Crafted with a maximum of creative energy and a minimum of budget, Abel Salazar's films achieved astounding results with ingenuity, evoking rare levels of pathos, terror, and sophisticated emotional depth as a result of their simplistic honesty of approach and earnest craftsmanship. In a typical genre film by this producer/actor, one will quickly notice detailed, authentic looking sets, often draped in the shadows of a particular period, striking cinematography, and an evocative style capable of suggesting an inherent creepiness beyond the delicious chills of surface appearance. If Abel didn't particularly love the genre, he certainly knew how to wield its conventions, creating fresh expressions of terror and implied eroticism by recasting traditional Universal Studios formulas and the cultural folklore of his native land. No where is this more apparent, and the results more chilling, than in The Vampire and its sequel, The Vampire's Coffin, both featured in a double disc by Casa Negra in definitive, restored editions with generous extras.
The Vampire, the first entry, is at once both a celebration and revision of the vampiric myth, re-casting successful elements of the Universal series of the 30s and 40s with Salazar's unique sensibilities. Infusing new blood into the formula, Salazar retains the dread and power of the undead cemented in the original. At the same time, he infuses more complex subplots and surrounds what is essentially a potboiler melodrama with a culturally unique sensibility not apparent in Browning's version. Abel's stylish manoeuvrings are, at times, more impressive than Browning's largely still camera, lending greater energy and fright to the archaic supernatural power with an energetic camera and poetic compositions. This isn't simply the 'Mexican Dracula,' it is a unique addition to the horror film/vampire mythology with its own identity and aesthetic pulse. If it's plot structure isn't unique, taken primarily from fiction and folklore, the choice of which themes to emphasize and the stylistic approach are organic to Salazzar, impressive in their simplicity, and creating a hallmark that later genre films would be measured against.
Blood-lusting Count Karol de Lavud (Germán Robles) steals the stage in this elegant nightmare, following the struggle of Marta (Ariadna Welter), a young woman who discovers that she and her family have long been under the malevolent, supernatural control of Roble's leering machismo. Aided by the enigmatic Dr. Enrique (Mexican cinema legend Abel Salazar), Marta attempt to learn and exploit the weakness of the undead count (sound familiar?), who is busy feeding off local villagers. What ensues is a classic battle between good and evil as Roble seeks bloody vengeance. A sequel just as atmospheric and perhaps even better acted than the first, El Ataúd del Vampiro again features Marta (Ariadna Welter) and Dr. Enrique (Abel Salazar) facing down Count Luvad (Germán Robles) when they learn he has been resurrected to continue his unsociable, messy ways. Brought back into our realm by a host of grave-robbers whom are then turned into slaves, Luvad's thirst for revenge is as strong as his bloodlust, and the filmmaker's waste little time pitting symbolic good and evil against one another amidst a moodily shot backdrop of lurking shadows.
Approaching the supernatural with a style more elegant yet a belief more sincere, the later a quality often lacking in the cinema of America and Britain, both of which approach the occult with a cold, rather scientific view), Salazar treats his material (and his fans!) with respect. While undoubtedly having fun with the material, beneath the makeup and fog-shrouded compositions, beneath the occasional 'wink' of ham-fisted actors, exists a poetic, deep seated belief in the unknown which transforms the everyday world of the image into a dream-like experience truly fascinating to behold. Both films treat the often cliché, mocked figure of the undead with the paradoxical grandeur yet gritty realism so much a standard element of Mexican cinema. Metaphors of pain and pleasure, mortality and rebirth, vampires represent the shadows of the grave while teasing us with everlasting power and dark eroticism. El Vampiro and El Ataúd del Vampiro, finally given the respect they deserve, capture the primal terror and adventure so much a part of this supernatural subject. Both pictures succeed as both horror stories as well as emotionally insightful dramas of character and grand, sweeping emotions. Focusing on the creature as a bringer of disease and corruption, both The Vampire and The Vampire's Coffin may reflect the conservative attitude of the time by depicting the undead as wholly evil -- lacking the ambiguities of latter day presentations -- but their cinematic style is undeniably ahead of its time.
Crafted with care and simplistic elegance, The Vampire and The Vampire's Coffin enliven standard genre motifs with relevant social situations, and while certain social contexts are a bit dated, their general relevance and insights into fear, lust, and love in the human animal remain as poignant today as when first filmed. Likewise, the funeral lyricism of the films, and their dream-world atmosphere, present us with delicious phantasmagoria. Supernatural descents into personal revelation and tragic familial curses, these visitations both focus on normal, everyday people who through chance and fate must overcome personal demons in order to confront the physical monsters. Settings are elegantly captured, and an atmosphere of walking dread instils them with impressive tension. Director Fernando Mendez, working with Salazar, makes in these elegant nightmares visual feasts rich with depth. Both films, featuring re-mastered sound and picture from original vault elements, allow us to better appreciate the visual and audio quality. Featuring Bilingual menus in English and Spanish, the picture is impressive in Full Frame 1.33, superior to any presentation in the past. That said, there are still elements of print damage, including spotting and scratches, that apparently cannot be cleaned. These distractions are far and few in between, and more apparent on The Vampire than its sequel. Still, the black and white photography is for the most part satisfying. Audio is featured in Spanish with optional English subtitles, in Dolby Digital Mono 1.0. The sound is evenly distributed without hissing or other distortions that one may expect in such dated material.
Extras are substantial in this package, including an Audio Commentary by author Robert Cotter, whose Author of The Mexican Masked Wrestler & Monster Filmography is an influential resource in the field. His talk ranges from general observations to the minute, including the field in general (its merits and misconceptions) and informative tid-bits on the films themselves. Clearly knowing of which he speaks, his manner of sharing the information is occasionally a bit dry but certainly worth the listen. His talk includes his opinion of K. Gordon Murray, the film's dubbing process, and their appeal -- as well as general misconceptions surrounding the genre. Abel Salazar's life, career, and innovations are also covered, as well as various trivia concerning the cast and crew. From audio to visual, the Photo Essay Fear a la Mexicana! Mexican Horror Cinema, 1953 to 1965 is an absolute treasure trove of rare stills, photos, and promotional artwork for several rare and more assessable Mexican genre films, telling the story of a complete art form through the eye. Requiring a DVD ROM, the next extra is refreshingly original -- the 1976 French 'Photo Novel' of The Vampire's Coffin. Next up is the Original U.S. Theatrical Release Radio Spots, which are surprisingly clear and enjoyable, dripping pulp-like hysteria that adds to the overall experience, informative Cast Biographies, and a thorough Poster/Stills Gallery. Finally, another CasaNegra Loteria Game Card is included, and, on a sadder note, Abel Salazar's 1995 Obituary from The Boston Globe.
Review by William P. Simmons
|Released by Casa Negra|
|Region 1 - NTSC|
|see main review|