Sunday, September 12, 2010

"Go To Sleep...."

For whatever reason the latter half of the 40s and the early 50s saw very little fanged activity. Vampires had been run into the ground with the rampant revision of the Dracula mythos and guest appearances in terrible comedies. Aside from La Vampiro Negro, an early Argentinean horror film by Román Viñoly Barreto, there wasn't much caped trouble brewed up. Though match point goes to England's Hammer Studios for introducing vampires back to the world's audiences, no one attacked the subject of vampires with quite the same zeal as the Mexicans. After Hammer's Horror of Dracula opened up the fanged floodgates, other countries threw their own entries into the mix but I rather think that Mexicans made the most out of their threadbare source material (though you wouldn't actually be able to find all of Stoker's novel unless you watched every vampire film from 1957 to 1975). Indeed many saw the vampire movie as a way to explore new special effects techniques and as a way to really build a solid genre film industry in their country. If we go back to the very beginning, we have Abel Salazar to thank for some of Mexico's finest horror films. He decided that though acting was going well, he wanted to produce horror films and that's just what he did. His company Cinematográfica ABSA produced around eight horror films before ceasing in 1963 with Curse of the Crying Woman. Aside from the truly bizarre Braniac in 1962 there wasn't really a dud among them but ABSA's vampire films really display his company's strengths. They excelled in gothic horror and could conjure up really awesome visuals when they wanted to.

El Vampiro
by Fernando Méndez
Marta Gonzalez is home to see her aunts, both are apparently sick. Her arrival in their home town should tip you (and her, if she had any sense) off that she's about to endure a weekend full of unspeakable evil. There are no carriages around to take her from the train station to The Sycamores, her family's estate. The surrounding town is filled with superstitious types who scoff at the idea of Marta headed up to her family's house and the only carriage willing to take her is full to bursting with boxes of dirt. She manages a ride halfway to town along with fellow stranded train passenger Enrique (played by Salazar). Enrique seems like affable enough company even if his reason for being in town seems suspect at best. When they arrive at the Sycamores there is a lot of bad news waiting for Marta. Her Aunt Maria Teresa's illness, whatever it was, has claimed her life and Aunt Eloisa seems not so much changed as a completely different, exuberant person. She's rebounded quite nicely from her sister's death and now wants to sell the Sycamores to a neighbor, one Mr. Duval, as it happens the recipient of all that dirt. After Eloisa takes Marta up to her room, Enrique stays behind to grab a word with Uncle Emilio. Enrique is actually Dr. Enrique and he's not just a traveler looking for a place to stay; Emilio invited him here after the simultaneous sicknesses of his sisters and their equally simultaneous condition changes. Enrique is actually an expert on the occult, specifically vampires and he thinks Emilio's got 'em. So all he's got to do is catch Duval and Eloisa in the act with the help of Emilio and the serving staff, charm and save Marta who he's got to fall in love with and then serve up a bit of stake-shaped justice. In the meantime it's secrets and intrigue for dinner and lies and murder for desert.

It's funny after so many Vampire movies that you can be charmed by a little change of pace or in this case setting. Mexican horror films don't have much of a reputation and in spite of that they went back to basics. Abel Salazar wanted to take one of the most successful horror films of the sound era, Dracula, and bring it to Mexico and not only did he do that, he, writer Ramón Obón and director Fernando Méndez managed to make it resonate with Mexican audiences and they also made a film much more thoroughly satisfying movie. Obón's script doubles down on the complicated plot but Méndez managed to make every character with lines a real person with a personality. One of the people I found myself most concerned about was Anselmo the butler, not because the other characters weren't as interesting but because Méndez managed to make him seem like an unfortunate victim. How often do the serving staff of doomed manors wind up the victims of vampires and other horrid creatures? Anselmo was given the kind of consideration that you'd only find in latter day Hammer films. Then there's the emphasis that Obón puts on family, something only given the faintest attention in Browning's film. And it helps too that everyone is likable, a feet Browning never tried to pull off. Salazar, our hero, is an interesting choice which hints at Mexico's more humane view of stardom. He's the hero of the film and he's a bit paunchy, a little smug and kinda goofy. Good luck finding him outside of a Leo McCarey comedy in the states. And yet I like him more than nearly any male lead in a horror film from that era in the English-speaking world. Celebrity in Mexico was more about crowd-pleasing than superficial definitions of such; how else could they idolize a fat man who wore a mask for most of his adult life? And opposite Salazar? Germán Robles, bridging the gap between Lugosi's foreign charm and Christopher Lee's youthful vigour and charisma. Robles looks a touch like Lee (though he predates him as Dracula) and his cool demeanor never waivers. He's also a touch more charismatic than anyone who'd donned the cape beforehand.

Méndez also proved himself quite an ace at creating mood and atmosphere as well as tension. El Vampiro takes as much if not more time than Dracula setting up the climax but unlike that film it utilizes its quiet moments well. The scene where Marta confirms our suspicion by singing the eerie song she keeps hearing in her bedroom. I'd wondered if it was meant to be something we were both hearing, but when she starts cooing "Go To Sleep...." to Salazar, I realized Mendez was playing with a full deck. The Sycamores makes for a perfectly spooky setting for the conflict and intrigue to play out over. It's an old villa and its owners haven't been quite up to running it lately so the cobwebs that have accumulated and the general mildewy feel of the place feels natural, rather than like a movie set (though that too comes across at times, like in the tunnel connecting Duval to the Gonzalez's house). The smoke outside helps bring the place to life; the Sycamores would become the template for most of ABSA's horror films' settings. There are a few nifty visuals here but my favourite is the teleporting light that Duval uses to get around; not only does it look cool but it establishes that ABSA was playing by different rules. The most obvious sign of their dissent is in the fangs that these vampires wear. El Vampiro was the first film to put in over-sized canines on its vampires and though, again, Hammer made it fashionable ABSA deserves credit for thinking it up first. And that Méndez delivers a film worthy of such innovation is much to his credit. El Vampiro has its weak-spots but there's never a moment where anyone appears to have forgotten where they are. Salazar's facade never drops around Marta and even when trying to comfort her he never plays dumb or too mawkish; the secret is always just behind his smile. And furthermore between the breathless array of poison and loaded questions at dinner and the fist fights, reveals and chases, El Vampiro picks up in a big way to make up for its dull spots. It's a film that feels like the work of people who cared about more than how much they'd gross and that's more than even Hammer can boast for all their professional sheen and Shakespearian artistry.
As it happens I wasn't the only one who loved El Vampiro so whether or not they cared to, ABSA found themselves in a situation where the smartest thing to do was to make a sequel. So like Universal before them and Hammer alongside them, a sequel they did make. Unlike either of those studios, theirs was almost completely different where style was concerned. Mendez found a cinematographer who could really attack the new urban setting and even got to keep his three leads from the last film. Altogether a crisper, more streamlined vision, El Ataúd Del Vampiro or The Vampire's Coffin, is just as thrilling, if perhaps not quite as revelatory, a watch as its predecessor.

The Vampire's Coffin
by Fernando Méndez
In an opening more redolent of a Frankenstein sequel than a Vampire movie, we start with a little graveyard larceny. Dr Enrique (still the affable Abel Salazar) is back doing what he does when he's not out killing vampires, practicing medicine. A colleague of his, Dr. Marion, heard all about his tangling with Count Lavud, and was so impressed with the idea of the vampire that he's dug up the body with the help of a grave-robber. Anyway Enrique is sympathetic to the ambitious Marion's ideas about what he could do by studying the vampire, but he also knows what a stupid idea it is and how catastrophic it would be if Marta were to see his body there. She just happens to be on her to way visit as they stand there talking so Enrique quickly distracts her but frankly she's too caught up in her dancing to notice anything like a coffin in his office. Everything seems perfectly professional until the graverobber comes back and tries to take the pendant from around Lavud's neck. The only problem is that damn cross holding it in place, but he pulls it out no problem. You could write the rest yourself, no? After taking on the graverobber as a slave and stalking the streets for a few days he finds Marta in time for her big performance and Enrique finds him soon after. The conclusion may not be better than the one in El Vampiro, but it's brilliantly filmed and the setting is even cooler.

The first thing to say about The Vampire's Coffin is just how awesome the cinematography is. It's right up there with the likes of The Third Man, M or anything by Billy Wilder. Fernando Méndez was still calling the shots and though El Vampiro was excellently moody it has none of the crisp compositions or brilliant chiaroscuro lighting set-ups so I think credit must be given to new director of photography Víctor Herrera. The scenes that immediately come to mind are the ones in the streets just after Lavud breaks free from the hospital, and then the chase down the huge staircase before the climactic fight in the torture museum, shades of Phantom of the Opera, making this quite the Universal homage. It's worth pointing out that filming in a torture museum was a stroke of genius, but there isn't a dull moment visually in the whole film and the end chase just happens to be the best moment in those terms. You could freeze any moment here, frame it and throw it up at the MFA for my money. The story isn't quite as memorable as the craft it took to make the film but that's ok as it followed on the heels of one of Mexico's greatest horror films. To try and top it would have seemed like megalomania and frankly El Vampiro worked so well because it was really a number of little things that combined to make one solid movie that felt bigger than it was. To be fair I've been on the lookout for an heir to best early vampire movie ever since being soundly disappointed with Tod Browning's inexplicably beloved Dracula, and in that search either of these movies will do, but El Vampiro has enough slightly off about it that works that when you step back you see what a balancing act it must have been. Abel Salazar, nor indeed really anyone, had never produced a horror film and he was taking a risk putting himself in the lead role. The production design probably would have come off looking rather cheap were it not for the amazing work with shadows, fog and cobwebs. And the trick photography is actually really effective. In The Vampire's Coffin I was totally hypnotized by just how beautiful the whole movie looks and so was willing to overlook the few faults that definitely show up before the credits role (Mexicans were no exception to the rule that to make a vampire film, people thought you needed the biggest, cheapest looking rubber bat you could find). There are moments here - one of the main characters confessing their fear of death, the fact that the script references the events of the first film so practically, the excellent use of the vampire's inexplicable cape in shot composition - that make this just as endearing a watch.
Considering how many American vampire films preceded it and that Hammer films were attempting the same trick at almost exactly the same time, both El Vampiro and The Vampire's Coffin make for pretty entertaining treatments of the same well-worn subject. Abel Salazar succeeded in his efforts to bring horror films to Mexico and ABSA would produce several more classics before folding. Indeed they would even continue to breathe new life into the vampire film before all was said and done. While The Horror of Dracula is better remembered and comes off as being effortlessly entertaining where El Vampiro looks like the work of professionals straining to keep up, I have to say that my respect lays more with this little production that could. Bringing horror to new lands is something that I think we should all support. When a country has a means to express itself, especially during times of crisis, it always helps maintaining sanity....even if that means showing people losing theirs.

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