Column: The Vault of Secrets: The Vampire’s Coffin (1958)

By Orrin Grey

The Vampire’s Coffin (1958). Directed by: Fernando Mendez. Starring: Abel Salazar, Ariadna Welter, German Robles.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. A great many Mexican horror films of the fifties all feel sort of like they were made by someone who was trying to recreate the Universal monster movies from memory, which is probably kind of what they were. As such, they have an energy and a level of weirdness that their Hollywood counterparts often couldn’t touch, though their actual quality varies pretty dramatically.

The Vampire’s Coffin (El ataúd del Vampiro)- sequel to a film I’ve never actually seen, simply called The Vampire, comes closer than many of the others to simply reproducing a Universal film. Which is a blessing in some cases, but a curse in more. While The Vampire’s Coffin is made solidly-enough and boasts some pretty great touches, it can never quite reach the gonzo heights scaled by some of its contemporaries, such as The Brainiac or The Witch’s Mirror, with whom it shares a producer (and, in the case of The Brainiac, a star) in the form of Abel Salazar. While he played the bloodthirsty baron who transformed into the titular monster in The Brainiac – in Mexico, its title was El Baron del Terror – in The Vampire’s Coffin, he essays the role of the bumbling male lead, where he is sort of great in a completely awkward way.

The plot of The Vampire’s Coffin may be essentially just a long sequence of the titular vampire – played by German Robles, who does a good job, and is kind of the Mexican Dracula, though think more the John Carradine one than Bela Lugosi – attempting to hypnotize and kidnap the female lead, but surrounding that rather tired bit of storytelling, there’s lots of other neat stuff going on. There’s a very good chase sequence, that uses the vampire’s shadow to great effect, and some nice shots during a nearly-climactic theatre sequence that make good use of height and angle. Even the shots of the vampire transforming into a rubber bat are handled pretty well, even if they’re accomplished by having Robles sort of jump toward the camera and then cutting.

To the surprise of no one, my second-favorite part of the movie is the wax museum where the vampire makes his lair, complete with a basement full of spare mannequin arms. (Also, in the film’s closing moments, the wax museum appears to be literally right next door to the theater and across the street from the diner where the vampire pursues a girl. Small town, I guess?)

My favorite part of the movie is a somewhat-throwaway bit near the beginning, where they’re explaining why vampires don’t show up in mirrors. It seems that light rays pass right through their skin, which in this case means that the vampire does show up in a mirror but only his skeleton. So, we’re treated to a couple of shots of guys holding mirrors up to his face and seeing a skull reflected back. Unfortunately, in later scenes, it seems that this is no longer the case, as the vampire doesn’t appear in mirrors at all. I demand a full-on skeleton in a cape and dinner jacket in every mirror in the movie! And then, once I’ve got that, I would like a lot more movies where vampires reflect as skeletons, please?

That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time when we meet the Monster That Challenged the World!