Reviews

The Vampire

Fernando Méndez

Mexico, 1957

Credits

Review by Thomas Scalzo

Posted on 05 October 2011

Source CasaNegra DVD

Categories 31 Days of Horror VIII

Ah, the Mexican horror film. Like the lure of the siren’s song, never what it appears to be, yet who among us can resist? From masked wrestlers to Aztec mummies to inexplicable amalgams of slashers, demons, and folklore fiends, the genre efforts from south of the border are surprising, entertaining, and a reliable source of joyous bewilderment.

With such a varied pool of material from which to choose, however, narrowing the field to four selections was a difficult task. In the end, we decided to steer clear of the most bizarre offerings, and leave the coverage of the mass of wrestler films for another day. Instead, we chose to focus on a few relatively straightforward Mexican horror titles that represent Mexican filmmakers successfully putting their own memorable spin on well-established horror subgenres. Thus will our month-long adventure bring us to the wonderfully atmospheric hacienda of a sophisticated vampire story; to the creepy convent of a demonic possession tale; and to the Mexican suburbs of an endlessly amusing supernatural slasher film. So check back each Wednesday as we continue our search for horror treasures from south of the border.


A young woman, traveling alone, arrives at a remote train station. The fog begins to rise. The platform is nearly deserted and the atmosphere is ominous. A mysterious-looking coachman appears, and reluctantly offers to transport the lady to her destination. The fog thickens and a dark forest encloses the travelers. A crossroads is reached, and the driver claims to be incapable of proceeding any further in her direction. The lady disembarks, accompanied by a stranger who had also hitched a ride. The fog intensifies; visibility is nearly zero. The couple follows a rickety fence to the rotting doors of a crumbling hacienda.

Bats on strings, inordinate amounts of fog, cursed crossroads, cantankerous coachmen, familial crypts, dapper vampires with soul-penetrating eyes, overdone scare chords, mystical and ancient books, arched cellars filled with coffins… El Vampiro takes everything we know and love about vampire films and amplifies them to ludicrous extremes. The fog isn’t just thick; it’s like living inside a grey cloud. The hacienda isn’t merely in disrepair; it’s in danger of giving way to the surrounding vegetation. And the ominous music is so overdone that you might think you’re watching a fright flick from the ’30s.

And in a sense, you are. El Vampiro is Mexico’s attempt to craft its own timeless vampire tale, consciously incorporating many of the stylistic and narrative elements that made Dracula an oft-imitated pinnacle of the genre. While the predictable familiarity of genre tropes remain prevalent throughout, however, in the hands of director Fernando Méndez and producer Abel Salazar, these elements are shaped into a form that ultimately proves to be uniquely Mexican. Even the film’s generic title, The Vampire, hints that this is a film to be regarded both as a tribute to the classic vampire tales that had come before, and also as a touchstone of the Mexican vampire film; a standard from which future south-of-the-border tales of terror could look to for inspiration.

Indeed, once the nuances of the narrative unfold, it becomes clear that despite the film’s obvious debt to Dracula, Nosferatu, and other influential vampire tales, El Vampiro is not just a Spanish-language rehash of the classics. For starters, hovering about the proceedings is a distinctly Mexican take on the supernatural: a belief that otherworldly creatures such as vampires are not just foolish superstition, but viable factors of everyday life. For the bulk of the characters in the film, the existence of vampires is taken for granted, and one’s daily routine is designed around avoiding falling victim to such creatures. From always wearing a cross, to never going out alone at night, these are people whose lives are ruled by fear, and a terrifying intimacy with the spirit world.

The film also captures a pervasive aura of resignation that also feels uniquely Mexican, a stoic acceptance of unpleasant life circumstances that serves as the only way of remaining sane in a land that has received more than it’s fair share of sorrow and disappointment. Whether it is the faithful servants who dutifully shuffle around the weed-choked grounds, or the fragile Uncle who ostensibly runs the estate, but can’t seem to do much but watch it disintegrate before his eyes, nearly every character appears trapped by their circumstances and powerless against the fates that assail them.

Even the vampires share this despondent worldview. Count Lavud, our titular nemesis, goes so far as to explain that it is the bane of vampires to spend their endless progression of nights in search of their own blood within the bodies of the living. Never finding it, they have no choice by to carry on, night after night. Unlike countless vampire tales in which the undead take obvious pleasure in their powerful, immortal state, here we meet a bloodsucker who is simply doing what fate has decreed. Sure, he claims victims now and again, and from time to time deems it ripe to convert a living soul to his own sorry state, but these acts do not carry with them the expected sense of enthusiasm that we have come to expect from vampires.

Another intriguing element to the story concerns the life circumstances of Marta, the young lady who traversed the gloomy forest in order to be reunited with her family at the decrepit hacienda. Instead of being viewed as a mere object of desire by Lavud, Marta is instead seen as an impediment to his long-term dreams. We learn that the Lavud clan once owned Marta’s family hacienda, and it is the Count’s wish to get it back, no matter the cost. Thus, as the story progresses, we realize that Marta is not only in danger of becoming a vampire; she is also in danger of losing her home, and her inheritance. Admittedly, the battle between Lavud and Marta is focused more on stealthy midnight neck biting than property squabbles, but the fact that the back-story here incorporates a wealthy European bullying Mexicans in hopes of usurping them of all they have must have resonated with the film’s target audience.

Despite the underlying presence of these unexpectedly serious narrative elements, however, El Vampiro is, in the end, an amusing and enjoyable vampire movie. Abel Salzar injects just the right amount of lightheartedness to the proceedings in his role as the skeptical man of science; the character of Count Lavud is exaggerated enough to offset his occasional moments of gravity; and the overall atmosphere of dank crypts, hidden passageways, and mist-enshrouded courtyards constantly reminds us that we are in the presence of a comfortable and delightful example of old time gothic storytelling—Mexican style.

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