When considering the classics of the Gothic horror genre from the 50's and 60's, ones thoughts usually first turn to the golden age of Italian cinema and the films of Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda (among others). And then, to Roger Corman's Poe adaptations and the Technicolor explosion of Britain's Hammer films, with their revamping of the Universal classics. One doesn't normally think of the Mexican horror cinema of this period, which, in my mind at least, had always been associated more with dodgy wrestling movies than anything else! Well, all that changed with a single viewing of "The Vampire" (El Vampiro). This film is one of the best Gothic horror movies I've ever seen and is easily up there with the best of the Universal or Hammer productions! Once again, we have the wonderful Mondo Macabro to thank for bringing this rare gem to our attention.
The film takes the vampire themes and motifs we all love and transfers them to a Mexican locale — but the makers have added many original elements that mark the film out and give it a particular character of it's own. The story tells of a young woman, Marta Gonzalez, who travels back to the homestead where she lived as a child to visit her Uncle and two of her aunts, after hearing news that one of the aunts is very sick. She meets up with a salesman called Enrique after they are both left stranded at the train station, and the two end up travelling with a mysterious coachman who is delivering a crate of earth from Hungary to the enigmatic Count Duval. When they arrive at Marta's childhood home she is shocked and dismayed to see the dreadful state of an area she remembered as a once beautiful and thriving place — the homestead has fallen into ruin and the surrounding grounds are dank and decaying. A greater shock awaits though. Her supposedly sick Aunt Eloisa appears to have made an amazing recovery ... in fact she looks no older than Marta remembers from her childhood days! Her other aunt meanwhile, has died suddenly and has only recently been buried in the family crypt. Before dying the old woman had become convinced that vampires where trying to kill her and Marta's uncle had secretly sent for a doctor to come and check on her mental health. In private, Enrique reveals to Marta's uncle that he is really that doctor! It later turns out that the mysterious Count Duval is intent on buying the run-down hacienda and now that one aunt is dead and all the other members of the household have agreed, only Marta's consent is necessary for the sale to go ahead. But Count Duval is really Count Karol de Lavud - an ancient vampire intent on resurrecting his brother who is buried in the Gonzalez family crypt. After Count Lavud's nocturnal visits, aunt Eloisa has also become one of the undead and she is now secretly conspiring to help him with his plan. An unsuspecting Marta is in grave danger from the diabolical duo, as she is the only person who stands between the Count and his gaining control of the hacienda.
From its opening frames "El Vampiro" plunges us straight into the nightmare world of Count Lavud as the opening titles play out over a short sequence of the Count stalking and cornering a victim (which turns out to be Aunt Eloisa). The following scenes at the train station where Marta and Dr Enrique first meet have a very realist, almost docu-drama feel to them; but as soon as the two arrive at Marta's decaying childhood home, the outdoor exteriors are replaced with a studio-bound set, and the movie is enveloped in an all pervading atmosphere of gothic fantasy: cobwebs glisten in artificial moonlight and luminescent mist enshrouds the dilapidated hacienda which is ensconced in permanent shadows. The film has a surprisingly expensive look to it. Although the turn toward horror and fantasy in fifties Mexican cinema was largely inspired by the decline of the industry, the superior production values of it's heyday in the forties are still very much in evidence in "El Vampiro".
The film is loaded with exceptional moments of directorial brilliance and great imagination - and the camera often moves with a Bava or Argento-like mind of it's own. There is a great moment when Marta and Enrique set out on foot to reach the hacienda (after being abandoned by the coach driver who will not ride any further). Some light comedic banter starts up between the two as they set out on their way, but the dialogue is interrupted by rousing music (the film has a fantastic score!) as the camera suddenly tracks away from them at speed and pulls back to reveal a mysterious figure who is following the pair. I particularly liked Count Lavud's coffin with its lid which opens and closes automatically, enabling the Count to make a smooth entry and exit from his resting place! There are innumerable little touches such as this, which just add up to put this film above the many others of it's kind. The telepathic link between Lavud and Eloisa is one such touch that worked very well, but we do also get all the traditional vampire paraphernalia such as stakes through the heart, no reflections visible in mirrors and crucifix's warding off the vampires. The finale even sees the Count take up a sword and indulge in a duel which, although it sounds corny on the page, is actually an inspired moment! All of the elements, whether original or not, are incorporated into a labyrinthine plot which is full of surprises and twists and never lapses into lazy cliché.
Many have remarked on German Robles' exceptional portrayal of what is, essentially, Count Dracula by a different name. His version of the Count came a year before Christopher Lee brought new life to the role in Hammer's "Horror of Dracula", and is said to have influenced Lee's performance. I don't know if this is true, but there is certainly a similarity in the way Robles can be both suave and aristocratic but, when challenged, can become extremely vicious and energetic in defending himself. The film isn't just carried along by Robles' performance though -- all of the cast are excellent in bringing their characters to life. Chief among them is Carman Montejo as the evil aunt Eloisa - completely in the thrall of Lavud and willing to go to any lengths to please her vampire master, she even murders her own sister! Dressed in long flowing robes of black, she exudes menace and is the perfect partner for Robles' exceptional Count. Contrasting with this pair, Abel Salazar and Ariadna Welter are perfect as the wisecracking hero, Enrique and the innocent Marta respectively. Enrique is actually played by the film's producer (Salazar was responsible for many classics of this period in Mexican horror) but he also acted in many films, notably the crazy classic "The Brainiac". Welter has a better role than women usually get in Dracula movies; in fact, the film is distinguished by its many strong female performances. Marta is the sympathetic innocent and, naturally, she becomes the focal point for the vampires' evil intentions.
The DVD from Mondo Macabro presents the film in 4:3 aspect ratio. This appears to be correct. The composition did not appear to be compromised from what I could tell.
The print quality is generally excellent, with a very sharp image and good solid blacks. There are occasional outbreaks of print damage but nothing too annoying. Overall this is a very impressive presentation.
Extras on the disc include a 25 minute documentary on Mexican horror which is very informative and includes lots of clips from some very interesting looking Mexican horror movies such as "The Curse Of The Crying Woman". There looks to be a rich seam here that hopefully, Mondo Macabro will continue to mine in the future. Also included is a photo novel of the sequel to "El Vampiro", "The Vampire's Tomb". This is a very original extra that gives us a little glimpse into how the Count Lavud story develops. Finally we are also given the option of watching the film in Spanish with English subtitles, or we can watch the film with it's dubbed English soundtrack.
This is a very impressive disc of an essential movie for fans of world horror. Very highly recommended!