Thursday, September 6, 2007

Frankenstein's Bloody Terror (1968): or, Don't Bring a Vampire to a Werewolf Fight

On Halloween Night 2006 I got to sit down and witness the birth of a god. Except it was even better than Venus rising from the waves, Athena leaping from the split skull of Zeus, or a manger-cam showing the bloodied but eerily silent Savior entering the world through Mother Mary's buh-gina: this was FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR! This was the film debut of Jacinto Molina, known ever after to legions of grateful and worshipful horror fans as Paul "Freaking" Naschy, and also the first movie to feature that international horror icon Waldemar Daninsky as a character. (Not to mention being Jacinto's first screenwriting credit.) In this movie we see the beginnings of everything that would make Naschy's later movies tick, from the doomed love affair with the aristocratic redhead, to the internal battle between the cursed man's better nature and his bestial id, to the external battle between the ferocious but still partly human werewolf and more sinister supernatural forces. We even get a little devil worship and sensuality thrown in at no extra charge, though these elements would not achieve and even paradoxically surpass their potential until later flicks like Curse of the Devil and WWvVW. Yes, this movie almost has it all, and what it lacks, it points the way toward for the future. This is where it all began, so if you're a Naschy fanatic (and how could you not be?) it's 91 minutes of joy.

We start out with a prime example of the low-budget charm of most of Jacinto's efforts. Because the American distributors wanted to be able to package their horror films for drive-ins as "theme double features," they needed another Frankenstein flick to go with some piece of dreck (maybe Frankenstein vs. the Monster from Space or something), and so inserted a gleefully nonsensical animated credit sequence to turn this movie (originally titled La Marca del Hombre-Lobo, or The Mark of the Wolfman) into a Frankenstein flick. Get clear on this from the start--there is NOTHING about Frankenstein in this movie. Absolutely zilch. Not even so much as a glancing mention. Everything that ties this movie to Frankenstein happens in the first 2 minutes after the opening credits, all in animated and voice-overed format.

After the title splash of FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR!, we are informed deliciously that the movie is shot in "70mm Chill-O-Rama!" And let me tell you, I can totally feel the difference between Chill-O-Rama and regular 70mm. It's chillier, and much more festive. Anyway, then we get a cartoon pic of the Frankenstein monster, and a voice-over informs us that the ancient family of monster makers, because of their crimes, were cursed with the mark of the werewolf! And so FRANKENstein became WOLFstein! All this while the cartoon monster changes into a cartoon werewolf, and the caption reading "Frankenstein" mutates into the word "Wolfstein." The v-o even repeats it a few times, with the words and pictures flashing back and forth like neon lights: FRANKENstein! WOLFstein! FRANKENstein! WOLFstein!" Having firmly established the link between this flick and Mary Shelly, we're ready to move on.

See you later folks! Enjoy the show!

When the movie proper opens, we're at a costume ball in the mansion of the local Count. The count himself is NOT a vampire, but rather a bully-looking elderly lord joking through his fuller-brush whiskers to a friend of his about their kids, who are dancing together and apparently something of a romantic item. The lord and his friend deliver a lot of helpful exposition while we admire the finely dressed ballroom set and the cool old-style masquerade outfits. Then a strange figure appears in a flamboyantly crimson rogue's costume, complete with pantaloons, a red Robin Hood hat with audaciously long feather, and black mask that fails to conceal the virile masculine handsomosity beneath--yes, it's Naschy, and he looks AWESOME. Of course this stranger heads straight for the young red-haired countess and her boyfriend Rudolph, quickly driving the scrawny lad away by sheer force of manliness. As they begin to dance, we get one of the best introductory lines in any movie ever.

Young Countess: "Who are you?"
Naschy: "Haven't you guessed? I'm His Satanic Majesty!"

Oh, Paul, take me NOW! Right here by the punch bowl!

It's not long before we're at La Casa de Daninsky, learning more about Waldemar (for yes, of course 'tis he) from another pair of old folks delivering useful exposition. This is a device that is sorely underused--like the Greek chorus, whenever you have two old folks talking to each other, you might as well throw in loads of exposition. I mean, they're old, what else have they got to do? The young countess gets exposed to more of Jacinto's powerful pheromones, and it becomes clear that sooner or later she will be his. Rudolph will have to make do with sloppy seconds.

Still, the countess tries to play both sides against the middle, going on a nature walk with Rudolph to the old abandoned castle near Waldemar's property. They decide to explore ("It'll be fun! What could possibly happen to us?") and the door slams ominously behind them. Is it some revenant satanic monk returned from the grave to wreak vengeance? No, it's just Waldemar, who is making sure that the countess gets a chance to compare Rudolph's physique to that of His Beefy Satanic Majesty. Poor Rudolph.

We learn that the family who used to own the property, name of WOLFSTEIN, were rumored to have werewolves in the bloodline, and that Lord Wolfstein even now lies in the crypt, a soon-to-be-familiar silver dagger rooted between his ribs. Contrary to expectations, the group leaves well enough alone, but as Rudolph drives away, petulantly jealous (as well he should be), he nearly runs a pair of gypsies off the road, greatly angering them. (B-Movie rule of thumb: NEVER PISS OFF A GYPSY.) Waldemar shows up a moment later, gallantly helps them out, and suggests they go to Castle Wolfstein for shelter from the upcoming storm. They do so, but quickly show themselves to be gypsies of the dirty thieving variety by stealing wine from the cellar, getting drunk, and planning to rob the grave of the lord of the manor. Predictably one of the first things they steal is the silver dagger from Lord Wolfstein's tomb, with all too predictable results. A werewolf is on the loose, and it's NOT Daninsky!

After a couple of aristocrats are killed offscreen, the Count organizes a wolf hunt to rid the countryside of the scourge. Waldemar and Rudolph end up hunting buddies, and even though Rudolph is very rude, Waldemar still risks his life to save Rudolph from the rampaging wolf man ('cuz that's how Waldy rollz), once again with predictable and tragic results. Now cursed with La Marca del Hombre-Lobo, he and his newly grateful best friend Rudolph must return to Casa Daninsky and chain Waldemar up before the full moon comes.

You think these huge pecs are just for decoration?

Of course THE CHAINS, THEY DO NOTHING! After an interesting transformation sequence (a sort of melting-screen), Waldemar is on the loose. As usual, it's always the peasants who get hurt. A pair of field laborers end up on the wrong end of Waldemar's fangs, in a thrilling sequence where we get our first LEAP ATTACKS, which are also some of the best (at least until the somersault off the balcony in Curse of the Devil, which is the all-time gold standard). The female peasant is mauled and murdered, but the poor male peasant is beaten, has his throat ripped out, and then gets SET ON FIRE. That's Dethklok-style brutality, right there.

The next night we find the countess searching for Waldemar while Rudolph tries to protect her from a knowledge that will only bring her pain. She's persistent, though, and finds Waldemar in the dungeon of castle Wolfstein, locked up, pleading for death before he kills again. They instead do a little reading in the castle library and discover some letters from Lord Wolfstein to a Dr. Mikelhov, who was working with the wolfed-out lord to find a cure before his first death. Though the letter is 40 years old, they try to contact Dr. Mikelhov, who agrees to come and do what he can for Daninsky. However, when the good doctor and his wife arrive in the fog in a wonderfully shot sequence, it's clear something's a bit off about them. Instead of curing Waldemar, the doctor chains Daninsky to a wall while Ms. Mikelhov tempts and seduces Rudolph, revealing just before he falls into her bed a set of bright white fangs.

Yes, they're VAMPIRES. What are the chances, huh?

And then I sang another chorus, and the crowd went NUTS!

So Rudolph becomes the blood-slave of Ms. Mikelhov, the young countess is similarly hyp-mo-tized by the Doctor, and somehow the vamps capture Lord Wolfstein and chain him in the same cell as Waldemar, for who knows what evil purpose. But when the full moon hits both cursed men wolf out, teasing us with the thought of a ww vs. vamp tag team death match. But it's not to be, as Lord Greywolf foolishly attacks Waldemar, and is turned to ww-jerky by the younger, beefier lycan. The next night Waldemar returns, stakes the lady vamp, and finds the coffin of Dr. Mikelhov, who rises from his grave just as the full moon comes up. What timing! LET'S GET IT ON!

But the vampire is too smart to throw down with Daninsky, instead whisking the countess away in the first of the patented dreamlike vampire sequences: very operatic costumes with slow motion and stylized choreography. Waldemar follows in full ferocious wolf-out mode, a nice contrast with the almost ballet-graceful movements of the vampire. The final battle is anticlimactic, though, as Waldemar puts the doctor down like a sick chipmunk and then is pumped full of silver by the young countess for a tragic but satisfying conclusion.

So there's a lot of great stuff here. The cinematography isn't great, with the exception of the vampire dance sequence, but the plot is convoluted and wild, the visuals nicely put-together, and the action pretty constant. Also being able to see the very beginning of the Daninsky mythos is a real treat, and Naschy does spectacularly in his first acting assignment, his charisma just bleeding through the screen. The only thing lacking is the crossing of that line from sensuality to out-and-out eroticism, as this first flick had none of the nudity that would spice up the later Daninsky chronicles. But there is definitely a hint of that here--the female vamp is very seductive, and the gypsy girl early in the movie has a vitality and natural sexiness that cannot be denied. And the countess, of course, is a Eurobabe hottie. (In one particular scene Rudolph and Waldemar find her sprawled atop the vampire's coffin in a pointedly post-coital pose.) And there's lots of great stuff and fun to be had. 3.75 thumbs for this genesis of all things Naschy.

You want a piece of me? DO YOU, PUNK?

There's also a great interview on the DVD where Naschy talks about the movie and some of the difficulties making it, and also claims his rightful credit for coming up with the vampire/werewolf war (the subtitler even uses the term "lycans"--take that, Underworld!). It's poorly subtitled otherwise, though, as when Jacinto is talking about Lon Chaney Jr.'s movies and the character Lawrence Talbot, which the subtitler inexplicably writes as "Lawrence STEWART." Come on, Jacinto is CLEARLY saying "Talbot"! But a good interview and worth watching.

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