Director: Fernando Méndez
CasaNegra Entertainment

Shot in 1956, the Mexican-made “El Vampiro” (THE VAMPIRE) took inspiration from Universal’s Hollywood monster epics of the 1930s and 1940s, and spearheaded a slew of South-of-the-Border chillers. Newcomer Germán Robles (only in his 20s at the time) was cast as the suave bloodsucker, garbed in fancy tuxedo, flowing cape and amulet not unlike Bela Lugosi. Even if filmgoers never heard of Robles or seen any of his screen appearances, his vampire image has become iconic through magazines (a drawing of him appeared on the cover of Famous Monsters), books and poster art. In its native country, THE VAMPIRE was successful enough to spawn an immediate sequel, “El Ataúd del Vampiro” (THE VAMPIRE’S COFFIN), both which are presented on this fine double-disc collection from CasaNegra.

In THE VAMPIRE, beautiful Martha (Adriadna Welter), arrives at her ancestral home, accompanied by a man she just met named Enrique (Abel Salazar), who is actually a doctor incognito. When Martha steps into the doors of the decrepit chateau of the Sycamores, she learns that one of her aunts had just died (or did she?), while her other aunt, Eloisa (Carmen Montejo) looks too youthful to be true. It just so happens that radiant Eloisa is in cahoots with a mysterious neighbor named Duval (Robles), who in actuality is the age-old vampire Count Karol de Lavud, and he was the one who put the bite on her. Count Lavud invades the room of young Martha with sights on her jugular as well, but not if the heroic Henry can save her in the nick of time.

THE VAMPIRE’S COFFIN continues where THE VAMPIRE left off, reuniting the three principals. A criminal brute (Mexi horror fave Yerye Beirute, who starred opposite Karloff in two films) is hired by the foolish Dr. Marion (Carlos Ancira) to retrieve the coffin of Count Lavud (Robles) and bring it back to the hospital that he’s employed at. When the wooden stake is removed from Lavud’s heart, he once again is on the prowl, and the desirable Martha (Welter) conveniently works at said hospital with love interest Dr. Enrique (Salazar). As Lavud claims more victims, he tracks down Martha at the theater where she aspires to become a dancer, putting a spell under her with designs on converting her into one of the living dead.

Both THE VAMPIRE and THE VAMPIRE’S COFFIN have enough to recommend them to followers of classic vampire films, and they are no doubt quintessential Mexican horrors. Robles’ vampire might be inspired by Lugosi, but pre-dates Christopher Lee by at least a year, with the apparent similarities to the color British Hammer films that would soon follow. With his two protruding canines, Robles has often been quoted as the first on-screen vamp to sport fangs, but there seems to be several before him -- such as in a 1953 Turkish film, DRACULA IN ISTANBUL and 1922’s NOSFERATU, it you want to count that. At any rate, Robles’ aristocratic dark villain proved to be something of a visual archetype for British, European and even American vampires films for years to come. He is also one of the few actors in Mexican horror who has any impact or can be taken somewhat seriously as a lead Dracula-type.

Salazar, who also produced both films, plays his role with a slight wide-eyed comic tinge, while co-star Welter is a graceful and humble heroine. While the films have shortcomings in the expected flapping rubber bats supported by wires (no Mexican vampire film would be complete without them) and other primitive special effects, director Fernando Méndez handles things quite nicely with a lot of stunning shadowy photography, cobweb-ridden sets, and blankets of fog lingering almost constantly. The great Azteca studios gives both films a an air of pure gothic, with THE VAMPIRE mostly taking place in a castle-like hacienda and THE VAMPIRE’S COFFIN moving the action to such places as a lofty theater and a waxworks museum -- yet another staple of Mexi horror cinema.

Both THE VAMPIRE and THE VAMPIRE’S COFFIN are presented uncut in full frame transfers that look very nice. The black and white image on both films is crisp with a nice level of detail, and black levels are deep. THE VAMPIRE has occasional print damage, but nothing too distracting. THE VAMPIRES COFFIN looks a few notches better, and the source material is impeccable condition. Both films contain the original Spanish language tracks (with optional English subtitles) as well as the English-dubbed versions done by Paul Nagle in the U.S. In both cases, the Spanish tracks are more robust, but the inclusion of the English tracks is much appreciated for those who remember the versions released by K. Gordon Murray directly to television (the dubbed versions of these particular films actually played theatrically later in the 1960s).

Extras on THE VAMPIRE include an audio commentary by Robert Cotter, Author of The Mexican Masked Wrestler & Monster Filmography. Cotter gives a good overview of the film, the cast and the director, and adds a number of tidbits about Mexican horror cinema in general. One of the most interesting facts he reveals is that Robles was not producer Salazar’s first choice for the part, and that he cast Robles after seeing him in a stage play. This disc also includes a campy U.S. radio spot (for when it was double featured with CURSE OF THE DOLL PEOPLE), cast biographies, an impressive photo essay by author David Wilt entitled “Fear a la Mexicana! Mexican Horror Cinema, 1953 to 1965”, a poster and still gallery and a clipping from The Boston Globe featuring Salazar’s obituary. THE VAMPIRE’S COFFIN disc includes another U.S. radio spot (for when the film played with ROBOT VS. THE AZTEC MUMMY), a poster and still gallery and a DVD ROM option which contains a 1976 French photo novel from the film. Both discs contain a promotional trailer that reveal some of the company's upcoming titles -- THE WORLD OF THE VAMPIRES, THE MAN AND THE MONSTER, THE LIVING HEAD and THE LIVING COFFIN. The packaging includes a reversible cover (in English or Spanish) and a CasaNegra Loteria game card. (George R. Reis)