My friends, The Duke and I have been in mourning for quite some time now. As longtime readers are doubtless aware, Spanish horror icon and world-class creative force of nature Paul Naschy, nee Jacinto Molina, passed away in November of last year from pancreatic cancer. Paul was and continues to be the patron saint of Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies, the impetus of the project itself and the subject of its very first review. Over the course of our explorations into the wild and the woolly of world cinema, Naschy has always been the giant upon whose shoulders we planted our feet--the cream in our coffee, the wind beneath our wings, the everlasting inspiration for all we do and say.
In the months since Naschy's death, I've continued to watch and enjoy his movies, but have felt strangely unequal to the task of writing about them. They have still brought me the kind of joy rarely matched by any other filmmaker's oeuvre, but when it came to putting fingers to keyboard or pen to paper to sing their praises, my muse would invariably flee. Perhaps the wound was still too raw, the joy too tinged with bittersweet nostalgia and the dark sour void of our loss. The King is dead--how can I, his unworthy knight, sally forth again into this newly silent realm?
But then, a voice called out to me from across the vastness of time, if not indeed from beyond the very grave. It spoke words of comfort, of encouragement, of the importance of the yet-unaccomplished quest. It was Naschy's voice, of course, speaking from the awe-inspiring monument of one of his greatest works. The magnum opus? 1973's El Caminante, aka The Traveler.
We open in Medieval Europe--Flanders, perhaps?--to find bearded, rag-clad traveler Leonardo (Naschy) walking a dusty path. He happens upon another traveler--a formerly rich gambler now down on his luck--who offers to share his wine and food in exchange for company. He tips Leonardo of a farm about fifteen miles away, where the kind farmer and his lovely wife opened their doors to him and gave him the bounty they now enjoy. However, when the gambler expresses doubts about Leonardo's account of his own military service, the Traveler repays the insult by blinding his benefactor with ash and then stabbing him in the throat! Helping himself to the remains of the dead man's food and gold, Leonardo sets off again. "The world is so beautiful," he says to himself, cryptically. "I shall enjoy it!"
For the rest of the movie we follow Leonardo on his travels, witnessing his various adventures. It's a tale in the classic picaresque form, as our Traveler is a rascal and a rogue, living by his wits, and not above theft, rape, and outright murder in pursuit of a more comfortable fortune. A philosopher as well as an anti-hero, Leonardo is prone to pronouncements like, "Man is the only true evil being of Creation," and "Religion, qualms, conscience...that's all loser's tripe!" As time and time again his precepts are proven true, the film hints that our Traveler may indeed be much more than he seems...
After his initial murder, Leonardo's next encounter is with a farmer tending his crops--and by "tending" I mean "fertilizing them with his own fundament!" As the squatting horticulturist sits helpless mid-loaf, Leonardo ransacks his melon patch, then casts a large stone with deadly accuracy, nearly bashing the old man's brains in and sending him sprawling backward into his own filth-pile! It's the first medieval-style scatological slapstick we see in the film, and it certainly will not be the last.
A bit later Leonardo meets a blind scholar and his young serving boy Tomás (David Rocha, who would work with Naschy again in Night of the Werewolf ). Undetected by the old man, Leonardo listens as the scholar preaches frugality, using this lesson as an excuse to short the kid on rations and abuse him when he complains. When the scholar sends Tomás for water, Leo calls the boy over and sends him back with a cup full of steaming Naschy piss! The old man takes a stiff snort and sputters curses, whereupon Leo nearly drowns him in the river before making off with his money, his food, and his serving boy.
Together, Leo and Tomás head to the farmhouse where the gambler got his money, and there meet the farmer and his wife Inés (the lovely Silvia Aguilar, whose later Naschy credits include Human Beasts , Night of the Werewolf , and the disastrous comedy flop Madrid al desnudo ). The farmer is as kind as his reputation, and leaves Leo to chop firewood while he meekly tends the fields of his master. Inés, who has a maimed leg due to an accident, has little else wrong with her, but apparently the farmer's been falling behind in his husbandry, IYKWIM. Leo sneers after his host, "You benighted peasant--your wife is in heat and yearning! You shouldn't leave her alone with me!" Which is of course true of any character Naschy plays, but in this case particularly so.
graphically making out with her leg wound, working his tongue over the scar tissue like it was Wonka's Lickable Wallpaper! Soon Inés is riding the Great White Horse. "Oh, my goodness!" she gasps. "The pleasure! I've never felt anything like this before! It's like...like I'm being possessed by the Devil!" Oh rrrreaallly....?
Once he's taken her to the heights (depths?) of pleasure, Leo demands payment for his stud services in the form of all the cash in the house. When Inés claims poverty and prays to the Apostles to deliver her, things turn ugly. "The Apostles were not on your mind when we were fornicating last night!" he reminds her, and threatens violence unless she coughs up the loot. Disappointed in the paltry haul, Leo further hints, "A shabby loot. If you only knew by whom you were had!" Not one to leave without making his mark, Leo finishes by carving an upside-down cross on Inés's backside!
"idiot," and clearly has a great time going nearly full-retard, pulling the lady's hair, stroking her breasts, and finally pissing on her shoes! The offense doesn't stop the woman noticing the size of his "rod" however.)
That dirty deed done, they next seek shelter with Doña Aurora, a widowed aristocrat whose daughter is on the verge of death. Leonardo says he will save the girl with his healing arts, but only if Mom will have sex with him in exchange. Desperate, the lady agrees, and in the morning her little tot is looking the picture of health. However, after Naschy takes his booty (which is to say, HER booty) and leaves, the child quickly falls ill again and succumbs. As if her sudden bereavement and loss of honor isn't enough, Aurora soon finds she's pregnant with Leo's child! And what rough beast is this?
The remainder of the journey takes a downward turn for Leo. After killing a Lothario and taking his place with his married mistress (and therafter marking her cuckolded husband with another asswards St. Peter's Cross), Leo and Tomás are themselves robbed and left to start over again. Luckily they are able to waylay a couple of priests who stop to help them, proving once again that in horror movies, Good Samaritans are suckers. Disguised as men of the cloth they enter a convent for shelter, where Leo quickly seduces the Mother Superior, Elvira (Blanca Estrada of The Ghost Galleon, aka Blind Dead 3). He also exposes a horny orchard boy as the sexual "demon" who's been haunting the nuns, and is nearly killed by the boy for his trouble! Thereafter our pair find themselves at a brothel--which is the best place to go if no nunneries are available, clearly--and go to work for the Madame as bouncers. Of course they get their pick of the staff as payment, leading to a fast-motion montage that lacks only Yakkety Sax to be a Benny Hill moment!
At last it seems that Leonardo's wickedness has caught up with him when he and the Madame agree to sell Tomás's favors to a powerful gay nobleman. After all, Leo reasons, "no arsehole on earth is worth 100 ducats...but then, no friendship is worth 100 ducats either!" The deal goes down, and Leo robs the matron of her cut and then heads out on the road alone. Tomás has learned his teacher's ruthless lessons well, however, and with his new lover's support sets out in pursuit. They catch up to Leonardo, who is beaten, berated, and finally crucified in a ruined abbey for the striking climactic scene. Hanging helpless across from a stone Jesus, Leonardo offers his own Calgary speech: "Good Lord!" he cries out, "How could You give Your life for these pigs? I don't understand! I don't understand!"
End spoilers coming, if you care by this point:
The film comes around to end pretty much where it began, with Leo crippled and limping on the road, cooking his meal while another traveler comes up beside him. Leo offers him food and drink, anything to assuage his unbearable loneliness. To pass the time, Leonardo tells a fascinating tale.
"Let me tell you an old legend. A tale about the Devil. Once upon a time, the Devil was getting bored in Hell. And so, transformed into a mortal, he chose to visit Earth. He accepted all the weaknesses that came with living in the flesh. He could get sick, or even die. He rarely used his powers, for he thought things would be easy. He started off poor, so that he could move up through mischief and evilness. What human could stand up to him? After all, he was the Devil.
"The Devil went through every felony. He fornicated, killed, cheated, stole...and eventually became rich. He was having fun. He was happy. He begat a son, and he loved. But then his luck began to change. He was swindled, mocked, robbed and ravaged. Love made him lose his power. He ended up in misery. And the poor Devil found out that men were more wicked than himself."
Paul Naschy seldom gets the praise I think he deserves as an actor, though I admit upfront my bias in this regard. However, in El Caminante he gives a tour de force performance that anyone should be able to appreciate. His sneer of cold command, the malevolent intelligence in every gaze, the world-weary but still bemused manner of his philosophical lessons--it's a study in Evil with a capital "E" that surpasses even his portrayal of Alaric de Marnac, in my opinion. In fact, as I said to the Duke of DVD after our viewing: "You know how we always wished Paul and Coffin Joe had made a movie together? Well, Leonardo IS Paul's Coffin Joe!" And if you don't know what high praise that is...well, I don't know what to tell you.
The movie also seems a very personal work from Naschy, who also wrote and directed. (According to the indispensable Mark of Naschy website and the man himself in his autobiography, Paul counted this one of his best films, and possibly his personal favorite.) In addition to the black comedy and bemused if bleak view of humanity the story offers, Naschy also waxes serious when Leonardo sends Tomás visions of the future in a dream. These take the form of stock footage from World War II concentration camps and presumably the Spanish Civil War, both extremely formative influences on Paul's personal development. The grainy black and white images of bombs dropping, mass graves, and marching soldiers are in stark contrast to the sumptuous color cinematography by Alejandro Ulloa in the rest of the film, and cast an intentional pall on the film's comic elements that is as jarring as it is effective.
I first became aware of this movie while reading Naschy's excellent autobiography, Memoirs of a Wolfman. (Order a copy now, and damn the cost!). Never released to English-speaking audiences, El Caminante has been criminally unseen on this side of the pond, at least by the tragically monolingual. Fortunately, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, fans have taken up the gauntlet and subtitled the previously unsubtitled film--to those involved in this labor of love, my heartfelt and eternal thanks, because this movie, from my point of view, is just about perfect. Well-made, wonderfully acted, full of the fantastique elements and gorgeous Eurobabe nudity we know and love from Naschy, and so very, very much more...really, this one has it all.
For now these bootlegs are all that's available for English speakers to my knowledge, which is a shame--this movie needs to be seen by a much, much wider audience, especially now that Paul's contribution to world horror cinema is better appreciated. Still, if you're a fan of Naschy or 70s fantastique in general, you NEED to track down a copy, by hook or by crook. Really, it's just that good.
I remember the night that I learned Paul Naschy had died, I felt I needed to watch one of his films to mark his passing. I chose Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (ably and entertainingly reviewed here by Empress Kate of Love Train for the Tenebrous Empire). I was worried that my sadness at his death would color my enjoyment of the film, that I'd never be able to get through it without wallowing in the loss. However, once the movie began and the story sucked me in, the sadness disappeared, leaving only that contagious, chest-filling joy that has always been Naschy's peculiar gift. He keeps on giving, even now--reasons to smile, reasons to thrill, reasons to keep on singing his praises. He's still with me--with us--and I can never thank him enough.
All the Thumbs, ever.
I miss you, Paul.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Thanks to you, my friend.
Some more great images from El Caminante (1979):