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Intrigued with Eternity: the allure of vampires captured in Spanish-Language cinema.

RENFIELD: "AREN'T YOU DRINKING?"

COUNT DRACULA "I NEVER DRINK WINE."

In the mid-1950s, Mexican producer and actor Abel Salazar was desperately searching for the right man to play the main character in his movie El vampiro (1957), a Mexican reading of Bram Stoker's novel, Dracula. Finally one evening, he went to see a play at the legendary Blanquita Theater in Mexico City and discovered a young Asturian actor that fit the part perfectly. "I've found my vampire!" he said to himself, and approached German Robles, a tall, thin, serious actor of 27. Robles went on to do a memorable cinematic rendition of Stoker's novel, playing Count Duval, an eccentric and sleepless character with a habit of taking walks at night, sleeping in a coffin, and fatally biting the jugular of his victims.

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The movie, with its gloomy setting in a dark provincial Mexican town, was a bit, and a year later, Salazar produced an equally successful sequel El ataud del vampiro (The Vampire's Coffin, 1958). In spite of the tight budget available at the time for movies of this genre, El vampiro is probably one of the best examples of Mexican horror film. Some have remarked upon the similarities between the physical looks and acting styles of German Robles and Christopher Lee, the actor in the English movie Dracula (1958). Lee worked for the British company, Hammer Film Productions, personifying Dracula for almost a decade, but it would be ridiculous to say that he influenced German Robles, since the Mexican movie came out a year before Dracula.

The recent boom of US vampire movies and novels--Stephen Meyer's Twilight, which has sold 42 million copies since 2005; his first adaptation of this trilogy which grossed 177 million dollars in the first seven weeks following its debut; and the countless number of famous directors that have based their works on Stoker's novel (Tod Browning, Roman Polanski, Andy Warhol, Werner Herzog, and Francis Ford Coppola)--makes one wonder whether Latin American vampires can coexist in a literary genre that originated in 19th-century Europe. But the answer is clear. Quite a number of vampire movies have been made in Latin America, and while some aren't very good, others are well qualified to bear the standard of cult films.

The first time that Count Dracula was heard speaking the language of Cervantes was in 1931. The Spanish version of Dracula was being filmed then at the same time as the famous Tod Browning version that launched Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi into stardom. The English version was being filmed by day, but at night--in the same studios--the Spanish adaptation was being created. The Spanish film in this case sought to be an exact copy of the English original, which was the custom in those days for successful Hollywood films. The Cordoban actor that played Dracula was very physically similar to Lugosi and he was even advised to move his cloak in the same way as his Hungarian colleague did. The English version was not distributed commercially in Hispanic markets and, until very recently, could only be seen in movie clubs, on television, or on video. Many believe, however, that the Castilian adaptation is technically much better than Browning's. Dozens of films from this period were lost or destroyed with time, but the only known copy of this gem was found stored in a film library in Havana and is still in good condition for showing. Years later, with El vampiro, Bram Stoker's character was finally portrayed in a movie with real Latin American flavor.

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After the success of El vampiro and El ataud del vampiro, Abel Salazar made another vampire movie unrelated to its two precursors. It was called El mundo de los vampiros (The World of Vampires, 1960). The film is a classic revenge story involving a vampire and one of his descendents who kills him. The new twist on the story at the time--which few have noticed--was that the hero is bitten by a vampire and undergoes a gradual transformation during the course of the movie. Here, the main character suffers a moral dilemma. Does he allow himself to tuna into a vampire and end up killing to survive? Or does he end his own life? This cinematographic idea of "good" vampires is exploited later in North American films like The Lost Boys (1983), in the TV series Forever Knight (1992), and in the recent True Blood (2008) on HBO. It is interesting that the first time a vampire faces this kind of dilemma was more than 50 years ago in this modest Mexican movie. Another interesting movie of this genre was La invasion de los vampiros (Invasion of the Vampires, 1963). This film also has a novel twist: the vampire that is terrorizing a 19th-century Mexican town is murdered by one of the townspeople. When Count Frankenhausen is killed with a stake, all of his hundreds of victims come back to life as human vampires, and soon the village is facing a threat worse than the one before. The soundtrack by composer Luis Hernandez Breton helped give the film its somber, foreboding quality, with experimental sounds reminiscent of what would later be the bold music of Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki in The Excorcist (1973) or of Jerry Goldsmith in Planet of the Apes (1968).

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Again, in spite of the tight budget for this film, it seems reasonable to wonder whether this film may have had an influence on The Plague of the Zombies (1966), the movie produced three years later by Hammer Film Productions. Another fun vampire film of the era was the one acted by Rodolfo Guzman Huerta, better known as El Santo. In Santo contra las mujeres vampiro (Santo vs. the Vampire Women, 1962), the Mexican wrestling superhero takes on a troop of beautiful and diabolic damsels. Curiously, this film won a prize at a fantasy film festival in Paris and so its popularity grew. It was also an immediate box office success and one of the only El Santo films dubbed in English. Years later, the film was discussed satirically on the program Mystery Science Theater 3000, which also increased its popularity and generated new fans for El Santo. The film has been shown regularly in festivals like the Festival of Fantasy Films in Malaga Spain. At the same time, Cuba--in a coproduction with Spain and the Democratic Republic of Germany--decided to film quite a nice animated movie called Vampiros en la Habana (1985). The movie is about conspiracy and it includes a formula that allows human vampires to resist the sun. This film was selected from among the 30 best animated films by the Consejo Cultural del Instituto del Cine.

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Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has been one of the most enthusiastic Latin American defenders of the monster and vampire movie genre. His first work Cronos (1993) tells the story of a parasitic vampire that lives in a metallic beetle made by a medieval alchemist. The parasite can inject a substance into the skin of a person that will give it eternal youth. Of course, nothing comes for free, as we soon discover. The victim then turns into a human vampire that needs to quench its thirst by feeding on fresh blood. The legend of Faust entwines with the gothic in this interesting story.

Latin America has been keeping an eye on the vampire genre. It's true that most Latin American vampire films are low budget (almost all have been B-grade movies) and that their special effects are so simple they make us smile. But many of the storylines have a genius similar to those of great cinematographic productions. And the story is what makes a film memorable in the end. A few years ago, novelist Ray Bradbury was asked whether he thought special effects could displace a good story. Bradbury said no. He believed that special effects were a complementary novelty, saying: "What good is it to throw fireworks any which way, without any direction, into a completely empty sky? The effect is instantaneous and spectacular, but it gets forgotten in a few minutes. That's what happens in films where the special effects aren't accompanied by a good story." Some of today's films seem to be telling us that Ray Bradbury was right.

Jaime Perales Contreras, a regular contributor to Americas, has a doctorate in Latin American literature from Georgetown University.
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Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:0LATI
Date:Nov 1, 2010
Words:1595
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