Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Wolfman and Paul Naschy

Spanish actor/writer/director Paul Naschy died at the age of 75 on December 1, 2009. Horror fandom has seen another one of the iconic actors pass away, and I don't think there's anyone that can be pointed to as an equal in the modern filmworld.

At the very least, I doubt anyone will beat his record of having portrayed a werewolf in at least 12 different movies. Few actors outside of episodic television stick with anything that long these days.

I wasn't going to start this blog for another two or three months, but this seems like the right time to do a round-up of the Paul Naschy reviews, putting forth both the good and the bad among his movies that I've enjoyed over the years. (And so some extent, I've gained enjoyment from all of Naschy's films. No matter how weak they were overall, there was always some cool element that I could say made at lest some of the time well spent.)

My guess is that I've watched and reviewed other Naschy films over the years, but these are the four that sprang immediately to mind. In fact, if you like the look and feel of European horror films from the 1970s, I recommend tracking down a copy of "The Hanging Woman." It's one of the best you'll find.

The Fury of the Wolfman (aka "The Wolfman Never Sleeps") (1970)
Starring: Paul Naschy, Perla Cristal, Veronica Lujan, and Mark Stevens
Director: Jose Maria Zabalza
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When a globe-trotting scientist (Naschy) contracts lycanthropy, he becomes the latest subject of the twisted experiments of a mad scientist (Cristal) and her all-woman team of graduate student assistants.

"The Fury of the Wolfman" is a mess of a movie. It's over-long, partially due to the fact that the creators seemed to want to cram every legend and scientific-sounding theory they'd heard about werewolves into the picture and tie them into the efforts of their multi-discipline mad scientist... who is working on several mind control projects and creating human/plant hybrids in the basement of her creepy castle. And then there's the completely superflous plotline involving a reporter and a police inspector who are both trying to track down the wolfman.

Another issue with the film is the title. It would have been more aptly named "Moonlight Strolls of the Wolfman" or "The Wolfman, Starring WB's Tazmanian Devil"... because the wolfman spends much of his time just wandering about, and when he's snarling, he sounds exactly like the Tazmanian Devil from the old Bugs Bunny cartoons. While this does give rise to much unintended hilarity, it doesn't make for much of a horror film.

The movie is at its best as the poor victim of lycanthropy and a newfound ally try to escape the mad scientist's castle. But this is about ten minutes of the running time, and even here the film lapses into unintended comedy.

"The Fury of the Wolfman" is fast enough paced, has enough characters behaving stupidlyl, and enough instances of fullblown, unintended comedic disaster that it would make for a fine addition to a "Bad Movie Nite" party... but that's all it's good for.

Werewolf Shadow (aka "The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman", "Blood Moon" and "Shadow of the Werewolf") (1970)
Starring: Paul Naschy, Gaby Fuchs, Barbara Capell, Patty Shepard, and Yelina Samarina
Director: Leon Klimovsky
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Two college students (Fuchs and Capell) conducting research into a supposed vampire and witch from the Middle Ages (Shepard) trace the existence of her tomb the isolated castle of Count Waldemar Daninisky (Naschy). While the hospitible, yet secretive, count is showing them the tomb, the ancient (and very hungry and lusty) vampire is awakened. Will the count be able to save the girls and the nearby villagers? Will he decide that there are days where it's actually good to be cursed with lycanthropy?

"Werewolf Shadow" is a direct sequel to "Fury of the Wolfman", and, although a bit slow at times and showing signs of a director struggling to pad the film to meet a certain running time, it's a pretty good little flick--and it's far, far better than the film it follows. It stands up nicely when compared to some of the movies released by Hammer around the same time. Of course, if you're familiar with the output of Hammer in the early 1970s, you might think I'm damning this film with faint praise... and you might not be entirely wrong.

(And if you've seen "Fury of the Wolfman", you're probably wondering why the Good Count is even around. That's explained quite nicely in the first minutes of the film, where a coroner makes the worst blunder of his career. It's a sequence that is one of the more effective in the film.)

This is an okay horror flick, but it's not great. Its a solidly average 1970s monster film, teetering on the brink of low-average (between the ratings of 5 and 6 on my scale). It's got decent acting, some nice, moody camerawork, and there's some great use of lighting and fog machines to enhance the creepiness of many scenes. The slow-motion, gliding movements of the vampires is an excellently executed way of adding creepiness to them, and there are moments when the film is almost lifting itself up to a higher level of quality... but those moments pass quickly and then the movie sinks back to its low-average comfort zone.

A big problem is the above-mentioned padding of scenes. Another problem is the film's star, Paul Naschy. Just like in "The Fury of the Werewolf", he seems to more stroll through the night than run. He does a slightly better job when he's not a werewolf, but he still seems to dragging himself through the film... and as a result he drags it down.

On the upside, though, the film is helped by three gorgeous leading ladies (Shepard is particularly good and sexy as the resurrected vampiress), plenty of bare breasts, a good heaping of blood, and a well-done climactic fight.

It's worth seeking out if you enjoy early 1970s horror flicks, but just be aware that Naschy is quite possibly the most lethargic wolfman in cinematic history.

Hanging Woman (aka "The Orgy of the Dead", "Terror of the Living Dead", and "Return of the Zombies") (1972)
Starring: Stan Cooper, Dianik Zurakowska, Maria Pia Conte, Paul Naschy and Gerard Tichy
Director: John Davidson (or Jose Luis Moreno, depending on the source)
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When Serge Chekov (Cooper) arrives in a small mountain village to claim his inheritance, he stumbles upon the body who has seemingly comitted suicide. He soon learns she's a resident in the manor house he's inherited from, his recently deceased uncle. It soon becomes apparent that both the hanged woman and Chekov's uncle were actually murdered, and he attempts to find out why (with the assistance of pure-hearted Doris (Zurakowska)), he discovers bigger problems with his new house: The dead are getting out of their graves and killing the living.

"Hanging Woman" is a funky cross between a zombie movie and Sherlock Holmes-style detective film with a sensibility that harkens back to classic Hammer films, such as "The Reptile" and "Plague of the Zombies." It's relatively straight forward, but the way it tosses both witchcraft and Victorian-style mad science into the bubbling plot cauldron (not to mention a necropheliac grave-digger, played with flair by Spanish horror film mainstay Paul Naschy) obscures the going-ons just enough to keep the viewer as much in the dark as the protagonists.

The film could have benefitted from some judicious editing and script rewrites, but the acting is better than what is often seen in movies of this level--and this goes both for the actors on screen and the voice actors--and there are numerous genuinely tense moments, but the film is a little too slow-moving and flabby to be truly scary. Plus, there is a "shocking denoument" which is just plain stupid.

Horror Rises from the Tomb (1973)
Starring: Paul Naschy, Emma Cohen, Helga Line, Víc Winner, and Betsabe Ruiz
Director: Carlos Aured
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Hugo du Marnac (Nashcy) comes into possession of the severed head of an ancestor who was exectued for witchcraft centuries ago (also Naschy). Unlike many of those so condemned, Hugo's forebearer was a REAL warlock, and he's been waiting for centuries to have his head reunited with the rest of his body, so he can ressurect his witch-wife (Line) and resume their lives devoted to Satan and Evil. Subsequently, murder, mayhem, and water-logged zombies threaten to completely ruin Hugo and his friends' vacation in the French countryside.

"Horror Rises From the Tomb" starts slow, but once it gets going, it emerges that Paul Naschy made. The resurrection scenes, the heart-ripping scene, and the zombies shambling out of the lake are all very effective moments with images that will remain with you long after the movie is over. Naschy is also a bit more energetic than usual, bringing lots of energy to the roles he plays in this film--especailly to the evil warlock Alaric. Whether he's a head-in-a-box, or the resassembled servant of Satan, Naschy radiates evil here.

The supporting cast is decent, with the female leads being not only gorgeous to look at, but okay actresses to boot. The film is also well photographed and the filmmakers made excellent use of both the desolate landscapes and the decaying buildings that serve as the film's setting.

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