The Vampire's Coffin (1958) The Vampire’s Coffin/El Ataúd del Vampiro (1958/1965) ***

     So just how big a success was The Vampire? Well, consider this: to the best of my knowledge, it was the first Mexican horror movie ever to get a direct sequel. The Vampire’s Coffin is an unusual sequel, too, for it bears strikingly little resemblance to its predecessor, yet never comes across as a betrayal of it. Although this movie focuses on the same core characters as The Vampire, it leaves the hacienda behind in favor of an urban environment, and tells an altogether different sort of story. The Vampire’s Coffin makes a good-faith effort to continue what the previous film started, rather than merely bringing the monster back to life to terrorize a new set of victims.

     It does begin in Sierra Negra, however— specifically in the village cemetery, where the vampire Count Laszlo Lavud (German Robles again) was interred beside his twice-dead brother after fatally failing to resurrect the elder bloodsucker. The vampires’ mausoleum is invaded under cover of darkness by two men determined to steal Count Laszlo’s body. One of them, Barraza (Yerye Beirute, of Alien Terror and The Fear Chamber), is a criminal for hire; he’s just here because coffins are fucking heavy. The brains behind the operation belong to Dr. Mendoza (Guillermo Orea, from Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp and The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales). Mendoza learned from a colleague of the uncanny creature buried in this crypt, and he hopes to expand the frontiers of medical science by studying Lavud’s remains. The grave robbers are interrupted in their activities, though, by Maria Teresa Gonzalez (still Alicia Montoya), who has been keeping watch over the mausoleum ever since Lavud was shut up in it a year ago. You can never be too careful with vampires, after all. Unfortunately, the old lady’s entreaties to put the coffin back where it came from fall on deaf ears, and there’s no realistic prospect of her forcing Barraza not to do what he’s being paid for. Well before dawn, Mendoza and Barraza arrive at the Louis Pasteur Hospital in whatever qualifies as “the big city” around these parts with the doctor’s ill-gotten souvenir of Sierra Negra.

     It happens that Louis Pasteur is the very hospital where Enrique— or rather, Dr. Enrique Saldivar (a returning Abel Salazar)— works. In fact, it was Saldivar who unwittingly put Mendoza up to stealing the vampire’s corpse by running his fool mouth about what happened during his sojourn in Sierra Negra. Enrique (working the overnight shift) is appalled when he learns what his colleague has done— but not half as appalled as he’ll be a bit later, when Barraza’s bid to steal Lavud’s expensive-looking medallion leads him to remove the stake from the monster’s heart, restoring him to unlife. And to make matters worse, Marta Gonzalez (still Ariadna Welter) is working at the hospital these days too, holding down a temporary gig as a nurse while she waits for her career as a dancer to take off. (Sounds backwards from the vantage point of 2017, doesn’t it?) Marta comes face to face with the resurrected Lavud when he attempts to prey on her favorite patient (Irma Castillon, from Tom Thumb and Even the Wind Is Afraid). The vampire’s hypnotic powers suppress Marta’s memory of the encounter and make a handy Renfield out of Barraza, but even the rather hapless Saldivar knows how to interpret the empty coffin in Mendoza’s lab and the puncture wounds on Marta’s patient’s neck. Lavud didn’t bother wiping the little girl’s memory, either, and Saldivar recognizes the description when the poor kid complains of nightmares about being visited by a strange, silent man in a black suit and cape.

     While Saldivar, Mendoza, and Maria Teresa (who rushed to the hospital as fast as she could in pursuit of the grave robbers) fruitlessly search the building for a vampire who is no longer there, Barraza secures a local hideout for his new master by blackmailing the crooked proprietor (Carlos Ancira, of The Living Coffin and Santo and Blue Demon Against the Monsters) of a wax museum where he used to work. Lavud plans on sticking around, you see. He may have decisively lost his grip on Sierra Negra, and with it his chance to resurrect his brother, but he figures he can at least claim Marta as a consolation prize. Meanwhile, Enrique progressively loses control of the situation at his end. First he nearly gets himself fired by coming clean to the hospital director (Antonio Raxel, from The Bloody Vampire and The Black Pit of Dr. M). Then he nearly gets himself locked up for a lunatic by attempting to enlist the aid of the police commandant (Jose Muñoz, of The Woman and the Beast and The New Invisible Man). And along the way, he nearly gets Marta killed or worse half a dozen times over with his misguided efforts to spare her feelings by keeping Lavud’s return a secret from her. Eventually, the vampire traces Marta to the theater where she just got hired as a chorus girl, and takes advantage of the seedy below-the-law setting to spring his ultimate trap. If Enrique would like to do something to burnish his distinctly shabby hero credentials, this is probably the last chance he’s going to get.

     The Vampire’s Coffin can’t match The Vampire’s sheer uniqueness, but we basically knew that going in, right? What it does at least come close to matching is its predecessor’s admirable determination to put interesting new spins on tropes that much of the world considered to be very near to their sell-by dates, if not already past them. This time, what comes in for refurbishment is the nominal hero who is something of an arrogant boob. Normally when we see guys like Enrique in horror movies, it’s a sign that we’re actually watching a horror comedy, and that we should be bracing ourselves for a madcap chase through a spooky basement and/or a “humorous” encounter with a stuffed gorilla that isn’t half as stuffed as it was a few minutes ago. Similarly, Enrique’s treatment of Marta, taken at face value, would be drearily reminiscent of the relationship between Lew Ayers and Larraine Day in Fingers at the Window. The stakes in The Vampire’s Coffin are much too high, however, and the outcome much too plausibly in doubt for the movie to function as a 40’s-style horror comedy. At the same time, the film is too forthrightly self-aware regarding Saldivar’s inadequacies, and permits Marta too much effective agency to merit dismissal as another iteration of the post-Rebecca “asshole + numbskull” routine. Tonally, the best point of comparison is probably The Uninvited. Although they don’t resemble each other at all in terms of subject matter, both pictures inject a clownish leading man into a deadly serious horror plot, and require him to rise to the occasion even as they own all his conspicuous shortcomings. Abel Salazar and Ariadna Welter deserve praise, too, for nailing a pair of performances so rich with potential to go horribly wrong.

     Of course, it didn’t hurt that The Vampire’s Coffin had already won me over well before the reintroduction of Marta and Enrique. This movie features by far the most credible justification for a monster’s accidental resurrection that I can recall ever seeing in a film of its vintage or earlier. Of course Saldivar would blab to one of his colleagues about his encounter with a genuine vampire, and of course that colleague would be unable to hear the story without battening onto the scientific mystery that it implied. The scenario follows naturally, both from what we learned about Enrique the last time around, and from the premise of a vampire coming to the attention of medical professionals by emerging into the modern world. Also, the grave-robbing sequence opens The Vampire’s Coffin on a lushly atmospheric note that first recalls the dark beauty of The Vampire, and then establishes it as a deliberate choice when the sequel largely abandons its predecessor’s Mexi-gothic fantasia in favor of more prosaic but no less flavorful environments.

     Finally, The Vampire’s Coffin deserves commendation for the risky way in which it uses its main villain. The sequel presents Count Lavud in a position of diminished power as compared to his first appearance, and then compounds that by forcing him to operate in a civilized population center. It’s exactly contrary to the usual horror-sequel obsession with bringing back the monster bigger and badder than ever. It ought to be obvious what’s risky about that; if Marta, Enrique, and Maria Teresa overcame Count Lavud when he was holding all the aces, then what’s the challenge of going up against him again when theirs is the stronger hand? But we already know that Lavud is a crafty strategist, and The Vampire’s Coffin shows that gift to be still fully in effect. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Lavud is played by German Robles. Basically, the guy was Christopher Lee before Lee was. We have here a monster who thinks on his feet, and who knows how to turn an enemy’s strength back on him. He’s especially well suited to play opposite a hero as prone to wrong-footing himself as Enrique Saldivar.

 

 

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