The Vampire/El Vampiro (1957/1968) ***½
Monster may have resuscitated Mexican horror cinema in 1953, but for the first few years, the genre could do little but to shamble uncoordinatedly about. It took a more powerful jolt to get all of its synapses firing in sequence again, and all of its muscles flexing on command. That jolt came in 1957, in the form of a film by Fernando Mendez called The Vampire.
I wasn’t expecting very much of The Vampire, even knowing its historical significance. The title, to begin with, is drab beyond description, and everything I’d heard, read, or seen about it painted it as yet another unremarkable clone of Dracula. I can’t remember the last time I was so happy to be so completely misled. The Vampire may look like a Dracula retread from a distance, but it’s actually much cleverer than that. Its plot proceeds from the sort of property dispute that you’d expect to drive a range-war Western, although there isn’t a vaquero to be seen anywhere. Its setting, meanwhile, reminds me in a roundabout way of Robert Rodriguez’s “Mariachi” crime films: it surely isn’t the real Mexico, but this romanticized dreamworld could nevertheless be taken to represent no other country. And to my absolute astonishment, The Vampire is gorgeous, recalling the cheap but meticulous horror pictures that Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise made for Val Lewton at RKO. No wonder The Vampire blew the doors off the crypt, and set monsters prowling across Mexican theater screens for the next twenty years!
The courtyard of a Mexican hacienda; night. A man in a black cloak (German Robles, who would functionally reprise this role in Castle of Monsters and The Curse of Nostradamus, as well as reprising it for real in The Vampire’s Coffin) glares ominously at the second-story window beyond which an attractive woman (Carmen Montejo) is getting ready for bed. As if in response to some stimulus that only he can detect, the caped man suddenly transforms into a bat and flies up to the woman’s room. Once inside, he resumes human form and bites the woman on the neck, leaving her only after she has been cripplingly— perhaps even fatally— drained of blood.
Flash forward five years. A train pulls into station outside the diminutive village of Sierra Negra to permit two disembarkations. One is a hulking crate of soil samples bearing a return address in Hungary; the other is Marta Gonzalez (Ariadna Welter, of The Panther Women and The Devil’s Hand), a local girl who’s spent many years away from the old homestead. Marta was supposed to be picked up by her Uncle Emilio (Jose Luis Jiminez, from Spiritism and The Incredible Face of Dr. B), but he was turned away hours ago on the grounds that the trains had stopped running due to a landslide blocking the tracks. No one was expecting the debris to be cleared fast enough for Marta’s train to run until tomorrow morning. There’s no bus or taxi service in these parts, either, and nobody in Sierra Negra ever goes out after dark, so the station master doesn’t know what to tell her. Marta at least has company in her predicament, in the form of a traveling salesman called Enrique (Abel Salazar, from The Brainiac and The Living Head). He was similarly stranded when his train dropped him off half an hour ago. But then, a lucky break! A rough-looking, black-clad man (Julio Daneri, of A Thousand and One Nights and The Man Without a Face) trundles up in a rickety wagon to collect the crate of Hungarian dirt, and Enrique is able to convince him to give both stranded travelers a lift to Los Sicomoros, where Marta’s uncle lives.
Well, he takes them almost to Los Sicomoros, anyway. Evidently the wagoneer’s boss is an impatient man, and wouldn’t take kindly to the delay that would be incurred if he took Marta and Enrique all the way to their destination. Instead, he drops them off at the fork in the road where their route and his diverge. It’s about half an hour’s hike from there to Los Sicomoros— and that’s how Marta ends up missing the very event that brought her to Sierra Negra in the first place. Her Aunt Maria Teresa (Alicia Montoyo, of Santo vs. the Martian Invasion and The Ghost Town) has been very ill, and all concerned were hoping that Marta would get to see the old lady one last time before she died. In fact, though, Maria Teresa was already dead by the time her niece boarded her train, and the funeral is in progress while she and Enrique trek across the darkening desert, weighed down by the girl’s abundance of luggage. The procession files out from a familiar hacienda toward the family crypt beyond the walls, where each of the mourners pauses to cross themselves as they pass the century-old tomb of one Count Karol Lavud. Meanwhile, a woman just as familiar as the hacienda appears from thin air outside its main gate, and slips off into the night to shadow Marta and Enrique. Finally, a curious scene plays out within the crypt itself. Maria Santoyo, the Gonzalez family maid (Mercedes Soler), takes as a souvenir of her mistress some piece of Catholic ritual paraphernalia which the corpse was wearing around its neck, and gasps when she reads the slip of paper that was hidden inside it. After the other mourners have gone about their business, Maria interrupts Anselmo the handyman (Jose Chavez) in the middle of sealing Maria Teresa’s tomb. Anselmo is just as startled by the missive from beyond the grave, and turns to stare in horror at his half-finished handiwork.
The scene that confronts Marta when she finally arrives at Los Sicomoros is thus even more somber than she was expecting. She’s heartbroken, to begin with, at the dilapidated condition of her childhood home, which has fallen practically to ruin since she left it. Then of course she’s distraught to learn about Aunt Maria Teresa, all the more so when Uncle Emilio explains that the end came as a mercy following three months of wasting sickness and five long years of escalating insanity. Evidently the old lady believed that vampires were prowling Los Sicomoros, and that her final deterioration was due to their attentions. Nor was she alone in that conviction, for the decline of Los Sicomoros and Sierra Negra alike is due to the peasants fleeing in fear of the undead. It’s small consolation to the family to know that something similar had happened before in these parts, with even grimmer results— 100 years ago, in fact, when Count Karol Lavud, the founder of Los Sicomoros, was lynched as a vampire by his own tenants. Finally, there’s the matter of Aunt Eloisa. It’s the damnedest thing; Marta hasn’t seen her in five years, but she hasn’t aged a day since the girl’s last visit. Yet at the same time, some much less traceable change has come over her, to the point that Marta barely recognizes her at first. Yeah, you got it. Eloisa is the prologue victim turned spooky, dematerializing spy. And I just bet you she’s also Aunt Maria Teresa’s vampire.
So how is Enrique holding up, having stumbled into all this weird and eerie melodrama? Well, the truth is that he didn’t stumble into it at all. Enrique is actually here at Emilio’s request. He’s a doctor, you see, and the old man was hoping he could be of more help to his ailing sister than the local quack. The reason Enrique came on false pretenses is because Emilio wanted him to assess Maria Teresa’s mental health as well as physical, but he knew his sister was far too proud ever to countenance that. Obviously it’s too late now for Enrique to perform the services for which he was engaged, but it turns out to be a good thing he’s stuck at Los Sicomoros ‘til morning in any event. The night’s weirdness has scarcely yet begun, and the Gonzalez family is about to find itself in urgent need of his steadiness and clear thinking.
Now most of you are probably betting that the cloaked male vampire is the infamous Count Karol Lavud. That’s close, but not quite on the mark. In fact, the vampire is Count Karol’s brother. Ten years ago, he came to Sierra Negra with a double agenda. First, he intended to reclaim Los Sicomoros for the Lavuds, whether by maneuvering the current owners into such a fix that selling the place became the only sensible thing to do, or by exterminating the Gonzalez family and acquiring the property from the already-suborned Eloisa. Operating under the alias “Duval” (I swear, vampires and their anagrams…), the younger Lavud took over the neighboring hacienda and began making life hell for the people of Sierra Negra. It’s easy to play the long game when you’re immortal, so five years scaring the peasantry out of town to wreck the local economy was no big deal, nor was five more years convincing Emilio Gonzalez that his sister was insane before sending Eloisa to finish her off. Recapturing Los Sicomoros is only phase one of Lavud’s plan, however. Phase two concerns that consignment of soil from Hungary. It came from the cemetery where Count Karol was buried the first time, and it has the power to resurrect him once again.
Marta’s return complicates those plans, of course, and Enrique’s intrusion complicates them even more. Still, Lavud is the resourceful type. Marta can be turned to take her place alongside Eloisa, and Enrique should be easy enough to kill if he doesn’t leave in the morning like he’s supposed to. But what are we to make of it when Maria Teresa starts turning up around Los Sicomoros? Dead as she looks, the old lady doesn’t act much like a vampire, and no undead being should be able to carry a crucifix around the way she does. Forget thickening; come tomorrow evening, this plot is going to coagulate!
I love how twisty and busy The Vampire is in the end, in seeming defiance of its modest running time and measured-to-leisurely pace. It achieves an effect which seems to be much easier to pull off in print fiction (at least if we may judge from relative success rates), throwing so many unexpected things at the audience in such rapid succession that you finally give up even guessing where it might go next. The central conceit of a vampire who covets the heroine’s land at least as much as her blood is the beginning of that, obviously, but it’s only the beginning. By the time the undead are resorting to poison like a bunch of corrupt Medici noblemen, it’s pretty clear that the standard subgenre playbook has been tossed straight out the window!
That poisoning business is the key to my favorite aspect of this movie. It may seem nonsensical at first, especially in light of Count Lavud’s willingness to prey openly on the peasants of Sierra Negra. Look closely, though, and you’ll see what a clever maneuver it really is. Lavud is out to terrorize the Gonzalez tenants, driving enough of them away to render the village an economic dead zone and to create thereby an incentive for the family to sell out to him. Vampire attacks are really good for that sort of thing, not least because the afflicted villagers will know up front that their landlords would never believe them about what’s going on in Sierra Negra. The Gonzalezes themselves require a different plan of attack, however. They won’t dismiss their own experiences as rustic superstition, so Lavud has to be careful to cover his tracks when killing them. Too many neck-bites among his relations, and Don Emilio might realize what he’s up against. Thus poison. What’s so cool about that is how it turns subtext into text by overtly incorporating an awareness of class dynamics into Lavud’s scheme, while simultaneously playing up the strategic acumen that is all too often allowed to remain a mere informed attribute of master vampires.
Another thing I greatly enjoyed about The Vampire is the unusual distribution of its day-saving among the good guys. Marta is much pluckier than most late-50’s B-movie heroines, while Enrique never quite becomes the Van Helsing I was expecting. But the real shock is what an unstoppable force the risen Aunt Maria Teresa turns out to be. Especially once it comes out that there isn’t actually anything supernatural about her apparent resurrection, it’s a delight to see how much undead ass that old broad is capable of kicking. The Vampire’s final showdown looks almost nothing like I was expecting it to, partly because of who gets to accomplish which parts of the Lavud clan’s destruction, but also because it borrows enough action-oriented Western tropes to feel decades ahead of its time. I can already tell I’m going to be shilling for this movie among my friends for months to come.