The Vampire Collection Review
Arriving with all the staple ingredients of a European vampire film - the deserted train station, the drawing in of a horse-and-trap and a mysterious wooden box marked with its origins in Romania - El Vampiro opens in Mexico with the night closing in, leaving two travellers with no means of getting to their hotel that evening. Elsewhere, a funeral procession makes its way through a nearby village, the mist closing in around the mourners as, by torchlight, they bring the body of the deceased to the cemetery. There, dusting away the cobwebs, they place the coffin in its final resting place, praying over it in the hope that the deceased will rest peacefully in death. Clearly, they know something that our two travellers do not.
At the train station, Dr Enrique Zaldivar (Abel Salazar) and Marta Gonzalez (Ariadna Welter) are picking up their belongings as they accept the offer of being escorted into the village. There, they enjoy the hospitality of Martita's family in the home where she lived as a child but the building is in a terrible condition, with vines growing up the walls and the brickwork crumbling. But something is terribly amiss, something that a spirit in the house warns them about when a book falls to the library floor, one that warns them about the bloodline of the Duval family, the ancestors of which were once royalty in Romania. As the hours pass, Dr Enrique meets Count Karol de Lavud (Germán Robles), a descendant of the Duval family and one who is importing soil from Romania, in the hope, Dr Zaldivar suspects, of bringing a vampire back from the dead. That night, through the mists that swirl about the Gonzalez home, Count de Lavud strikes, drawing blood from the neck of Marta Gonzalez. Before the sun rises, Dr Zaldivar must put an end to the bloodline of the Duvals or lose Marta forever.
In the sequel, El Ataúd del Vampiro (1958), Dr Enrique Zaldivar and Marta Gonzalez (Abel Salazar and Ariadna Welter) return but are now working in a clinic. Fascinated by Zaldivar's story of the vampire, his colleague Dr. Marion (Carlos Ancira) arranges for the body of Count Karol de Lavud (Germán Robles) to be stolen from its resting place in Santa Negra and brought to the clinic. There, he presents it to Zaldivar, claiming that the vampire's secret of eternal life could be useful to medical science. But Marion doesn't count on the actions of the grave robber Barraza (Yerye Beirute), who breaks into the clinic and, to arrange the taking of the vampire's pendant, removes the stake from de Lavud's heart. Almost immediately, the vampire returns to life and, hypnotising Barraza, leaves, where he meets Marta once again and reveals his love for her, a love that has survived even death. But returning from Santa Negra, María Teresa (Alicia Montoya), warns Zaldivar of the horrors that await him and how de Lavud must now be destroyed. With the vampire having already struck, it may be too late.
Despite the obvious connection between the two films and there being only a year between them, they are very different features. The first, El Vampiro, is rightly considered a classic of Mexican gothic cinema, being, like the later The Black Pit Of Dr M, a wonderful melting pot of pitch-black nights, torchlit burials, cobwebs that hang wispily from the corners of the villa and the ghostly presence that tips the living from beyond the grave with its drawing out of a book from a shelf full of dusty, crumbling tomes. Topping it all is the presence of Germán Robles as Count Karol de Lavud, who, in the manner of the gothic vampire, dresses in the very finest capes, pendants and high-necked collars, his hair a run of black and white. When he swoops into the sky as a bat, the gothic origins of El Vampiro seems complete and, in spite of it being placed in the rundown villas of Mexico, its spiritual home is clearly in the mountains of Carpathia.
El Ataúd del Vampiro, on the other hand, is a cheap sequel, produced in a matter of months and at something of a loose end as regards how best to bring Count Karol de Lavud back from his undead. In a manner that Hammer would draw upon with their many, many efforts to facilitate Dracula's return, El Ataúd del Vampiro draws in a grave robber, a mad doctor and some hokum about the science of life beyond the grave to draw the stake out of de Lavud's heart and back to life. However, unlike El Vampiro, which favoured crumbling villas, dusty graveyards and richly tapestried drawing rooms, El Ataúd del Vampiro takes place in a rather dull-looking hospital, only venturing into a wax museum near the end to enliven proceedings a little. There, making good but perhaps too much use of an Iron Maiden and a Guillotine, the film picks up its pace but rather than the occasional use of the bat in El Vampiro, seeing as much of it as we do here draws our attention to the wires that keep it aloft, to the movements that suggest the fishing rod is just offscreen and to a cast that, in spite of their best efforts, appear somewhat less than terrified as the rubber bat is dangled around them.
And that is largely the problem with El Ataúd del Vampiro. In spite of the same director and largely the same cast, the sequel disregards many of the unique and beautifully gothic moments of El Vampiro in favour of cheap thrills. Unfortunately, such moments, barring the impressive killing of María Teresa, leave the film lumbering alongside the grave robber and the mad doctor. But this two-disc set is made thoroughly welcome by El Vampiro, a film that, perhaps out of the most unlikely of sources, can easily stand alongside Tod Browning's Dracula and Terence Fisher's Curse Of Dracula, for Universal and Hammer respectively. El Vampiro himself is as dashing a figure as Dracula and prone, through vanity one suspects, to see the taunting or seduction of his victim as being of equal importance to the actual sucking of their blood. For that, for the gothic locations and simply for its opening between a deserted railway station and a funeral procession through the mists, El Vampiro is quite wonderful. Perhaps the sequel disappoints but from the great heights of El Vampiro, there is nowhere to go but down.
Less like Brainiac but bearing comparison to The Black Pit Of Dr M, both of these films are been beautifully restored for this DVD release with Casa Negra doing much to impress the viewer with the quality of its transfer. El Vampiro, in particular, looks very good, with the DVD finding form at handling the mists, the lighting of torches and the cobwebs that hang about the villa in which the film is set. Blacks are handled very well - given that this is a vampire film, almost all of the action occurs at night - but the film also has a clarity that's better than one might expect given its age and the obvious budget restrictions. In particular, given how badly prints of this material has been handled over the years, this DVD shows no sign of it. If anything, El Ataúd del Vampiro looks even better but the film is less likely to put any pressure on the format, using much less of the things that a DVD might have difficulty with, such as mist. However, it does look sharper and the contrast between the lights of the hospital and the shadows in which de Lavud skulks are well handled.
Similarly, the DD2.0 Mono audio track has also been restored to an equally high standard, with there being only a small amount of background noise. Unfortunately, the language tracks - there is a choice of Spanish or an English dub - do tend to crackle on occasion but are generally very good. What one really wants to hear - creaking doors, the crackle of a fire and the burst of an orchestra that suggests a forthcoming bloodletting - are all in place and sound fine. Finally, there are optional English subtitles that typically read very well but have difficultly in settling on Marta's name. At various points in El Ataúd del Vampiro, she's Marta, Martita or Martha.
Commentary: Casa Negra have asked Robert Cotter, author of The Mexican Masked Wrestler & Monster Filmography, to discuss El Vampiro on this feature-length commentary but Cotter, in spite of his obvious knowledge, is somewhat dry. Indeed, with little variation in his tone, he sounds at first like a Speak & Spell that has been programmed with a horror pack. Give him time, though, and Cotter warms a little and if his jokes get no better - he actually describes a vampire as being a pain in the neck at one stage, with, I assume, the viewer having to boom-tchk the punchline for themselves - he relaxes. In doing so, much of what he says is of more interest and it flows much more naturally.
Photo Essay: Actually, this is simply a piece on Mexican horror movies (1953-1965) by David Wilt but is enlivened by a scattering of stills and poster art throughout. Wilt's writing gives the viewer a good background to Mexi-Horrors, describing the plots of many of the seminal films but fails to offer a critical voice.
All that is left on the disc is a Original Radio Promotion (1m00s) from the release of El Vampiro on a double bill with Curse Of The Doll People, Abel Salazzar's Obituary, Cast Bios for Abel Salazar, Germán Robles, Carmen Montejo and Ariadne Welter, a Casa Negra Mexi-Horror Trailer (2m42s) and a Stills And Poster Gallery.
As is so often the way in a two-movie set, El Ataúd del Vampiro gets rather less special features than its prequel. Indeed, all that has been included is the Original Radio Promotion (1m52s) from when El Ataúd del Vampiro played alongside Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy - presented in Hypnoscope no less! - in 1965, a Casa Negra Mexi-Horror Trailer (2m42s) and a Stills And Poster Gallery. Finally, being one of the most unexpected extras ever presented on a DVD, there is a French Photo Novel of the Mexican El Ataúd del Vampiro, included as a Adobe document. Unfortunately, rather than being a stylish comic book, this is no more than stills from the film presented in order and with a little text to describe events but as one who welcomes any Adobe content on a DVD, I'm happy to see it included.
How much longer can they last? After all, there's only a limited number of films available to Casa Negra before they start trawling the barrel but so long as they continue to produce discs of this quality, there's little to complain about. Casa Negra have, once again, done a sterling job with this two-disc collection, not only with respect to the extras but to the transfer and the overall packaging of this release. With one utterly wonderful film and another that's perhaps only very good, this is a marvellous set.