The coming of all-digital television and the allotment of extra digital channels to existing local stations has resulted in more people discovering old movies the old way: on commercial TV, interrupted by ads, possibly further edited for time and formatted to fit the screen. In the last year or so, my local cable service has added three channels that occupy local stations' digital space. Grit is an action-oriented channel split between westerns and more recent shoot 'em-ups. Get.TV is a less genre-specific channel that showcases the Sony Pictures library, along with a bloc of vintage western TV shows. Most intriguing of the lot is Comet, which aims to cover more psychotronic territory. While the name says science fiction, Comet also shows horror films dating back at least to the 1950s, and it was on Comet that I finally got around to seeing Paul Naschy's first appearance as the accursed Waldemar Daninsky, el Hombre Lobo. The only difference between seeing it on Comet and catching it on an independent station some weekend thirty years ago is that Comet happened to have a widescreen print of the American edition of this 70 mm extravaganza, which played in 3-D during its original European release.
Readers of this blog probably know how Enrique Lopez Egiuluz's film got its inaccurate American name. U.S. distributor Independent International was committed to deliver a Frankenstein picture to theaters, namely Al Adamson's legendary Dracula vs. Frankenstein, but the picture wasn't ready, apparently due to legal reasons. So I-I slapped a new title on the Spanish film -- the end credits offer yet another title, Hell's Creatures -- and added a prologue explaining how the Frankenstein family had been cursed with lycanthropy for its unholy experiments and renamed Wolfstein, thus explaining how the film's Imre Wolfstein is a werewolf. Ironically, a later Daninsky film, released in some places as Dracula vs. Frankenstein, was retitled Assignment Terror for the U.S.in deference to the Adamson film. More confusing still, the Hammer production Horror of Frankenstein was released in some U.S. markets as Frankenstein's Bloody Terror! Check out the Gadsden Times for January 31, 1972 on the Google News Archive if you don't believe me.
Naschy was the onscreen alter ego, adopted to win over this film's anticipated German audience, of screenwriter Jacinto Molina, heretofore little more than a bit player in movies and a big fan of the Universal horror cycle. Molina/Naschy's career project was to revitalize Universal tropes with a modern, adult Euro sensibility. Waldemar Daninsky is his take on Larry Talbot, albeit more dangerous as man and wolf. His opening scene, in which he appears at a costume party in a mephistophelean red outfit, is a warning that, however charming Daninsky may be, he's someone dangerous to know. And that's before Imre Wolfstein, recently resurrected by fools removing a stake from his heart, transmits his curse to the Polish Count. While Naschy does the Talbot torment thing well, screenwriter Molina spares himself the "they won't believe me" misery Lon Chaney's Larry often endured. Daninsky has won friends who see plainly what has happened to him and are eager to help him beat the curse. Their research turns up a potential expert on curing lycanthropy whose work was thirty years in the past. The expert's son arrives by train with his female assistant and one large wooden crate. He is, in fact, the expert himself (Julian Ugarte), a vampire who revives Imre yet again, imprisons Waldemar, and plans to make Waldemar's friends his undead thralls.
Ugarte's vampire is the weirdest thing in the picture. You know he's bad news before the reveal, as the camera approaches him warily at the lonely train station. Once he's revealed, he proves a strangely frolicsome creature, seducing an intended female victim with a running dance. Here Molina takes no cues from Universal but gives us a vampire whose spirit of amoral play reminded me of Molina's contemporary, Jean Rollin. Treating the vampire that way makes sense on Molina's own terms, however, because it maximizes the contrast between the elegant, almost ethereal vampire and the brute force of the werewolf, played by Naschy as a drooling cannonball of animal fury, especially compared to the greying Imre. The transformed Daninsky swipes at his prey compulsively, swinging his arms like he was throwing haymakers, when he isn't hurling himself at human or undead targets. Even before the makeup goes on, when Waldemar is chained, the former weightlifter Naschy thrashes about so, while an incredible chanting theme for the transformation plays, that you fear for the props. Naschy has always reminded me of John Belushi a little, and if any of you remember Belushi's Weekend Update editorials when work himself into an apoplexy and throw himself to the floor, that's Naschy just getting started. You can see how he became a horror star here; Naschy as performer and Molina as writer infuse the old tropes with an unprecedented level of energy, while the widescreen cinematography and terrific locations and sets give Daninsky the biggest possible showcase. Frankenstein's Bloody Terror isn't free of the curse of dubbed Euro-horror: bland supporting characters are rendered still more bland by dull dubbing, and either this cut or further cuts imposed by Comet eliminated nearly all of a final fight between Daninsky and Imre. Most of the time, fortunately, the slow bits are redeemed by the pictorial spectacle, even in what looked like an unmastered print. Under even worse broadcast conditions long ago, Frankenstein's Bloody Terror inspired people to seek out more of Naschy's work. It has been a while since I'd seen any Naschy movies, but now I want to get back into the habit.