Saturday, December 23, 2006

El Vampiro - review

DVD set

Directed by: Fernando Méndez & Paul Nagel

Release Date: 1957

Contains spoilers

A year before Hammer gave us Christopher Lee as Count Dracula in Horror of Dracula, Mexican cinema gave us Count Karol de Lavud (Germán Robles) and, in truth, I can see some similarities between this and what Hammer later did.

Actually, although Robles is credited as the Count it is Germán Robles - el vampirounclear if we ever see him – something I’ll expand on as we look at the plot – certainly we see him as Duval, the Count’s brother, and yes we are talking the surname reversed, something Hammer would do with Dracula/Alucard later in their Dracula cycle. His style had more to do with Lugosi’s Dracula but his presence was reminiscent of the presence that Lee would bring to the role of Dracula – though perhaps not quite as malevolent and indeed more elegant.

close up on eyesThe film starts as it means to go on. We see a cloaked figure in a courtyard of a hacienda. A woman retires to bed. We get an eye close up on the figure and then he launches into the air and turns into a bat. In her room the woman screams and Duval bites. A quick note on the bats – they’re not very good, as you would expect, and the clearly visible wires were unintentionally funny. However, other than the bad bat this is a very effective scene.

We cut to the train station at Sierra Negra and a train stops. Men manhandle a large crate (filled, we discover, with soil) from the train, as a woman, Marta Gonzalez (Ariadna Welter), disembarks. She asks the station master (Guillermo Álvarez Bianchi) if her uncle Emilio (José Luis Jiménez) is there to take her to the Sicomoros Hacienda. The station master tells her that her uncle had been there but returned home with a headache, no-one goes to the Sicomoros at night. He points out that there is a man, Enrique (Abel Salazar), in the same boat as Marta.

She is less than happy as her Aunt is ill, which is why she has come, but a man arrives, on a cart, to pick up the crate and Enrique persuades him to give them a lift.

the mysterious woman in blackA funeral procession leaves the Hacienda. As they move out of eyeshot a woman in black (Carmen Montejo) materialises, she walks in a different direction to the procession. The procession gets to the crypt and the coffin is carried in. As the mourners walk past a certain tomb (marked with the name Lavud) they cross themselves. Before the coffin is pushed into its final resting place the dead woman’s brother (who is actually Uncle Emilio) asks to see her. The coffin is opened and we see the corpse of María Teresa (Alicia Montoya) – the ill aunt – she has a large crucifix clutched to her breast and a pouch round her neck. The hacienda’s servant Maria (Mercedes Solder) asks if she may have the pouch and Emilio gives his ascent.

When the mourners leave, and only Maria and another servant, Anselmo (José Chávez) are left she finds a note in the pouch – she seems shocked.

Enrique and Marta are dumped at a crossroads and have to walk the last half an hour to the hacienda, as they walk Marta explains that she was brought up by her two aunts on the hacienda. Enrique tells the girl that he is a commercial salesman. We notice that the woman in black follows them. When they get to the gate the woman in black turns into a bat.

Inside Marta is greeted by her uncle and then her aunt Eloisa – the woman in black. Marta is told that her Aunt María Teresa has died and that she had been ill for some eight months, worse she had been mad for the last five years, convinced she was being stalked by a vampire. Abel Salazar as EnriqueWe get the main vampire lore here, they are warded away by the cross and can only be killed by the stake (more importantly this only works when they are asleep during the day). During the discussion we see a book on a shelf shift on its own. When Eloisa takes Marta to her room we discover the Enrique is a doctor called for secretly by Emilio to ascertain whether his sister was truly mad and he is not the salesman he posed as.

rising with the nightWe see Duval awake, exit his coffin and go to oversee the arrival of the crate. The crate contains a coffin, the coffin the soil. He intends to use the coffin to revive his brother – staked 100 years before – and will use it to do so over the next two moons. This is why I say I am unsure if we ever get to see the Count, it might have been him at the beginning but Duval, ie the vampire we see through the majority of the film, is the brother – the revival never happens. It is interesting however that native soil is not, apparently, necessary to sleep upon but is necessary in ressurecting a staked vampire. Duval sets off then in his coach, stopping on route to snack on a young boy.

Eloisa has explained to Marta that she has been left 1/3 of the hacienda by María Teresa and that they can sell the place as the majority owners. Duval arrives at the hacienda and we see that Eloisa and he can communicate telepathically. She wants Marta to meet him but Marta is too tired. As it is he meets Enrique and, during their chat, the book that shifted earlier falls to the floor. Enrique looks at it, it is the story of the destruction of the Count 100 years before. We discover it was the Count who founded the hacienda and also that Duval is the person who wants to buy it.

Alicia Montoya as María TeresaThat night, as Marta sleeps, a secret passage opens and we see María Teresa up and out of her grave. She places a cross on the pillow besides her niece’s head.

At this point we have opened up the main mysteries and I want to stop there. This is a fascinating piece of cinema. The movie is dripping with atmosphere (which was probably helped by being filmed in black and white). We have mysteries occurring and, as the audience, also know the terror that surrounds Marta and her family whilst they are still unaware of it.

getting your teeth into itI have given the main rules of vampirism, but I haven’t mentioned the fact that they cast no reflection. The only time I was unhappy with the way the vampires were portrayed was when one was strangled. Whilst unclear if it was killed, it was certainly incapacitated – this seemed a little odd. I did also find it odd that Duval seemed to be manipulating his way to buying the hacienda. Given the openness of his attack on the boy on the road, that was witnessed, one feels that he might have just taken it. One also wonders why no-one became suspicious that Eloisa never attended her sister’s funeral nor appeared during the day. I also had a slight problem with the book that leapt from the shelf, it appeared as though an otherworldly power helped the mortals but it was never explained, just accepted.

There is a strong sense of empowerment of women through the movie (especially the ending) that, given when it was made, was refreshing.

There is a suggestion at the end of the film that those turned share the fate of the Master Vampire...

The soundtrack is excellent and the cast all act well. Salazar is fantastic as Enrique and comes across as incredibly likeable, if I had a problem with him it was in that I found it difficult to believe he was a doctor – he seemed too much the happy rogue. Carmen Montejo looks fantastic as the vampire aunt. The rest of the cast works well but I especially liked Alicia Montoya as María Teresa, she had a demented air that was very effective. I talked about my feelings on Duval at the head of the review.

iconic imageThere is some excellent imagery, the funeral procession is great and whenever we see María Teresa it is a visual joy of the macabre. The vampire bites look great and the image of Duval carrying the maiden was not only great but pre-empted what Lee would be seen doing as Dracula. I’ve mentioned Hammer a few times. I don’t know if this film did influence them or not but, being a year before their first Dracula movie, it is conceivable.

Well worth your time, well directed and never boring – I’ll give a strong 7.5 out of 10 for this movie.

The imdb page is here.


Mark said...

This is the first I've heard of this film. Looks very interesting. Now I have something to put on next year's Christmas wish list. (Thanks for the ecard, by the way!)

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Mark, the DVD set pictured at the nead of the review is a two disc set, which also contains the sequel (though the sequel isn't as good - the review may be up today/tomorrow) and is worth looking out for.