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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Tribute To A Vampire: German Robles, Mexico's Master of Horror

On Saturday, November 21st, 2015, the world of cinema lost a great talent. Famous for his roles in Mexican horror films, actor German Robles has died at 86 years of age. Born on March 20th, 1929 as German Horacio Robles in Gijon, Spain, the internationally famous actor of stage and screen featured in over 90 motion pictures, some 600 TV programs and 30 telenovelas (self-contained soap operas that last a year or less). Among his other credits was lending his distinguished voice to many live-action and animated foreign features imported to Mexico; one of the most famous being the dubbed voice of KITT on the hit series KNIGHT RIDER (1982-1986) and films including THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) and THE GODFATHER (1972). 

In his early years, his family emigrated to Mexico when the young Robles was 17 years old. After graduating college and a stint as a professional dancer in 1948, he would become involved in theater productions in his early 20s, debuting on the stage in 1952 with 'The Martyr of the Cavalry' where he played Jesus Christ. Robles eventually found his way into movies, making his Silver Screen debut in 1957 with the classic EL VAMPIRO. 

Robles was also an award winning actor throughout his long career on stage and screen, including a Best Actor award for LA VIDA DE AGUSTIN LARA in 1958. Some of his other famous non-genre work include the adventure EL JARDIN DE LA TIA ISABEL (1971; THE GARDEN OF AUNT ISABEL) and the comedy LA PALOMA DE MARSELLA (1999; DOVE OF MARSELLA).

He acted as Arthur Kipp in the stage production of the horror play, LA DAMA DE NEGRO (THE LADY IN BLACK) for thirteen years (from 1994-2006), reportedly the longest of any actor without interruption; only exiting the production for health reasons.

Hospitalized at the Santa Elena Hospital in Mexico since November 12th, German Robles died from COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and Peritonitis at approximately 6am on Saturday, November 21st.

Married three times, Robles is survived by his wife of 33 years, Ana Maria Vazquez, and three children. Both Robles and his wife founded an actors training school in 2000.

In the following article, we pay tribute to the man who was a key contributor to the flood of theatrical terror unleashed in Mexico in the 1950s; and how his portrayals of vampires in a popular string of productions put a refreshing spin on the Lore of the Undead.

German Robles starred in a number of high-gloss productions and films of other genres, but he will always be most closely identified playing those blood-lusting creatures of the night, the vampire. Aside from the requisite cobweb infused crypts and Gothic ambiance, German Robles brought distinction to the undead lexicon in seven sangria-laced productions; the most famous of which was the suave, debonair Count Lavud and the Bond-style villainy of the fang-toothed Nostradamus.

Essaying his vampires with a touch of originality and familiarity, Robles was something of a trendsetter, irrefutably belonging on the same pedestal of prestige of his other late European colleagues, Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. 

Bela Lugosi is the classic representation of Dracula, the vampire that is both parodied and paid tribute to. Christopher Lee is the life's blood, the personification of the vampire king. Largely unknown in the west, Robles carved his own unique interpretation that differed, but remained faithful to popular iconography of the Universal DRACULA (1933); and one that beat Hammer's iconic color version by nearly a year. 

What's important to note about German Robles is that, while there had been a few Mexican horror films prior to the groundbreaking EL VAMPIRO (1957), it was his charisma and tenacity (under the assured direction of Fernando Mendez) that solidified himself as a horror icon--invigorating the Mexi-horror industry for well over a decade. As Count Lavud in both EL VAMPIRO and THE VAMPIRE'S COFFIN (both in 1957), the films birthed a colony of Spanish language vampire movies all with their own unique mythology. Robles was to Mexican horror cinema what Santo was to Lucha Libre pictures. If not for the success of EL VAMPIRO (1957), we might not of gotten another classic example of Mexi-horror cinema, the Lucha horror favorite, SANTO VS. LAS MUJERES VAMPIRO (1961); or, as it is known in America, SAMSON VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN.

Robles brought a level of stoically evil menace that, while certainly not absent in the more famous renditions, was far more diverse than had been seen up to that time. In EL VAMPIRO (and his subsequent fanged forays), Robles' Count Lavud delightfully bares his fangs when he's about to sink those elongated incisors into a warm jugular. Robles is often cited as the first actor to play a vampire with fangs exposed, biting into a victim. NOSFERATU (1922) had pointy, rat-like teeth exposed, and Atif Kaptan of Turkey's DRAKULA ISTANBUL'DA (1953) had fangs jutting from his mouth; but Count Lavud is seen in close-up biting into the necks of his victims, which, up to that time, hadn't been seen before. Robles' vampire was not averse to extracting the blood of children, either; something not shown in the Uni-horrors of the 30s and 40s, nor the Hammer pictures till the 1970s.

Additionally, the rather large teeth wouldn't be seen again till Hammer Films adopted them in their 1970s 'blood and skin'  epics like VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1971) and their Karnstein Trilogy that made up THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970), LUST FOR A VAMPIRE (1971) and TWINS OF EVIL (1971).

Unlike most other vamps, Robles, as Lavud, has other sharp implements in his arsenal aside from his fangs; such as a sword he uses against Abel Salazar's hero during the fiery conclusion. A similar encounter occurred in Nobuo Nakagawa's THE LADY VAMPIRE in 1959. Christopher Lee would take up a sword to torture Patrick Troughton in one of Hammer's most unique Dracula pictures, SCARS OF DRACULA (1970).

Robles throttles a mini-army of midget bloodsuckers in THE VAMPIRES OF COYOACAN (1974).

Moreover, the two Robles Lavud films packed some fine cliffhanger moments in their finales that make the Hammer denouements anemic in comparison. What the Mexican pictures lacked in budgets they made up for in creativity. They may have looked remarkably similar to the Uni-horrors of old, but the Mexi-horrors foreshadowed the sort of violence Hammer would get up to in the ensuing years.

Robles played a vampire yet again in EL CASTILLO DE LOS MONSTRUOS (1958; THE CASTLE OF MONSTERS), Mexico's answer to ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948). Essentially an extended cameo appearance, Robles doesn't appear till an hour in, and, like Christopher Lee in DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966), never utters a word of dialog. Dressed in his Count Lavud attire, this vampire (he's never referred to by name) chases the goofy heroes around the title abode and is played strictly for laughs.

In 1959, Robles again played a vampire, but this time, it was a different sort of bloodsucker. In LA MALDICION DE NOSTRADAMUS (1959; THE CURSE OF NOSTRADAMUS), German Robles is the son of the infamous French seer, Michel de Nostredame; or simply Nostradamus. Ordered by the spirit of his father, the son of Nostradamus is commanded to convince a leading scientist, Dr. Duran, to the existence of vampires and other occult phenomenon. Naturally he refuses leading to a series of creative deaths and quirky characters that intervene to stop the vampire.


As Nostradamus, German Robles plays this role very different from Count Lavud in both acting style and appearance. Sporting a goatee and wearing a derby hat and cape, Nostradamus is boisterous whereas Lavud was more cunning and deceptive. Nostradamus is very arrogant, proudly proclaiming his intentions with even more dialog than before--which Christopher Lee never got much of in his Dracula pictures. Additionally, and unlike Count Lavud, Nostradamus often used humans, alive or dead, to do his evil bidding.

Compared to an already meaty role as Lavud in the two previous movies, Robles got even more to chew on as Nostradamus, a four-film series consisting of three "episodes" a piece, compliant with the STIC union in Mexico. Film producers would sometimes bypass the STPC union for theatrical productions to take advantage of the cheaper resources afforded the STIC group. The Nostradamus films are quite a bit of fun, but look more cheaply made with the limited sets than Robles' previous outings. However, the bat effects are superior. He makes them worthwhile; and for fans of Mexi-horror, they're highly recommended for their peculiarly campy qualities alone.

Released straight to television in edited form by American International Pictures' TV division in the early 1960s, fans of the Nostradamus series and the actor mostly remember him from that medium; either at that time or in the 1980s on USA Network's Commander USA's Groovie Movies, which specialized in B/W Mexican horror movies and 70s Hammer horror.

Most famous for vampires in Fantastic Cinema, German Robles played a variety of other characters--both heroes and villains--in horror and other genres. Below is a list of some of his other works.

In THE BRAINIAC (1961), Robles went from sucking blood to having his brains sucked out of the back of his neck in this nutty camp classic. He plays a descendant of a group of Inquisitors who executed a warlock that has returned for revenge. Played by Abel Salazar, the title brain-sucker is one of the strangest looking monsters you've ever seen. 

German Robles entered the Lucha world in the drama-action, LA FURIA DEL RING (1961), playing the son of a gym owner who was killed for not fixing his wrestling matches. Features an early appearance by Blue Demon (and his real life tag partner, Black Shadow) before he embarked on his own successful film career. 

The actor was in full Peter Cushing mode as Professor Muller in Chano Urueta's LA CABEZA VIVIENTE (THE LIVING HEAD) from 1963. Leading an expedition to uncover an ancient Aztec tomb, Muller and crew bring a curse upon them after angering the title noggin and its soon-to-be-revived mummy-like servant. 

DIVISION NARCOTICOS (1963) finds the versatile actor playing the unsavory gang leader of a drug syndicate. Scenes of drug use and Robles hiding a large quantity of dope underneath a baby's clothes, using the child as a means of smuggling, turn this obscure bit of Mexi-sleaze into an ahead of its time thriller.

One of the man's most rare, obscure genre titles is the 1964 horror western, LA MURCIELAGOS (THE BATS). There's very little information available for this one outside of some promotional materials. According to some sources, the film goes by the alternate title of LOS VAMPIROS DEL OESTE (VAMPIRES OF THE WEST).

Robles was the head of a Karate school that attracts the attention of the police and the Mexican masked superhero Neutron in LOS ASESINOS DEL KARATE (1965; NEUTRON AGAINST THE KARATE KILLERS). This was the fifth and last of a B/W superhero series starring Wolf Ruvinskis as Neutron.

In 1967 Robles played Carlo, one the main villains in the lively comic book flick ROCAMBOLE VS. LA SECTA DEL ESCORPION (ROCAMBOLE VS. THE CULT OF THE SCORPION). The second of two films, Rocambole was a stageshow magician by day, Captain Mexico type superhero by night.

The actor returned to the Lucha Libre genre again in 1974 with LOS VAMPIROS DE COYACAN. Top billed over megastar Mil Mascaras and Superzan, Robles is a Van Helsing-type professor trying to stop a Yorga-esque vampire and his fang-toothed midget-minions from vampirizing the local populace, including the lovely Sasha Montenegro. 

German Horacio Robles may be gone but he leaves behind an impressive body of work that is rife for rediscovery both in his home country and abroad. Deserving of accolades for his contributions to the cinema of the Fantastique, the memory of the Spanish born actor will live on in film festivals and late night repeats highlighted by vampires seeking revenge, fresh blood and worldwide conquest. The Master now sleeps. Long Live the Memory of Mexico's Master of Horror.


Unknown said...

I am Pablo Robles the son of the late German Robles, it is a pleasure to read this awesome resume of my father's career, thank you very much for the tribute, it was very "touchy", thank you.

venoms5 said...

I am sincerely honored you liked it, Mr. Robles. I grew up with your father's films as a small boy, seeing them for the first time around 1985 on television. I've been a fan ever since. And thank YOU for the kind remarks.

Unknown said...

send me a message on FB so we can chat more comfortably

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