By Silvia Moreno-Garcia
I shook hands with Dracula’s Mexican equivalent more than ten years ago after a theatre performance of La Dama de Negro. By then, German Robles, most famous for his role as Count Karol de Lavud a.k.a. Duval the Vampire, was no longer the young man in a cape that I had seen in the black and white movies, but he still struck an imposing figure.
German Robles first donned that black cape back in 1957 when he shot El Vampiro under the direction of Fernando Mendez. Originally, the role of the bad guy had been reserved for another actor (the famous Carlos López Moctezuma), but in the end Robles, a little known theatre performer, went on to become the character.
He was so successful that it led to a long film career and a streak of Mexican horror films which included a sequel to El Vampiro entitled El Ataud del Vampiro (1958), as well as El Castillo de los Monstruos (1958), La Maldición de Nostradamus (1960) and El Vampiro Acecha (1962). He also became an iconic character of Mexican cinema. Ask anyone from Mexico if they know who German Robles is. They may not remember his movies, but if you ask them if they recall El Vampiro, they’ll be quick to answer that yes, they do.
El Vampiro tells the story of a young woman who returns to her home in the Sierra Negra, only to discover there is something amiss. One of her aunts has died and the other one looks suspiciously young for her age. Plus, there’s a new, mysterious gentleman in the area, Mr. Duval. He’s a vampire and he’s determined to suck the blood of the heroine. Of course, he’s conveniently stopped before things get too far, then pops up again after a couple of grave robbers disturb his coffin in El Ataud del Vampiro.
El Vampiro and El Ataud del Vampiro are rich in atmosphere, with excellent photography, foggy haciendas and menacing glances under the moonlight. They were both filmed at the dusk of the golden age of Mexican cinema, when a thriving movie industry gave way to exploitative wrestler flicks and the Cine de Ficheras, before eventually languishing and crawling into a grave. In recent years, good movies and good directors have come out of Mexico (Alfonso Cuaron who directed Children of Men and Guillermo del Toro who directed Pan’s Labyrinth), but the industry as a whole is a carcass of what it was back in the 1940s and 1950s. As such, the Robles vampire movies are objects of nostalgia for those of us who grew up watching them on the small screen, little gems that remain from the times before low-budget, sloppily-made horror camp films became the norm.
Compared to modern vampires, Robles’ Count may seem a bit silly. For one, he turns into a little bat and flies through windows (complete with wires). For another, his dress is an antiquated Browning knock-off, the kind of costume that is now employed to parody a vampire instead of scaring people. He also happens to be, unfortunately, surrounded by some bad performers, including Abel Salazar, who looks uncomfortable throughout the original and the sequel.
On the flipside, Count Lavud is pretty damn cool. German Robles’ performance in his vampire films has always reminded me of Christopher Lee. Of course, Robles shot his first vampire flick a year before Lee, so I guess it is most accurate to say that Lee has always reminded me of Robles. Count Lavud had – such a curious thing for the time period – bona fide fangs (look closely and you’ll realize these were an oddity; Lugosi did not sport them) and his own brand of menacing sex appeal. He was also tall, thin, elegant, distinguished, and vaguely unsettling. Not that vampires hadn’t had sex appeal on screen before (Lugosi had it), but Robles, wandering around the Mexican Sierra Negra, seemed to exude it more threateningly than the others had done before him.
After all, the Count was in Mexico, and the combination of Catholic sexual self-repression and bizarre Mexican-gothic sets tended to produce a dreamy effect on the viewer. Which probably explains why my great-grandmother used to tell me the stories of Lavud before going to bed.
My great-grandmother was born during the Mexican Revolution, could barely read or write and had a knack for telling stories. Some of the stories were about her own life, some of them were retellings of movies she had watched. She preferred to retell The Wolfman, but I was much more taken with El Vampiro.
It was some form of verbal fanfic, with my great-grandmother narrating the events of the films, but also embellishing them. Characters grew in stature or disappeared from the narrative at her whim and weird shenanigans were added to the tale (sometimes, the Wolfman made a cameo despite my protests).
After the performance of La Dama de Negro, I obtained German Robles’ autograph and showed it to my great-grandmother. She nodded at me and I was a bit shocked that she didn’t seem more excited about it.
“I met German Robles,” I told her.
She just nodded again. I did not understand until years later why she was not as thrilled as I was: she had already met German Robles dozens of times throughout the years. He had come through the movie screen, to populate her stories and had made himself at home in her mind.
In a way, the vampire was never Robles. It was my great-grandmother; it was me and all the other viewers who watched the black and white films, extracting fear, wonder and surprise from them.
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