way. He uses his housekeeper, Mrs. Finch (delightfully played by Nellie Burt), as a sounding board. She’s a staunch nonbeliever and plays the devil’s advocate for him. The scenes of them talking and throwing ideas off each other get our minds working, too. Drug-induced hallucinations, she suggests? Hidden mechanical devices? This is a bit fun.

* * * * *

Nelson Orion (played by Martin Landau) studies up on his newest investigation by atmospheric candlelight in The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre.

Director Joseph Stefano and cinematographer Conrad Hall do an excellent job of keeping the film tense and melancholy, a great combination for a ghost story. Except for the scenes on the beach, the movie is gloomy at best as Hall plays with light, often filming characters in heavy shadows if not nearly outright darkness. A scene where Orion is reading by the light of giant candelabra is especially effective in keeping the atmospheric mood even at an ordinary moment.

Hall’s camera likes to be overhead, perched above unsuspecting characters as if ready to pounce.  Someone – or worse, something – is keeping an eye on all of them and it’s unsettling. He gives menacing life to the telephone by framing it in the forefront of scenes, dwarfing characters and illustrating the hold it has over them.

As Vivia Mandore (Diane Baker) looks on, investigator Henry Orion (Martin Landau) is surprised that the phone inside a tomb is warm to the touch in The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre.

Terror comes in jolting moments like that early scene with Vivia and Orion in the mother’s tomb. Stefano makes sure the viewer doesn’t get comfortable.

Stefano’s storytelling keeps us intrigued and when he finally unravels all the strings that tie everything together we see that he gave us just enough information to keep us going, but not enough for the full picture so we have a satisfying conclusion to meeting The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre.

* * * * *

Nelson Orion (Martin Landau) and his housekeeper Mrs. Finch (Nellie Burt) talk through his latest case in The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre.

It’s a bummer that Nelson Orion only lives in this film. I really enjoyed watching him thoughtfully work the case. We can see how Mrs. Finch and architect Benedict Sloane (played by Leonard Stone) are set up to be the two recurring characters in future episodes. I would have enjoyed sitting in on more conversations with Orion and Mrs. Finch.

And what about the beautiful blonde on the beach Orion invited to a haunted house on Friday night? I wonder how that date went – and if there will be a second one. Yes, I feel cheated by only meeting Nelson Orion once and thinking of all the future investigations that never came to be.

But the film gave me a new appreciation for Martin Landau and there is much I have to yet to see by the actor. Plus I will definitely revisit The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre. That will keep me busy.

 Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Toni’s Monsters and Matinees articles here.

Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a writer and board member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.

This entry was posted in Classic TV, Monsters and Matinees, Posts by Toni Ruberto and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Monsters and Matinees: Meeting The Ghost of Sierra de Cobre

  1. Wow, I’ve never heard of this. It sounds interesting — if more than a little scary!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.