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El Vampiro: 65th Anniversary Interview with Film Historian Dr. David Wilt

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Dr. David Wilt with actress Evangelina Elizondo

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we celebrate the 65th anniversary of one of the most influential classic horror movies of Mexican cinema, El Vampiro.

El Vampiro follows Marta, a young woman who returns to her beloved family’s hacienda, only to find it isolated and dilapidated. Soon, Marta’s love for her family and their hacienda makes her the target of the undead.

The first of six horror films produced by actor Abel Salazar, El Vampiro is recognized as the film that ignited the Mexican horror boom, stretching from the 1950s into the 1960s. Over its 65-year history, El Vampiro has gone from just being a highpoint of Mexican genre cinema to becoming a beloved international cult classic and unique gem of Mexican filmmaking. 

Sharing the history, influence, and impact of El Vampiro is film historian, author, and professor Dr. David Wilt. Dr. Wilt is one of the most notable authorities of Mexican cinema and Mexican horror in the United States. He’s contributed to several books, including Mondo Macabro and Mexican Horror Cinema. Along with a variety of contributions to DVD commentaries and liner notes for an array of films, such as El Vampiro and El Barón del Terror (The Brainiac). Dr. Wilt also authored the extensive English-language guide to Mexican cinema The Mexican Filmography, 1916 – 2001.  

Justina Bonilla: What drew you to Mexican horror in particular? 

Dr. David Wilt: Before I got into Mexican films, I was what they call a ‘Monster Kid’. That’s somebody from the 1960s who loved horror movies. I still have a scrapbook from the 1960s, with cut ads out from the newspaper of horror movies. I like all kinds of movies, including westerns, detective, international, etc. I was a big horror film fan.

It wasn’t that I suddenly said, “I want to start studying Mexican horror films.” I sort of got into Mexican cinema. Since I love horror movies, I watched a bunch of Mexican horror. I also watched Mexican action, comedy, dramas, and ranchero films. I appreciate Mexican films, both as entertainment and as a window into culture, which I find very interesting.

In the 1950s, were there other vampire movies, or just sci-fi horror?

When you think of the 1950s, you think of the science fiction period with flying saucers, Godzilla, and aliens. However, there were horror films being made, both in the United States and elsewhere. 

If we talk about the 1950s and vampires, in 1953, you have a version of Dracula made in Turkey called Dracula in Istanbul. It’s a fairly close adaptation of the Dracula novel and features the vampire with big fangs. There’s also El Vampiro Negro from Argentina. Now that’s not a vampire movie. It’s actually a remake of Fritz Lang’s M. 

In 1957, in the United States, there’s a film a Hollywood film called The Vampire, which is about a guy who takes mysterious pills that turn him into a vampire. There was also another Hollywood film that year, Blood of Dracula, which was about a bad girl at a boarding school. She turns into a vampire and has big fangs. 

In 1958, there was another US film, The Return of Dracula. You even have that year Dracula and Blood of the Vampire in England. 

There was even a Japanese film from 1959 called The Lady Vampire, which has a vampire but it’s a man. It’s a very misleading title. The vampire term was out there. 

How would you summarize El Vampiro producer Abel Salazar’s career in Mexican cinema?

Abel Salazar started acting in 1941 and produced his first film in 1943. He sporadically produced films through the 1940s and the 1950s, but was primarily an actor. He wasn’t a superstar like comedian Cantinflas. However, he was fairly popular in the 1940s, with his popularity significantly increasing in the early 1950s. Eventually, in the mid-1960s Salazar became a director and more or less retired from acting. He directed for most of his later life.

What inspired Salazar to produce a vampire film set in Mexico?

Later in life, Salazar was interviewed for a documentary. He recalled, “I was always interested in numbers. How much money movie and movies would make. I looked at Hollywood in the Depression. Universal Studios, which was sort of a second-tier studio, made a lot of money, and what was making their money was their horror movies.”  Adding, “I wanted to make a popular film. I thought, why don’t I make Dracula set on a Mexican hacienda?”

When casting the vampire, how was Germán Robles chosen for the role? 

Germán Robles was from Spain. He went to Mexico in the mid to late 1940s. He wanted to be an actor. He was acting in plays and wasn’t a known person. 

Salazar originally wanted actor Carlos López Moctezuma to be the lead in El Vampiro. López Moctezuma was well known as a villain in films. In fact, he and Salazar had appeared together in a 1953 film called Ella, Lucifer y yo (She, Lucifer and I), in which López Moctezuma played the devil.

Salazar, in the same documentary revealed, “I got to thinking that López Moctezuma was too well known. He’s a good actor, but people are going to say, ‘That’s Carlos López Moctezuma. He’s a regular villain’. That’s not my vampire protagonist. I want to find an unknown.” He continued, “Somebody recommended, ‘Why don’t you go to this theater and, see this guy in this play.’” It was Robles. Salazar hired Robles. El Vampiro was Robles first film.

What was Robles’ career like after El Vampiro? 

One of the first movies he makes after making El Vampiro, El Ataúd del Vampiros (The Vampire’s Coffin), and El Castillo del los Monstrous (The Castle of the Monsters), was La Vida de Agustín Lara (The Life of Agustín Lara). He played the famous Mexican composer Agustín Lara, completely opposite of El Vampiro. 

Though his career, he was still always known as El Vampiro. I think he appreciated the fact that El Vampiro made him well known. And worked fairly steadily. I believe that at times, if you are serious actor, you don’t want to be going for a job and people say, “Oh, you’re a vampire guy.” That could cost you some jobs.

How did Fernando Méndez establish his directing career?

In the early 1930s, someone like his cousin or second cousin, was living on the border between Mexico and United States, who wanted to make a movie. He made some short films documentaries. Then, he made a feature film, in English and Spanish. One of the producers behind that film was a guy named Dwain Esper, an exploitation filmmaker. 

Méndez stayed in the US and works for Esper on film called Maniac, which is a fairly well-known exploitation horror movie, and Marihuana.

Then, he goes back to Mexico and writes films. He starts to direct in the early 1940s and makes all sorts of films, including rural, melodramas, romances, westerns, etc. 

Which films was Méndez best known for directing?

His fame largely rests on El Vampiro, El Ataúd del Vampiro (The Vampire’s Coffin), Misterios de Ultratumba (The Black Pit of Dr. M), and Ladrón de Cadáveres (The Body Snatcher). Four horror films out of a very, very long career. 

What was Méndez’s career like after El Vampiro?

After he made El Vampiro and El Ataúd del Vampiro (The Vampire’s Coffin), he kept working for Salazar and directs three westerns, Los Hermanos Diablo (The Diablo Brothers), El Renegado Blanco (The White Renegade), and Venganza Apache (Apache Revenge). In 1960, he directs his last feature film Mujeres Engañadas (Deceived Women) and retired from directing. Apparently, he had heart problems. However, he kept on writing. 

Eventually, he wound up his career relatively early. It was short in terms of short for Mexican film directors. Some of them go on to direct well into their 90s. 

How are Méndez films recognized in Mexican cinema history?

In 1994, there was a film in Mexico called Somos. They asked a bunch of critics to pick the top 100 Mexican films of all time, up to 1994. Méndez has three films on that list. El Vampiro at #35, Ladrón de Cadáveres at #49 and the gangster movie El Suavecito from 1951. 

Was El Vampiro a big hit? 

The best way to determine how big of a hit it was, is to look at how long it was in theaters in Mexico City for its initial release. El Vampiro was in theatres for four weeks. That doesn’t sound a huge amount now, but that was significant, considering there was competition for screen time. Now, it wasn’t the biggest hit of 1957. Clearly, some Cantinflas film probably stayed longer, but it was a very popular film. 

El Vampiro was so popular that when it premiered in October, the sequel went into production in November. Even though you know they had a lot of the same people, it was actually shot in a different facility, with some different technicians, etc. 

Then, Salazar started to produce a bunch of horror movies. He produced six horror movies: El Vampiro, El Ataúd del Vampiro (The Vampire’s Coffin), Misterios de Ultratumba (The Black Pit of Dr. M), El Hombre y el Monstruo, El Barón del Terror (The Brainiac), and La Maldición del la Llorona (The Curse of the Crying Woman). The horror wave that El Vampiro started, started in 1957 and runs to about 1963 or 1964.

Why do you believe that El Vampiro was the film to help trigger the horror period in Mexican cinema?

One, vampires are pretty internationally ubiquitous. It’s not that vampire films are made in every culture. But vampire films are shown in a lot of different places. Also, El Vampiro was a good film, that it had this recognizable type of story, plot, and characters that could be easily translated to other countries. It was easily accessible intellectually, emotionally, to people. It got a decent international release. It did get a significant amount of release in Europe, in France, Italy, Germany, etc., within a couple of years.

Two, its Mexican popularity comes from foreign films that are popular in Mexico, especially Hollywood films. El Vampiro is like a Hollywood movie. It reminds me of a Hollywood movie. 

Three, it made a lot of money. If a film makes a lot of money, people are going to jump on the bandwagon.

In later Mexican vampire films, who played the vampire? 

El Vampiro is the first Mexican vampire movie. It’s interesting that vampire films in Mexico for the next two decades, particularly at the beginning, they cast non-Mexican as the vampires. Spanish actor Carlos Agostí, was in two of the better Mexican vampire movies directed by Miguel Morayta, La Invasión de Los Vampiros (The Invasion of the Vampires) and El Vampiro Sangriento (The Bloody Vampire). Agostí was not an unknown actor. He had been acting in Mexico for years. 

Salazar made another vampire horror movie, El Mundo de los Vampiros (World of the Vampires) with Argentine actor Guillermo Murray. Murray had made some movies in Argentina, but this is his first Mexican movie. 

Then you have a period in the in the 1960s where they do hire some Mexican performers, including Eric del Castillo (El Imperio de Drácula (The Empire of Dracula)), and Fernando Luján (El Pueblo Fantasma). 

Other non-Mexican include John Carradine in Las Vampiras (The Vampires) and Aldo Monti as Dracula in Santo en El Tesoro de Drácula (Santo in the Treasure of Dracula) and Santo y Blue Demon vs Dracula y el Hombre Lobo (Santo and Blue Demon vs. Dracula and the Wolf Man). Monti was born in Italy. He was an actor in Venezuela before he went to Mexico. 

The last of this of classic vampire period, La Dinastía de Dracula (Dracula’s Dynasty), which is sort of a remake of El Vampiro and it uses the same name of the hacienda, Los Sycamores. The vampire is played by Bob Nelson. 

I don’t know if that was deliberate or not, but it’s interesting that the first five or six major Mexican vampire movies have a non-Mexican playing the vampire.

Was there another period in Mexican cinema that had a high percentage of horror films?

The percentage of films that are fantasy oriented was probably higher in that period than it was after that for various reasons. 

In 1976, you get a new Mexican president, José López Portillo. He puts his sister Margarita López Portillo in charge of the government agency, the General Directorate of Radio, Television, and Cinematography, which controlled film, television, and radio. She didn’t like “sleazy movies”, wrestling movies, or politically oriented films. As a result, a lot of the government finance films start to drop off after 1976 for horror movies, wrestling movies, and films like that. 

 How was El Vampiro released in America?

El Vampiro was released in America, both in English and in Spanish, most notably dubbed in English for television. The Spanish language release was clearly only aimed at Spanish language theaters. It generally would sort of fly beneath the radar of regular people. 

Who’s responsible for bringing El Vampiro and other Mexican horror films to America?

In the early to the late 1950s, K. Gordon Murray bought the rights to almost 30 Mexican films. All of Salazar’s, some Guillermo Calderón, couple of Santos, etc. He dubbed them in English and released a bunch of them on TV, and some of them theatrically. That was a double-edged sword. 

It gave exposure to these films, especially to the Monster Kids, beginning in 1965, as these films are showing up on TV. And if they’re one of the handful that we’ve got theatrical release, Murray, did some horror double features. The horror films people didn’t see on the screen, they would see the dubbed versions on television. That is where American audiences got their exposure to Mexican horror movies. 

What was the reaction to Mexican horror films by American audiences?

On a fan level, the horror movie fan kids liked it, because they were different and atmospheric. In the horror movie magazines of the 1960s and 1970s, they’re described these films as, “The dialogue is corny. The voices are sort of goofy, but it’s super atmospheric. You should really see this.” So Mexican horror did have that sort of reputation.

Do you feel that horror film fans in general are more aware of international cinema?

If you like horror or fantasy films, you tend to have a broader view of international cinema, because every country makes horror movies. Horror movies are very easy to export. Thus, horror fans have the opportunity to see a fair number of imported horror movies. 

If you make a vampire movie in the Philippines. It’s not just gonna get shown in the Philippines. It will show in the United States, in Germany, all over. Everybody likes horror movies. 

What is your hope for the future of classic Mexican horror?

I’m optimistic, that there is more effort, more interest, and more financing being put into maintaining, preserving, and making more accessible Mexican classic cinema. You’re now seeing classic Mexican films being restored and being released on DVD, Blu-ray, and digitally. 

In every country, there will always be fantasy films being made. There is a market for classic Mexican horror cinema. That’s good for horror fans. So Mexican horror movies are not going to go away. 

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