Monday, October 29, 2007

Paul Naschy, The Once and Future King of Spanish Horror

Some guys get a tie from their spouse for their fortieth birthday. I got monsters.

Rita earned her cool-for-a-girl stripes once more by taking me to my first Fangoria Weekend of Horrors Convention in May. This entry from Rita's eminently worthwhile Blog covers the event with customary wit and aplomb, but in anticipation of my iminent blathering she deliberately omitted the Convention's rarest treat (and the personal highlight for me).

Most of the guests at the Con were filmmakers and actors solidly rooted in current horror cinema--guys like Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, and Dog Soldiers/The Descent director Neil Marshall--with one fascinating exception: Fangoria editor/convention coordinator Anthony Timpone booked legendary Spanish actor/director Paul Naschy for a rare US visit.

If you're not a horror obsessive, you've likely never heard of Naschy. He's been directing, writing, and starring in horror movies since the late 1960's, but most of his efforts wound up haphazardly edited, absurdly dubbed and re-titled by the time they ended up on stateside drive-in and TV screens in the '70's and '80's. That's a sharp contrast to his hometown reputation as an honest-to-God pioneer, an important figure in European horror cinema and Spain's first (and to date, only) international horror star (see the excellent tribute site, Mark of Naschy, for a more comprehensive bio).

Born Jacinto Molina, he grew up in the shadow of the Spanish Civil War and the regime of Generalissimo Franco, seeking escape in movie theaters as a boy. His love of horror films led Molina to eventually write a script for a werewolf flick (La Marca del Hombre Lobo/Mark of the Wolfman) in 1967. The screenplay got greenlit, and then the producers--scrambling for a star for their shocker when prospective werewolf Lon Chaney Jr. took ill--offered the part to Molina by default. One quick name-change later, Molina became Paul Naschy and took the lead. La Marca del Hombre Lobo was a huge hit throughout Europe, and in the US under the unlikely title Frankenstein's Bloody Terror.

His catalogue of work is a fascinating anomaly: Most of his very traditional gothic epics feature classic movie monsters (he's played werewolves, mummies, and vampires over the years), but with a liberal helping of violence and sexuality ladled on top. Even more than the output of Hammer Studios, the films of Paul Naschy impacted European horror by forming the missing link between the old-school Universal gothic classics and the more visceral thrills that pack modern theaters. Without the success of Naschy's chillers, the films of highly regarded Spanish director Amando De Ossorio would likely never have been made, and I'd be willing to argue that Guillermo Del Toro's weld of supernatural wonder and graphic horror likewise exists thanks to the ripple effect caused by Paul Naschy.

A former World-Class Weightlifter, Naschy himself makes for a physically unlikely horror star--compact, barrel-chested and blessed with an everyman face that rests somewhere between John Belushi, Bob Hoskins and Claude Rains. But like his hero Lon Chaney Jr., the Spanish actor/terror auteur overcame his somewhat incongruous appearance to deliver capable performances in literally dozens of horror features. Seeing unexpurgated versions of his movies used to be darn near impossible, but the rabid demand for horror on DVD (Viva, fellow horror nerds!!) has led to an explosion of uncut (and in some cases, astonishingly high-quality) prints of the man's thrillers in sparkling digital format.

I won't lie to you: Some of Naschy's chillers can be a chore to sit through. The sluggish pacing of the worst of them can put you under quicker than a bellyful of Thanksgiving turkey, and even the best of them fall short of masterpiece status. But when everything clicks, a Paul Naschy horror movie can be the best of both worlds--comfortably old-fashioned and deliciously shocking in equal measure.

The following list is by no means definitive: Several of Naschy's nearly 100(!) movies still have yet to be released on domestic DVD, and I'm still not caught up on some of the most important efforts in his filmography like Rojo Sangre (purportedly Naschy's 2004 pulp-horror equivalent of Fellini's 8 1/2). But the choices below make for a good starting point for experiencing Spain's Public Boogeyman Number One.

Frankenstein's Bloody Terror (released on DVD by Media Blasters/Shriek Show, originally released in 1968): FBT introduces Naschy's signature character, Waldemar Daninsky the melancholy werewolf. US distributor Independent International laughably explained the lack of a Frankenstein's monster with a crudely-animated prelude detailing Dr. Frankenstein's bite from a werewolf, which cursed future generations with lycanthropy. The movie plastered with this tackiness, however, is a solidly entertaining gothic chiller, expansively shot in 70mm with a rich sixties pallette of psychedelic colors. Naschy puts his physical vigor to good use as the most energetic werewolf who ever sprouted fur and fangs, and the movie delivers two really cool vampires (Julian Ugarte and Aurora de Alba) to go tooth-and-fang against our anti-hero.

Assignment: Terror (not out on DVD, 1970): Michael Rennie plays an alien who brings to life Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Mummy, and (natch) Waldemar Daninsky's lycanthrope for a battle royale with the fate of the world in the balance. Pure, wall-to-wall insanity that sorta casts aside Daninsky's usual pathos, while leaving, in its stead...Wall-to-wall insanity. Retroflicks has put this out on DVD-R, but a real-live domestic DVD issue would be really appreciated.

Werewolf Shadow (AKA Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman, La Noche de Walpurgis, Anchor Bay Entertainment, 1971): Two lovely travellers journey into remote French hinterlands to seek out the grave of Countess Wandessa, a long-dead European royal and possible vampire. Naturally one of the girls finds out the hard way that Wandessa's for real, and it's up to the girls' recent ally, the mysterious Waldemar Daninsky, to battle vampiric forces once more. Director Leon Klimovsky adds visual elegance to the minimalist storyline, with stretches of slow-motion photography adding a languid, dreamlike quality to the proceedings. Anchor Bay's letterboxed DVD is struck from a gorgeous print.

Exorcism (BCI/Eclipse, 1975): Naschy plays a noble priest in one of his few genuinely heroic roles, as he goes through the spirit-liberating paces with a possessed young woman (Grace Mills). Naschy allegedly wrote the script before William Friedkin's movie came out, but it's still a pretty flagrant rip-off of the central concept. Entertaining as it is, the movie's nothing special, but Naschy's solid work is.

Night of the Werewolf (BCI/Eclipse, 1980): Naschy writes, directs, and stars in this semi-remake of Werewolf Shadow, and it's one of his most thrilling and visually rich horror movies. As a director, he pays visual homage to some of his heroes (Mario Bava, James Whale), and his performance as the tormented Daninsky here is his most resonant and charismatic. He's more than matched by the haunting Julia Saly as the evil countess. BCI/Eclipse presents a stunning transfer, cut scenes, and a great Naschy interview.

Crimson (Image, 1973): The Italian Job meets The Brain that Wouldn't Die, as Naschy plays a safe-cracker who takes a bullet to the noggin. His fellow bank-robbers take him to a doctor who explains that his advanced brain trauma can only be solved by replacing the damaged grey matter with fresh tissue from an even-more-evil criminal known as The Sadist. A wild-and-wooly pulp shocker replete with hysterical dubbed dialogue, flying bullets, a deliciously strange 70's Velveeta musical score, weird dance numbers, and copious absurdity.

Follow-Up Study: Paul Naschy, Memoirs of a Wolfman (Midnight Marquee Press, 2000): Naschy's autobiography isn't exactly a literary triumph (his florid writing style approaches romance-novel overcooking in places), but his love of film and his amazing life come through richly in the pages. And unlike most filmmakers whose worst-case scenarios usually involve finiancial backers bailing, Naschy made movies under the watchful eye of an honest-to-God military regime. Take that, James Cameron.

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