Friday, September 23, 2011

El retorno de Walpurgis (1973)

... aka: Black Harvest of Countess Dracula, The
... aka: Curse of the Devil
... aka: Return of the Wolfman
... aka: Return of Walpurgis, The

Directed by:
Carlos Aured

Because of witchcraft running rampant in his village (leading to the death of a bishop and nuns becoming consumed and maddened with lust), Irenius Daninsky (Paul Naschy) decides to put a stop to those he feels are responsible for the sudden outbreak in Satanism. A not-very-well executed fight that begins on horseback with a mace and battle axe and ends on foot with swords follows. Irenius comes out on top, killing the man he feels most responsible. The victim turns out to be the husband of Countess Elizabeth Bathory (María Silva), and she and her handmaidens decide to invoke Satan to avenge the death. Before they can, Irenius and his soldiers burst in and seize the ladies. The next day, the maidens are all hung off a bridge, and Elizabeth is burned at the stake. Before she dies, she places a curse on Irenius and all of his descendants. While this prologue is pretty cool and everything, it turns out to not really have anything to do with the rest of the movie.

Years later, Irenius' lonely son Waldemar (Naschy again), who lives in a large castle in a small village isolated by the Carpathian Mountains with his maid Malitza (Ana Farra), is out hunting with a friend, Bela ("Joe Martin" / José Manuel Martín). Bela takes a shot at a "wolverine" (wolf) with a silver bullet right as the animal goes out of view. As they look behind some brush, they discover the corpse of a naked man with a bullet hole in his chest. Feeling responsible, Waldemar offers financial compensation to the dead man's gypsy family. They refuse and then head back to a cave where the matriarch of the clan (Elsa Zabala) conjures up a man dressed in all black, who has sex with one of the women but selects another, the wide-eyed Ilona (Inés Morales), to pass on a curse to Waldemar. (And herein lies the redundancy of the opening sequence. After all, this is a werewolf movie, and the second curse is the one that causes our hero to sport fangs and fur and start howling at the moon. So in essence we have one curse leading to another curse, when only the second really has anything to do with the plot.)

Ilona weasels her way into the home, Waldemar falls in love with her and then while he's sleeping one night, she uses a wolf skull to puncture his chest. Ilona flees into the woods but crosses paths with an escaped serial killer Janos Vilaya (yes, there's one of those in here too!) who promptly chops her up with an axe. A fevered Waldemar then has hallucinations for a day, but recovers quickly and fully from his injury. Laszlo Wilowa (Eduardo Calvo), a Hungarian mining engineer, moves to the village for a year-long stay to survey the area. He brings along his blind wife Irina (Pilar Vela) and two daughters; Kinga ("Faye Falcon" / Fabiola Falcón) and Maria ("Mary Oliver" / Maritza Olivares). Kinga and Waldemar instantly hit it off and fall in love. Maria is jealous of big sis and decides to try to seduce Waldemar. Unfortunately for her, she picks the wrong place (where the escaped psycho is hiding out) and wrong time (a full moon) to get Waldemar all alone to inform him "I came here a virgin. I'm not going to leave that way!" Blood is certainly spilled, but not the kind Maria probably hoped for as Walemar kills the psycho and then transforms into a werewolf and kills her, too. Malitza the maid, who has a motherly affection toward Waldemar, helps to hide all of the bodies.

Meanwhile, Police Inspector Roulka ("Vinc Molina" / Mariano Vidal Molina) is on the case and attributes the sudden rash of brutal murders to the psycho... that is, until a couple of children discover his rotting corpse. The villagers organize an armed, torch-carrying posse to hunt down the beast, but it proves useless. Only a woman who loves Waldemar can put an end to the killings by driving a silver dagger into his heart.

Naschy (who also wrote this under the name "Jack Moll") gets to do a lot of his usual brooding (his werewolf has clearly been heavily influenced - in both appearance and tortured demeanor - by Lon Chaney Jr.'s Larry Tablot) and there's a high body count, lots of werewolf action, some gore and some nudity. One of my favorite scenes finds Waldemar attacking and killing an acting troupe and as he runs toward them, all you can see are a pair of white eyes and fangs bouncing around in the darkness. Because of the period setting, art direction and costumes, and the lovely outdoor background scenery (bubbling brooks, waterfalls, moss-covered rocks, old stone bridges), the whole thing has this nice fairy tale feel to it.

Other entries in Naschy's werewolf series include the misleadingly titled (in the United States, anyway) international hit FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR (1968; aka Mark of the Wolfman), NIGHTS OF THE WEREWOLF (1968; the only entry in the series that seems to be a 'lost' film and may have never actually been made, though Naschy himself claims it was), ASSIGNMENT TERROR (1969), FURY OF THE WOLFMAN (1970), THE WEREWOLF VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMAN (1970), DR. JEKYLL AND THE WOLFMAN (1971), NIGHT OF THE HOWLING BEAST (1975; facing off against a Yeti), THE CRAVING (1980; facing off against Elisabeth Bathory), THE BEAST AND THE MAGIC SWORD (1983), LYCANTROPUS: THE MOONLIGHT MURDERS (1996) and the American production TOMB OF THE WEREWOLF (2003). Naschy scripted almost every single one of those, directed two of them and produced one.

The film had been issued on VHS by Dark Dreams, United and others, and a restored and uncut 81-minute print has been released by several companies; Anchor Bay and Deimos to name a few.


Witchcraft (1964)

Directed by:
Don Sharp

In my small hometown, there was a very old hotel located near the heart of the city that had been around since the early 1800s (nearly 200 years). It was finally demolished a few years back and I found my reaction to that a little bit surprising; I was a little upset and not entirely sure why. Perhaps because it was a familiar landmark I remember since childhood (after all - at five stories high - it was easily the largest structure in town) or perhaps because I recalled so many old black-and-white pictures of the place in its heyday. I wondered what this place was like when it was first built and it's hard to say who'd stayed there over the years. After all, where I come from is along the Ohio River, which was a popular route of travel for European settlers and political figures during the 19th century. Sure, the place was run down, possibly had major structural damage and was rumored to be filled with vagrants, bums and drug addicts, but deep down inside I hated the fact that no one bothered to restore or renovate it. You know, save it; save a piece of history. But I guess that's what we call progress; tearing down the old to make way for the new (though in this case, in place of the now-extinct hotel is just a vacant and usually overgrown lot).

Witchcraft is about (at least in part) the perils of progress and how 'making way for the new' with no reverence for, or undestanding of, the old, can lead to disasterous consequences. The film opens with the distressing sight of a bulldozer leveling ground in a cemetery, crushing tombstones in its path. Morgan Whitlock (Lon Chaney Jr.) is understandably furious since his family plot, which had been there for centuries, has just been destroyed. He'd already been warned numerous times that developers who purchased the land were planning to build new houses there (the town is having a sudden population boost) and was given the opportunity to relocate the graves, but Morgan was unwilling to budge. After all, many of his ancestors are buried there. And since his ancestors are witches and warlocks, he definitely knows it's not a bright idea to desecrate their resting places.

Wealthy land developer Bill Lanier (Jack Hedley), whose business partner Myles Forrester (Barry Lineham) was actually the one to OK the bulldozing over the Whitlock graves, and his family are then promptly haunted by the ghost of 17th Century witch Vanessa Whitlock (Yvette Rees), a great-great-great-great (or maybe great-great-great-great-great) grandmother of Morgan's. As rumor has it, Vanessa had been captured by townsfolk and buried alive for practicing the black arts. Those responsible for her early entombment were distant relatives of the Lanier clan, so needless to say Vanessa has a bone to pick with the Lanier descendants. Bill, along with his former tennis champion wife Tracy (Jill Dixon), his aunt Helen (Viola Keats), his younger brother Todd (David Weston) and his elderly grandmother Malvina (Marie Ney), who refuses to walk and hasn't left her bedroom since her husband died, all become targets.

To add extra complications, Todd has fallen in love with Morgan's niece Amy (Diane Clare), and members of both families frown upon the relationship. Vanessa uses "devil dolls" (voodoo dolls) to start killing people off. She drowns Forrester in his bathtub, makes Helen drive off a cliff and attempts to make Bill and Todd do the same. While the two men are away on business, Vanessa, Morgan and the rest of the 'circle of thirteen' (local devil worshippers) decide to strike out at the other Lanier family members. Malvina (who finally musters up the courage to get out of her chair and walk) is pushed down the stairs and Tracy ends up drugged drugged and tied to a sacrificial altar. Naturally the men show up just in the nick of time.

Though competently-made by Don Sharp (KISS OF THE VAMPIRE), this is lacking the wry black humor, thoughtfulness and intellectualism that made some other British Satanism / witchcraft movies from around this time - CURSE OF THE DEMON (1957) or NIGHT OF THE EAGLE (1962), for instance - so memorable. It's also a bit jumbled when you look past the sometimes handsome black-and-white images (the witch walking through a rainy cemetery, Satanists marching in single file through the woods, the witch slowly creeping up behind Malvina on the stairs, etc.). The film seems to finally side with the developers (the 'progress') who've trashed the cemetery, by revealing Morgan to be an evil warlock who doesn't mind sacrificing his neighbors' lives. And poor confused Amy, who decides to abide by her uncle and the old customs, pays the ultimate price for doing so. Even more interestingly, Amy is willing to risk her life by setting fire to the Satanic altar in an effort to save Todd, but Todd is unwilling to enter a burning building to try to save hers.

This film played theatrically in America on a double-bill with THE HORROR OF IT ALL (1963) and used a special "ghost deflector" gimmick (which was nothing more than a little green badge). It never saw the light of day on VHS and was forgotten for a very long time. MGM finally unearthed it for a belated DVD release where it was part of their Midnite Movies line and paired with DEVILS OF DARKNESS (1966).

While nothing special (which might account for its long-delayed home viewing debut), it's well-acted (sharp-featured Rees is particularly well-cast as the witch), nicely-photographed (by Arthur Lavis) and lit and makes good use of shadow and fog. It's also interesting to see Chaney in a British genre production, though his role is actually smaller than his top billing might lead one to believe. Prolific character actress Marianne Stone also has a small role as a secretary.


Yilmayan seytan (1972)

... aka: Deathless Devil, The
... aka: Deathless Man

Directed by:
Yilmaz Atadeniz

Here's a Turkish attempt at a 15 part serial... all packed into 80 mind-numbing, head-spinning minutes! Like many other Turkish films from the period, this is a carelessly slapped together paean to ineptitude that rips off its plot, characters and in many cases entire scenes (almost shot-for-shot) from other films. The main "inspiration" this time is the 1940 serial MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR SATAN, which ran 267 minutes. The film also draws from the Flash Gordon serial and the Fu Manchu films (the villain is a laughing, sneering, mustachioed megalomaniac dressed in Asian-style clothes obviously patterned after Ming the Merciless and Manchu), the James Bond films (with a handsome, suave, ladies man of a hero and lots of little special gadgets) and many super hero films; possibly even the Santo series (with a masked crime fighter who uses wrestling and karate moves and hides his true identity from everyone). In addition, actual footage from other movies is incorporated in here wherever it'll fit and it also steals snippets of its familiar-sounding scores; Dragnet, The Pink Panther and others. Hell, it even ends with the completely awesome and very catchy novelty electro-pop / disco song "Popcorn" (which was also used in the original release of the hilariously awful yeti / cannibal film SHRIEK OF THE MUTILATED).

Inventor and scientist Professor Dogan (Yalin Tolga) has created something called a "Tangait Mine," a device that he feels will forever change the world. I'm not even sure what the thing does since it never really explains, but an American professor is on his way to Istanbul to take a look at it. Criminal mastermind Doctor Satan (Erol Taş) is also interested in the device. His motivations are a bit sketchy, but he basically wants to get his hands on it and use it to take over the world. Meanwhile, Tekin (Kunt Tulgar) learns from his father Mr. Yilmaz (Muzaffer Tema) that he'd been adopted as an infant after his real father - a famous masked crime fighter Copperhead - was murdered by Doctor Satan. Tekin is given Copperhead's mask and a small golden snake used as a calling card before his adopted father (and his secretary) get stabbed to death by an intruder. And that's about it for the plot; Tekin and friends try to stop Doctor Satan from doing whatever it is he's doing.

Doctor Satan goes "ha ha ha ha ha" is a slow, deep voice every time something goes his way. He has a large, killer tin can robot (which would look subpar in a 1930s serial), "death bombs" (which attach to victims and can blow them up with the push of a button) and numerous henchmen (including one who has deadly throwing stars shaped like playing cards) at his disposal. The doctor's lair is decked out in all the usuals for this kind of thing; a basement torture chamber, a room with bullet proof glass windows, a room where the walls close in to crush people and various trap doors. He has somehow managed to get secret video cameras all over the place, including in our heroes headquarters and an airplane that's arriving from the U.S. (!), and follows everything on video monitors.

There are several other principal characters of note. Sevgi (Mine Mutlu), the professor's attractive daughter, gets kidnapped, tied up and then rescued at least three times. She also finds herself tied up in a flimsy crossbow death trap at one point. Bitik (Erol Günaydin) aka Bottom-of-the-barrel-forced-comic-relief, is Tekin's extremely annoying, mugging, bumbling idiot detective sidekick who fancies himself being Sherlock Holmes (and dresses the part). Sexy secretary Ayla (Tijen Doray) shows up to seduce the menfolk (she's actually working for Doctor Satan and associates).

The film contains cheap-looking sets and stupid sound effects (including *boing!* and *cuckoo! cuckoo!"), sometimes the actors look directly at the camera or off to the side to read their cue cards and there's a ton of horribly edited action scenes, taking place outside and indoors, on a truck and on a moving train. Our hero is pretty acrobatic; jumping from high places, leaping right through windows at the bad guys, scaling walls and doing flips, splits and cartwheels during his fights. This thing basically just zips right along from one action scene to the next with absolutely no attempt at pacing or scene continuity. During one scene, a fight begins inside, ends up on the roof and then is suddenly back inside again. On several different occasions, characters who are in safety of their headquarters one minute, then suddenly shown tied up in the bad guy's lair. Several of the characters manage to get themselves kidnapped over and over again.

A truly terrible film... but not an unentertaining one. Taş, who was a top star in his home country and famous there for his portrayal of various bad guys (primarily in action-adventures), later showed up in the Klaus Kinski vehicles THE HAND THAT FEEDS THE DEAD and LOVER OF THE MONSTER (both 1974 and shot in Turkey).

The Mondo Macabro DVD pairs this with the adventure / fantasy TARKAN VERSUS THE VIKINIGS (1971).


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