Monday, November 29, 2010

Tombstone Shadows

My first encounter with Paul Naschy was as a reference in The Howling. One of the characters in that movie was named "Jack Molina," which I discovered soon afterward to be Paul Naschy's Spanish name. It took me a few years to actually track down any of his films. The first was Frankenstein's Bloody Terror. I didn't know what to make of it at the time. I don't mean this in a derogatory manner, but Naschy's films seem like they come from a Mexican tradition. They have the same "throw a bunch of stuff against the wall and hope something sticks" aesthetic one finds in movies like, say, The Black Pit of Dr. M or The Brainiac. While there's certainly a lot to criticize in this approach, there's also an undeniable charm, too.

One can see this approach in full force in Horror Rises from the Tomb (1973, directed by Carlos Aured), written by Naschy as Jacinto Molina and featuring the actor in multiple roles. In spite of my desire for werewolf mayhem, Netflix insisted on sending me non-lycanthropic movies. There's nary a distant howl in this movie, but that's okay, I guess. This features every other full-dress Gothic trope you can imagine, sometimes appearing seemingly at random. Note: this is spoilerific. Not that it really matters with this film.

Horror Rises from the Tomb starts well. In the middle ages, a warlock and his concubine are taken into the wilderness for execution. Alaric de Marnac (Naschy) is accused of all manner of crimes, and members of his own family act as executioners. As you might expect, de Marnac curses his executioners and vows to return and wreak a terrible vengeance upon them. The only problem with his plan, though, is that his head has been chopped off and hidden away from his body so that they might never reunite. Fast forward to contemporary Paris, where two of the executioners' descendants are invited to a seance. These are Hugo de Marnac (Naschy again, natch) and Maurice Roland (Víctor Alcázar) who are both skeptical. The medium channels Alaric, who tells them where to find his head. As a lark, the two friends and their gal pals journey to the de Marnac estate to find out if the medium was for real. Unfortunately, she is, and soon, Alaric is back in business. He and his concubine, the lovely Mabille, reincarnate as quasi-vampires, indulge in human sacrifices, and command an entourage of zombies. This, on top of the hostile locals who refuse to help our heroes (and who, upon capturing a couple of fugitives, hang them on sight). This follows a "One Damned Thing After Another" plot construction, and when Hugo and his lover, Elvira, find the talisman that will defeat Alaric, it's seems totally random. But then, so does most of the movie.

Obviously, with so many balls in the air, Horror Rises from the Tomb is bound to drop a few. A lot of the movie--most of it, actually--seems constructed from the leavings of other movies. The opening should be familiar to anyone who has seen Black Sunday, while the zombie interlude reeks of The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue. Like those Mexican horror movies I mentioned at the outset, this is what I call a "blender" movie, in which the filmmakers take a bunch of stock genre tropes, stick them in a blender, and hit puree. This also shares a total shamelessness in its approach and it covers for its lack of originality by barging through its plot with a "damn the torpedoes" forward motion. It doesn't hurt that the filmmakers have populated the film with stunningly gorgeous women. Or that they are often nekkid. There's also enough creative gore to satisfy the adolescent sadists in the audience. One particular scene has Mabille rip open the chest of a man to pluck his still-beating heart from his chest (the filmmakers then turn oddly coy when deciding whether to show our villains actually eating the heart, even though you can totally see where the scene is going). Naschy knows his audience and strives to give them what they want.

This is Naschy's show, as you might expect, and it points out the actor's strengths and weaknesses. Since he plays both one of the heroes and the main villain, you get a portrait of an actor who is phenomenal in villainous parts, but who struggles with "straight" roles. When Naschy is hamming it up as Alaric, you can't take your eyes off of him. When he's playing Hugo, he kind of fades into the woodwork. The movie wisely kills Hugo off, and leaves Víctor Alcázar to handle the heroic duties. But even he is upstaged, alternately, by Emma Cohen as our heroine, Helga Liné as Mabille, and Cristina Suriani. It's hard to hold the screen against gorgeous, often nude women, I guess. The real star of the movie is the locations, anyway. This movie covers a LOT of faults by filming in picturesque locations during the bleak heart of winter.

Sometimes the faults can't be papered over, though. When Naschy portrays Alaric as a head sitting on a shelf, I couldn't help but giggle. It's such an absurd sight that it takes one right out of the movie. It's fun, but it's fun in spite of the film, not because of it. Still, fun's fun, right? Seriously, if you can't have fun with Naschy's films, you're in trouble, so take it as it is.


Darius Whiteplume said...

This was one I hoped to get a hold of for this week. Marnac was supposedly based on Gilles de Rais, who was a companion of Joan of Arc. I love the Maid of Orleans, but do not doubt she was nuts. I need to look back at The Messenger and see how they handled him (if at all).

Jenn said...

With the exception of the Daninsky cycle, I'd say this is Paul's most revered cult classic? A fundamental film in Spanish horror history? It's up there with the Ossorio films, fer sure. The atmosphere! The Gothic! The gorgeous ladies! Paul as a creative force to be reckoned with in front of and behind the camera! Say no more! And it was written in just a day in a half and was shot in less than four weeks. Take that, Roger Corman!

Like you, my first Naschy outing was FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR, and from then on, I always kind of expected the mish-mash blender approach to genre filmmaking these films tend to all have in common. I mean, look at THE BEAST AND THE MAGIC SWORD. Werewolves and ninjas! And topless female ninjas, at that? Or CRIMSON with it's crime caper/mad scientist genre mixup. God, I love this man's work.

An excellent write up!

The Vicar of VHS said...

The story Naschy tells in both his autobiography and the commentary to HRftT on the Deimos disc, is that he found financing for a movie but had no script. He locked himself in his study for 48 hours with cigarettes and a bunch of amphetamines and came out with HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB.

It'd be easy to say the "blender" effect is a result of this, but the fact is Naschy was that way with most of his movies. I like to think it was because he never knew if he'd be able to make another movie after the one he was currently working on, and so put everything into it just in case. Seizing the moment, and damn the torpedoes indeed.

I agree with you about the differences between Naschy as Hugo and Naschy as Alaric. I've said on my blog Alaric is kind of the opposite of werewolf Waldemar Daninsky--despicable where Daninsky is noble, unrepentant where Waldemar is tragic. I think he was clearly having a great time being the villain, and this carries through in other films where he's the heavy. He probably viewed the Hugo role as a supporting one, and didn't mind fading into the background--particularly when he had such a meaty lead role to play.

Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon--I loved reading your thoughts! And yes, you're right--there's just no way to make the "head on a shelf" thing not silly. But Paul didn't mind that either, I think. It was all about the joy of making his horror dreams come true. You can sense that, I think.

Jose Cruz said...

Very nice write up you have here, Dr. Morbius! I also chose this film to review for the blogathon, so it was very interesting getting someone else's thoughts on it.

I agree with you on the Hugo/Alaric angle. But like the Vicar said, Alaric is such a juicy, villainous role that Naschy was probably fine just going through the normal heroic motions for Hugo. I really love his Alaric character... so sinister and despicable. And Naschy does it all with just those cold, smoldering looks and leers that he pulls off so wonderfully. It's fantastic!

Again, great review and insight into the film. I look forward to reading more of your work in the future.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

@Darius: I have no doubt Jeanne was nuts, too. I kind of like her as a villain in Shakespeare, actually.

@Jenn: Yeah, like I say, there's an undeniable charm to the blender approach, and I think it's a huge part of Naschy's appeal. I LOVE seat of the pants filmmaking when it's good. Or, at least, when it's fun. Naschy seems like the horror genre's Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, full of "let's put on a show" gusto. You can still see that twinkle in his eye in the intros on the Deimos discs, too. He never lost it.

@Vicar: there's no shame in failing at the head on a shelf thing. I mean, it doesn't really work in Re-Animator, either, and that film is STILL a masterpiece.

@Joe. Hi! Welcome. I look forward to your write-up.

Thanks everyone.