Mexico | 1957-58
Directed by Fernando Méndez
Abel Salazar, Ariadne Welter
Germán Robles, Alicia Montoya
Carmen Montejo, Yerye Beirute
| Not Rated

Format: DVD (R0 - NTSC | 2-disc set)
Synapse Films/CasaNegra
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Review by
Brian Lindsey

Cult Classic icon applies only to THE VAMPIRE
Extra Cheese icon applies only to THE VAMPIRE'S COFFIN
Sagging sales and illegal downloading have dealt a body blow to the DVD business over the past couple of years. Among the independent companies forced to close up shop were CasaNegra and Panik House, Region 1 specialists in (respectively) Mexican horror and Japanese exploitation. When they folded their entire catalogs went out of print. Happily, though, Synapse Films has stepped into the breach, picking up distributorship of CasaNegra/Panik House product and bringing these DVDs back to market in the fall of 2009. Among the resurrected titles is The Vampire Collection, a double-disc set showcasing the first vampire movies ever produced in Mexico: The Vampire (El Vampiro) and The Vampire's Coffin (El Ataúd del Vampiro).
    As far as I can tell, 1957's The Vampire has the distinction of being the first depiction on celluloid, in the Western Hemisphere, of the Fanged Undead — the bloodsuckers of the classic Universal Horror Cycle (1931-45) never sported fangs. (Across the pond, Britain's Hammer studio wouldn't start making vampire films until a year after this pelicula's release.) Germán Robles plays "Mr. Duval", a tall sinister guy always in formal wear and full-length, high-collared cape. He's only ever seen at night. His name — spelled backwards — is the same as an Hungarian nosferatu said to have terrorized the Sierra Negra region of Mexico a century earlier, the evil Count Lavud ("La-VOOD"). Also hailing from Hungary, Duval has arranged for a large box of earth to be shipped to him from his native land, ostensibly for the cultivation of rare roses. Meanwhile, people in the area are being found dead, drained of their blood. Despite all of this, everybody takes an amazingly long time figuring out that Duval is a vampire — including Dr. Enrique Zaldivar (Abel Salazar), a physician investigating the situation incognito. The good doctor is somewhat distracted by the charms of Marta (Ariadna Welter), a pretty young heiress whom the mysterious Señor Duval also covets...
    The film borrows a lot more than the 'backwards name' plot device from the Golden Age Universal monster pics. (In 1943's Son of Dracula, the vampire masquerades as "Count Alucard".) Exchanging a European castle or manor house for a fog-shrouded hacienda, the visual aesthetic is otherwise the same the black and white cinematography is impressively gothic at times, harkening back to the Hollywood glory days of Lugosi and Karloff. Director Fernando Méndez and his technicians did a fantastic job of emulating that classic Universal horror ambiance. True, the movie's unable to disguise its very low budget, particularly when it comes to the special effects, but it's hardly the first vampire flick to have rubber bats flitting about on visible wires. Robles — suitably suave and menacing in his debut film role — is given effective entrances and close-ups throughout, his face lit much the way Lugosi's was in the original 1931 Dracula.
    While fully deserving its iconic status as a seminal Mexican horror film, The Vampire's abundant flaws can't help but drag my movie rating down a few notches. The conspicuously low budget and primitive FX have been mentioned; it also suffers from tedious pacing in the middle act and is especially ill-served by laughably poor action during the climax, when Zaldivar has to battle first Duval's henchmen, then el vampiro himself, to rescue Marta. (One almost wishes Santo or Blue Demon would've shown up to lend a hand.) Even so, the leads are appealing and the 'old school' atmosphere is absolutely spot-on.
    The Vampire's Coffin (1958): In this direct sequel, the principal cast members of the first film return in their original roles to insure continuity — yet almost everything else is tossed out, notably tone. The setting is modern as opposed to gothic and the amount of humor is significantly increased.
    Having been staked at the conclusion of The Vampire, the body of Duval (or should I say, Count Lavud) reposes in a tomb in Sierra Negra. The coffin is disinterred by well-meaning medical researcher Dr. Mendoza (Carlos Ancira) with the help of brutish thug-for-hire Baraza (Yerye Beirute). The men transport the coffin to the private medical clinic where Mendoza works, in Mexico City. Here the curious doctor wants to run tests on the corpse to see if there's anything to the rumors of Duval actually having been a real vampire. Paid for his services and his silence, Baraza pursues his own agenda once he sees the diamond-encrusted medallion around the dead man's neck. He later sneaks back into the clinic and, in an attempt to steal the medallion, removes the stake from Duval's chest. Sure enough the vampire returns to life and makes Baraza his willing servant. And just like Christopher Lee in those '60s Hammer flicks, all Duval wants is to get revenge on the humans who thwarted him — that and make the hero's girl his bride in blood. Conveniently for our monster, both his chief enemy and object of desire are immediately close to hand. Zaldivar works at the very same clinic, where he’s been helping Marta with therapy to overcome the trauma of her first encounter with the Undead...
    Like its progenitor, Vampire's Coffin is a splendid showcase for topnotch B&W cinematography on a shoestring. This time the influences are more noir than gothic, however, as Duval teleports around the shadowy clinic while the patients sleep and later stalks a chorus girl down a deserted alleyway in the city. (He eventually returns to more homey surroundings, establishing residence at a 'chamber of horrors'-style wax museum.) The script tries for broad laughs, assigning leading man Salazar the role of comic relief in addition to hero; his Dr. Zaldivar character is anything but unflappable when he learns Duval's coffin has been brought to the clinic. Salazar plays this well, if broadly, but the change in tone from the first film is somewhat jarring. Expect a heavier dose of cheese, too, including a goofy dance routine (Marta has aspirations as a stage performer) and even sillier action during the climax. Duval haughtily boasts to Zaldivar, "I'll show you what it's like to fight a vampire! Get ready to die!" only to be knocked flat on his ass by the scrappy doc's punch.
    Naturally these films play better in their native language with the onscreen actors providing their own voices. (Robles is certainly more effective in Spanish as a proto-Christopher Lee Dracula type.) The amusingly verbose dubbed English dialogue is often charmingly stilted, however, so the films are equably enjoyable in either tongue. I actually prefer the K. Gordon Murray import version of Vampire's Coffin since it's already markedly sillier than its predecessor to begin with. The goofy dubbed dialogue merely enhances the cheese factor.

This reissue of CasaNegra's Vampire Collection will only be available in limited quantities, so it's likely to be OOP again within a few months of this review.
    The handsomely packaged double-disc set presents the films 1.33:1 fullframe, which would appear to be their original aspect ratios. They look remarkably crisp; Vampire's Coffin is the superior of the two since The Vampire occasionally exhibits print damage. (Most noticeable during the scene in which Salazar and Welter walk to the hacienda after a superstitious cart driver refuses to take them further.) Both the original Spanish and dubbed English mono audio tracks are offered, with the Spanish ones having a distinct qualitative edge; they're much more robust and fuller sounding than their English counterparts. Optional, easy-to-read English subtitles are available, so the Spanish audio is the way to go — unless, of course, you're keen for the über-cheesy K. Gordon Murray experience. Dialogue in the American import versions can get pretty wacky at times.
    A surprising amount of bonus material is on hand. There's an audio commentary for The Vampire by Mexihorror scholar Robert Cotter, providing interesting trivia and factoids on the subject (amid some dreadfully cornball jokes). A step-through photo essay, Fear a la Mexicana! by David Wilt, provides a concise overview of Mexican horror cinema during the period 1953-65. Abel Salazar's 1995 Boston Globe obituary, image galleries, cast bios and a pair of amusing U.S. radio spots are also included. DVD-ROM content can be found on Disc 2, a French comic book illustrated with photo stills from Vampire's Coffin (in PDF format). Cover art is reversible, with a choice of either English or Spanish text. 10/14/09