An Argentinian Take On Fritz Lang’s ‘M’: ‘The Black Vampire’ Reviewed
by Rachel Bellwoar
Following last year’s release of Román Viñoly Barreto’s The Beast Must Die, Flicker Alley has double downed and released another of Barreto’s Argentine noirs on Blu-ray. Even though the title could easily get the film mistaken for a horror feature, it’s important to clarify that there are no vampires in The Black Vampire. El Vampiro Negro (as it’s known in Spanish) is actually an adaptation of Fritz Lang’s M, but it is confusing. Even in the film the prosecutor who’s running the investigation – Dr. Bernard (Roberto Escalada) – calls the killer a “vampire” multiple times so anyone tuning in without knowing what the film is about would be to right to expect a bloodsucking monster and not a serial killer.
To that end, creeping around in his cape, Nathán Pinzón (who play Professor Teodoro Ulber) does cut a Nosferatu-like figure, and that’s not a spoiler. While the killer’s identity might be unknown to the public, viewers are let in on Ulber’s secret from the start. After listening to the commentary, though (which is provided for this release by film archivist and cinema historian, Fernando Martín Peña), the title makes a lot more sense, because in Argentina, Lang’s M had gone by a different title, so for Spanish-speaking audiences the correlation would’ve been there. Also, one of the real-life inspirations for M was the serial killer known as the Vampire of Düsseldorf.
Whether The Black Vampire is the best title for the film, however, is another matter because it is kind of contrary to the message of both Lang’s M and Barreto’s re-interpretation. By calling Ulber a vampire there’s an implication that he isn’t human or not of this world, but that’s not true. As horrifying as it is to believe that a human could be capable of killing children (as Ulber does), it is possible and, having recently revisited Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, they’re on the same wavelength. Mamoulian wanted Hyde to resemble a Neanderthal because Neanderthals are the direct ancestor of humans. There’s no imaginary monster to blame. Humans are the monsters.
The Black Vampire doesn’t completely stray from Lang’s M. Just as Peter Lorre (as the killer in M) whistled “Hall of the Mountain King,” Ulber does, too, and the comparison doesn’t always do Pinzón any favors (trying to top Lorre’s speech when his killer is cornered is a lost cause). The Black Vampire does introduce some new, female characters that didn’t exist in the original, like Amalia (Olga Zubarry), a nightclub singer who ends up witnessing Ulber dispose of one of the bodies and is worried about going to the police.
All of the best scenes in the movie involve Zubarry, from the power dynamics of turning down an authority figure’s advances (the best part is there’s none of that Hollywood business of having a kiss start out as forced but then become “romantic”) to her meeting Dr. Bernard’s wife (Gloria Castilla). While the film does portray Senora Bernard’s paralyzed existence as miserable and lonely (every time she takes her sleeping medicine she has to repeat the dosage, which made me fear she would be poisoned at some point), her willingness not to prejudge Amalia or think the worst of her shows a lot of character and her scenes stand out as well.
Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray comes with an introduction by noirchaeologist, Eddie Mueller, who rightfully takes time to recognize the organizations and people responsible for the restoration and introduces some of the other bonus features. It’s not long but reflects the thoughtfulness that went into curating this package.
In his first commentary, Peña identifies some of the filming locations and notes how keeping the setting vague helped protect Barreto from getting in trouble with the Argentinian police. It was Peña who introduced Mueller to The Black Vampire but if there’s a downside to his commentary it’s that the pauses get longer towards the end.
“Art in the Blood” is an interview with Barreto’s son (and visual artist), Daniel Viñoly, who explains the meaning behind The Black Vampire opening and ending on Professor Ulber climbing some steps. He also offers some background on the Argentine film industry, his father’s admiration for German expressionism, his father’s use of real people who lived in the sewers for extras, and how his father used The Black Vampire to speak out against the death penalty (which, according to Peña’s commentary, didn’t exist in Argentina at the time of the film’s release).
“The 3 Faces of M” was produced by Steven C. Smith and writer/film historian, Alan K. Rode, and has various experts (including Fritz Lang biographer, Patrick McGilligan, and film critic, Beth Accomando) talk about the three Ms: Lang’s original, German film, Joseph Losey‘s American remake, and The Black Vampire. Each is given equal attention. While Lorre was treated horribly by Lang, Losey hired a lot of creatives that would soon be blacklisted, as the film was made amidst McCarthyism.
There’s also a booklet with an essay by Imogen Sara Smith (who’s one of the talking heads in “The 3 Face of M“), who considers how mothers were depicted in Lang’s M versus Barreto’s version, and how in getting to know Amalia and her daughter (Barreto’s actual daughter, Gogó), Barreto’s The Black Vampire can feel more personal.
At one point in “The 3 Faces of M,” Mueller talks about the artistic versus entertainment value of M and none of the Ms are especially enjoyable but all of the changes Barreto made to the material are positive.
The Black Vampire is available now on Blu-ray and DVD Dual-Format edition from Flicker Alley.