Investing a police procedural film with elements grounded in the real world and hints of the supernatural is not an easy balancing act because viewers who are not interested in the latter element may find themselves unwilling to suspend disbelief in that direction. Writer/director Carl Zitelmann does a fine job juggling those aspects in his Venezuelan debut feature film The Lake Vampire (2018) aka El Vampiro del Lago.

Down-on-his-luck writer Ernesto Navarro (Sócrates Serrano) is still coasting off what he refers to as his “cult book” that was published five years earlier. When the charred remains of a copy that he autographed is found on a beach next to a corpse that was drained of blood before being beheaded, he is drawn to retired police officer Jeremias Morales (Miguel Ángel Landa), who reluctantly tells Ernesto about a mystifying case that he covered in the 1970s.

As the two discuss the details of the murderer in that case, and another rash of killings that occurred later, the possibility rises up that the current murderer may not only be connected, but could actually be the same killer: risen from the grave. Seeing this story as an ideal topic for his next book, Navarro goes down rabbit holes that Morales warns him against. Navarro seeks information on Zacarias Ortega and Ramon Perez Brenes (Eduardo Gulino), the two murder suspects from Morales’s past.

In Morales’ initial confrontation with Ortega, he and two other policemen find him drinking blood from a fresh corpse. In the killer’s initial police interview, he speaks of having lived for many lifetimes as many people, and that he will continue to do so.

Zitelmann uses copious flashbacks to show Morales as a younger policeman (Abilio Torres) who has no interest in God, the Devil or the occult, but whose experiences with the unusually strong, vicious, and persuasive Ortega lead him to think otherwise, and to make a choice that haunts him into old age.

This flashback approach also shows Ortega, Brenes and their possible modern-day counterpart through the years. Zitelmann handles the multiple storylines quite effectively, clearly using different actors in the case of the Morales character and different costume and hair design for the different villain characters. Each of the plotlines is a solid story in itself, and together they lead to a potent climax.

The procedural sequences are engaging and dramatic. The horror elements are chilling and effective, as well. In particular, the introduction to Ortega’s naked, wildman vampire is a jaw-dropper, but a scene in which the eerie Brenes asks a favor of his young male charge is one sure to make the skin of most viewers crawl. As feral as the throat-chewing Ortega is, Brenes is a more refined version of a vampire, one that would not be out of place in a classic Hammer Films production or a Guillermo del Toro movie.

The Lake Vampire boasts crackerjack direction, storytelling, cinematography, scoring, costume and set design, but what captured this reviewer’s attention the most were the fine performances by Landa, Torres and Gulino. Landa especially gives an outstanding turn as the world-weary retired policemen who has seen and done things to which no human should be subjected.

Serrano is fine, as well. Even though his character is given plenty to do, Navarro stays rather even-tempered throughout, giving the actor less to work with than the other leads. María Antonieta Hidalgo also gives an admirable turn in limited screen time as Serrano’s girlfriend Zuleima — a character who could have benefited by stronger development. She is the reason the author’s wife left him, but is portrayed as little more than a gofer for his research needs.

The ending may feel a bit familiar to horror film fans, and it comes with characters making choices that go against their earlier principles, but the bulk of The Lake Vampire offers enough stirring moments to warrant a watch. Intelligent, creepy and offering unexpected twists, The Lake Vampire is an entertaining genre mash-up.  

“The Lake Vampire” screened at Windy City Horrorama in Chicago on Saturday, April 27 at noon CDT.