¡Vampiros en La Habana!

A conversation on South America the other night made me pull this out and be reminded of my love for it, and more importantly the impact this film had in opening my ears to Latin jazz in a new context (thanks Claude and Gio!). The below was originally done for Shook about two years ago, but having just revisited the film for the upteenth time thought I’d get on the repost…Released in 1985, ¡Vampiros en La Habana! – translated as Vampires in Havana – was an animated feature length film from Juan Padrón, and the crowning jewel in an underrated career. The Cuban cartoonist directed six animated feature films throughout his career in his native country, countless comic strips and animated shorts starring his creation Elpidio Valdés, and is now recognised as Cuba’s premier animation director.

The politically and sexually-charged ¡Vampiros… manages to spoof of American gangsta and vampire films, and is often compared as the European cousin of Fritz The Cat (if you’re not familiar with that Ralph Bakshi work of genius I’d recommend checking it out). In the same way that it’s American equivalent delved in to the depths of it’s underground jazz scene for a cult soundtrack, ¡Vampiros sees legendary Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval put forward what I personally believe his most memorable performances from an illustrious career. The music in general is simply stunning.

Without giving too much away the plot focuses around Joseph Emmanuel von Dracula, aka Pepito – a trumpet player in 1930s Havana. Blissfully unaware that he is a vampire, his time away from the bandstand is spent dabbling in quasi-terrorist plots to overthrow the Cuban government of dictator, Gerardo Machado. His uncle, Bernhardt Amadeus von Dracula, is the son of Count Dracula, and has been using him as a test subject for a formula that negates the usually fatal effects of sunlight.

Enter a Chicago-based vampire crime syndicate and a group of capitalist vampires with members from several countries in Europe. Both parties have learned of the formula and wish to possess it for different reasons—the Chicago group to suppress it and thus maintain their monopoly on indoor, artificial beach resorts, and the Europeans to market it as “Vampisol” and make a bundle selling it off. When Pepito learns of his true heritage (and his uncle’s wish to give the formula away to vampires everywhere) he becomes the target of a multi-pronged manhunt, leading all parties involved on a wild chase through some of the seediest neighborhoods of Havana.

For those interested in the quirkiness and fun of the movie, you can skip the next bit, which is an Amazon review I found from one Dana Garrett, who breaks down the plot in political terms:

Wolfgang Amadeus von Dracula has discovered a formula that will allow vampires everywhere to enjoy the sunlight by day. Wolfgang knows that his formula is successful because he has given it to his nephew for many years and the sunlight does not harm him. The nephew, Pepe, doesn’t know he is a vampire. Because Pepe is liberated to enjoy the sunlight, he thinks nothing of enjoying his life as an individual (he is a trumpet player with healthy sexual appetite) and as a revolutionary, a member of a group intent on assassinating a right-wing general. He is, in effect, socialism’s “new man.”

It is significant that Pepe doesn’t initially know he is a vampire. By not knowing his origin, he is able to lead his life unaware and unaffected by the personal nature that the formula transforms. Wolfgang (who is in some respects like Marx) intends to make the formula available to all vampires free of charge. The lack of the formula keeps vampires longing for the ability to enjoy sunlight as well as dependent on wealthy elite vampires who provide them with artificial sunlight for a hefty price. In short, the vampires are not truly liberated but must accept bastardized versions of true freedom

Wolfgang’s offer to socialize the formula becomes the occasion for the audience to see the true nature of the vampires. Rival vampire syndicates battle each other and with Pepe and Wolfgang to control the formula. The syndicates (representing competing capitalist elite groups) are composed of two factions: one that wishes to repress knowledge of the formula altogether (thus preserving the status quo as well as their financial interests as peddlers of artificial daytime tropical beaches) and another that wishes to merchandise the formula to vampires for profit. In the end, Pepe broadcasts the formula by radio to all vampires, reminiscent of Castro’s radio broadcasts to Cubans near the end of the Batista dictatorship.

Heavy I know. The beauty of this movie for me has always been the secrecy in which it passed hand-to-hand. As we all know, record collectors are a nerdy bunch so it was the amazing Spanish record label Vampi Soul who’s fans seemed to carry it’s legacy on. I first saw the movie after an invite to a screening from a Romanian friend, who had found a VHS recording of the movie in a market stall. As probably the only person in the room that night who didn’t speak Spanish, the first viewing was rough going having to have everything explained to me (no subtitles obviously), but instantly addictive. I searched for years for my own VHS original but never found one.

I recently learnt that there was an American DVD release, done in English. That said, rumour on the grapevine is that the whole thing in it’s original tongue can be viewed online, and there’s a trailer below.