Much as I love Paul Naschy and his go-for-broke approach to horror filmmaking, there's always, always something in any given Paul Naschy movie that jolts me out of the movie. Usually, this means pausing the machine and doing something else for a bit until the mood returns, but sometimes, it involves fits of hysterical giggling. Naschy's first appearance as the Indian guru, Krisna, in Vengeance of the Zombies (1973) is just such a moment. I mean, Naschy appears later in the film as Satan in full Satanic regalia with horns and everything, and THAT moment is totally cool. It's equally ridiculous, but it's a horror movie, so what the hell? You expect those kinds of moments in a horror movie, and Naschy totally rocks the Satan drag. But the Indian brownface? Oh, Nelly! That takes some getting used to.
The Faces of Paul Naschy
And, yes, I know that I'm being totally unfair here. Naschy aspired to be a latter day Lon Chaney, and like Chaney, he plunges into these kinds of roles with gusto. I mean, if Chaney could get away with playing Mr. Wu and Alonzo the Armless and Phroso 'Dead-Legs', why the hell can't Naschy play a guru? If he wants to put a thousand faces on the screen, do all of them have to share Naschy's ethnic background? I mean, it's not any sillier than the werewolf get-up for which he's most famous. Comparing Chaney and Naschy is a mug's game, I guess, because there's an "otherness" in Chaney that's partly due to the strangeness of silent movies at this remove, while the rest is a genius particular to Chaney. Even if Naschy were equally gifted (I'm not going to make any arguments about it, yay or nay), the idiom in which he works is so different that comparisons are probably unwise. Naschy is closer kin to Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland and their irrepressible "let's put on a show!" moxie. I love that about him.
Fortunately, the movie lets the audience get used to Naschy as an Indian. He actually doesn't look bad in the part.
Anyway, Vengeance of the Zombies. There's weird sense of déjà vu here, given that so many of the principles from Horror Rises from the Tomb reappear here, most notably Víctor Alcázar (here billed as "Vic Winner"). As in that movie, Naschy plays multiple parts. Like that movie, this one was written in a fever over a couple of days. Unlike that movie, this has an odd seventies jazz score in place of the faux-Gothic organ score in Horror. The storyline follows Elvire, a follower of Krisna, Naschy's Indian guru, as she dodges a series of murders seemingly aimed at several families who once lived in India, including hers. She flees London (the film was shot on location in London), for Kishna's manor house in the country, where the station agent in town regales her with tales of the manor's cursed past. This is just set dressing. No curse or haunting ever manifests itself. In this regard, Vengeance of the Zombies actually keeps its eye on the ball. Oh, there's still a kind of blender effect, but it's not as pronounced in this movie (I'll get to that in a minute). The perpetrator of the murders is Krisna's deformed brother, Kantaka, who is working up to a grand voodoo ceremony. Toward this end, he sends out his entourage of zombies to do his bidding. The movie explains the lion's share of its plot by including a feckless Scotland Yard investigation, where Elvire's guy pal, Lawrence (Alcázar) lays out the aims and methods of Kantaka's voodoo. Surprisingly, Lawrence isn't the dashing knight who rescues the damsel. It leaves that task to a character the movie pulls out of its ass.
The plot of this movie isn't nearly as digressionary as the plots of some of Naschy's movies, but the way it mixes and matches elements mark the film as distinctively as if it was. The strange conflation of Indian mysticism and voodoo creates some level of cognitive dissonance, while the portions of the movie devoted to the police may as well be from a completely different movie. Additionally, this is clearly a vanity project for Naschy, who uses the film as an excuse to portray himself as a lady's man, in addition to a monster, etc. Naschy surrounds himself with beautiful women in this movie (again!), even when it makes no sense. I mean, is it really necessary to dress the exclusively female zombies in sexy lingerie? There's a whiff of necrophilia in this, even as it caters to the star's ego. It's kind of creepy, actually.
Naschy's multiple roles allow for a pretty broad display of his talents here. He's better in the "straight" role in this film, though his character has a touch of the tragedy of Waldemar Daninsky, which is familiar territory for the actor. The betrayal in the character's past, and the way he's controlled by his brother make him more complex than one would expect. Naschy's portrayal of the villain, however, is again the highlight. Kantaka is equal parts Murder Legendre, Eric the Phantom, and Doctor Phibes, and Naschy sells it. He manages the interesting trick of blowing himself off the screen. There's nothing to be said about Naschy's appearance as Satan, here, given that it's mostly the make-up and costume that does the job here. He leers nicely, but there's no dialogue in that sequence and he's not called upon to emote, really. He's a presence, not a performance. The rest? Well, Naschy and his director, León Klimovsky, are savvy to the way movies are built around stars, and they are careful to diminish any chance that the co-stars will upstage Naschy. Nobody goes to a Naschy movie to see Victor Alcázar.
Naschy and Klimovsky don't skimp on the horror movie mayhem. They're fairly modern in how they orchestrate the movie's horror beats, placing them at roughly ten minute intervals (at the reel changes). Some of these beats are sex. Some of them are gore. It's about an equal mix, though it seems almost programmatic in retrospect.
For the most part, this is a lesser Naschy. While the elements that make his movies fun are certainly present here, the filmmakers have an annoying tendency to linger on the shots of London. It's as if, having paid to shoot there, they were determined to get the most out of the locations. There's a shot, for instance, of the sign for New Scotland Yard that Klimovsky holds far longer than its function as an establishing shot really merits. There are a lot of these kinds of shots, actually, and one whole sequence that seems completely contrived to show Naschy walking around the streets of the city. This has a soporific time dilation effect and kills some of the mood. While there are certainly pleasures to be found here, on balance, the negatives probably outweigh them.
...and the cops stand around at the end looking dopey. In how many horror films does this scene recur? I wonder.