Tuesday, December 1, 2009


The Spanish screenwriter and director Jacinto Molina died this week at the age of 75. Like the Japanese director Takeshi Kitano, who appears in films under the name Beat Takeshi, Molina used another name when acting, and it's as Paul Naschy that he earned his permanent citizenship in the wild world of cinema. A record jacket artist, cowboy novelist and champion weightlifter, Molina's love of horror movies was sparked by a viewing of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man when he was 11 years old. It's oddly appropriate that this formative experience has an uncanny echo in one of the greatest Spanish films: Victor Erice's Spirit of the Beehive (from the same year as El Espanto Surge de la Tumba), which portrays an impressionable little girl's traumatic viewing of James Whale's Frankenstein at a time close to when young Jacinto would have seen the other Universal film. Given how Spirit has cast a long shadow over the Spanish horror genre, especially the work of Guillermo del Toro, despite being only tentatively a horror film itself, it's as if the event that gave birth to Paul Naschy (not to mention Waldemar Daninsky) is inscribed obliquely in the history of Spanish cinema.

As Naschy, Molina is best known for playing Daninsky, a tragic wolfman in the Universal mode, in a series of films that put the character in a Maciste-like variety of settings and periods, ranging from contemporary Europe to feudal Japan. These films, and others in which Naschy played most of the other classic monsters, have led some critics to describe Molina as a cinematic atavism, obsessively reproducing the horrors of his childhood without the skill of his predecessors while throwing in exploitation elements (nudity, gore) for modern audiences. The same qualities that provoke contempt from some critics, however, have endeared Molina/Naschy to film fans around the world. His admirers see the Naschy films as recreating the experience and meaning of classic monster horror by translating them into a more modern cinematic idiom. At the same time, Molina does bring a distinct personal style to his work. In films like the one I'll eventually get around to describing, which he wrote and Carlos Aured directed, you could describe his sensibility as a sort of Swinging Gothic (compared to the lethal modernity of his Italian contemporaries), in which ancient evil casts its shadow across the modern mundane world, proving it can top our own vaunted decadence, and then some. Also, Molina became enough of an auteur to guarantee himself a following for which each film is like a chapter of the man's life, a story within a larger story in which the audience has a rooting interest. They recognize in him a fellow believer who has the charisma to keep the faith alive.

It's worth adding that not everything Molina did or Naschy performed in is as derivative as some critics claim. Horror Rises From the Tomb may remind viewers at first glance of Mario Bava's Black Sunday because of its opening curses hurled by demoniacs about to be executed, but Molina/Naschy's Alaric de Marnac quickly establishes himself as a distinctive menace who would appear again in the 1980s. Aured introduces him in medieval Spain being carted across a stark landscape to an execution ground where he'll be beheaded and his consort Mabille De Lancre (Helga Line) will be hanged for performing black masses and all-around evil. "You are vampires and lycanthropes" a herald declares hyperbolically. With arrogant spite, de Marnac and de Lancre promise to return and destroy the bloodlines of Roland, his chief persecutor, and his own brother, the local lord.

Two faces of Paul Naschy: Alaric de Marnac (above) and Hugo (below).

The lord's modern-day descendant is Hugo (also Naschy), a self-professed egotist torn between two girlfriends who scoffs at his friends' interest in local mythology, seances, etc. After sitting through a seance in which the spirit of Alaric apparently hurls a candelabra at him, Hugo and his pals head back home from Paris to hunt for a rumored treasure on the de Marnac estate. Hugo's best buddy Maurice Roland is a painter influenced by visions of Alaric which point him not to treasure but a cask containing Alaric's head. The head exerts a malign influence on the local rabble, who are pretty malign in the first place, some of them trying to carjack Hugo earlier only to be beaten back by Hugo's husky brawling. Alaric incites a bloodbath that will facilitate his resurrection, following the miraculous reattachment of head and equally well-preserved body. More blood (and some sort of necrophiliac ritual) are necessary to bring Mabille back into the game. Once reunited, our evil couple go on an all-out rampage. They are sexual predators as well as sadistic killers; they compel men and women alike to throw off their clothes for a little rough and tumble before the claws come out and it's hearts-for-dinner time. As Maurice and others succumb to the ancient evil, only Hugo and primary-girlfriend Elvira remain, and Hugo gambles that another old family artifact, a "Thor's Hammers" amulet, can save them from the Marnac curse.

The head of Alaric de Marnac supervises the exhumation of his body (above) while his thralls provide more fuel (below)

Naschy contemplates mortality.

It looks like we're being set up for a Naschy-vs-Naschy showdown, but perhaps for logistic reasons, or perhaps just to throw folks a curve, Molina eliminates his better self by having the possessed Maurice shoot Hugo in the back after the presumptive hero survives a zombie attack. It'll be up to others to stop Alaric's rampage, and while we've been told how it can be done, whether it can be done is an open question until the end of the picture.

Naschy is pretty free with a gun when facing the undead, but it's a different story when he's on the receiving end. Isn't it always?

You could easily accept a classic Seventies "evil wins" ending, so overwhelming has Alaric been once made whole. Costuming, makeup and Naschy's pure presence make de Marnac a great movie villain who earned his eventual encore, while Molina throws in enough eccentric elements (particularly the efficacy of Norse religion in Spain!) to make Horror Rises a singular experience. It may not be the definitive Naschy movie, since that would probably have to be a Daninsky film, but it's probably the one you should show to someone who thinks that Naschy only ever went over old ground.

The power of Thor compels you!

To be honest, I haven't seen many Naschy films, but all those I have seen are memorable. I first saw Horror Rises about six years ago, after it was one of my early DVD purchases in those heady days when every video store seemed to have a now-insane selection of global cult cinema. Finally seeing something from Naschy was one of my early priorities, and I didn't regret the purchase. It held up tonight when I watched it again to appreciate what we've lost, as well as what we retain. Jacinto Molina is dead, but in the wild world of cinema Paul Naschy lives on.

I can't forget the trailer, which was uploaded to YouTube by Wildwildwes23. And I can't help but laugh at the narrator's persistent disagreement with the text about the title of the film.


The Vicar of VHS said...

Excellent consideration of one of Naschy's most famous films. I've written before that Alaric is pretty much the polar opposite of the Waldemar Daninsky character--where Daninsky is noble and kind and wracked by guilt at the blood on his hands thanks to his curse, Alaric is pure evil malevolence, reveling in his crimes and never showing a glimmer of human compassion. Two sides of a coin, maybe.

Thanks for this, and for your scholarly treatment of Naschy's biography and influences. When people denigrate the man as a hack or worse, it doesn't make me angry so much as sad--sad for the people doing the denigrating, since they have closed themselves off from the endless fountain of joy to be found in the Naschy filmography.

hobbyfan said...

Funny how the passing of Naschy hasn't been picked up by the usual mainstream outlets as of this writing.

Samuel Wilson said...

Hobby, it's funny that this should surprise you. Some of Naschy's movies played in drive-ins and grindhouses in the U.S. 30-40 years ago. None were blockbusters; none won Oscars; none were American films. Why should the U.S. news media note his demise? He was a horror actor with a cult following whose prominence on my blogroll doesn't represent any great popularity of the man among the general rabb-er, I mean public. That being said, I would have thought that the NY Times at least would note at least minimally the passing of a prolific international moviemaker, but perhaps the Paper of Record will get to it later this week.