Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Vampire

Director: Fernando Mendez
Writer: Ramon Obon
Producer: Abel Salazar
Cast: Abel Salazar, German Robles, Ariadna Welter
Year of release: 1957
Country: Mexico
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Mondo Macabro)

For all that people rave about Hammer’s 1958 classic (Horror of) Dracula, it was actually the fourth significant vampire film of the 1950s. First there was the Turkish Drakula Istanbulda in 1952, then from Italy in 1956 came Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri, and finally El Vampiro was made and released in 1957 down Mexico way.

Long relegated to a footnote in horror movie history, this film is now available on Region-free DVD from Mondo Macabro and turns out to be an absolute belter. Viewers expecting campy shenanigans on a par with the Santo movies will be surprised to find a well-made, atmospheric horror flick.

Aradna Welter (The Devil’s Hand) plays Marta, returning to her family home, The Sycamores, where lives her uncle Emilio (Jose Luis Jimenez: Santo in the Wax Museum) and two aunts, Eloisa (Carmen Montejo, who started in films in 1943 and is still working!) and Maria Teresa (Alicia Montoya: Santo Vs the Martians). Except that she turns up a day too late, Maria Teresa having just been interred in the family tomb. Accompanying Marta is Enrique (producer Abel Salazar: The Curse of the Crying Woman, The Brainiac), a travelling salesman she met at the railway station who is invited to stay the night. The whole local area is riddled with superstition and fear - folk don’t go out after dark - and this may be connected with the family’s mysterious neighbour, Hungarian Count Lavud (German Robles: Castle of the Monsters, Curse of Nostradamus).

But not all is as it seems. Maria Teresa had been talking of vampires before she died, and Enrique is really a doctor summoned by Emilio to examine her. Lavud is of course a vampire and so (fairly obviously) is Eloisa - and now it seems that Maria Teresa is also rising from the tomb. But the family servants know a deeper secret. Could it somehow be connected with the hacienda’s former owner, also buried in the crypt below, a fellow named... DuVal?

The great sets are loaded with secret passages, the direction and camerawork are exemplary, the acting is excellent (especially Welter, who is both strong and vulnerable at the same time) and the story, when finally unravelled, actually makes sense. Are characters alive or dead? Who is in league with whom? This is cracking stuff. The effects used to show items moving by themselves when reflections are checked in mirrors are top-notch, while appearances, disappearances and transmogrifications are achieved by simple but effective jump-cuts and dissolves. Granted, the string holding the rubber bat is visible - but it’s not a bad puppet with properly flapping wings, and is used minimally. It’s certainly a lot better than the rather embarrassing rubber toys flung about on later Hammer ‘classics’.

Salazar is a likeable leading man who looks a touch like Bernard Cribbins and is cheerful enough to keep the film entertaining. Spanish-born Robles, making his big-screen debut at age 28, is one of the truly great screen vampires, devilishly handsome and imperious; it’s an interesting thought that his inspiration may not have been Lugosi, since the Mexican release of Universal’s 1931 Dracula would have been the Spanish language version with Carlos Villar. According to Stephen Jones’ Essential Monster Movie Guide, Robles’ role was originally intended for Carlos Lopez Moctezuma (Night of the Bloody Apes). Director Melendez also made Misterios de Ultratumba and The Living Coffin (and something in 1943 called Las Calaveros del Terror which I would love to see). Screenwriter Obon wrote those two films and returned to bloodsucker territory with World of the Vampires and Empire of Dracula, as well as occasional directing chores on interesting titles including La Mansion del Terror and Dynasty of Death.

Mondo Macabro’s print is fantastic, with only a few tiny speckles here and there and a wee bit of soundtrack noise for a couple of minutes just over an hour in. The first reel in particular (for some reason) is simply stunning, with a clarity and contrast that makes it look like it was shot yesterday. I doubt if the film looked this good even when it was playing cinemas South of the border in the late 1950s. (Cinematographer Rosalio Solano worked on more than 150 film from 1943-86, including some later Santo movies and also a few US productions, notably the Jim Brown-starring blaxploitation classic Slaughter!)

The disc defaults to the (preferable) original Spanish language soundtrack and English subtitles, but there is an option to play the K Gordon Murray-produced American version, with Matt King (I Eat Your Skin) dubbing Robles and director Paul Nagel/Nagle dubbing Salazar. There is also an episode of the Mondo Macabro TV series, covering Mexican horror, and a photonovel version of the film’s sequel The Vampire’s Coffin (which reunited most of the cast and crew six months later) with the captions in English. It would be nice to know where this photonovel originated, and some background notes on the cast and crew would also have been appreciated. One other minor quibble: a montage of highlights from the film playing under the menus does rather spoil some of the suspense.

But these are just suggestions on how to make a terrific disc of a fantastic movie even better. Hopefully Mondo Macabro will follow this disc with some more Mexploitation: The Crying Woman, perhaps, or The Aztec Mummy or The Brainiac. I will certainly be buying anything else that the company releases in this vein. Take a chance on El Vampiro and discover a world of Latin American horror you never dreamed of.

MJS rating: A-

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