Saturday, July 28, 2012

EMPUSA (2010): or, Naschy's Final Bow

A little more than five years ago, the Duke of DVD and I started this blog with a review of Vengeance of the Zombies (1973). That film was and is a perfect example of everything Mad Mad Mad Mad Movies has sought to celebrate, a little-known slice of insane and deliriously entertaining cinema that brought us so much joy, we just had to share it with the world. It was also the first movie we had ever seen featuring the legendary hunk of monstrous manliness that is Jacinto Molina, better known to us all as Paul "Fucking" Naschy. Over half a decade and more than 350 reviews, Paul has been the patron saint of our site, inspiring us to continue our search for treasure in the forgotten realms of b-movie madness, and providing an immovable foundation on which we have tried to build a fitting tribute. His frequent appearances here only give a small glimpse of the wonder he has afforded us, the joy he has so generously given.

So it's only fitting that, in this belated 5th Anniversary Post, I come back to the man who started it all. And ironic perhaps that I do so with the film that, in a way, ended it all: Paul's very last starring role in a feature film, Empusa (2010). I admit, going into this flick, I was a little worried--I'd been waiting for this since August of 2007, two years before Naschy's death, when I heard that principal photography was finished and post-production had begun. As the months passed, my excitement flowed and ebbed, and now at last here it was, ready to be watched. Could it possibly live up to my anticipation? Would it be a fitting end to my idol's magnificent career? Would it deliver the madness and joy I craved, or would it fall flat? Would Empusa (perish the thought) disappoint?

Ah, Paul, fogive me. I should never have doubted you.

J&B: the Breakfast of Champions
 In a beautiful resort city somewhere on the sunny coast of Spain, retiree Abel (Naschy, whose long flowing wig and array of do-rags tread the line between ridiculous and awesome) lives a simple, quiet life. He spends his days walking the beach with his fisherman friend Victor (Antonio Mayans) and his nights between the legs of innkeeper/saloon girl Natalia (María Jesús Solina). He writes about his avocational occult researches, socializes with local aristocrat Baron Ulrich (Paco Racionero),  takes recreational barbiturates and consumes gallons of undiluted absinthe. You know, the simple pleasures.

His peaceful routine is shattered, however, when one day he and Victor almost literally stumble over a grisly discovery on the beach: the severed right hand of a young woman, bearing a very strange wrist tattoo. Over the strenuous objections of his friend, Abel takes the hand back to his apartment and sticks it in the fridge,, further research or something. Abel promises Victor he will return the hand to the beach in a couple of days--three, tops!--and then they can call the police.

Even Paul's porn is classy
A quick Internet search later, Abel has confirmed his initial suspicion--that the hand belongs to a victim of the Empusa, a class of demons in Ancient Greek mythology that are like vampires, only meaner. These exclusively female creatures have none of the traditional weaknesses of folkloric vampires, and satisfy their unholy appetites on the blood of their male and female lovers. Their surviving victims thereafter become "second-hand vampires," which are the garlic-fearing, sunlight-shunning, stake-hating sorts of folks we're all much more familiar with. Which makes sense, you'll agree. Shaken by this discovery--though not so much so you'd notice--Abel takes the hand back to the beach and tosses it into the ocean, forgetting his promise to inform the authorities.

Sadly, this is not the end of the horror--a few days later the police discover a nude body on the beach, a young Nordic tourist who coincidentally is missing her right hand. Not long after, Victor and a friend go squid-fishing only to pull in another mutilated body in their nets. A couple of seashell-seeking daytrippers are attacked Alfred Hitchcock-style by a flock of seagulls (vampires:bats::seagulls:empusa, apparently). And while dining with the Baron, Abel gorges himself on all-you-can-eat shrimp while the aristocrat is assassinated by a steak knife-wielding Belgian--though apparently this has nothing to do with the empusa. Just a value-added bloodbath.

"Got any Chapstick? Just put it on my bill."
Meanwhile, Abel's social life has taken a turn for the "Wow!" While lunching in town, the old Lothario strikes up a conversation with a striking, flame-haired young woman, Christabel (Cristina Carrión), who just so happens to be of Greco-Hungarian extraction. Despite having discovered evidence of a Greek demonic invasion mere days earlier, Abel sees nothing strange in a Hellenic hottie making eyes at a man three times her age--because fuck you, I'm Naschy, that's why! He meets Christabel later frolicking nude in the waves with a female friend, who seems similarly drawn to the irresistible Molina Man-Musk™. A day or so later, he meets yet another interested party--the absolutely smokin' hawt Laura De Pedro--who is looking for some silver artifacts that are rumored to be in the possession of the deceased Baron. With all the new women in his life Abel has little time for Natalia and Victor, the latter of whom just can't shake the feeling that the hand they found and the recent death-storm raining bodies on the beach might have something in common.

Of course Victor's not wrong--Christabel and her ever-expanding army of Eurobabes are indeed a pack of empusa on the loose-a, sucking their way through the local populace while Christabel prepares to battle with their queen Lilith (yes, THAT Lilith...apparently Greek and Jewish mythology have significant overlap) for empusian supremacy. She thinks Abel might be the wild card she needs to overthrow the ancient queen, but of course once she reveals her plan, the old fox is none too keen on helping her. Maybe she and her bffs shouldn't have killed Victor in a blood-fueled frenzy before asking for help? No use second guessing, I guess.

With vengeance on his mind, Abel sets out to bring down Lilith and the other empusa, getting posthumous help from Victor, who appears to him as a rotting corpse a la American Werewolf in London. But what can an old man do against an army of deathless vampire-demons and their ancient queen? Can he find a way to defeat them before they take over all of coastal Spain? Will aged justice prevail over nubile evil?


No, thank you.

In addition to being his last starring vehicle, Empusa also marks Naschy's last writing and directorial credit, and as he often does, here he adopts the "everything and the kitchen sink" approach that makes so many of his movies such wild, delirious rides. Obscure ancient mythology, literary and cinematic allusions, European folklore and good old-fashioned exploitation all rub together and produce a friction that is as delicious as it is confusing. Naschy was never afraid to throw everything at the wall just to see the splatter-pattern, and his last effort is no less fearless in this regard than his first.

It's also, believe it or not, extremely funny--and in this case, that's by design. Yes, parishioners, Empusa is not simply a monster movie: it's an all-out horror/comedy! Naschy plays Abel as an absolutely unrepentant rascal, and his chemistry with Mayans as the perpetually exasperated Victor is the stuff of comedy gold. There were many laugh-out-loud scenes for me, including but not limited to:
  • Abel's ravenous obliviousness as the Baron regales him with tales of his ancestors' outrageous sexual exploits ("She dyed her pubic hair every color of the rainbow!") before the Baron's hilarious dying soliloquy (his last words compare his gaping abdominal wound to "a waiting, open c****!")
  • A police inspector who reflexively punches out a corpse
  • Victor communicating with Abel from beyond the grave...via FAX.
  • An elderly priest, cop, and fisherman discussing their new status as "second-class vampires"
Viagra: Let Us Put an Epidemic in Your Pants™
  • An absolutely hysterical sequence where Abel tries several traditional methods of repelling vampires on the empusa, with hilariously ineffective results
  • Naschy learning the hard way that you shouldn't buy crossbows over the Internet
That's not to say the movie is perfect, however. While the women playing the empusa are all completely gorgeous and frequently naked (zang), as actresses they are almost uniformly terrible. I guess it's too much to ask for a modern equivalent of Julia Saly or Helga Liné, but still--ugh. The lone exception is Laura De Pedro as Lilith, who actually seems to know what she's doing and thus comes off as the best actress in the piece.

And also the sexiest.
(photo credit

The score is either questionable or hysterical depending on your taste, veering from melodramatic orchestral swells to Danny Elfman-style whimsy with reckless abandon. The editing is a trouble spot too--transitions step on dialog, gaps in coverage are filled with random scenes of archaeological digs (?), and a couple of kills--one in a back alley by an empusa, and another in an amusement park spookhouse (??) by Lilith herself--pop in and out of the narrative with such disregard for coherence and continuity that I almost got whiplash.

I found it interesting that with the exception of the monsters, almost the entire cast was made up of actors of more advanced years. I don't think I saw a single human character under the age of 50 who had more than a few lines, which is extremely unusual and a little refreshing in our youth-obsessed culture. However, perhaps as a result of this (and perhaps as a result of the film's budget) there were noticeably few "action" scenes--in fact, a great deal of the film's runtime involves two people sitting in a cafe talking, which may be trying to some viewers' patience. The one real special-effects scene is a standout though, with Lilith in her true form--a nicely grotesque mixture of green scaly demon-beast and hot nude Eurobabe--chowing down on a hapless victim.

Literature: Bridging the Generation Gap since 1955
I would say that whether you enjoy Empusa or not will depend very largely on whether you are already a Naschy fan. To be very honest, I can't see someone unfamiliar with his work watching the film and getting much out of it. But for me (and for the Duke, judging by his chortles and snorts as we watched), it was entertaining, joyful, and a heck of a lot of fun. It's not the best of Naschy's movies by any means, but neither is it the worst. It has the kitchen-sink mentality and the heedless creative energy that make all of Naschy's films such a treat for his fans. And best of all, it has Naschy, his wry wit, his love of all things horror, and the boundless childlike joy that no film could fully contain and no amount of years could ever exhaust.

You gave it to me right to the end, Paul--for that, and for everything, thank you.

2.5 thumbs.

HEAR YE: You can (and should!) download your own copy of EMPUSA for a mere $5 by going to the following link.

Do it! Do it NOW!

A few more images from EMPUSA (2010):

Feel the Glamor

Naschy's man-musk sends all mammals into uncontrollable sexual frenzy--even aquatic ones.


Their sermons have only one subject: "Stay Away from the Wall"

Naschy always gets a "Thank You" card--as well he should.

*standing ovation*


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