Mendez, Baledon, Urueta: The Golden Age of Mexican Horror Cinema

This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Paul A J Lewis of

Open on a colonial hacienda, fog swirling around the foliage in the central quad. In the middle stands a tall, thin man with grey hair and a long, black cape. Cut to: a tight close-up of his intense eyes, the bottom half of his face shrouded in shadow. Cut to: an interior. Inside the hacienda’s adobe walls, a woman is shown in long shot; she wears a traditional Mexican dress. Her behaviour is erratic. Something calls to her, psychically. Outside, in the quad, via a Méliès-style jump cut the mysterious man transforms into a giant bat and flies towards the window of the room in which the woman waits…

This clash of signifiers opens Fernando Méndez’s 1957 film El vampiro (The Vampire), a black and white Gothic horror picture which saw its domestic release almost concurrently with British studio Hammer’s gory, colourful The Curse of Frankenstein (Terence Fisher, 1957) and about six months before Hammer’s equally vivid Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1958), a film which is often credited as reviving and, at least partially, reinventing the then-(un)dead vampire film. To be fair, 1957 was a good year for the horror picture, which featured something of a renaissance in a number of territories. Though less frequently discussed than Hammer’s horror pictures of the period, especially Terence Fisher’s Dracula, Méndez’s El vampiro is just as significant: it is often cited as the first vampire film to feature a bloodsucker with extended canine teeth, something which would become an even more prominent part of the iconography of Hammer’s Dracula films and subsequent iterations of the cinematic vampire. (In previous vampire pictures, such as Tod Browning’s towering Dracula, 1931, the vampires’ teeth were generally concealed.) Equally significantly, rather than featuring a period setting, El vampiro and its sequel El ataúd del Vampiro (The Vampire’s Coffin), shot concurrently and released the same year, bring the vampire into the present day. This is partially disguised by the ‘backwoods’ rural setting of El vampiro, but the sequel foregrounds its contemporary setting by bringing the vampire, Count Lavud (played with sleazy gusto by Germán Robles), into an urban locale – with many of the film’s early sequences taking place in a modern hospital. Both pictures anticipated the trend within early 1970s US vampire films – such as Bob Kelljan’s Count Yorga, Vampire (1971), William Crain’s Blacula (1972), John Llewellyn Moxey’s The Night Stalker (also 1972) and, not to mention, the memorable 1976 episode of ‘Starsky & Hutch’ titled ‘The Vampire’ – to bring the Gothic figure of the vampire into a contemporary setting. (Hammer, of course, attempted this too, with Alan Gibson’s Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula, 1973.)

El vampiro (1957)

El vampiro was produced by charismatic actor-producer Abel Salazar, who also appears in the film, and its sequel, as Dr Enrique Saldívar. As a producer, via his company Cinematográfica ABSA (which he founded in 1955), Salazar was the mover and shaker behind a slack handful of highly significant Mexican horror movies made in the late 1950s and early 1960s, by directors such as Méndez, Rafael Baledón and Chano Urueta. (Salazar also acted in many of these films, sometimes in the leading role and sometimes as a supporting actor.) The son of celebrated orator and politician Jesùs Urueta, and the brother of the artist Cordelia Urueta, Chano Urueta was an incredibly prolific filmmaker who made over a hundred pictures during his career as a director (spanning 1928 to 1974). A writer and director (and sometimes actor), Urueta was a key figure in the development of popular Mexican horror cinema, specifically, during the 1950s. (Most cinephiles know about Sam Peckinpah’s casting of fabled Mexican filmmaker Emilio Fernandez in The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia; less are probably aware that Urueta also acted in both of those Peckinpah pictures, as Don Jose and bartender Manchot, respectively.) Urueta may perhaps be regarded as the Mexican equivalent of British film director Terence Fisher, or perhaps Spain’s equally prolific Jess Franco. Like Fisher, whose more diverse work prior to The Curse of Frankenstein (1958) and Dracula (1958) is for many overshadowed by his late-career association with Hammer’s Gothics, Urueta was a filmmaking veteran who had dabbled in many genres but who from the mid-1950s came to be associated with horror films. In fact, Urueta is often credited with kickstarting Mexico’s production of horror and science-fiction movies with the popularity of his 1953 film El monstruo resuscitado (The Monstrous Doctor Crimen), a loose reworking of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” that was also produced by Abel Salazar (pre-Cinematográfica ABSA). The same year, Urueta also created the equally popular genre (in Mexico, at least) of wrestling movies, with La bestia magnifica (Lucha Libre) (The Magnificent Beast). The Mexican horror film and wrestling picture would, in the 1960s and 1970s, often overlap, notably in a number of the 52 El Santo pictures beginning with Santo contra el cerebro del mal (Santo vs. the Evil Brain, 1958), and including the likes of Santo contra los zombies (Santo vs. the Zombies, 1962) and Santo en el museo de cera (Santo in the Wax Museum, 1963).

However, the Mexican horror picture didn’t gather full steam until 1957. In the same year that Britain’s Hammer Studios began to reinvent the horror film via a series of gory, gaudy colour productions beginning with Terence Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein, Mexican filmmakers delivered a glut of black and white horror pictures. These included the Aztec Mummy trilogy (Guillermo Calderon’s La momia azteca/The Aztec Mummy, and Rafael Portillo’s La maldición de la momia azteca/The Curse of the Aztec Mummy and La momia azteca contra el robot humano/The Aztec Mummy Against the Humanoid Robot), and Fernando Méndez’s El vampiro (The Vampire) and its sequel El ataúd del Vampiro (The Vampire’s Coffin).

For his part, Urueta directed a significant number of the most memorable Mexican horror films of the 1950s and 1960s. Particularly notable amongst his filmography during this era are El espejo de la bruja (The Witch’s Mirror, 1962), El baròn del terror (Brainiac, 1962) and La cabeza viviente (The Living Head, 1963). All photographed in stark monochrome, some of these films have an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ approach to narrative. Opening with a montage of woodcuts depicting the activities of witches (accompanied by a male voiceover which outlines the various ‘crimes’ of witches – ‘They swear in the name of Satan, […] they feed on carrion and hanged men’s corpses, they kill with poisons and spells’), El espejo de la bruja begins in a huge castle-like structure where Elena (Dina de Marco) conspires with her godmother Sara (Isabela Corona), a sorceress who uses a huge mirror to foretell the future. Sara warns Elena that Elena’s husband, Eduardo (Armando Calvo), means to murder her so that he may marry his mistress Deborah (Rosita Arenas). When Eduardo carries out his plan, with the aid of Sara’s satanic spells, Elena enacts supernatural revenge upon Deborah, leaving her successor badly burnt and disfigured. Eduardo, a scientist, keeps Deborah’s face and hands bandaged, and embarks on a mission to return her to her former beauty. To do this, he steals the corpses of young women, plotting to graft a new face onto his love and transplant onto her wrists a new pair of hands. Soon, Eduardo progresses to murder, abducting a young woman who is in a cataleptic coma with the intention of stealing her face and hands. ‘From the wastes of death I am contriving life’, he rants. What begins as a story of Elena’s relationship with her sinister godmother Sara, becomes with the arrival of the naïve Deborah a story that draws on the myth of Bluebeard (or perhaps, Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca) before evolving into a tale of supernatural revenge that seems to allude to Italian filmmaker Mario Bava’s iconic Gothic horror film La maschera del demonio (Mask of Satan/Black Sunday, 1960). In its final third, the film segues into a mad scientist story which parallels Georges Franju’s Les yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1960).

El espejo de la bruja (1962)

El baròn del terror is equally off-the-wall. The film begins in 1661 with the trial and execution, by members of the Mexican Inquisition, of heretic Baron Vitelius Destera (producer Abel Salazar), a necromancer and philanderer – despite protestations from a character witness, Marcos Miranda (Rubén Rojo), that Vitelius is both a scientist and a philanthropist, in regards his charitable works with the indigenous Indio population. As Destera is burnt at the stake, a comet passes Earth, and Destera vows to return in 300 years, when the comet is next due to pass through the Earth’s orbit, in order to take revenge on the descendants of his persecutors. In 1961, astronomy students Reinaldo Miranda, a descendant of Marcos Miranda (also played by Rubén Rojo), and Victoria (Rosa Maria Gallardo) eagerly await this comet, which crashes to Earth. From the comet emerges a hideous monster, with claw-like hands, a groteseque head that pulsates and a long serpent’s tongue. This creature transforms in the blink of an eye into Destera, who has returned to wage his campaign of terror against the descendants of the members of the Inquisition that sentenced him.

What’s interesting about El baròn del terror is that, like some of its contemporaries, it examines Mexico’s colonial past as the source of the present-day horrors that form the main focus of the narrative. In the film’s opening sequence, Destera is depicted somewhat sympathetically – judged by members of the Mexican Inquisition, who seem more outraged by Destera’s dalliances with their wives than with his necromancy, Destera’s ‘heresy’ also seems to spring form his association with the Indio population. Perhaps his necromancy is an outgrowth of his association with the Indio community. Certainly, upon his return to Earth in 1961, Destera has powers of hypnosis and is able to turn these against his victims, causing them to freeze in their tracks. (This power of hypnosis is communicated, quite simply, via close-ups of Abel Salazar’s face as a light is flashed onto it.) Destera throws a party and invites his victims to it, then attacks them in couples – freezing the male of each pair with his hypnotic powers before transforming into his hideous alternate form, using his serpent’s tongue to pierce the necks of their wives/lovers and suck their brains out. Later in the film, it is revealed Destera has been keeping a stock of brains locked in a cabinet, and he tucks into these with a spoon. (There is also a darkly comical scene which features two bumbling detectives – who nevertheless by the end of the picture manage to procure flamethrowers with which they confront Destera – ordering brain tacos.) Destera’s revenge, it seems, is as focused on the sexual humiliation of the male descendants of his persecutors through the ‘seduction’ of their wives and lovers whilst they are ‘frozen’ to the spot. The film is filled with bizarre, sometimes gruesome imagery rendered via some quite beautiful black and white photography.

La maldición de la llorona (1961)

Rafael Baledón’s La maldición de la llorona (The Curse of the Crying Woman, 1961) also explores Mexico’s colonial past as the source of horror in the present. Baledón’s film marries local folklore (la llorona, the ‘wailing/crying woman’) with elements of the more universal vampire myth. The narrative centres on a rundown colonial hacienda belonging to widow Selma Jamarillo (Rita Macedo). The locals claim the area around the hacienda is haunted by la llorona, the ghost of a woman who, her child having drowned in quicksand, wanders the woodland wailing in despair. A series of corpses are found, having been exsanguinated, and Selma’s niece Amelia (Rosita Arenas) arrives at the hacienda with her new husband Jaime (Abel Salazar, again). Selma is, of course, behind the murders: at night she transforms into la llorona, her eyeballs disappearing and being replaced with sightless sockets (quite an effective makeup effect), and her path cleared for her by a group of raging hounds. In the cobweb-shrouded cellar of the hacienda is a petrified corpse that is pinned to a cartwheel by a spear which pierces its chest. This is Selma’s ancestor, Madame Marina – a cruel, power-hungry woman who, Selma tells Amelia, ‘Back in colonial times […] shocked people with her terrible power’. Selma strives to resurrect Madame Marina in order to acquire her psychic energy; it’s a plot which requires Amelia removing the spear from the corpse’s chest as the clock strikes midnight on Amelia’s 25th birthday. With the petrified corpse of Madame Marina as a symbol of colonial cruelty kept in the dank cellar of Selma’s crumbling colonial hacienda, La maldición de la llorona engages in a dialogue with Mexico’s colonial past, and the suppression of indigenous peoples by the colonising Spanish Empire. Glorifying the cruelty of the colonial past, Selma’s ‘project’ is driven by a selfish desire to channel this power in the present: ‘In our world, nothing begins and nothing ends’, she tells Amelia, and the film builds to a Grand Guignol conclusion in the aforementioned cellar – with Selma’s husband, having developed into an inhuman monster after years in secret captivity, escaping from his chains and tearing through the hacienda in a fit of rage.

Fernando Méndez’s El vampiro and El ataúd del Vampiro absorb and rework some of the iconography of transnational vampire cinema (chiefly, in terms of the appearance of the vampire – aristocratic dress, black cloak) and explicitly code the vampire as a cultural outsider: Count Karol de Lavud is from Eastern Europe. At the start of the film, young Marta Gonzalez (Ariadne Welter) arrives in the village to visit her uncle, Don Emilio (José Luis Jiménez), who lives in the hacienda, named ‘The Sicomoros’. On the same train are crates packed with soil, shipped from Hungary, for Lavud, who claims to need this soil to support the growth of his rosebushes. Such eccentricities, owing to Lavud’s status as a cultural outsider, are tolerated by the locals. ‘What’s wrong with our soil?’, a character asks. ‘Whims of the rich’, the stationmaster jokes. Also on the train is Dr Enrique Saldívar (Abel Salazar), whom Emilio has invited to The Sicomoros to investigate some of the strange occurrences – which Marta’s aunt María Teresa (Alicia Montoya), Emilio’s sister-in-law, believes to be the work of a vampire. Her claims are dismissed as lunacy, but María Teresa is obsessive in her attempts to protect the household from the bloodsucker. Meanwhile, Lavud’s vampirism is depicted quite explicitly as colonial: at one point, Lavud asserts that he is ‘in this country [Mexico]’ to assert ‘the power and dominance of the House of Lavud’.

The ‘backwoods’ rural setting might lead the viewer to think that the film is historical, set in the recent past; but the sequel, El ataúd del Vampiro, is set immediately afterwards and foregrounds the present-day setting by bringing the vampire into an urban locale. Graverobbers break into the tomb of Lavud, in the crypt presided over by Don Emilio’s family, and bring his coffin to a modern hospital. There, one of the graverobbers is revealed to be Dr Mendoza (Guillermo Orea); the other is a ne’er-do-well, Barraza (Yeire Beirute). Dr Mendoza plans to use the corpse of this alleged vampire in order to conduct his experiments in cellular growth and regeneration, exploring the bases in science of various myths associated with vampires. However, Barraza is taken by Lavud’s bejewelled medallion and in his attempt to steal this from the corpse, he inadvertently pulls the stake from Lavud’s heart – resulting in Lavud’s resurrection. Motivated by a desire to take revenge on Marta and Saldívar, who are now lovers, Lavud stalks the hospital; his first victim is a child in an adjacent room. (Given the sanctity of children in most modern English-language horror films, the scene in which Lavud feeds on the child’s blood feels shockingly taboo, even though it is filmed in a very restrained manner.) For his part, Mendoza attempts to justify, to his colleague Dr Saldívar (Salazar), his part in stealing Lavud’s coffin by citing the work of Sixteenth Century French barber surgeon Ambrosio Paré, who wrote about the trafficking of Egyptian corpses for use in various experiments and remedies. (This was at a time when some members of the European hoi polloi believed that parts of the embalmed corpses, often sourced via the robbing of tombs in Egypt, could be ground up and used in remedies for various illnesses.)

El ataúd del Vampiro (1958)

The hospital setting of the early sequences of the film, with the vampire stalking the corridors of the modern hospital via some wonderfully atmospheric low-key black and white photography, brings to mind later ‘hospital horrors’ such as Halloween II (Rick Rosenthal, 1981), Hospital Massacre (Boaz Davidson, 1981) and Visiting Hours (Jean-Claude Lord, 1982). However, the setting soon expands, and the vampire hits the urban streets. In one sequence, Lavud waits outside a late night café where he sees a young woman. She is flattered by his attention and glances at him coyly. Then she leaves the café, walking through the streets and down an alleyway. Lavud follows her. With a strong single-source backlight on him as he walks away from the camera, Lavud’s shadow falls across a wall in front of him, and he appears to be a giant. (Those who recall the ‘shadow in the city’ final shots of Michael Winner’s 1981 picture Death Wish II will be familiar with this effect, used by Winner to suggest the prowling presence of Charles Bronson’s vigilante in the city streets.) It’s a marvellously staged sequence, exquisitely lit and photographed, with the use of light and shade to suggest threat and the presence of evil.

The final confrontation between Lavud, Saldívar and Marta takes place in a wax museum that is owned by a former cellmate of Barraza’s; falling under Lavud’s spell, Barraza has taken Lavud here to hide. Along the way, we also have a wonderful sequence set in a theatre, in which the vampire hides in the rafters and feeds on one of the actresses. As with many of the aforementioned modern day vampire films made in the US (and UK) during the early 1970s, the contemporary urban setting of El ataúd del Vampiro means that Saldívar and Marta seem so much more alone: figures of authority react with disbelief when Saldívar attempts to warn them of the presence of Lavud, with the result that Saldívar often seems to be little more than a bumbling fool. The first of these conversations takes place between Saldívar and the manager of the hospital; it’s a blackly comic scene in which Saldívar attempts to press upon the hospital manager the urgency of tracking down Lavud, who has been resurrected by Barraza and is on the loose. (In fact, in the interplay between the babbling Saldívar and his superior, one might wonder whether Stuart Gordon had this scene in mind when shooting the dialogues between Jeffrey Comb’s Herbert West and Bruce Abbott’s Dan Cain, and David Gale’s Dr Carl Hill in Re-Animator, 1985.) Later, Saldívar attempts to explain the same to the chief of police. These scenes are blackly comic, as Saldívar’s man of science is greeted with incredulity by the figures of authority who could help capture Lavud: the police chief, in particular, mocks Saldívar by pretending to put out an all points bulletin, ‘Tell your men to watch out for vampires and put them in jail immediately’. However, the very fact that Saldívar is met with such incredulity also serves to isolate Saldívar and Marta: they must combat the vampire alone, without the modern day resources that could assist in putting a swift(er) end to its killing spree.

By locating the figure of the (European) vampire in a Mexican setting, these films express an anxiety about outsiders, immigrants and colonisers. There is an obvious clash of visual signifiers – the Bram Stoker-esque vampire and the Mexican landscape and architecture. However, what is often ignored is the extent to which European vampire folklore owes a significant debt to stories of the vampire bat which travelled from the Americas to Europe during the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. Prior to this, vampires had in European folklore been simple revenants – shambling corpses somewhat similar to the post-Romero zombie. European colonisers and travellers in the Americas sighted and reported the presence of vampire bats (and there is a particularly vivid reportage of an incident of a vampire bat biting a horse in Charles Darwin’s “Voyage of the Beagle” in 1839), and such creatures over time became a key part of the vocabulary of European vampire folklore. Bram Stoker, of course, appropriated stories of this exotic creature and amalgamated it with European vampire myths in “Dracula”. Thus, films such as Mendez’s vampire pictures may be seen as a recuperation of elements of the vampire myth that were actually native to the Americas.

There must have been something in the zeitgeist in mid-1950s Mexico that facilitated interest in the fantastic, as 1955 was the year of publication of Mexican author Juan Rulfo’s iconic Gothic novella “Pedro Páramo”. The protagonist of Rulfo’s book, Juan Preciado, makes a vow to his dying mother that he will journey to the rural town of Comala to meet his father, Pedro Páramo; upon his arrival there, Preciado encounters a series of ghosts. Rulfo’s book is often cited, via its influence on Gabriel García Márquez specifically, as a progenitor of magical realism. Certainly, elements of some of the more memorable Mexican horror pictures of the 1950s and 1960s could be said to parallel magical realism’s juxtaposition of the mundane and the extraordinary. One might think of the Brainiac’s arrival on Earth via a passing comet and puff of smoke, the manner in which the vengeful Baron, played by Salazar and dressed in formal attire, instantaneously transforms via Méliès-style jump cuts into the grotesque Brainiac – with pulsing head, long serpent’s tongue (via which he sucks out the brains of his victims), and claw-like hands.

Certainly Mexican horror films of this ‘golden age’ bear some similarities with the Gothic horror pictures of European filmmakers such as Mario Bava, Riccardo Freda, Antonio Margheriti and Jess Franco, and offer an interesting counterpoint to the colourful horror films being made by Hammer Studios during the same era. Like the Hammer films, the Mexican horror pictures of the late 1950s and early 1960s often drew on the iconography of the Universal horror pictures of the 1930s and attempted to expand upon this, and localise it, by injecting into these narratives elements of local myth (for example, la llorona) – in doing so, highlighting how transnational these mythologies are. Arguably, what is particularly interesting about these films is the manner in which these films engage with the past and explore the consequences of its violence in the present.

Recommended for you: Holy Water and Unholy Ghosts – The Resurrection of Hammer

Written by Paul A J Lewis

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