Saturday, January 4, 2014

El vampiro (1957)

... aka: Vampire, The

Directed by:
Fernando Méndez

It's amazing at what the right visual presentation can do to enhance a hoary old plot, and yet it's seldom ever enough to completely overcome one. Here we have that old standby; the gothic vampire story, complete with musty old crypts, creaking caskets, blankets of swirling, wind-blown fog, cobwebs, rubber bats on wires, secret passageways and pretty much everything else you'd expect to see in one of these things, but it's all just so wonderfully atmospheric you can't help but get at least somewhat swept up in the story despite the fact you've already seen it numerous times before. Things begin at a train station in the small village of Sierra Negra ("Black Mountain"), Mexico as a crate full of dirt arrives from Romania addressed to one Mr. Duval. Aboard the same train is Marta Gonzales (Ariadna Welter), who's just arrived in town at her uncle Emilio's (José Luis Jiménez) request to visit her ailing aunt Eloise (Carmen Montejo). A landslide has cut off the main roads in and out of town, so finding a lift is next to impossible for both Marta and a doctor (who first claims to be a traveling salesman) named Enrique (Abel Salazar, also the film's producer) that she meets there. Thankfully, a horse-drawn wagon arrives to pick up the crate and the driver begrudgingly agrees to give them a lift part of the way. After they're dropped off, the two are trailed through the forest by a mysterious woman dressed in black.

Our heroine arrives at her family's home - The Sycamores - only to find it in ruins because they can't keep a full staff there. They do have a maid and a butler, but what they do instead of cleaning up the pigsty is anyone's guess. Marta is shocked to discover that a second aunt - Maria Teresa (Alicia Montoya) - has passed away just a day earlier and that her supposedly sick aunt Eloise is in seemingly perfect health. In fact, she looks better than ever and is quite youthful and vibrant considering her age... but something isn't quite right about her. She's cold, stern and doesn't cast a reflection in mirrors (uh oh). She's also the same black-clad lady who'd been secretly lurking behind Marta and Enrique as they walked to their destination. Their next door neighbor, distinguished dirt importer Mr. Duval (Germán Robles), arrives there to pay them a visit. It's made pretty clear right away that Duval is a vampire who's been feeding on the populace of Sierra Negra and also that Eloise is under his spell. Duval may also be trying to resurrect a long-dead vampire ancestor named Count Karol de Lavud, who was executed in 1840 and whose body is kept in a crypt in the dungeon of the Sycamores estates (which he's been unsuccessfully trying to purchase). Hmmm. Mr. Duval. Count Lavud. You happen to have a mirror handy, Mr. Alucard?

This is one movie that is heavily dependent on its atmosphere because most horror buffs are going to find little else here they have not seen numerous times elsewhere in films made both before and after this one. In fact, nearly every aspect of this film has clearly been influenced by the original Universal classic Dracula (1931), from the script to the (overbearing) score to the visual presentation to the bright lighting framing the vampire's eyes. Most of the bloodsucker mythos have been carried over (crucifix, sunlight, stake through the heart, etc.) from the Stoker novel and Browning's film as well, to the point where this offers up no real surprises. 

Robles made a name for himself in this role (at least in Mexico where the film was a hit), which led to numerous other genre roles for the actor, including several other vampire parts. While he's dashing and sophisticated enough, two things he is not are intimidating and scary. He also doesn't really possess the charisma or magnetism of other actors who've donned the cape and fang over the years, like Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee. The standout performance here is actually from Montoya, whose character has been prematurely entombed after being slipped a drug that makes her only appear to be dead. With help from the superstitious maid Maria (Mercedes Soler) - you know, that woman who doesn't like to do her job - she escapes from her tomb as a raving madwoman and in a strange way ends up becoming the Van Helsing of the piece. That Poe-inspired aspect of the story, the atmospheric black-and-white photography and very good art direction and sets help enliven this otherwise extremely familiar material.

sub-par, English-dubbed print (slapped together by Mr. K. Gordon Murray, of course!) was distributed in America for a number of years; first on TV in 1964, then theatrically in 1968 and then on VHS in the 80s by Something Weird. Thankfully, CasaNegra Entertainment stepped in and gave us a restored, Spanish-language version of the film with English subtitles in 2006. Now it can be enjoyed in its original form minus any unintended guffaws due to the formerly atrocious dubbing. The sadly short-lived CasaNegra also issued this film's sequel; The Vampire's Coffin (1958), made by the same director / writers (Ramón Obón and Ramon Rodriguez) / producer and featuring much of the same cast, as well as The Black Pit of Dr. M (1959), The Living Coffin (1959), THE MAN AND THE MONSTER (1959), The Brainiac (1962), The Witch's Mirror (1962) and The Curse of the Crying Woman (1963). After just a handful of releases, the company went belly up. Regardless, I'd say they've done their part in giving some previously ignored Mexican genre gems a renewed life and respectability they never had before. Synapse later picked up many of the CasaNegra collection for release. El vampiro was also distributed in the UK on the Mondo Macabro label.


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