The Mystery of the Ghastly Face/El misterio del rostro pálido (1935)

‘It is forbidden for the living to enter the land of the dead.’

A research scientist obsessed with a secret project has turned his son into a devoted assistant. Despite the young man’s wish to marry his childhood sweetheart, they embark on a dangerous expedition into the jungle. Eight years pass, and they are presumed dead, but the scientist suddenly returns alone…

Early Mexican horror film from director Juan Bustillo Oro, which contains some interesting influences. Carlos Villarías stars, along with future director René Cardona.

Being the son of brilliant research scientist Dr Galdino Forti (Carlos Villarías) is not easy. Pablo (Joaquín Busquets) has sacrificed his passion for music to his father’s great work, helping out at all hours in the old man’s private laboratory. His one consolation is his forthcoming marriage to childhood sweetheart Angelica (Beatriz Ramos). However, even this is snatched away when Villarías suddenly announces the necessity of an arduous research expedition into the depths of an uncharted jungle.

The trip is expected to take five years, so Villarías engages old colleague Dr Julio Montes (Miguel Arenas) to look after his affairs in the interim. As the years pass, hope for their return fades. Then, out of the blue, Villarías reappears with the sad news that Busquets has died on the way. However, houseguest Ramos hears the young man’s violin playing during the night. Villarías dismisses it as a grief-induced hallucination, but the following night, she sees a strange, pale face looking through her bedroom window.

Although Mexican horror cinema is now primarily remembered for its gloriously goofy parade of monsters, vampires and masked wrestlers that began their march across the big screen in the late 1950s, there are a handful of examples of more serious work from the preceding years. Here, writer-director Bustillo Oro whips up a concoction that takes one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lesser-known Sherlock Holmes stories (to name it would give away too much!) and seasons it with a touch of Universal’s classic ‘The Black Cat’ (1934).

At first glance, the premise is a standard one; a misguided scientist with a dubious agenda working secretly to some unknown end. The film even starts in a cemetery with the midnight exhumation of a corpse, not that this makes an awful lot of sense with what comes afterwards, although it does help to establish the conflict within Busquets’ character. Inclined toward art rather than science, he chooses to put his own needs second to his loyalty to his father, with ultimately tragic consequences. Bustillo Oro rather hammers home this theme in certain places, and it’s interesting to consider that it may have reflected some issues in his personal life.

The film still identifies as a straight horror mystery, though, and it does recycle some tropes that were already becoming somewhat familiar. The audience sees little of the scientific expedition, but what is presented is predictable enough. Villarías and Busquets are searching for the mysterious ‘Black Lake’ in the jungle, but, of course, it’s ‘forbidden’, and the native chief refuses to let anyone show them the way. When one tribesman finally agrees, he quits the moment he sees the usual ‘skull on a stick’ at the head of the trail. There’s also plenty of creeping about in darkened corridors at the Doctor’s house and a love interest in waiting for Ramos. This is Luis (Cardona), the son of Dr Montero, who grew up with her and Busquets and has been holding a torch for her since the creation of the universe.

It’s the production design of the Doctor’s home where the influence of ‘The Black Cat’ (1934) is primarily visible. Although the building can’t hold a candle (or a budget!) to Hjalmar Poelzig’s incredible home in the Universal classic, there’s still an Art Deco feel to it, most obviously with the wall clock that appears prominently in some shots. The personal dynamic between Villarías and Arenas is also similar to that between Karloff and Lugosi in Edgar G Ulmer’s film, although Bustillo Oro’s script doesn’t spend enough time on it.

Perhaps significantly, Villarías was very familiar with the Universal horror cycle, having played ‘Dracula’ (1931) in the Spanish version of Tod Browning’s famous film. That was shot on the same sets in the evenings after the English-language version had wrapped for the day. Although the Spanish actor proved to be no Lugosi in that role, it’s interesting that his performance here does echo the great star’s work in some places. It’s particularly reminiscent in some of the quieter moments when his character appears at his most reasonable, rather than in the later scenes when it’s clearer that he’s crazier than a soup sandwich.

It’s a genuine surprise when the aim of the Doctor’s work is finally revealed (if you haven’t read the Sherlock Holmes story), but it’s also a bit of a letdown. The problem is that it doesn’t really lead to anything, just the identity of the mysterious figure that’s been stalking Ramos, and that’s not exactly a shock. It also doesn’t make for a final act with any spectacle, which, again, makes everything seem anti-climactic.

The biggest issue with the film, however, is the condition of the print that’s available to view. It’s in very bad shape, which makes a full appreciation of the film rather difficult. In particular, it’s disappointing to be robbed of details of the interior sets; no doubt Carlos Toussaint’s production design can’t compete with Charles D Hall’s work on ‘The Black Cat’ (1934), but it would be nice to see it clearly. Perhaps a better copy of the film is out there somewhere, and restoration may be possible at some point in the future. We can only hope.

For genre fans, it is fun to see Cardona in just an acting role. He had directed a few films by this point, but it wouldn’t be until 1938 that he launched his filmmaking career in earnest. Over the following years, he left his fingerprints all over Mexican genre cinema, delivering numerous projects starring iconic masked wrestler Santo, stand-alone horrors such as ‘La Llorona’ (1960), and comic book films like ‘The Batwoman/La mujer murcielago’ (1966). He amassed a credit list of 147 movies in a 58-year career. Not content with that, he fathered René Cardona Jr, who followed in his father’s footsteps with just shy of 100 films of his own in many similar genres. Want more? Junior’s son, René Cardona III, chalked up 84 directing credits before his premature death in 2021.

Bustillo Oro first entered films in 1927 at the age of 23. His work first achieved notice when he collaborated with writer-director Fernando de Fuentes on ‘Godfather Mendoza/El compadre Mendoza’ (1934), a historical drama about the Mexican Revolution. The duo continued to work together, delivering the terrific horror ‘The Phantom of The Convent/El Fantasma Del Convento/The Fantasy of The Monastery’ (1934) and the superb ‘Dos monjes/Two Monks’ (1934), which Bustillo Oro also directed. Box office success followed with ‘In the Times of Don Porfirio/En tiempos de Don Porfirio’ (1940), the same year he guided comedian Cantinflas to international success with ‘There is a Detail/Ahí está el detalle’ (1940). Nostalgic family drama ‘When the Children Leave/Cuando los hijos se van’ (1941) was another big hit, along with ‘Memories of Mexico/México de mis recuerdos’ (1944). Sadly, subsequent projects never reached such heights of popularity again, and he finally retired from the industry in 1969.

Worth seeking out if you’re a fan of Mexican horror cinema or just horror films of the 1930s in general.

Santo vs. Black Magic Woman/Santo contra la magia negra (1973)

‘I will meet you at the graveyard after the wrestling.’

Two scientists have died in mysterious circumstances while working for a professor in Haiti. The trio have created a formula for a new explosive of devastating power, so Interpol sends a masked wrestler to obtain it before it falls into the wrong hands…

It’s another mission for legendary luchador and folk hero Santo under the watchful direction of veteran Alfredo B Crevenna. Some other familiar faces are in front and behind the camera in what was approximately the 40th entry in a film series that began in 1961.

Top scientist Professor Jordan (Guillermo Gálvez) is a rational man. He’s happy to accept ‘natural causes’ as the reasons behind the recent deaths of two of his colleagues. Interpol isn’t satisfied, though, suspecting that enemy agents are trying to obtain the egghead’s secret formula for a brand-new explosive. Rather than send in a task force of experienced agents to secure it, they call on Santo and pack him off on assignment to Haiti, where the Professor lives.

Unfortunately for the forces of justice and truth, the opposition doesn’t need spy satellites, double agents or fancy surveillance gear to follow their moves. They have voodoo priestess, Bellamira (Sasha Montenegro), instead. After a few choice words to serpent spirit Damballa, she can simply watch Santo’s briefing in her psychedelic pool. So it’s no surprise when Santo is attacked soon after being picked up from the airport by contact man Jorge (César del Campo). Fortunately, the great man can fight off half a dozen zombies without breaking too much of a sweat.

Santo has more trouble with obstinate scientist Gálvez who has no time for all this supernatural malarkey. Despite the arguments of daughter Lorna (Elsa Cárdenas), who is also engaged to del Campo, he doesn’t think he’s in any danger. However, Montenegro has targeted him for death at the behest of foreign agents Fernando Osés and Carlos Suárez. Can Santo persuade rival voodoo priestess Michelle (Gerty Jones) to help, or is the formula doomed to fall into the hands of the enemies of the free world?

By this point in the series, it was hardly likely that anyone was going to mess with the tried and trusted Santo movie formula. Send the great man to an exotic location, and put him against an outlandish villain (possibly with supernatural powers) who controls a gang of thugs/headhunters/vampires or whatever. Santo has to protect an old scientist/archaeologist/academic with a beautiful daughter who happens to be in love with whatever sidekick the script has landed him with this week. Everyone is after a treasure, an amulet, a formula or some McGuffin, which will mean disaster for the whole world if the villain gets hold of it. Oh, and Santo has to wrestle in the ring a couple of times. There are variations, of course, but that’s the basic story framework, and it’s usually just a case of what variations on this theme each movie can deliver.

Happily, there are more than a few points of interest in this example, the most obvious being the location. Cast and crew travelled to Haiti, and the production spent significant time there. It’s possible that some pick-up shots were filmed back home in Mexico, but more than likely that the entire shoot happened on location. The cast interacts with the locals and their ceremonies and festivals, which provides a lot of local colour. This brings a surprising level of authenticity to the proceedings, but Crevenna does let it affect the pacing. Too much of this background footage appears late in the second act when the film should be building towards a climax. Worse still are the obvious implications of showing what are clearly genuine voodoo rituals. Offerings made to the spirits, known as Iwa, are often accompanied by animal sacrifice. Although Crevenna does not allow his camera to linger on these aspects, what is shown is highly likely to upset those of a sensitive disposition.

Elsewhere, proceedings are considerably elevated by the presence of Montenegro, whose ice-cool arrogance makes for one of Santo’s most memorable antagonists. Wisely, she chooses to underplay her part, adopting a very matter-of-fact approach to her evil machinations. She’s simply a bad girl carrying out items of business, albeit with supernatural assistance. There’s also an undercurrent of ruthless joy to her subtle smirk, which is very effective because it’s so understated.

However, there’s little remarkable about the rest of the cast or their performances. Cardenas, a series veteran, was probably a little too old to play the damsel in distress and would have been better employed in a more proactive role. It is good to see old standbys Osés and Suárez, though, and, as was often the case, the former was involved with the writing, here receiving a story credit.

Santo gets to strut his stuff in the square ring twice (as per his Interpol cover story!), and it’s highly possible these bouts were staged on location. Most of the footage is grainy and shot from the edge of the ring, with the crowd only dimly visible. There are some inserts of Montenegro in the front row, probably shot separately, as she wills his opponent to kill our gallant hero. But, given the occupants of the seats around her, again, the likelihood is that it was shot on location.

Although this fight looks genuine, unfortunately, someone decided to speed up some of the action outside the ring. This tweak in the editing suite is only slight, but it’s still noticeable enough to give Santo’s initial combat with the zombies a sillier edge than it probably deserved. However, it is a nice touch when he unwittingly scares them away by holding up a cross-shaped tyre iron.

It is perfectly acceptable for tourists to attend a voodoo ceremony in Haiti (more accurately termed ‘Voodou’). However, it’s interesting to note that the practitioners here allowed the cast to act as a little more than just passive observers. Cardenas is tied to a stake as a potential human sacrifice (not a part of their religion at all), and she’s dressed in white, a highly significant colour and usually only worn by those leading the ceremony. The actress deserves a lot of credit for the scene as it’s clear that some participants have entered the ‘possession trance’, a state demonstrated by dilated eyes and violent, erratic body movements. She was in no danger, but given that she was standing alone in a crowded temple filled with sincere believers during an actual voodoo ceremony, she probably had some pause for thought.

Montenegro was born Aleksandra Aćimović Popović in Italy to parents of Montenegrin descent. Raised in Argentina, she relocated to Mexico, where she debuted as an actress in musical comedy ‘Un sueño de amor’ (1972). The following year she appeared in ‘Santo vs. the Killers from Other Worlds/Santo contra los asesinos de otros mundos’ (1971) before taking centre stage as this black magic woman. She returned to the series for ‘Santo in Anonymous Death Threat/Santo en Anónimo mortal (1972) and ‘Santo y Blue Demon Contra El Doctor Frankenstein’ (1974) and also appeared in other genre films such as ‘Los vampiros de Coyoacán’ (1974). More significantly, in the public mind, she began a relationship with Mexican President José López Portillo around the time of his election. Unfortunately, he was already married with three children. Long after he departed from office, Portillo obtained a divorce from his first wife and married Montenegro in 1995. The couple had two children but separated in later years and were in the process of divorce when he passed away in 2004.

Another episode in Santo’s long film journey, this example considerably enlivened by the unusual location and a memorable villain.

El pueblo fantasma (Ghost Town) (1965)

‘Where I put my eye…I put the bullet!’

A young cowboy is looking for information about his late father, hoping to discover evidence to contradict his reputation as a vicious bandit. Tracking one of his old gang down to a border town, he finds the residents in the grip of a much deadlier terror…

An offbeat amalgamation of Western and horror from Mexican director Alfredo B Crevenna. The film was apparently cut together from a three-episode television show, but, for once, the small scale and appropriate budget are a help, not a hindrance.

Manuel Saldívar Jr (Rodolfo de Anda) is a man on a mission. Sick of hearing stories all his life about his late father’s murderous deeds down on the border, he is determined to find evidence there to the contrary and set the record straight. Unfortunately, it’s an uphill battle; peasants sing corridas in the street detailing his old man’s crimes, and he has to travel as ‘El Texano’ rather than reveal his true identity.

Crossing the desert, he saves the life of ex-convict Néstor Ramírez (Carlos López Moctezuma), who is returning home to the border town where his family still live. When they arrive, the new friends find a community living in fear. Moctezuma is surprised to find that his old nemesis, the Rio Kid (Fernando Luján), is still in residence and that a steady stream of outlaws and bandits are still arriving to test his mettle. But what’s worse than that, the corpses of the defeated gunfighters vanish after death, and the locals believe that these dead men walk the streets at night.

Mixing the supernatural and the Old West on the big screen was hardly new by the mid-1960s. Real-life ‘ghost towns’ had provided atmospheric backdrops for many a Hollywood Western in the studio era, and some had even featured fantastical elements, although these were always explained away. However, Edward Dein’s surprisingly effective B-Film ‘Curse of the Undead’ (1959) delivered an actual gunslinging vampire, and the concept was familiar enough that in the next few years, John Carradine was cashing his paycheque from ‘Billy the Kid Versus Dracula’ (1966).

The action opens in the local saloon of Crevenna’s unnamed border town where fast gun El rapido (Jorge Russek) is chugging whiskey and out to make his reputation as the man who bested the famous Rio Kid (Luján). Unfortunately for him, Lujan has a hidden ally in the film’s editor, and one quick jump cut later, Russek has been outdrawn and is on a one-way trip to Boot Hill. The same fate also awaits the brutal Rivera Brothers, Hermano (José Chávez) and Atenógenes (Guillermo Hernández), but what has the townsfolk spooked is the regular disappearance of the corpses of Luján’s victims.

A couple of factors really assist the drama in Crevenna’s film. The first is the restraint that is evident throughout. Proceedings are low-key for the most part, perhaps dictated by the limited production resources available, but ensuring a somewhat grounded result. The word ‘vampire’ isn’t even mentioned until the final act, although the bloodsucker’s physical appearance is pretty laughable, with his prominent canines more accurately described as tusks rather than teeth! A little goofy it may be, but it’s still a welcome change from the usual dinner-suited, aristocratic Lugosi template almost exclusively favoured by Mexican horror cinema since the box-office breakout of Abel Salazar’s ‘El vampiro’ (1957).

The director also knows how to marshal his resources to their best effect. There are very few location shots, with most of the drama taking place on studio sets, but it’s all quite convincing except for a couple of out-of-town scenes in the desert. It helps that most of the action takes place after dark, of course, and Crevenna can wreathe the pueblo’s narrow streets in heavy, atmospheric shadows. It also helps that we have a quietly compelling performance by Luján, who exudes a sense of evil while being rather a small, physically unimposing man.

Some of the story elements are a little trite, though, with a completely pointless semi-romance between de Anda and Moctezuma’s pretty daughter, Marta (Elsa Cárdenas). Instead, the heroine’s duties are split with singer Carmen (Julissa), who travels with her father, blind guitarist Don Beto (Rubén Márquez). Their inclusion also allows for some musical numbers, including a couple of takes of the corrida about de Anda’s bandit father, which drives our somewhat uptight hero to distraction.

As is usually the case with Mexican horrors of the era, there is little to no production information available for the film beyond its apparent genesis as a TV show. The finished product partially bears out this assertion as probably being the case. The introduction of Julissa and Márquez is rather sudden, and the three musical numbers are all clustered together in the middle of the film, which throws off the pacing. There’s also a complete lack of information regarding the vampire’s origins and only a scant explanation of what happened to all those corpses. It’s possible that those issues were more fully addressed in the original show.

Intriguingly, the film also appears to be a sequel to a more straightforward Western called ‘El texano’ (1965), which featured much of the same cast. Although sources list Moctezuma, Russek, and Cárdenas in different roles, de Anda again played Manuel Saldívar Jr, and the prolific Alfredo Ruanova is credited as screenwriter on both projects. Given those credits, it’s likely the projects were filmed back-to-back. However, there’s no production information available to suggest the exact circumstances or if the former film also originally appeared on the small screen.

Crevenna was a workhouse of a director who delivered around 150 films in a career that lasted half a century. Along the way, he was involved in many interesting genre projects, inevitably some featuring legendary wrestler Santo, including ‘Santo vs. The Martian Invasion/Santo el Enmascarado de Plata vs’ La invasión de los marcianos’ (1967) and ‘The Beasts of Terror/Las Bestias del Terror/Santo Y Blue Demon En Las Bestias del Terror’ (1973). He first embraced science-fiction with the highly professional ‘Invisible Man in Mexico/El hombre que logró ser invisible’ (1958) and went on to deliver ‘Adventure In the Centre of the Earth/Aventura al centro de la tierra’ (1965). Space operas ‘Planetary Giants/Gigantes Planetarios’ (1966), and sequel ‘Planet of the Female Invaders/El planeta de las mujeres invasoras’ (1966) followed shortly afterward. Other horror projects included ‘Bring Me the Vampire/Échenme al vampiro’ (1963), ‘La huella macabra’ (1963), another tale of vampires written by Ruanova, and ‘La dinastía de Dracula’ (1980). He passed away in 1996 at the age of 82.

Of the cast, it’s Julissa who is likely to be best known to a modern audience. She was a rock singer and performer originally signed to the Mexican arm of CBS records. She was also successful in producing, directing and starring in many stage musicals, such as ‘Grease’, ‘The Boyfriend’ and ‘The Rocky Horror Show’. Most fans of genre films, though, will remember her for appearing in three of the infamous quartet of Mexican films Boris Karloff shot in 1969, which were completed after his death. Fortunately for her, she does not appear in ‘The Incredible Invasion’ (1971), which is undoubtedly the worst of the bunch.

Surprisingly effective, quiet little vampire movie, which is worth catching if you’re a fan of Mexican horror cinema.

Capulina contra los vampiros (1971)

‘The fat man has put me in a bad mood.’

An overweight layabout finds a job as the caretaker at a mansion reputed to be owned by a vampire. As part of his duties, he removes a lance embedded in the entrance hall floor and revives the undead nobleman. Aided by the building’s caretaker, he takes on the supernatural threat, hoping to claim a hidden treasure…

Comedic vampire hi-jinks from south of the border, courtesy of writer-director René Cardona and popular Mexican funnyman Capulina. Together, the two mine the well-worn tropes of horror-comedy pioneered by old dark house mysteries of the 1930s and the slapstick tendencies of ‘Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein’ (1948).

Idle timewaster Capulina (Gaspar Henaine) is happy to while away the hours in bed reading about vampires, but the need for food sends him reluctantly to the local employment agency. There, he snags a job doing light maintenance work at the Castle De Frontenac, but dropping the name of his destination at the village tavern run by Carlos Agostí sends the locals into the expected panic. Arriving at the castle (even calling it a ‘mansion’ would be pushing the definition a bit), Henaine is greeted by black dwarf Carbonato (Aurelio Pérez), who informs him that the walls hide a fabulous treasure. The catch is that the master of the house is a vampire.

Fortunately, Count Drac de Fontenac (Juan Gallardo) is currently ‘resting’, impaled by a lance stuck in the floor many years earlier. His wife Pampita (Rossy Mendoza, doing her best ‘Lily Munster’ impression) has been bringing men to their home ever since, trying to find one who can remove the offending weapon and bring her beloved back to life. Of course, that man turns out to be Henaine, and he does the deed. Then it’s up to him to turn the tables on the undead with the aid of the trusty Pérez.

The history of cinema is littered with lame, bloodless attempts at horror-comedy. For every ‘Shaun of the Dead’ (2004) and ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (1975), there are dozens upon dozens of almost plotless escapades leaning heavily on stock humour, signposted gags, laboured situations and endless repetition. Unfortunately, Cardona’s film ticks all those boxes with some enthusiasm, replacing wit and timing with frenetic action, mugging and a great deal of running about on its cheap sets. Part of the problem is that some horror conventions offer obvious targets for parody and attract the sort of predictable, lazy scripting in evidence here.

Cardona’s screenplay has a few scattered ideas, but they are never developed beyond their original setup. The notion of Mendoza’s search to find someone to pull the lance from the floor echoes the Arthurian legend of the ‘Sword in the Stone’, but this interesting concept goes absolutely nowhere. Similarly, Mendoza is obviously less than pleased when Gallardo wakes his harem of vampire brides from their long sleep. However, the opportunity to poke fun at their domestic situation is ignored in favour of Gallardo getting a custard pie in the face and other such creative shenanigans.

Henaine was known for his ‘family-friendly’ comedy, and although the film does not seem targetted toward children, Cardona plays it safe at every turn. Events are never allowed to become scary for even one second, and, despite the vampire brides’ appropriate nightwear, not one inch of naked flesh ever makes it to the screen. Such elements aren’t strictly necessary to make a successful horror-comedy, of course. However, the complete absence of even a suggestion of them removes a great deal of the potential for laughs.

If there is one bright spot in all this, it’s on the technical side. Sure, the sets are limited in scale and scope, but Cardona compensates with the lighting, soaking the interiors with splashes of lurid, primary colours. This look partly evokes the feel of Hammer Horror but is also reminiscent of the gothic flourishes of Italian horror maestro Mario Bava! It’s not on that level of expertise or quality, of course, but it’s interesting to speculate on whether Cardona was familiar with Bava’s work or if it’s simply a coincidence.

Henaine began his career in show business as a successful singer and musician in the 1940s. He formed trio ‘Los Trincas’ in 1946, whose combination of country stylings with boogie-woogie has been credited as a pioneer of the 1950s Rock’ n’ Roll explosion by some commentators. In the mid-1950s, he formed a comedic partnership with Marco Antonio Campos known as Viruta and Capulina. They worked extensively in theatre, radio and television, culminating in their first feature film, the horror-comedy ‘Se los chupó la bruja’ (1957). Henaine thought the film was awful, but it proved a box-office smash, and the duo went on to make a further 25 movies over the next 11 years.

The duo split somewhat acrimoniously in the late 1960s, but Henaine went from strength to strength. Sources vary, but he starred in another 40 films at least, even starring with legendary luchador Santo, the two pairing up for ‘Santo contra Capulina’ (1969), again directed by Cardona. Other fantastical projects included ‘Capulina vs The Mummies /The Terror of Guanajuato’ (1973) and ‘Capulina contra los monstruos’ (1974), which pitted him against versions of Universal’s classic monsters. He also worked with Cardona when the director stepped out from behind the camera to play the ‘Bond Villain’ opposite his incompetent hero in spy spoof ‘Operación carambola’ (1968). Henaine also enjoyed highly successful careers as a stand-up comedian, television star and recording artist.

Cardona was a veteran filmmaker with over 120 previous directorial credits before this film and more than another 20 afterwards. His work often included horror and science-fiction subjects, and he was responsible for some of Mexico’s most notable films in those genres. Examples include ‘Wrestling Women vs The Aztec Mummy/Las luchadoras contra la momia’ (1964), ‘Santo vs the Strangler/Santo vs el estrangulador’ (1965), ‘Night of the Bloody Apes’ (1969), Santo in the Vengeance of the Mummy/Santo en la venganza de la momia’ (1971) and ‘Blue Demon and Zovek in The Invasion of the Dead/Blue Demon y Zovek en La Vasion De Las Meurtos (1973). He was also responsible for the bizarre Christmas classic ‘Santa Claus’ (1959).

A weary, somewhat tiresome doodle of a comedy that’s unlikely to provoke many laughs.

The Living Head/La cabeza viviente (1963)

‘An unknown phenomenon must be responsible for this.’

An Aztec high priest and priestess accompany a slain warrior into the afterlife. Over 400 years later, a trio of archaeologists excavating an ancient pyramid break into the tomb. Ignoring a scroll detailing a curse, they remove the artefacts, including the warrior’s decapitated head and the mummy of the high priest. Shortly after their return to the city, one of the scientists is mysteriously murdered…

The dead return from beyond the grave in Mexican director Chano Urueta’s tale of arrogant scientists and ancient vengeance. It’s another horror trip from actor-producer Abel Salazar, who became the driving force behind the genre explosion, initiated by his box-office bonanza ‘El Vampiro’ (1957).

Human sacrifice was the first order of business at the local pyramid one morning in 1525. The great warrior Acatl (Mauricio Garcés) has been murdered, and the culprit must pay. Sentenced carried out with an obsidian knife, high priest Xiu (Guillermo Cramer) concentrates on the funeral arrangements. The decapitated head of Garcés is enshrined on an altar in the tomb, and his own coffin is already prepared. High priestess Xochiquétzal (Ana Luisa Peluffo) is also coming along for the ride, but nobody asked her, and she’s not keen on the sudden trip. But Cramer gives her ‘The Ring of Death’, which binds her to Garcés until she offers up her soul to save the headless warrior. He then proclaims a curse on anyone who disturbs their resting place, and the tomb is sealed.

Fast forward almost 450 years, and the chamber gets a visit from the archaeological team led by Professor Muller (Germán Robles). It looks like a dream come true for him and colleagues Roberto (Garcés, again) and Professor Rivas (Salvador Lozano). The mummy of Cramer is so well preserved that they can’t get that pesky obsidian knife out of his grip, and Acatl’s head is in pretty good shape, considering its ancient vintage. However, Peluffo, who has apparently been standing in the corner for over four centuries collecting cobwebs, disintegrates into a pile of dust. Robles retrieves ‘The Ring of Death’ and gives it to his daughter, Marta (Peluffo, again). To say it’s big as hell and twice as ugly is an understatement, but she’s probably just wearing it to keep the old man happy.

Unfortunately, this booty comes with that obligatory curse, but Robles dismissed it as superstitious nonsense. Garcés isn’t so sure, and when Peluffo finds Lozano’s bleeding body on the roof above her balcony, even Robles has to sit up and take notice. On the case is Inspector Toledo (producer Salazar, probably saving a few quid), but what can modern policing do when faced with the curse of the ancient Aztecs? That damned ring is also exerting an unhealthy influence on Peluffo, much to the concern of her worried beaux, Garcés. Who will be next to feel the edge of Cramer’s obsidian blade?

Revenge from history and reincarnation were staples of Mexican horror at this time, and retooling classic Universal properties wasn’t far behind. The story is pretty obviously a lift from their ‘Mummy’ sequels where an unenthusiastic Lon Chaney Jr limped about while high priests George Zucco and John Carradine brewed the tana leaves. The concept must have seemed a real no-brainer to Salazar. The short series of films launched by ‘The Aztec Mummy/La momia azteca’ (1957) had been a great success, but that character was on hiatus, so why not reboot the concept and start a new franchise? If that was the intention, it failed miserably. The misdeeds of Cramer and his obsidian knife ended here.

Whatever criticisms can be levelled at Mexican horror of this time (and there are many), the films usually have one virtue that stands above everything else; they are great entertainment. However, this film is one of those exceptions that proves the rule. It’s boring. The story moves slower than a bandaged Lon Chaney Jr on his coffee break and never amounts to anything of significance. The notion of casting Peluffo and Garcés in dual roles only pays off briefly at the climax, although I guess it saved on the wages bill.

There’s also no effort made on monster makeup, with Cramer appearing just like an ordinary guy on his way to a fancy dress party. The film could have created a fascinating mythology for the creature based on a unique ancient culture but just throws that opportunity away without a second glance in favour of the usual horror tropes. Even the re-pairing of Robles and Salazar, who had starred as vampire and nemesis in ‘El Vampiro’ (1957), fails to strike any sparks.

Director Urueta was responsible for far more exciting entries in the Mexican horror cycle and ended his career in front of the camera playing supporting roles for Sam Peckinpah, most notably in ‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969). Salazar was a filmmaker with one eye on the balance sheet who rode the horror wave for all he was worth in his professional and private life. He married the Aztec Mummy’s main squeeze, Rosita Arenas, in 1960, and they remained married until he died in 1995. Their daughter, Rosa Salazar Arenas, is a successful screenwriter with over one thousand Mexican television episodes to her name. At the time of writing, it appears that Peluffo is still with us, although her last screen appearance was in 2014, the end of a 66-year career of more than 200 credits.

Given the sheer pace of production in the Mexican industry at the time, it’s perhaps no surprise that a few duds slipped through the net. A disappointing experience.

The Beasts of Terror/Las Bestias del Terror/Santo Y Blue Demon En Las Bestias del Terror (1973)

‘Your energy and blood will be used to give life to that cadaver and so discover the mystery of the central neurons.’

A small-time criminal kidnaps the sister of a millionaire with the aid of his ruthless girlfriend. Unfortunately, they cross paths with a mad scientist who wants to use the women in his experiments with resurrecting the dead. An agent investigating the case calls on the assistance of famous luchadores El Santo and the Blue Demon…

Misleadingly named Lucha libre outing for our favourite wrestling crimefighters, Santo and the Blue Demon. Rather than tackle the monsters implied in the title, their mission here is to unravel a kidnapping plot, albeit complicated by the presence of a mad scientist and his somewhat obscure mission statement.

Pedro (Aropnio de Hud) is in a spot of bother. Owing a lot of money to crimelord, Lucky (Quintin Bulnes) isn’t a good idea if you can’t pay it back, and he’s only saved from having it taken out of his hide by the intervention of pistol-packin’ girlfriend, Nora (Elena Cárdenas). Together, the two plan to pay off by kidnapping blonde bombshell Susie (Alma Ferrari), sister of millionaire Laura (María Antonia del Río). She agrees to pay the ransom but engages top investigator Tony Carelli (César del Campo) to find her sibling.

All goes well for our modern-day bandits before they are undone by that most fickle twist of fate: the plot contrivance. Stopping at the roadside to take a leak, de Hud finds himself at the wrong end of a gun barrel wielded by Sandro (Fernando Osés), who is not only a henchman of mad scientist Professor Matthews (Victor Junco) but also used to be Bulnes’ right-hand man. It seems the good Prof’s corpse wagon has a flat just down the road after a late-night expedition to puck up some raw material. Junco likes what he sees and takes the unfortunate trio back to his boiler room laboratory. You have to feel sorry for Ferrari – kidnapped twice in one day!

Fortunately, del Campo has several aces up his sleeve; first, his girlfriend Alma (the statuesque Idania del Cañal) happens to dance at Bulnes’ cabaret. She’s good at eavesdropping and provides some helpful intel, which I suppose makes a change from her job, which seems to involve wriggling her hips a little when the club is empty, which, apparently, is all the time! Better still, de Campo is on friendly terms with both Blue Demon and El Santo, and both are happy to help out, although old Silver Mask does seem a bit busy with other things.

This is an unusual hybrid of the two genres most associated with Lucha libre films and emerges as a pretty standard crime thriller with a few outlandish elements. Most of the run time is taken up with de Campo playing detective (his official status is never really established), aided from time to time by the muscles and brains of our grappling heroes. Switch out Junco’s scientist for a crime boss, and it would make little difference to the story development. His experiments are almost incidental and cheerfully vague; they involve bringing beautiful young women back from the dead by infusing them with the life force of living girls. The resulting zombies have no memory, are obedient to his will and therefore can be sold on to a sinister man in a turban. Yes, our mad scientist is not planning world domination apparently, just sex trafficking with corpses.

In line with this development, which is covered in a couple of brief scenes, the film attempts to adopt a more adult (i.e. sleazy) tone at times. Junco lusts after Cárdenas, having her whipped by Osés before declaring his undying devotion to her. His deformed assistant also feels frisky, but the object of his attention is Ferrari, and she has to play up to him as part of an escape plan. Add to this the fact that both actresses are in hot pants throughout, and director Alfredo B. Crevenna chooses to end the first scene with an unapologetic zoom into Cárdenas’ chest area, and you get the idea. Neither Santo nor Blue Demon is involved in any of that, of course, but producers were making a conscious effort to try and broaden Santo’s appeal since the late 1960s and were attempting to target a more mature audience.

The film also demonstrates why Blue Demon fostered a bitter resentment towards his silver-masked colleague. Once again, he gets more screen time but is portrayed as incapable of resolving anything without the great man’s help. Early on, the clueless de Campo walks into a trap and is beaten up by the crime lord’s goons, but, never fear, Blue has his back. Only there are too many of them for him, and he gets the tar kicked out of him too until – you guessed it – Santo arrives like the proverbial cavalry and drives the thugs away. Seconds later, he blithely announces he’s off to get a plane to Mexico, leaving the picture for most of the second act and dumping the whole mess into Blue’s lap. Thanks, mate! Of course, he returns for the climax because God knows you can’t trust Blue to resolve anything without his help. Also, despite far less screentime, we see Santo in the ring twice and Blue only once. These sequences are pretty obviously real matches edited in because of the difference in picture quality and the fact that, during Blue’s bout, a title card pops up announcing the second round!

Osés, a former wrestler himself, not only appeared as Sandro but wrote the screenplay (as he did for many of these films) and served as executive producer. Cárdenas, who appeared with Elvis in ‘Fun In Acapulco’ (1963), guest-starred on Ron Ely’s ‘Tarzan’ TV show and had a small role in Sam Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969), was also a familiar face in the series. She had leading parts in ‘Santo Faces Death/Santo frente a la muerte’ (1969), ‘Santo vs. The Vice Mafia/Santo contra la mafia del vicio’ (1971) and ‘The Mummies of Guanajuato/Las momias de Guanajuato’ (1972). In 1973 alone, she appeared in two further entries before switching to television, where she enjoyed a highly successful career of more than four decades. Mad scientist Junco starred in one of the films that started it all; ‘El enmascarado de plata’ (1954), which was originally intended as Santo’s big-screen debut. Of course, he also turned up in several other legitimate entries in the series and alongside Blue Demon in a couple of his solo ventures.

Unsurprisingly, director Crevenna was also closely tied to the series and had a long career in Mexican fantastic cinema anyway, taking a bow with the surprisingly sober ‘Invisible Man In Mexico’ (1959). Before his first assignment with the man in the silver mask, he worked with rival luchador Neutron in a series that included the wonderfully titled ‘Neutron Battles the Karate Assassins’ (1965). His science fiction pedigree also included ‘Adventure at the Centre of the Earth’ (1965) and ‘Planet of the Female Invaders’ (1966), but he’s best remembered for his work with El Santo and some of Blue Demon’s solo outings. These included the much loved ‘Santo vs The Martian Invasion/Santo el Enmascarado de Plata vs ‘La invasión de Los marcianos’ (1967) and ‘Blue Demon Versus the Infernal Brains/Blue Demon contra cerebros infernales’ (1966).

A rather makeweight entry in the series but enjoyable nonetheless, although the title is inaccurate unless you want to apply it to our two grappling heroes!

Museum of Horror/Museo del horror (1964)

‘I’m learning that God made a mistake in attaching tongues to women.’

A mysterious figure dressed in black abducts a young woman walking home at night. The police are baffled by her disappearance, the latest in a series of such incidents. Their attention becomes focused on the residents of a local boarding house and a former actor who now runs an unusual museum close by…

Elements of the ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘Wax Museum’s horror combine in this black and white Mexican picture directed by genre mainstay Rafael Baledón. There’s also a significant ‘whodunnit?’ vibe as screenwriter José María Fernández Unsáin presents the audience with a series of clues and red herrings on the way to the mystery’s final solution.

Pretty young nurse Marta (Patricia Conde) lives with her mother, Doña Leonor (Emma Roldán), who runs a small boarding house. By day she works at the hospital with fellow resident and unofficial fiancée, Dr Raúl (Julio Alemán), but she’s attracted to the new boarder, Luis (Joaquín Cordero). He’s a once-famous actor whose career ended after an on-stage accident that left him hobbling around on a walking stick. He still owns the theatre down the street but has converted it into a museum to make ends meet. His unusual exhibition consists of life-sized figures from theatrical history, both actors and characters, but all women. Hardly a moneyspinner, you would think, but he seems to do alright.

The list of residents is completed by the grumpy Professor Abramov (Carlos López Moctezuma) and the entire company decamp for a night out at Club La Paloma. The entertainment is provided by blonde bombshell Norma Ramos (Olivia Michel), who returns their visit by coming to live at the boarding house. Meantime, Conde is giving Alemán the brush-off and cosying up to the gloomy and complicated Cordero, intrigued by his air of mystery and tragic backstory. Local police Comisario (David Reynoso) is still on the track of the missing women, though, and when Michel joins their number, he closes in for the kill.

When Mexican audiences went monster crazy in the late 1950s, film producers quickly flooded the market with appropriate products. Often, they were thinly-disguised re-workings of familiar properties, notably the Universal classic monster series. But other horror hits were also in their sights, and here, it’s Warner Brothers ‘The Mystery of the Wax Museum’ (1933) and its 3-D remake ‘House of Wax’ (1953) starring Vincent Price. Sadly, the resulting film is nowhere near as remarkable or as entertaining, coming off as a distinctly second-hand grab bag of unfocused ideas thrown quickly together.

What the film does well is keeping the audience guessing about the killer’s identity. Of course, the off-centre Cordero is our primary suspect, what with his strange line of business, expressions of self-loathing and mysterious past. He’s one mixed-up dude, that’s for sure. But, hang on, why is Alemán paying grave robbers for fresh corpses to use in ‘secret work’? And why does he have a head in a jar in his private laboratory? Come to think of it, as a hospital doctor, why does he have a laboratory at all? Old misery Moctezuma also turns out to be an authority on embalming, and he’s carrying out ‘secret experiments’ as well. He might not have a head in a jar, but he does curare in his room. As a deadly poison, that seems to have little to do with his field of research. So many mad doctors, so little time.

All these circumstances do push the suspension of disbelief, but perhaps it’s little surprise that events feel contrived, and the characters and their backstories are barely sketched out. The script is one of 17(!) writing credits attributed to screenplay author Unsáin for 1964, and the years on either side contain another 20 between them! That’s seriously impressive, of course, but the quality is bound to suffer amidst so much quantity. As a result, the denouncement here lacks emotional punch because we’re not really invested. There’s little more to the characters beyond their function to move the story along.

However, there’s still some enjoyment to be had here. The killer’s disguise looks a little like Lon Chaney in ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (1925), and he has an underground workshop in catacombs beneath a cemetery. Access is gained through a crypt and an upright coffin (complete with corpse!) that opens like a door. There’s also an interesting scene where Alemán tries to win back Conde and diffuse her fascination with the melancholic Cordero. It’s very nicely played, especially by Alemán, who comes over as possessive, patronising, needy and narcissistic all at the same time! It’s a little character moment, but it does help undermine the handsome actor’s expected status as the story’s hero and reinforce the audience’s suspicion of him. Whether he turns out to be the killer or not is almost irrelevant, we just don’t want Conde to end up with him! A dream sequence also seems to exist solely to lift a few scratchy frames from Mario Bava’s ‘Hercules In The Haunted World’ (1961).

The film mostly gets by on the brisk direction of veteran Baledón and a cast stuffed with names from the heyday of Mexican horror. Cordero played ruthless scientist Dr Campos in ‘Santo vs the Evil Brain/Santo contra cerebro del mal’ (1958), the first film starring the legendary masked wrestler. He doubled as lead villain and monster in ‘The Hell of Frankenstein/Orlak, el infierno de Frankenstein’ (1960), messed about with Yetis in ‘The Terrible Giant of the Snows/El terrible gigante de las nieves’ (1963), werewolves in ‘La Loba’ (1965), zombies in ‘Dr. Satán’ (1966) and its sequel, a killer robot in ‘Wrestling Women versus the Murderous Robot/Las luchadoras vs el robot asesino’ (1969) and tackled a ghost in ‘The Book of Stone/El libro de piedra’ (1969).

Alemán starred in the 1959 vampire serial ‘The Curse of Nostradamus’, which was compiled into four feature films in the early 1960s. He also joined luchador Neutron in ‘Neutron the Atomic Superman vs the Death Robots/Los autómatas de la muerte’ (1962), repeating his role for ‘Neutron vs the Amazing Dr Caronte/Neutrón contra el Dr Caronte’ (1964). Reynoso enjoyed supporting roles in many horrors and genre vehicles and, most memorably, backed up luchador Blue Demon in ‘Blue Demon Versus the Infernal Brains/Blue Demon contra cerebros infernales’ (1968) and ‘Blue Demon vs The Diabolical Women/Blue Demon contra las diabólicas’ (1968).

Moctezuma had a supporting role in ‘La Llorona’ (1960), and the next version of the same folk legend ‘The Curse of the Crying Woman/La maldición de la Llorona’ (1963). He had his own encounters with luchadors Neutron and Santo in ‘Neutron Battles the Karate Assassins/Los asesinos del karate’ (1965) and ‘Santo vs the Strangler/Santo vs el estrangulador’ (1965) and the direct sequel ‘Santo vs the Ghost of the Strangler/Espectro del estrangulador’ (1966). Further horrors followed with ‘Night of the Bloody Apes/La horripilante bestia humana’ (1969) and ‘The Vampires of Coyoacan/Los vampiros de Coyoacán’ (1974) which starred two other luchadors, Mil Máscaras and Superzan.

A slightly anonymous horror-thriller that mixes familiar genre tropes efficiently enough for some decent entertainment.

The Empire of Dracula/El imperio de Drácula (1967)

‘They are living dead, bloodthirsty beings.’

With her final breath, a sick woman tells her son that his father died while ridding their castle of a nest of vampires many years earlier. He doesn’t believe her story, and takes possession of his ancestral home after her death anyway. However, the undead will not sleep quietly…

Another cinematic riff on the familiar Dracula story from South of the Border, directed on this occasion by Federico Curiel. For once, Bram Stoker’s name appears in the opening credits, but the author would not recognise a great deal in this adaptation beyond the central concept and a couple of nods to his original novel.

Attending the deathbed of his aged mother (Rebeca Iturbide), young engineer Luis Brener (César del Campo) receives an unexpected legacy. Unfortunately, it’s not a family heirloom or a secret map to hidden treasure, but a true life horror story. Iturbide tells him that his long-dead father (Víctor Alcocer) met his end while destroying the vampire, Baron Draculstein (Eric del Castillo). The young sceptic doesn’t credit her tale, of course, and takes wife Patricia (Lucha Villa), her sister Lily (Robin Joyce) and servant Diana (Ethel Carrillo) along for the ride when he reclaims his ancestral home.

However, as predicted by Iturbide, the time of Draculstein’s resurrection is fast approaching. Recently deceased servant Igor (Fernando Osés) is still galivanting around the countryside in a coach and four, running down unsuspecting sightseers. Kidnapping the better half of the couple concerned, he suspends her over del Castillo’s coffin and uses her blood to bring him back to life. After all those centuries dead, he’s a might peckish and sends a driverless coach out to collect del Campo and his party when their own vehicle cracks an axle. After his order of ‘Meals on Wheels’ rolls up at the castle, the Baron selects servant Carrillo off the menu. Meanwhile, the spate of recent deaths in the district has the local Police Inspector (Mario Orea) baffled. At the same time, his friend, Dr Wilson (Guillermo Zetina), believes them to be the handiwork of a ‘Vampire-Man’.

Horror was a highly popular genre in Mexican cinema in the late 1960s and an almost sure winner at the box office. So it is perhaps inevitable that some examples lack quality in the flood of productions that reached theatres at that time. Curiel’s film is little more than a scribble of a movie, trotting out the familiar vampire tropes via a slapdash script from industry newcomer Ramón Obón. There is insufficient establishment of the story’s basic set-up, logical inconsistencies, and several elements that feel unfinished. The most obvious example of the latter revolves around Joyce’s character being mute. The only discussion of her condition is some passing dialogue delivered by del Campo to the effect that a change of scene may encourage her to speak again. No cause for her impairment is ever given, and it has almost no impact on the plot whatsoever.

Aficionados of Hammer Studios will also recognise a couple of obvious lifts from ‘Dracula: Prince of Darkness’ (1966) in the story as described above. The arrival of the driverless carriage and Osés’ method of resurrecting his undead master are the most direct. There is some effort to create new lore, though, with mandrake substituting for garlic and the crucifix as a weapon to fight evil. Helpfully, Alcocer had planted a garden with it before his death, but holding out a fistful of drooping greenery to ward off the undead is somewhat less impressive cinematically than using a holy relic. There’s also the unusual conceit of the vampiric Carrillo passing through a mirror to move between chambers in the castle and a nice callback to Stoker’s original novel in the film’s final scene.

However, where the project really falls down is in the execution. In the flashback sequence at the start of the film, we see Alcocer and del Castillo in the throes of their climactic deathmatch. Despite being bereft of garlic, holy water, crucifix or mandrake, the portly, older man repeatedly fights off the vampire as they grapple around the castle, even pushing him to the ground at one point. Eventually, the dying Alcocer tears down a curtain and bathes the room in sunlight. Rather than attempt to escape, del Castillo cowers in the corner under his cape, waiting to be staked! Later on, after his resurrection, he flees from an altercation on the road. Rather than escape by changing into a bat or vanishing in a puff of smoke, he runs off into the woods in a shot that Curiel holds for far too long. All of this doesn’t really sell him as an overwhelming supernatural threat.

First-billed Villa (playing the hero’s wife, in case you’ve forgotten) is entirely surplus to requirements, with her character fulfilling no role apart from occasional exchanges of inessential dialogue. Del Campo’s hero is wonderfully stupid, simply dismissing every supernatural occurrence with a smile and a shrug of the shoulders before doing a complete 180 after a five-minute chat with Van Helsing stand-in Zetina. Also, puffing smoke in front of a model of a castle does not make it look any less like a model, although it has to be acknowledged that it’s a long way from the worst miniature in film history. But perhaps the biggest talking point of the film is why has ‘Dracula’ become ‘Draculstein’? It’s not down to the English subtitles; the Spanish dialogue is clearly using that name. It would be tempting to put this down to a legal issue of some kind; only the film’s Spanish title uses the original name. Perhaps shooting took place before the necessary permissions had cleared.

The film’s only quality element proves to be an outstanding score by composer Gustavo César Carrión. Opening with some appropriately brutal gothic piano, elsewhere, he favours a minimalistic approach that evokes the atmosphere completely lacking in Curiel’s flat direction. The orchestra bursts into life during the action scenes in an attempt to inject some urgency into the rather flaccid proceedings, and, if not totally successful, it’s a valiant effort. Carrión had an output that rivals legendary workaholic Ennio Morricone, with almost 350 film scores to his name, over 100 in the 1960s alone. Other work included ‘The World of the Vampires/El Mundo de los vampiros’ (1961), The Witch’s Mirror/El espejo de la bruja’ (1962), ‘The Brainiac/El barón del terror’ (1962), ‘Blue Demon Versus the Infernal Brains/Blue Demon contra cerebros infernales’ (1968) and ‘Santo and the Blue Demon vs. the Monsters/Santo el enmascarado de plata y Blue Demon contra los monstruos’ (1970) as well as other more mainstream projects.

Curiel began his career with ‘Neutrón, el enmascarado negro’ (1960), one of the earliest pictures to pit a masked wrestler against the forces of evil. Subsequent projects included more in that series and some projects starring the nation’s favourite warrior of the square ring, El Santo. These included some of his more grounded earlier adventures, such as ‘Santo in the Hotel of Death/Santo en el hotel de la muerte’ (1963) as well as more outlandish escapades like ‘The Vengeance of the Vampire Women/La venganza de las mujeres vampiro’ (1970). Screenwriter Obón also featured in the future of wrestling’s ‘Man in the Silver Mask’ contributing scripts for the rather embarrassing ‘Santo vs. the Killers from Other Worlds/Santo contra Los asesinos de otros mundos’ (1973), the far better ‘Santo vs. the She-Wolves/Santo vs. las lobas’ (1976) and working on late entry ‘The Fist of Death/El puño de la muerte’ (1982). He also wrote several films featuring other well-known luchadors, including Blue Demon, Mil Mascaras and La Sombra Vengadora.

A weak and disappointing effort, enlivened by an excellent musical score but not much else.

La Invasion de los Vampiros/The Invasion of the Vampires (1962)

‘You do not make tribute to the hospitality of Mr Marqués disturbing his habits.’

An alchemist is sent by his master to a remote region to investigate reports of vampires. When he arrives, he finds the populace in thrall to tales of the spirit of the murdered Contessa Frankenhausen, who lures young men from the nearby village down to the lagoon of death…

This is a direct sequel to writer-director Miguel Morayta’s previous film ‘El Vampiros Sangriento/The Bloody Vampire’ (1961). Abel Salazar’s ‘El Vampiro’ (1957) was a recent box office bonanza, and Mexican movie theatres rang with the cries of ghosts, monsters and werewolves, but, most of all, with vampires.

The full moon rises and brings with it not the howl of the werewolf but the ghostly shade of the Contessa Frankenhausen (Erna Martha Bauman) in a see-through nightgown. Young bucks in the local village seem unable to resist following her down to the isolated shoreline where she disrobes, and they end up dead with a telltale love bite. Handsome young occult scientist Dr Ulises Albarrán (Rafael del Río) arrives just in time to see the latest would-be lothario being carried back home by torchlight, a pale, lifeless cadaver.

Our young hero is a disciple of the Count Cagliostro, who has sent him to the region to investigate these strange happenings. He comes with a letter of introduction to local bigwig, the Marqués Gonzalo Guzmán de la Serna (Tito Junco), an old friend of his master. Junco lives in the rambling ‘Villa of the Spirits’ with old retainer Frau Hildegarda (Bertha Moss). Some years before, he married his daughter Eugenia (Erna Martha Bauman) to the mysterious Count Frankenhausen (Carlos Agostí). The newlyweds left for the city as soon as their daughter Brunhilda was born, leaving the child in Junco’s care. Recently they returned, but Agostí vanished, and Bauman’s corpse was found at the lagoon. Since then, she’s haunted the woods nearby, and villagers have been dropping like flies.

Further investigations convince del Río that the family hacienda holds the key to the mystery, especially after he encounters Bauman one night in the library. Junco tries to put him off but eventually comes clean; the supposed apparition was the grown-up Brunhilda (Bauman again, of course). She’s kept under lock and key because he fears she has inherited some unfortunate tendencies from her father. Meanwhile, Moss keeps a comfy coffin available for Agostí in a secret room in the hacienda, where he rests in his animal form as an outsized rubber bat.

Despite the familiar setup, Morayta adds a few welcome wrinkles to vampire lore, although they are mainly carried over from the first film. Victims of the vampire remain in a cataleptic state, only rising after their master is staked. Something may have been lost in translation because this doesn’t fit with Agostí’s talk of conquering the world with his hordes of the undead. This expansion of the vampire’s usual mission statement beyond drinking the blood of village maidens is a tiresome cinematic cliché now, of course. Still, it’s refreshing to see it expounded in such an early example of the genre.

Most pleasingly, del Rio proposes to defeat the vampires using science, or what passes for it anyway. Explaining that staking a vampire isn’t always enough, he clashes with the village priest, Father Victor (Enrique García Álvarez), when he proposes to burn the bodies of all Agostí’s victims. Threatened with ex-communication from the church, the alchemist backs down and decides to inject them with Boric Acid instead. This chemical can be synthesised from black mandrake, a rare variation of the plant root that ‘grows only on Vampire Lands’. No explanation is offered as to why it only grows there, and this is confusing when it stands in for the more traditional garlic later on in the film. Credit to Morayta for his new ideas, but a little clearer definition would have helped.

The film’s other strong aspects include Morayta’s ability to conjure a spooky atmosphere, especially with the fog-wreathed exteriors early on. The scenes where the vampires (with stakes in place!) wander about and surround the hacienda at the climax are also oddly reminiscent of George A Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968). The sound design is excellent, too, with Luis Hernández Bretón expanding on his work in the first film and delivering a score with even more emphasis on discordant music. The music helps to reinforce the separate, other-worldly feel of the drama and the isolated location where it takes place.

There are a few less impressive aspects of the production, however. Agostí’s animal form bears a passing resemblance to Lugosi’s ridiculous creature from ‘The Devil Bat’ (1940) and is about as convincing. Agostí also gets far less screentime. Whether this was due to problems with the actor’s availability or was an effort to heighten suspense is unclear, but he does seem strangely absent from the action at times. Our hero is also saddled with the inevitable ‘comedy sidekick’ in the form of a cowardly villager, Crescencio (Fernando Soto), although his presence is thankfully limited. Curiously, several of the principal cast from the first film do not make an appearance. Villains Agostí and housekeeper Moss are present and correct, Bauman plays her original character’s daughter, and mute servant Lucero is here, but none of the heroic protagonists. Ultimately, this is a good thing as del Rio makes a far more convincing leading man than his equivalent in the first film, and Bauman is a more appealing heroine.

The original film did an excellent job of foreshadowing the events of this sequel, but Morayta assumes a little too much prior knowledge of the story here. An audience unfamiliar with the first chapter could be forgiven for being a little confused by the setup here, particularly regarding Junco’s relationship with granddaughter Bauman. Apparently, he’s been keeping her hidden in the hacienda for her entire life and, in a passing aside, mentions that he’s been feeding her on a diet of blood! This history is never developed further, beyond an inference that Boric Acid can wash away her dodgy inheritance. All I can say is that she seems like a remarkably well-adjusted young woman, given that kind of an upbringing!

Overall, this is a stronger film than the original with more depth to the conflict, even if the ultimate brawl between del Rio and Agostí falls prey to some laughable monster FX. Why Agostí needs to hypnotise Bauman to pose as her mother and act as a honey trap for him is also a puzzle. Is he too lazy or incompetent to hunt down his own victims? Considering that his housekeeper procured servants to become his brides in the first film, perhaps he is that hopeless.

Bauman was a former beauty queen who had a short career on the big screen before switching television in the late 1960s. However, her credits include several notable genre pictures, including René Cardona’s take on the legend of ‘La Llorona’ (1960) and ‘El mundo de los vampiros/The World of the Vampires’ (1961). She’s also assigned an uncredited bit in Cirio H Santiago’s ‘Vampire Hookers’ (1978), but, as that was filmed in the Philippines and she was all but retired by then, it’s quite possibly a misidentification.

Another tale of Vampires South of the Border with enough interest points to engage a receptive audience and stand out from the crowd.

El Vampiros Sangriento/The Bloody Vampire (1961)

‘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.