Monday, April 30, 2007

Naschy Returns in NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF

NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF, which BCI Eclipse has released along with VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES, is by far the superior picture. Filmed in 1980, it was Paul Naschy's eighth outing as the melancholy werewolf Waldemar Daninsky, but more importantly, it was the first such picture that he both wrote and directed (as Jacinto Molina Alvarez). He remains a derivative and somewhat lazy writer, but what the film lacks in originality is compensated by an open-hearted affection for and knowledge of the genre; the story unfolds almost as a series of winks from fan to fan. As you can see here, the opening pre-credits sequence finds Waldemar encased in an iron mask prior to being impaled and buried, an obvious nod to BLACK SUNDAY. It's not the only one, either. In fact, because of these and various other tropes from such films as NIGHTMARE CASTLE, TERROR FROM THE CRYPT, and BARON BLOOD -- and because the film is scored with CAM library tracks by the likes of Carlo Rustichelli, Armando Trovajoli, Stelvio Cipriani and others, cues in some cases 20 years old -- NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF has the feel of a deliberate tribute to 1960s Italian horror, filmed more lavishly than most Italians could manage themselves in 1980.

Naschy is reintroduced in a striking shot that finds him aiming a crossbow at the young woman who will become the love of his second life. Bearded and virile-looking, Naschy has never looked more relaxed onscreen or exuded more star quality; at no time is there any sense of a man dividing his attention between three different jobs. Here, Waldemar is protecting the castle ruins of his former associate, the notorious Countess Elizabeth Báthory (exquisitely portrayed by Julia Saly).

In the story, three Roman women bound for vacation are persuaded by their leader, Erika (Silvia Aguilar), to forego the usual tourist traps and seek out the ruins of Castle Báthory. With Karin (Azucena Hernandez) distracted by their handsome host, Erika is free to subdue the third traveler and use her blood to reanimate the Countess. She does this in a sequence clearly pattered on the resurrection sequence of Terence Fisher's DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1965), but it is so effectively staged (and souped-up with additional eroticism) that one can only sit back and watch in thrall. Then we get to meet the Countess herself...

Elizabeth Báthory has been played well in a number of films by several diverse and capable actresses -- Delphine Seyrig (DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS), Ingrid Pitt (COUNTESS DRACULA), Lucia Bosé (LEGEND OF BLOOD CASTLE), and Paloma Picasso (IMMORAL TALES), to name a few. Naschy himself pitted Waldemar Daninsky against this formidable figure of haunted history before in WEREWOLF SHADOW (1971), where she was played by Barbara Steele-lookalike Patty Shepard. But in terms of capturing an essence of the real historic figure, I think none of them came as close to published reports as Julia Saly, whose soulless eyes and patrician demeanor are both repugnant and compelling. It's not an eroticized performance, as Báthory roles often are, and all the more remarkable for its poise and reserve, which suggest an oil painting come to life. In a way that reminded me specifically of Bela Lugosi's performance in the original DRACULA (1931), Saly communicates the idea that the Countess has not only witnessed, but presided over unspeakable horrors we cannot begin to imagine. Once she infects Erika with vampirism, Silvia Aguilar becomes one of the shrillest, noisiest lady vampires ever to grace the talkies.
Oh yes, there's also a werewolf. Angel Luís Del Diego was responsible for the makeup and it's probably the finest werewolf makeup Naschy ever had. His performance isn't as explosively athletic as his first Waldemar Daninsky role in FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR; this is a more actorly werewolf performance, if you will, and Naschy blocks his onscreen appearances for effect within the frame rather than convey its impact with his body. The werewolf scenes have their moments, but they may be the weakest component of the film's horror; werewolves are by nature brutish, animalistic monsters, and so not as interesting as vampires, which act not to give vent to their nature but also to consciously please their nature. The film also makes a mistake, perhaps unavoidable, in showing us the werewolf prior to Naschy's first onscreen transformation. The werewolf's attack on a couple seeking shelter looks as if it may have been extracted from a later, lengthy sequence following Waldemar's first transformation, and placed earlier to get the werewolf into the picture sooner.
The authentic locations and spectacular sets add greatly to the film's production value, but more important still is the splendid cinematography of Alejandro Ulloa (CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z), who does wonderful things with backlighting, low-angled lighting and overly bright objects in otherwise tenebrous settings. Here are just a few frames in the film that stood out for me compositionally.



NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF was previously given a domestic VHS release back in the 1980s as THE CRAVING. As you can tell from these screen grabs, BCI's anamorphic, HD-mastered disc is a revelation, featuring some truly breathtaking mise en scène. Unlike VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES, NIGHT is best appreciated in its original Castilian Spanish audio track (with English subtitles); the English dub, included in mono and surround mixes, is painfully bad, especially atrocious in the scene introducing our three heroines and their foul-mouthed male admirers (one of them Mauro Ribera from Jess Franco's THE SEXUAL STORY OF O). Deleted scenes -- actually an extended scene that toggles between English and Castilian to show what was omitted from the original sequence -- are also included. As with the companion release, the disc is supplemented with a theatrical trailer playable in Castilian and English, the Spanish main titles (with much fuller production credits), Thorsten Benzel's superb stills and poster galleries, and expert liner notes by Mirek Lipinski, webmaster of Latarnia Fantastique International and The Mark of Naschy, that offer more background on Naschy specifically, indicating that these notes should be read before those of VENGEANCE OF THE ZOMBIES, though VENGEANCE is the earlier of the two pictures.

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