Cast & Crew
At the great pyramid at Chichén Itzá, Mexico, American writer Terry Matthews and Juanita, the daughter of a local archaeologist, are escorted by Professor Alfred Stoner up a steep, narrow stairway to a chamber containing an ancient statue of a jaguar. Juanita recoils in terror at the sight of the statue and flees. The men follow Juanita, perplexed by her reaction, and Alfred later tells Juanita's father Manuel that a thousand years ago, maidens were sacrificed to the jaguar god on the top of the pyramid. Alfred describes the sacrificial ritual, in which the victim's heart was cut out with an obsidian knife and the body consumed, then surmises that Juanita may have a "racial memory" of such sacrifices. The following day, Terry takes Juanita to a fiesta in the town square, and while watching the masked dancers in a parade, she becomes frightened for reasons she cannot explain. Late that night, Juanita comes to Terry's tent and declares her love for him, but Terry, who is about to leave for Korea on a reporting assignment, dismisses her feelings as adolescent infatuation. When Juanita later gives Terry a poem she has written for him, however, he surrenders to his feelings for her and they kiss. Soon after, Manuel is killed while excavating a monument, and when Terry and Alfred discover a carving of a jaguar devouring a human heart in the stone, Alfred maintains that his old friend's death was no accident. Alfred takes a lecturing position at the university in Mexico City, and he and his wife Elena ask the heartbroken Juanita to stay with them as their daughter. When Terry returns from Korea, he goes to the professor's house. Elena says her husband is writing a book on the history of human sacrifice, and Terry is surprised to see the jaguar idol from the pyramid in Alfred's study. The worried Elena then tells Terry that Alfred has been obsessed with jaguars since Manuel's death, and spends much of his free time at the zoo speaking Mayan to a jaguar, which he believes is the living incarnation of the god in the stone idol. Elena adds that Juanita has been suffering from a mysterious sickness that the doctors have been unable to diagnose, although Alfred believes that her soul has been stolen by the ghost of the jaguar. Terry and Juanita go to the zoo, and Alfred shows them the jaguar he has been visiting. The animal grows violently agitated upon seeing Juanita. Later, Terry proposes to Juanita, but she demurs, saying she has a premonition about her illness. When they get home, Alfred shows them a fragment of a statue he has acquired that bears a striking resemblance to Juanita, and she leaves the room, downcast. Alfred tells Terry that the jaguar is a metaphor for the evil within human beings that devours their souls, asserting that the demon must be confronted and conquered by each generation. Later, Terry accepts Alfred's invitation to attend his lecture on human sacrifice through the ages. Donning the headgear of a Mayan priest, Alfred calls on Juanita to model the garb worn by virgins sacrificed to the jaguar god. As Alfred describes the ritual in gruesome detail, Juanita faints. Later that day, Terry tells Alfred about his secret engagement to Juanita, and Alfred resolves to help her the only way he believes possible. Late at night, Alfred goes to the zoo and attempts to take the jaguar, which mauls him and escapes. The badly injured Alfred gets into his car and begins driving, while the jaguar, guided by supernatural intuition, stalks through the deserted city streets toward the professor's home. Meanwhile, Juanita is awakened by a strange commotion coming from Alfred's museum across the garden. She and Elena summon Terry, and the horrified Juanita watches as the jaguar prowls throughout the house, savagely attacking the dressmaker's dummy wearing her wedding dress. Terry arrives and battles the beast, finally stabbing it to death with the obsidian knife used in the sacrifices. The unearthly noises in the museum cease, and there Terry and the others find Alfred. Everything in the museum has been destroyed, except for the statue resembling Juanita. Alfred concedes his act was a desperate measure, but declares that the now tranquil Juanita can once again call her soul her own. With his dying breath, Alfred asks Terry to take photographs of the museum and write about what transpired. Terry and Juanita then marry and look forward to a happy life together.
Dr. Luis Aveleyra Arroyo De Anda
José A. Calvo
José A. Carrasco
Fernando Martínez A.
Armando Valdéz Peza
The opening credits acknowledge the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico for its cooperation during the making of the film. The opening credits also include the following quotation from Plato, which is cited in the film by the character of the professor: "The soul can wear out many bodies." Credits for the following crew members are preceded by the words "Mexican Staff Unit...'Continental'": Valentín Pimstein, Paul Castelain, José A. Carrasco, Miguel Arana and Guadalupe Gorráez. Voice-over narration by Steve Forrest as "Terry Matthews" is heard throughout the film. According to a May 17, 1956 Variety news item, Dan O'Herlihy was originally considered for a starring role in the film.
The Living Idol was shot at the Churubusco Studios in Mexico City, and on location in Mexico. According to contemporary news items, filming took place at the Mayan cities of Chichén Itzá and Uxmal in Yucatán, and at the Chapultepec Zoo and the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City. In a December 1956 article published by Albert Lewin in New York Times, the writer-producer-director recalled the difficulties he and his crew encountered while filming in the ancient Mayan ruins. Lewin wrote that because of enormous technical obstacles, the eighteen-second sequence in the Pyramid at Chichén Itzá took four days to film.