The World of the Vampires directed by Alfonso Corona Blake
1961 was still another interesting year for the Mexican horror film, as that country’s so-called Golden Age of Horror continued apace. The year saw the release of the intriguingly titled offering The Curse of Nostradamus, as well as the third, fourth and fifth films in the Santo series – Santo vs. the Zombies, Santo vs. the King of Crime and Santo in the Hotel of Death – a series that would go on till 1976 and comprise over 50 films (!) detailing the adventures of the luchador wrestler turned cinematic crime-fighting superhero. And then there was The World of the Vampires, released, of course, under the Spanish appellation El Mundo de los Vampiros, a more traditional sort of horror outing. I had never seen any of those titles before, and so it was with great anticipation that I recently sat down to watch that last-named film, after having discovered a nice-looking print of it, in the original Spanish and with very adequate subtitling. And to my great surprise, the film has revealed itself to be very tastefully and – dare I even say it? – even artfully put together; a horror treat that might leave viewers today, more than 60 years later, very well satisfied.
In the film, we are introduced to the centuries-old (?) vampire Count Sergio Subotai, who, as portrayed by Argentinian actor Guillermo Murray, 34 years old here, just might be the handsomest neck nosher ever depicted. In the film’s stunning first 10 minutes, performed largely sans dialogue, we see the Count emerge from his coffin and play a mournful dirge on his pipe organ, that organ situated in a dismal and misty-looking underground crypt. A man and a woman are later taken from their automobile by Subotai and his retainers, a gaggle of ghoul-faced fellow vampires, and brought to his lair, where they are bitten on the neck and thus transformed. To this unfortunate couple, Subotai explains his background and agenda: His human self had been killed some hundred years earlier (confusingly, he later says that it was 300 years earlier) by the Magus of Transylvania, a man named Elias Colman, and for the last century, as a vampire, he has been spending his time killing off all the remaining descendants of that hated man. Now, in modern-day Mexico, only three members of the Colman family remain: two sisters, the morose but belleza Leonor (Mexican actress Silvia Fournier) and the lively tamal caliente Mirta (Mexican actress Erna Martha Bauman), and their uncle (portrayed by Spanish actor Jose Baviera). These three must be exterminated by the full moon or Subotai will have to wait another 100 years to take his vengeance (OK, I didn’t quite understand that part) and to give his lord and master, Astaroth, the signal to start the conquest of mankind. Uh, whatever. Subotai wastes little time in prosecuting his campaign. His underground lair and decrepit mansion, as we soon learn, are right in the vicinity of the Colman residence, where we see Uncle Colman giving a dinner party in honor of the pianist/composer Rodolfo Sabre (Mexican comedian/actor Mauricio Garces). When we first encounter the mustachioed pianist, he is entertaining his fellow guests with a composition he has devised that, with its unique combination of scientifically devised tonal qualities, is able to lure out vampires and drive them to madness. And that composition does indeed seem to be quite effective, as the discomfiture evident on guest Subotai’s face demonstrates! Later that evening, Subotai offers the depressed and borderline suicidal Leonor an offer of immortality as one of the living dead, an offer that she somehow jumps at. Thus, with one of the Colman clan under his spell, Subotai’s mission is already partway to its completion. And with the subsequent kidnapping of Mirta and Uncle Colman, can the fulfillment of his quest be far behind?
As I mentioned up top, The World of the Vampires might just surprise the casual viewer with how very artfully it has been put together by its team of pros both in front of and behind the cameras. Director Alfonso Corona Blake, who would go on to helm Santo vs the Vampire Women the following year, here injects an otherworldly and dreamlike atmosphere to his picture, and he is nicely abetted by American cinematographer Jack Draper, whose B&W lensing is often a thing of surreal wonder. The film’s script, by Alfredo Salazar, is, despite its aforementioned head-scratching moments, a good one, and composer Gustavo Cesar Carrion has supplied some often-freakish background music to complement the proceedings. The actors play their parts absolutely straight, and in all, the film is a startlingly well-crafted one, thanks largely to producer Abel Salazar, who had been so wonderful in front of the cameras in the wonderful Mexican horrors The Brainiac (1962, and one of the trippiest Mexican horrors that I have ever seen) and The Curse of the Crying Woman (1963, and still my personal favorite film in the Mexican horror pantheon). And adding immeasurable strength to the proceedings are the two leading performances by Guillermo Murray as Subotai and Mauricio Garces as our vampire-fighting hero Rodolfo. Murray is particularly impressive, intoning his lines at times with almost Shakespearian intensity, and it must be remarked that he looks quite impressive in his vampire getup, with flowing cape and a neck collar that reaches almost to the top of his head. As for Garces, an actor of Lebanese descent who was born in Mexico, he is very likeable and appealing as the film’s hero; it is a shame that his career did not include more horror items such as this one. I see that Garces also had a small role in The Brainiac, but I would be lying if I said that I recalled his part in it.
And The World of the Vampires has any number of bizarre and interesting touches that will probably take the viewer unawares. Among these unique touches: Subotai’s pipe organ, which seems to have been constructed of bones and skulls, and which winds up playing a pivotal role in the film; the ghoullike faces that all the other male vampires sport (the female vampires, on the other hand, are all stunning beauties, every one of them!); the fact that these vampires worship Astaroth, the Phoenician fertility goddess, of all things; the eerie electronic background noises that throb and hum throughout the film’s quiet moments; the ubiquitous swirling mists that are present outdoors and in Subotai’s underground lair; the fact that the vampires seem to be able to “teleport” themselves through walls; the deep pit, studded with enormous spikes, in Subotai’s lair, which he uses to execute his enemies; Rodolfo, having been bitten by a vampire and in the process of transformation himself, being able to hear the steps of a tarantula as it crawls along a cave wall; and the fact that most of the vampires’ coffins stand upright, instead of laying horizontal as usual. Oh…and then there’s my favorite touch of the film. It occurs when Leonor, in her bat form, hides from her sister and from Rodolfo by hovering in the corner of her bedroom. For a brief moment, we see her bat body with Leonor’s face in lieu of the bat’s, and it is a startling and bizarre spectacle, to put it mildly; I have never seen anything quite like it in another vampire film. And The World of the Vampires also dishes out several wonderful scenes for the viewer, besides that wonderful opening sequence. I love Rodolfo’s protracted and violent dukeout with Subotai’s mute and hunchbacked servant (played by Alfredo W. Barron), as well as the film’s denouement, which is a nicely satisfying one, telegraphed as it might be.
Now, having said all that, I don’t wish to give the idea that The World of the Vampires is some kind of lost horror masterpiece, or a top-grade cinematic gem waiting to be discovered. The film was undoubtedly made on a limited budget, and its special effects, such as they are, will surely prove a disappointment to a modern generation of viewers who have become practically inured to Avatar-style, computer-generated wonders. Still, as I say, the film manages to impress despite its sparing use of pesos, and that is solely due to the creativity and resourcefulness of the filmmakers. Truly, all the money in the world cannot take the place of ingenuity and craft, and The World of the Vampires evinces enough in the way of creepy miasma to take the place of any amount of ILM magic. There was something about these B&W horror films of Mexico’s Golden Age that is very hard to define in words; an aura, an otherworldly feeling of unease, a strangeness, that no amount of money can quite achieve. The World of the Vampires achieves that creepy atmosphere in spades, and may just prove to be a genuine find for all horror buffs who are looking for something different…