Thursday, December 02, 2010

First Principles

I mentioned a couple of posts back that the first Paul Naschy film I ever saw was Frankenstein's Bloody Terror (1968, directed by Enrique Eguiluz), a film that is more properly named "The Mark of the Wolfman" (as a literal translation of its Spanish title would read). Frankenstein doesn't figure into it at all. Mind you, this IS a monsterific rally film, but "Frankenstein" exists only in the title and in a tacked on prologue from distributor Sam Sherman, who owed his exhibitors a Frankenstein movie. It's a total rip-off, true, but it's a pretty shameless one. I have a certain amount of affection for it. For that matter, I have a considerable amount of affection for the movie itself. I was hesitant to revisit it after all this time, but it holds up remarkably well. Better than remarkably well, actually, because the last time I saw it was on a crap VHS tape recorded in SLP to save tape by the cheapskate fly-by-night outfit that was putting it out at the time. That version was chopped and cropped and was otherwise mutilated. The version I watched for this review was gorgeous. I can well believe that this film looked FAN-tastic on its original 70mm release.

Of course, the film was a first for Naschy, too, in more ways than one. It was his first werewolf picture, and his first portrayal of his signature character, the doomed lycanthrope, Waldemar Daninsky. It was his first film as a screenwriter. The film itself was written with Lon Chaney, Jr. in mind. Chaney was almost certainly WAY too old for the part and declined, leaving it for Naschy. This is serendipitous for the audience, too, because even if Chaney had agreed, there's no way he could have matched the unbridled physicality of Naschy's performance. Naschy, if you'll pardon the expression, was off the leash in this movie.

The story here finds a pair of wandering gypsies taking refuge in the old Wolfstein castle, where, searching the crypts for loot, they find a skeleton with a silver crucifix through its heart. Not being fools, they swipe it. Unfortunately for them, it releases the last Wolfstein from death and he arises as a werewolf to terrorize the countryside. In the hunt for the werewolf, nice guy Waldemar saves his friend, Rudolph's, life, but in the process gets bitten by the werewolf, acquiring the curse of lycanthropy in the bargain. His friends, Rudolph and the comely Countess Janice, enlist the aid of a distant psychiatrist and his partner, who both turn out to be vampires. The movie climaxes with Waldemar, in full-on fang and fur frenzy, taking out the vampires to save his friends. The movie's a lot more complicated than this synopsis would suggest, and I'm sure that the print I watched was still missing some footage, but this film seems a lot less random than some of Naschy's other films. I wonder how much of this can be attributed to Naschy as opposed to director Enrique Eguiluz.

One thing is for sure, though: This is an attractive movie. It's a movie that makes me wonder how much better Horror Rises from the Tomb or Vengeance of the Zombies might have been with more adventurous directors at the helm. The look of this movie is striking, and even lacking the nudity and gore of the later films in the Daninsky cycle, this still generates a marvelous ambiance of menace. The filmmakers make good use of the locations, which are richly decorated by the prop department, and they cover for any deficiencies with a striking use of colored lighting. The whole thing plays as if Terence Fisher and Mario Bava had had their genes spliced and their mutant progeny had turned its attention on the Universal-style monster rally. Some scenes in this film look to be taken straight from paintings by Basil Gogos.

Even given the movie's reliance on werewolf action--a given in any Naschy werewolf picture--there's an otherness to this movie that eludes most of Naschy's other films and turns the "blender" quality of its construction into a kind of dream logic. Two examples. The first is this shot: which there's an actual reliance on symbolism as Wandessa Mikhelov (Aurora de Alba) ensnares young Rudolph (Manuel Manzaneque). I sat up when this shot came on screen, because it wasn't something I was looking for. Naschy's films have a tendency toward utilitarianism, so this is an unexpected and delightful boon. The second example is more complicated: At the end of the film, Dr. Janos Mikhelov (Julián Ugarte), our vampire, abducts our heroine with a wave of his cape. The cut between the cape covering her and where they end up is worthy of the surrealists, and the chase through the ruined castle that follows looks more than a little bit like a refugee sequence from a Guy Maddin movie. It's a beautiful scene.

A recurring feature in Naschy movies--utterly gorgeous women--finds
an early flowering in La marca del Hombre-lobo

You can make an argument that La marca del Hombre-lobo is the beginning of Spanish horror filmmaking. In recent years, Spain has become one of the epicenters for the new millennium's horror renaissance, but it was building on a vigorous tradition. I think this period in Spanish horror reminds me a little of the Hong Kong New Wave in that respect, because immature idioms are sometimes explosions of creativity. There's a direct line of evolution--a quick evolution at that--between this movie and something like Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's Who Can Kill a Child? or even Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive (with its dreamy evocation of Frankenstein's monster), and for that, we can all be thankful.


The Vicar of VHS said...

Wonderful review to which I have little (or nothing) to add. So I'll just say, "Bravo!"

Rod Barnett said...

An absolutely fantastic review to which I must doff my hat. Well done and thank you! I wish you could have been with us to add these great insights to our podcast when we covered THE MARK OF THE WOLFMAN.