Sunday, October 30, 2011

Assignment Naschy: El Retorno De Walpurgis (1974)

aka Curse of the Devil

aka Return of the Werewolf

aka The Return of Walpurgis

In ye olden tymes of the middle ages, when everything was tinted quite yellow, the rather smug knight Irineus Daninsky (Paul Naschy) crushes the witch cult of the Bathorys. Daninsky probably shouldn't have announced his plans of evil smiting beforehand, for Elizabeth Bathory and her co-witches had more than enough time to curse his line before they die. It doesn't save the witches from getting hanged or burned at the stake, but Irineus' descendant of a few generations removed, Waldemar (of course also Paul Naschy), will encounter a whole bunch of problems because of it.

Waldemar lives in ye olden times of the not-19th century, when people dressed funny but - unless they are superstitious peasants - never acted any differently from the 70s; not even pre-marital sex seems to be much of a problem.

Anyway, on a hunt Waldemar shoots a wolf that looks remarkably like a dog but finds himself facing the dead body of a naked gypsy. Oops. Despite Waldemar's attempts at paying them off, the gypsies - probably fuelled by Bathory's curse, or not - decide to teach the guy a lesson with the help of good old Satan. Said lesson consists of first letting gypsy Ilona (Ines Morales) seduce the virginal Waldemar, only to then infect him with the curse of the werewolf.

From then on every full moon night sees Waldemar growing a very hairy face and going around killing off members of the local peasantry. Fortunately for him, there's also an axe murderer running free, so everyone - there's no difference between the wounds an axe or a wolfman leave, it seems - thinks the poor madmen is the guilty party.

When he's not growing more hair in his face than he has on his head, Waldemar spends his time romancing Kinga Wilowa (Fabiola Falcon), the daughter of an engineer newly arrived in town. The romance business is a good thing, too, for as we all know, it's the job of a loving woman to kill a wolfman, especially since Waldemar sure likes to whine about his cursed state once he realizes it, but just as surely doesn't do anything to stop himself from killing further. Too bad for the peasantry and Kinga's family.

This third film in my small, somewhat frightening Assignment Naschy project finds our actor/writer and sometimes director hero producing the up to now most coherent script I've seen by him. Gone are the wastelands of scenes that have no importance at all for the film's plot, gone too is most of the "tell, don't show important things" style, and if you're generous you may even be able to argue the script's pacing is somewhat less slow, even though it still isn't anything for the impatient.

These improvements in Naschy's writing certainly do result in a more coherent film, film a film even that actually seems to know what kind of story it wants to tell: the classic Universal wolfman tale with a bit more blood and breasts and a bit more backstory. Unfortunately, what the film wins in coherence and clarity it loses in dream-like mood and craziness. Where Naschy's other Daninsky films are balancing certain po-faced tendencies with the merry silliness of their slow-motion vampires or yeti-induced lycanthropy, El Retorno wants to be a serious, moody horror melodrama in the gothic mood. On one hand, that's an ambition I respect a lot, but on the other hand, it opens El Retorno up to comparisons with films like Universal's Wolfman and Hammer's The Curse of the Werewolf, it just can't stand up to, even though it is trying its best.

While the acting is pretty decent this time around, Naschy sure is neither an Oliver Reed nor a Lon Chaney Junior (against whose acting much can be said, but who was a hell of a human face for a werewolf), and while El Retorno's script sure is slicker than those of many Naschy films, it is still pretty awkward in comparison to the films it has set its eyes on.

El Retorno's visual side deserves some praise, though. Director Carlos Aured has a fine eye for creating mood through the play of light and shadows, and some rather nifty framing tricks. Aured is certainly helped here by access to some spooky looking locations, as well as a few effective sets. I assume he'd have been able to make quite a nice piece of gothic horror under more fortunate circumstances.

It is a bit ironic that I enjoyed El Retorno De Walpurgis the least of the three movies I've watched as a part of Assignment Naschy until now, even though it's the technically most accomplished of the films, as well as the least idiosyncratic one. It's the old problem with merely competent films being much less interesting than films that are batshit insane, I suspect.


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