Friday, November 25, 2011

Assignment Naschy: El Retorno Del Hombre Lobo (1980)

aka Night of the Werewolf

aka The Craving

aka Return of the Wolfman

As you know, Hungarian countess Elizabeth Bathory (Julia Saly) got in a bit of trouble with the Church for black magic, cannibalism, Satanism and that little thing with bathing in the blood of virgins, leading to the execution of her and her co-satanists and servants. Among those servants was the wolfman Waldemar Daninsky (of course Paul Naschy). Wally wasn't in it for Satan but for reasons of mind control, but clearly, that's not a thing that saves one from death by silver cross through the heart by the loving hands of the Church.

Centuries later, a trio of anthropologists and parapsychologists - Erika (Silvia Aguilar), Karin (Azucena Hernández) and Barbara (Pilar Alcón) - have spent years trying to find the place where Bathory and her servants are buried, and have now finally found it. Little do Karin and Barbara realize that Erika isn't on the side of science(!) anymore but has been converted to the ways of black magic through telepathic contact with the dead and buried Bathory. Consequently, Erika isn't planning on just examining the countess's grave but wants to revive its inhabitant with the help of a magical amulet and the blood of her two friends.

Some undefined space of time before that, while Erika is still killing to get the amulet and the other women are waiting around in Rome, graverobbers have found the crypt of Waldemar. Clearly, a silver cross is too much of a temptation not to steal it for them, even if it is sticking in a corpse's chest, and so the wolfman lives and (oh so tragically, if "tragic" means "without ever doing anything to avoid it") kills again. Together with supposed witch Mircalla (Beatriz Elorrieta) he off-screen-rescues from angry villagers, Wally moves into an abandoned castle close by the ruins and the system of crypts and underground tunnels where Elizabeth is buried, seemingly planning to wait around until a woman comes around who will love him enough to sacrifice herself to kill him.

When the trio of scientists arrives in the area, it fastly becomes clear that Karin is exactly the woman Waldemar has been looking for, but before they can commit double suicide, there are a few other problems for the couple to solve, for Erika manages to bring Bathory back to unlife as a vampire with a taste for creating other female vampires and ambitions for world and wolfman domination. Obviously, there's a wolfman versus vampire women throw-down standing between our heroes and their preferred end.

Even though I still have my problems with various elements of Paul Naschy's creative persona, my fastly growing experience with his body of work has shown the man to be the sort of artist capable and willing to learn from his mistakes, try new things even in the context of a long-running series like the Daninsky films, and improve his weak spots with every film he makes. To my eyes, this sort of passion for improving on previous efforts instead of coasting on their successes deserves much respect.

In El Retorno's case, Naschy is taking the improving pretty far, for the film is a re-working of the man's earlier Noche De Walpurgis, with many of the old film's problems removed and additions made that make the film much more dramatically involved and less random in its feel and structure. Even those of Naschy's weaknesses as a scriptwriter that reappear like bad pennies - namely a tendency to tell in stiffly expository dialogue scenes what he really should be showing - are comparatively reigned in and even make a certain amount of sense this time around. In El Retorno, Naschy isn't showing certain things because they may be important for the plot but are just not very interesting to watch, or are, like the process of Waldemar and Karin falling in love with each other, supposedly so natural - we are talking about the perfect male specimen here, after all - that there's just no need to dwell on them.

Transitions are left out completely, unless they involve skimpily clad vampire women returning into their graves (priorities, you know), which surprisingly does wonders to tighten the film's pacing as well as helps produce the dream-like mood continental European horror in the early 80s had often already lost.

For El Retorno, Naschy has also entered the director's chair, and instead of ending in a megalomaniac clusterfuck, this actually results in a Daninsky film that for once feels like a whole, losing the messiness I now suspect to be a result of directors and scriptwriter/lead actor of the other films in the series not seeing eye to eye about what they were trying to achieve. The price for this new-won unity of purpose is the loss of the batshit craziness I've learned to associate with Naschy, but Naschy the director replaces craziness with oodles of gothic mood and some very supernatural and weird (capital w version) feeling vampire women who very convincingly move from the seductive to the animalistic and back again, like they move from otherworldly gliding to predatory leaps. Julia Saly (who did work quite a bit with Naschy), Silvia Aguilar and Beatriz Elorrieta are properly great as the vampires, too, adding a distance and a sense for melodrama and some pretty fantastic screeching noises to their roles and making the perfect foil for Naschy's by now excellent wolfman and Azucena Hernández' sometimes feisty, sometimes whimpering (always doomed) heroine.

In Retorno, Naschy manages to unite his two main interests of his work - the comic book/pulp stylings and the more atmospheric parts inspired by Universal and Hammer horror - until they become something all his own. Turns out I don't miss the craziness of many of his other films at all in this case.


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