‘Ah, and a bit of Venus’ navelwort, so they have good dreams.’
Count Cagliostro studies vampires in secret, always searching for the family of Frankenhausen, whose bloodline is cursed with the taint of the undead. Meanwhile, the housemaids of a neighbouring Count are prone to sudden disappearances…
After Abel Salazar’s ‘El Vampiro’ (1957) was a runaway success, Mexican film producers hurried to embrace the supernatural, particularly stories involving the undead. Few of the wave of vampire movies that followed strayed far from the 1931 Lugosi template, which Salazar had adopted, but occasionally some new flourishes and ideas emerged.
Meet Count Valsamo de Cagliostro (Antonio Raxel), a descendant of the original occult scientist whose fame spread throughout the royal courts of Europe in the 18th Century. Although history doesn’t record his run-in’s with the undead, it was a large part of his work, particularly after his second wife was burned at the stake after an encounter with the notorious ‘Vampire of the Moon’. Raxel has dedicated his life to tracking down this creature, establishing that vampirism is a curse passed down to each first-born son of the House of Frankenhausen. Aiding him in his quest are his own ‘Scooby Gang’; daughter Inez (Begoña Palacios), her betrothed, Dr Riccardo Peisser (Raúl Farell) and chamberlain, Justus (Pancho Córdovam, here billed as Francisco A. Cordova).
One of their near neighbours is Count Siegfried von Frankenhausen (Carlos Agostí). He has kept his invalid wife, Countess Eugenia (Erna Martha Bauman), locked up in the house since their marriage and return from the country, leaving daughter Brunhilda behind to be raised by her grandfather. But getting good help seems to be their main problem as housekeeper Frau Hildegarde (Bertha Moss) spends most of her time procuring new housemaids from tavern owner Lupe (Lupe Carriles). The only qualifications they need to possess are good looks and no close family ties. No red flags there, then.
Coincidentally, it turns out that Córdovam’s best drinking buddy is Lazaro (Enrique Lucero), the personal servant of Countess Bauman. When she has a funny turn one night, he fetches Doc Farell, and the gang realise that Agostí just might be the vampire that Raxel’s been looking for all these years. Unfortunately, the occultist is off on a trip somewhere, so they decide to investigate themselves. Fortunately, Córdovam and Lucero drink in Carriles’ bar (it’s a small world!), and it’s an easy job to get Palacios installed as the Frankenhausen’s new housemaid.
Writer-director Miguel Morayta was a veteran filmmaker with no prior credits in the horror genre. However, he does bring some new ideas to the table. There are two kinds of vampires; the ‘living’ and the ‘dead.’ Agostí is an example of the ‘living’ kind, active and feeding. The ‘dead’ are his victims, laying in their graves in a cataleptic state, rising only when their progenitor is despatched. This is an interesting concept if a little awkward. Despite having less than a handful of vampire brides, Agostí talks of wiping out humanity with his army of bloodsuckers. Yes, I guess everyone has to start somewhere, but given that his followers can only take up arms once he’s been finally staked, it seems strange that he’s so enthusiastic about the idea.
Raxel also advocates a scientific approach in eliminating the waiting dead. According to his research, their blood contains a substance called Vampirina that destroys red blood cells, which need to be replenished for the creature to survive. This substance can be eradicated with Boric Acid, made from the roots of the black Mandrake. This notion is a neat tie-in to folk myths about the plant, addressed in the film’s opening sequence when the Scooby Gang harvest the roots from the ground beneath a hanged man. None of this informs the main action in any significant way, but it’s nice to see such attention to detail in the script and an effort to put a new spin on such familiar lore.
What drags the film down is the second act when Palacios goes undercover in the Frankenhausen household. The gang spend an awful lot of time trying to establish Agostí’s bloodsucking credentials. This is a problem because the audience knows he’s the vampire from the get-go, and it’s not that exciting waiting for our heroes to catch up. Also, it’s so blindingly obvious! Bauman as good as tells them so, but Farell prefers to entertain Agostí’s contention that his wife is mad. And just how many ‘Frankenhausen’ families are there in Mexico? Is the name the country’s equivalent of ‘Smith’ or ‘Jones’ then?
Morayta excels when sowing the seeds for the sequel ‘La Invasion de los Vampiros/The Invasion of the Vampires (1962), providing just the right amount of information, so it’s not clumsy or obvious, but pays off in the next film. There’s also good cinematography from Raúl Martínez Solares, which helps mount an impressive introduction to our supernatural antagonist. While on their expedition to collect the roots, our heroes are interrupted by the passage of Agostí’s horse-drawn coach. The vehicle passes in slow-motion and silence; not an original idea by any means, but stylishly handled, and Morayta doesn’t make the mistake of returning to the device again and again. There’s also an unusual soundtrack from Luis Hernández Bretón, who mixes discordant music with passages of choral singing to produce an unsettling effect.
Morayta began his directorial career in the 1940s but hit his stride with the social commentary of ‘Vagabunda/Tramp’ (1950) and biblical epic ‘El mártir del Calvario’ (1952). Work in many other genres followed, such as comedy, romance, adventure and musicals before entering the horror arena. Later on, he delivered the memorable escapades of ‘Dr. Satán’ (1966) and horror-comedy ‘Capulina contra los monstruos’ (1974) featuring the popular Mexican comedian. He left the industry in the late 1970s and died in 2013 at the age of 105.
While it may observe genre conventions pretty faithfully, moments of invention and professionalism make this offering a definite cut above many of its contemporaries.