Its obvious inspiration is Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, which Jack Clayton had filmed eight years earlier as The Innocents. Like James's story, El Libro de piedra has a governess, and a father-figure who is distant in at least one sense. There are also two children involved, a boy and a girl, and there is definitely a haunting to contend with. And there the resemblance stops. Taboada's film removes the ambiguity from the haunting, and hints at a different kind of corruption than the repressed sexuality of James's Victorian age.
As the movie opens, Julia Septién has just arrived and the enormous estate of a rich industrialist named Eugenio Ruvalcaba. She has been hired to take care of Ruvalcaba's young daughter Sylvia, who had suffered from meningitis and is still not strong enough to attend school with other children. But Ruvalcaba warns Julia that little Sylvia's problems may be more than merely medical. He thinks she may be mentally ill.
Julia determines to reserve her judgment until she's had a chance to see for herself. She goes off to find her new charge, though the housemaid suggests the girl has a tremendous talent for hiding on the grounds. Julia catches sight of a door swinging shut on a little thatched hut; assuming it's Sylvia, she goes in after her. Sylvia is indeed in the hut — but before Julia sees her, she is surprised by a large black lizard scrambling away.
Sylvia claims that she was just playing with her friend Hugo... but he's gone now. She asks Julia who she is — and when Julia explains, Sylvia's good humor vanishes. She distrusts adults, especially when they're in positions of authority over her. It's not too difficult to see why: her father is emotionally cold and withdrawn, and her mother is long dead; and to make matters worse, her father has recently got married again, to a significantly younger woman named Mariana. All this would be enough to distress any young child. But her father treats her loneliness and insecurity as a personal affront, a challenge to his authority... and this just makes the situation worse.
Julia understands children, and she realizes that although Ruvalcaba loves his daughter, he is not considering what is best for her. She is skeptical of his claims that Sylvia may be insane, and horrified when he suggests that she may need to be institutionalized. At least, she tells Ruvalcaba, she's relieved that Sylvia has a chance for a healthy friendship with a child her own age. With Hugo, that is. Yes, says Ruvalcaba; her friend Hugo is good company for her.
How much better it would be, he continues, if Hugo actually existed.
Ah. Well, even this isn't too much of a shock for Julia. All children have imaginary playmates, she reasons, especially when they're as lonely as Sylvia must be. That night, as Julia reads a bedtime story with Sylvia, the little girl mentions that she's going to give Hugo her book of fairy tales in the morning. "Does Hugo like fairy tales too?" asks Julia with a smile. Sylvia says he doesn't know if he likes them or not, because he's never read any. Sylvia refuses to discuss Hugo any more, and insists on going to bed.
Julia is still unconvinced that Hugo is entirely imaginary. She wonders if perhaps a child from nearby might not be sneaking in and hiding on the Ruvalcaba grounds. Ruvalcaba laughs grimly at this, and suggests she take a walk down by the nearby lake. What she sees there, he says, will make the situation much clearer. So Julia does go down to the lake... and there she finds the life-size stone statue of a little boy. The statue's face is lit up with a radiant smile, but its eyes are empty. It's wearing a long robe, and it holds an open book in its arms. Propped up against its pedestal is Sylvia's book of fairy tales.
So this is Hugo.
Ruvalcaba tells Julia that the status is about 500 years old. It was brought over from Austria by the man who originally owned the house and grounds. The day Sylvia arrived, she had been captivated by the statue, and her strange relationship with "Hugo" had begun. Julia still doesn't see why everyone considers Sylvia's imaginary friend to be so dangerous. But that night, at the tense family table, Julia thinks she catches a glimpse of someone peering in through the window at them. When Julia jokingly suggests it might be Hugo, Sylvia angrily insists it isn't, and is sent to her room. Later on, Julia discovers that small feet have trampled the flowers just outside the dining room... and Julia begins to get the first suggestion of what's really upsetting the Ruvalcaba household.
Mariana is especially upset. It's bad enough that Sylvia has rebuffed all her attempts to be friends. But her obsession with Hugo has got to the point where Mariana's even beginning to think she sees him. Again, Julia insists that she's being much too sensitive about Sylvia's behavior... but Mariana insists that Sylvia is truly "perverse". We get the feeling that Mariana's idea of "perverse" is much darker and more complex than Henry James's.
Julia tries to confront Sylvia once more, to get her to relax her resistance to Mariana and her father; but Sylvia refuses to open up. Nothing seems inevitable to her as long as Hugo is around. To change the subject, Sylvia suggests they go take a walk by the river, where an abandoned church stands. Julia agrees, happy that Sylvia seems to actually want her company.
Down by the old church, Julia soon becomes engrossed in a book... so much so that she fails to notice that Sylvia has disappeared. When she suddenly notices the girl is nowhere to be seen, she goes looking for her — and finds her sitting at the top of the ruined building's roof, unable to get down. Julia rushes up to the roof to try to rescue her — but what could that shadow be, up on the sunlit roof? It looks like a young boy, with coarse-cropped hair... but as Julia gets closer, the strange shadow withdraws.
Julia begins hoisting herself precariously onto the roof. Just as she's easing herself around a treacherous outcropping, she comes face-to-face with... the large black lizard again. Horrified, she throws herself backward, and very nearly pitches off the roof. As she struggles to regain her footing, Sylvia whispers, "No, Hugo! I don't want to do it!" The lizard disappears, and Julia hauls herself to safety. When they are back on solid ground, Sylvia apologizes to Julia for running away, and promises never to do it again. As they walk back to the house, we see the black lizard watching them from the roof...
The next day, Ruvalcaba's best friend (and Sylvia's godfather) Carlos arrived from Mexico City. Carlos is a painter and a theatrical production designer; he may not be wealthy like Ruvalcaba, but on the other hand, he is as relaxed and easy-going as Ruvalcaba is stiff and reserved. Carlos has brought his new dog Iago with him, a big German Shepard that looks threatening, but is really well-behaved.
Unaware of Carlos's arrival, Julia takes a walk with Sylvia out to the lake where the statue of Hugo stands. Julia remarks that the view isn't very pleasant for Hugo, but Sylvia insists he can change it if he wants. On their way back, Sylvia stops as if she's listening to what Hugo tells her. She says that the grownups have a present for her when she returns. Julia doesn't know quite what to make of this. But before she can give it too much thought, her cameo necklace catches on a branch and falls into the depths of the lake. Julia is heartbroken over the loss, but Sylvia assures her that Hugo can retrieve it for her.
Several shocks await Julia thereafter.
First, as she is being introduced to Carlos, the adults are summoned by Sylvia's screams. Iago the dog, anxious to play with her, has gone running after her and scared her terribly. Rather than shout for her father, Sylvia begs Hugo to save her... a fact which puts Ruvalcaba in an even surlier mood than usual. Carlos understands the situation as well as Julia does: "She feels lonely," he says. "It's human. If we don't have someone to love..." (he looks pointedly at Ruvalcaba) "... then we put all our emotions into an animal, or a plant." ("Or a stone?" seethes Ruvalcaba.)
Next, just as Sylvia (or Hugo) had foretold, Carlos reveals that he's brought her a present — a lovely new doll. Admittedly, this may not be too much of a coincidence, if Sylvia knew her doting godfather was likely to visit; but on top of all the other strange events, it does seem a little unsettling.
Finally, late that night, Sylvia awakens with the feeling that someone is in her room. When she gets up to investigate, she finds her window has mysteriously opened. And there on her bureau sits the cameo she'd lost in the lake.
Someone had to find the necklace, and put it in her room; and if Julia thought someone had been here only a few moments ago, then perhaps that someone is still nearby. She dashes out into the garden to find out. There she is surprised by Bruno the gardner, who is equally surprised to see her. They both thought they had seen a figure moving in the garden, and though Bruno tries to insist otherwise, they both know they weren't chasing after each other.
Bruno's wife insists that Julia should never walk in the garden at night, because strange inhuman things walk there. It was because of those strange things that Julia's predecessor, Miss Bertha, had left. She had seen something horrible, and though she'd never told anyone what she'd seen, she'd left immediately afterwards. The old woman insists it's all the fault of little Sylvia, mad little Sylvia; and for the second time in the film, someone describes the little girl as "perverse".
And not just perverse... embrujada. Bewitched.
Gradually, Julia gets Sylvia to tell her the story of Hugo. She says that Hugo came from a little town called Holsteinburg in Austria. "The people there were really bad," she says. In any case, she continues, they're all dead now (Julia checks later, and discovers that there was a town called Holsteinburg, and that it was completely destroyed during the Second World War — another bit of unnervingly accurate information relayed by Sylvia's "imaginary" friend).
Hugo's father had been a powerful Black Magician, who had in his possession a book that revealed all the secrets of life and death. With the knowledge he gained from this book, the evil wizard could be reborn into the physical world one thousand years after his death. But the wizard was afraid that the book would be lost or damaged during the thousand-year wait. So he bid his little son to hold the book in his outstretched arms, and then he turned both the book and the child into stone. According to the story, the statue of Hugo isn't really a statue at all: it's the real Hugo.
This is a remarkably bleak story for a child to have invented by herself. If anything, it's a little too perceptive. In one of Taboada's previous horror films, the non-supernaturally-themed El vagabundo en la lluvia, the character Monica had railed bitterly against motherhood: "That's the most frightening thing," she had said; "Not even our own organs belong to us [women]. We have to hire them out to some mediocre man, so he can feel like he's immortal." Well, here's Monica's diatribe taken literally (and in this form, it's even more frightening). The magician's child is nothing more than an object, sacrificed for his father's selfish desires. And when you think about it just a little more, isn't that exactly what Ruvalcaba is doing to Sylvia? His refusal to consider his daughter's feelings has threatened to turn her into a sort of stone child, too.
Unfortunately, Sylvia doesn't seem to be the sort of child to come up with such insightful stories. The alternative is unthinkable, yet to the adults it becomes more and more plausible every day: what if the story is true? What if Hugo really told it to her?
Though unseen for most of the film, the presence of Hugo becomes more and more palpable as the movie progresses. Even more perceptible, even if it's only imagined, is his influence on Sylvia. First Sylvia's new doll disappears; then Sylvia sneaks off with a scarf belonging to her step-mother. Soon after, Mariana begins experiencing terrible pains in her extremities — sharp pains, as though an invisible nail were being driven into her hands, or her legs, or her forehead. Hmmm...
Not much later, in the middle of the night, something terrible happens to Carlos's dog. It seems to have been... frightened to death. Could the dog have seen what the grown-ups have only sensed so far? The poor creature had never meant Sylvia any harm, but it had upset her; did Sylvia's "friend" take it upon himself to see she wouldn't be upset again? This thought is bad enough, but then we consider who else makes Sylvia upset. Hmmm...
And then, one afternoon, Carlos sits down by the lake to paint. His view just happens to include the statue of Hugo. Carlos looks up from some detail work and finds that Hugo is no longer on his pedestal (Hmmm... no longer seems to cover it. I think we need to move on to Yikes!). Rushing around the lake shore to see if his eyes are playing tricks on him, Carlos runs into Sylvia, who says she's playing hide-and-seek with her friend. When Carlos rounds the corner, he sees the status exactly where it ought to be... only Sylvia is now furious with him. She's spoiled their game!
As creepy as these developments are, they are mild compared to the escalation that takes place as the movie draws toward its tragic climax. Sylvia starts writing the names of the unnameable in salt, in order to raise her black lizard from the dead. Sylvia's doll turns up again... much the worse for wear. And then, Hugo starts making some personal appearances in unexpected places, always with that fixed, cherubic smile that makes him all the more unnerving.
I suppose it's needless to say that several people die. But for some of the remaining characters, what awaits is much, much worse.
It's the last sixty seconds of the film that pack the meanest punch. And no, I'm not talking about bloody dismemberments or jump-scares; I'm talking about the sort of hackle-raising spiritual sense of horror that a good ghost story is particularly good at conveying. If you can watch the end of El Libro de piedra without a chill running down your spine, then you've been turned to stone — and you need a good magician like Carlos Taboada to help break the spell.
As usual, Taboada's characters are memorable because they are complicated. The ironically-named Eugenio ("well-born") Ruvalcaba is in many respects a lousy father to Sylvia; yet he remains a sympathetic character, because we understand he loves his daughter in the only way he knows. Poor Mariana gets the worst of the whole situation; yet even she has her unsympathetic side, in her willingness to side with Ruvalcaba in blaming little Sylvia for her own misery. Sylvia herself is too young to understand the results of her actions, and is clearly being re-shaped by forces beyond her control; yet we see her slowly turning into a monster as the film goes on, and we become less and less willing to forgive her.
And as for Hugo, he too is an innocent (and here I can't help but think of the canny retitling of Jack Clayton's film version of Turn of the Screw). In fact, it's his innocence that makes him so monstrous. He has been thoroughly corrupted by his father, and he cheerfully brings that corruption to Sylvia in the belief that he's protecting her. And, of course, poor Sylvia is the ideal victim. That Hugo is not purposely cruel is demonstrated by the episode of the locket: Hugo has no reason to harm Julia, who has always been kind to Sylvia. But when the ghost-child tries to save Sylvia from the loneliness forced on her by her emotionally-distant father, the legacy of his own father makes things immeasurably worse.
Witches and witchcraft are recurring symbols in Taboada's horror films. In Hasta el viento tiene miedo, for example, the callous headmistress Bernarda was known as la bruja — the witch — by her students. Witchcraft also plays a large part in the plot of Taboada's final film, Veneno para las hadas (Poison for the Fairies, 1985). For Taboada, the "witch" is someone who has given up some essential part of his or her humanity in exchange for power. An actual contract with the Devil is not strictly necessary, but damnation usually follows anyway. Take Ruvalcaba, for example: his hard-headedness may serve him well in his business, but when his daughter needs love and compassion from him, he does not know how to give it. He is not a bad person — but his inability to see beyond his own desires hurts Sylvia just enough to give the real witches a hold over her. Ruvalcaba's common, even understandable failing sets everything else in motion, and by the end of the film, he's lost everyone and everything that should have been important to him.
But Taboada also makes clear that although Ruvalcaba pays a heavy price (probably even too heavy) for his failings, it's his daughter who bears the worst of it. First, innocently as always, she becomes a willing paticipant in the destructions of other people's lives, and then... well... let's just say there is a sense of horror to this film that goes well beyond the appearance of its ghost.
If Hasta el viento tiene miedo was a sort of fairy tale in modern clothes, El Libro de piedra is quite different. A fairy tale almost always ends happily, with the "true order of things" being restored; and if there are wicked witches about, they are always thwarted and punished. Hugo has never heard a fairy tale, because — as El Libro de piedra suggests, and Taboada's later film Veneno para las hadas states explicitly — fairies and witches are mortal enemies. When the witches themselves are telling the stories, there can be no happy endings.