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Plot: Italian model inherits Waldrick Castle in Germany, creepy relatives included

Malenka (released in English language territories as Fangs Of the Living Dead) was a Spanish-Italian co-production that was significant for being one of the first vampire films to emerge in Spain under the repressive regime of Generalísimo Francisco Franco. Allegedly inspired by The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) it was the first foray into horror for director Amando de Ossorio. De Ossorio was only preceded by Jacinto Molina Álvarez (Paul Naschy to the English-speaking world) and his The Mark Of the Wolfman (1968) that proved that horror could be a viable genre in Spain. It's rather interesting that the Philippines, a Spanish colony, arrived at the vampire film earlier with Gerardo de Leon's The Blood Drinkers (1964) and Blood Of the Vampires (1966), both with Amalia Fuentes in the starring role. For the time Fangs Of the Living Dead at least attempted to push the envelope.

The primary selling point for Fangs Of the Living Dead is poorly dubbed Swedish star Anita Ekberg. Ekberg debuted in Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953), with her star rising thanks to appearances in War and Peace (1956), Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and Boccaccio ’70 (1962). However by 1968 her career had taken a steep turn for the worse, and Ekberg would be making a living appearing in mostly Mediterreanean (Italian and Spanish) exploitation productions of dubious merit. Fangs Of the Living Dead was the last cinematic exploit for spaghetti western regular Adriana Ambesi who also had a role in the big budget John Huston production The Bible: In the Beginning... (1966) just three years earlier.

The remainder of the cast were veterans of Paul Naschy and Jesús Franco productions. Rosanna Yanni and Julián Ugarte worked earlier with Naschy on The Mark of the Wolfman (1968), and Yanni would do so again in Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973). For Amando de Ossorio’s Fangs Of the Living Dead she not only acted as one of the principal characters, but also served as its producer together with Adriana Ambesi. Yanni would also appear in The Amazons (1973) from former Bond director Terence Young. In 1962 Diana Lorys appeared in the Jesús Franco thriller The Awful Dr. Orloff before starring in a string of spaghetti westerns. Lorys had worked earlier with de Ossorio on the spaghetti western The Three from Colorado (1965). During the 1970s Lorys turned up in the Franco productions The Bloody Judge (1970) with Christopher Lee, and Nightmares Come at Night (1972) with late Franco muse Soledad Miranda in a relatively minor part. Not helping matters either was that Ugarte was only two years senior to Ekberg.

As a peculiar retelling of the 1897 Bram Stoker novel Dracula, Fangs Of the Living Dead concerns itself with Sylvia Morel (Anita Ekberg), an Italian model that looks suspiciously Nordic, who inherits the old family homestead of Waldrick Castle, somewhere in a remote region of Germany. Two weeks away from getting married to her fiancé Dr. Piero Luciani (Giani Medici, as John Hamilton), Sylvia rushes to inspect her inheritance. At the local tavern she meets barmaids and siblings Freya Zemis (Rosanna Yanni, as Rossana Yanny), and Bertha (Diana Lorys), both wearing low-cut dirndl dresses, the latter of whom wastes no time in making a pass at her client. When she announces that she’s the new Countess barmaids and villagers alike act as if they’ve seen a ghost. Meeting Count Walbrook (Julián Ugarte) at the castle estate, Morel enthusiastically declares “what an incredibly handsome uncle I have!” before kissing him on the cheek and noticing his icy coldness. Vladis (Fernando Bilbao) Walbrook’s trusty coachman, houseservant, and guard at this juncture chooses to dispense information to Morel about her uncle’s nocturnal habits in the castle.

That night Sylvia is woken up by Blinka (Adriana Ambesi, as Audrey Ambert) who wears an incredibly revealing funeral dress, describes herself as one of her uncle’s former mistresses, and prefers to talk about herself in the third person. Not having properly rubbed the sleep from her eyes Sylvia is overcome by Blinka, who doesn’t hesitate to make a pass on her. Moments later Walbrook storms in, forcefully removing Blinka from Morel’s room, and whipping her into subservience in one of the adjacent chambers in a scene that must have been provocative and daring for the time. At this point Walbrook shows Sylvia an ancestral portrait which is said to be her maligned great-grandmother Malenka, “a brilliant biochemist!” and alchemist that dabbled in black magic, and experiments in necro-biology. Transgressions for which she was burned “at the stake in the town square” by a pitchfork-and-torches brandishing mob of mortally terrified - or “a murderous, ignorant crowd” as Walbrook describes them - villagers. Having put Sylvia under his spell the Count tries to turn her in a blood ritual that doesn’t follow typical vampire lore. As a last resort he coerces her to call off her engagement, to follow the voice of blood and join him in the halls of eternity. Sylvia is, of course, none too sure about any of it...

Piero Luciani and his comic relief buddy Max (César Benet, as Guy Roberts) travel to the castle but are denied admittance by Vladis. In the town they seek the assistance of Dr. Horbinger (Carlos Casaravilla), the disgraced and now continually inebriated town physician that believes in the vampire myth. Luciani shrugs it off as “nonsense” and before long the trio are headed off to Waldrick Castle to put end to Count Walbrook’s unholy reign of terror. Will they be able to free Sylvia? Is Walbrook truly a vampire as he suggests? Fangs Of the Living Dead exists in several different versions. First there's a 75-80 min. US print with producer-mandated alternate ending that de Ossorio reluctantly filmed, then there's a 96-98 min. European print, probably of Dutch origin, that includes additional science exposition, and dialog scenes but omits the alternate ending. Finally there is the original Spanish Malenka print with the ending as envisioned and intended by its director.

The ancient undead already played a prominent part in Naschy's The Mark Of the Wolfman (1968) and they were the focal point of de Leon's The Blood Drinkers (1964) and Blood Of the Vampires (1966). Fangs Of the Living Dead pilfers both of de Leon's vampire exercises in terms of plot. The vampire craze would reach a climax in 1973 with the release of Count Dracula’s Great Love, León Klimovsky’s The Dracula Saga (which all but steals the plot of Fangs Of the Living Dead), Joe Sarno's low-key Vampire Ecstasy and Luigi Batzella’s The Devil’s Wedding Night. Compared to these later outings Fangs Of the Living Dead is rather demure and prudish as was expected under Franco's military dictatorship. For a late 60s continental European production it at least tries to be provocative with its scenes of punitive whipping, implied sapphic liaisons and by putting the major female cast members (Lorys, Yanni and Ambesi) in very flattering low-cut dresses.

Fangs Of the Living Dead might not be the most stimulating of the form, but it benefits tremendously from its location. Waldrick Castle, or the chateau standing in for it, is filled with darkened hallways, candle- and torchlit mausoleums; shadowy, cobwebbed crypts, and opulent chambers. As a gothic horror piece Fangs Of the Living Dead eschews from both blood and nudity, but as Hammer Horror before it each of the actresses is put in skimpy dresses that allow as much bare skin as possible. The more voluptuous Rosanna Yanni and Adriana Ambesi regularly struggle to keep their assets contained in their dresses. What it lacks in technical polish it compensates with a sweltering sense of Mediterranean darkness and a melancholic organ, violin and harmonium score from Carlo Savina. The English language dub is atrocious even by 1960s exploitation standards. Amando de Ossorio would truly come into his own with his much lauded second horror feature Tombs Of the Blind Dead (1972), which spawned two sequels of its own, and with the amiable The Loreleys Grasp (1973) with Helga Liné and Silvia Tortosa.

At one point Morbid Angel were untouchable innovators of their craft, gods among mortals, and the golden standard to which all things death metal, American and otherwise, were measured. The new millennium hasn’t been very kind to the once-infallible Floridians and they haven’t exactly been productive either. Their sporadic output has been spotty at best and completely indefensible at worst. Still every time Morbid Angel releases a new album the world waits with bated breath. Now three decades into their existence the question lingers whether Morbid Angel still is relevant to the genre they helped define – or whether they have become a relic of a bygone era, a legacy act running on empty. Second, and not any less important, is “Kingdoms Disdained” the much pined after return-to-form after the unmitigated disaster that was “Illud Divinum Insanus” – or is it something else entirely?

“Kingdoms Disdained” heralds the return of there-and-back-again frontman Steve Tucker and two new recruits. Dan Vadim replaces illustrious lead guitarists Richard Brunelle, Erik Rutan, and Thor Anders Myhren and substituting for Pedro ‘Pete’ Sandoval (whose newfound faith as a born-again Christian apparently makes him incompatible with the Morbid Angel business venture) is Scott Fuller, formerly of Relapse Records artists Abysmal Dawn, among others. “Kingdoms Disdained” is the first recording on German imprint Silver Lining Music (the recently rebranded UDR Music), the label by Ulrike Rudolph, formerly of distributor Steamhammer (SPV GmbH), and the first not to feature a canvas by long-serving painters Dan Seagrave or Nizin R. Lopez. It’s also the strongest and most combative that Morbid Angel has sounded in a long time - or at least since 1998, which is truly the best we can expect of these swamp dwellers this deep into their notoriously bumpy career.

Either way you slice it “Kingdoms Disdained” is obviously intended as a return-to-form. Indeed, the crux of “Kingdoms Disdained” is efficiency and brevity. In age-old tradition the entire thing is robustly composed and excruciatingly oppressive sounding, but this time around it is also cohesive and unbelievably streamlined like this band's records seldom tend to be. “Kingdoms Disdained” boasts a level of barbarity last heard on “Formulas Fatal to the Flesh” and combines it with the doom-laden aura of “Gateways to Annihilation”. When did Morbid Angel last sound anything like this? Oh yeah, all the way back on “Covenant” and the groove slogfest that was “Domination”. It sports none of Azagthoth’s ambient soundscapes and even his twisted, chaotic Van Halen soloing has been reined in. The record never loses itself in masturbatory excess, a problem endemic of 2003’s uneven “Heretic”.

In 2011 “Illud Divinum Insanus” – the band’s shockingly, appallingly terrible foray into dated 90s industrial/dance and stadium rock all but killed the brand and “Kingdoms Disdained” is an act of restoration more than anything else. “Kingdoms Disdained” is remarkably consistent and focused. It’s an effort of conservation and restraint. Moreso perhaps than we’d to like give Azagthoth credit for. Had it followed “Heretic” the blemish would’ve been neglegible. Does it come close to matching any of the band’s classic Earache era records? No. Far from it. At times it’s nigh on impossible to distinguish “Kingdoms Disdained” from Warfather’s ominous lurcher “The Grey Eminence” that was released just months before.

So how do the new members fare? Dan Vadim is given his moment to shine on ‘Declaring New Law (Secret Hell)’ and drummer Scott Fuller has adopted all of Pedro Sandoval’s signature moves and given them 21st century make-over. It also helps tremendously that this record has the best drum tones since “Blessed Are the Sick”, “Covenant” and “Domination”. Production hasn’t always been on Morbid Angel’s side in the new millennium and it was a wise decision on the band’s part to record at Mana Studios in St. Petersburg, Florida, the facility of former associate Erik Rutan. The digital artwork by Ken Coleman is uncharacteristically Morbid Angel as this is band usually associated with macabre canvasses from Dan Seagrave and Nizin R. Lopez. Much like Malevolent Creation the Floridians have adopted a war-based thematic and the lyrics reflect it with ditties as ‘The Righteous Voice’, ‘D.E.A.D. (Department of Eradication And Disposal)’, ‘For No Master’ and ‘From the Hand Of Kings’. The Ancient Ones and the Most High Triumvirate of the Living Continuum are nowhere to be found on here. What it does cement is that Morbid Angel, it seems, has finally awoken from slumber and now is more hungry and combative than ever before. That just leaves us with the uncomfortable realization that death metal as a genre has since passed Morbid Angel by. One of the genre’s most defining bands has become nothing but a relic of bygone times.

“Kingdoms Disdained” is a solid, serviceable record that does exactly what it promises. However people have rightfully come to expect more of a Morbid Angel record than just that, especially in light of the classic three records with David Vincent. Age has started to catch up with Trey Azagthoth and the band that once led the genre through some of its greatest victories is now outplayed by an entire generation of younger bands. In their defense at least Morbid Angel is clearly trying their darndest to stay with the times. Fuller and Tucker are in no small part responsible for the sheer lethality of the majority of these cuts. Yet despite its brevity and streamlined efficiency “Kingdoms Disdained” misses some of that signature slithering Morbid Angel aura. There’s a distinct lack of esoterica on “Kingdoms Disdained”. For better or worse, it’s the most grounded Morbid Angel record since “Domination”. The fact that it’s so chained in reality is perhaps one of its greatest undoings. Despite all that it’s a solid return for a band that had been a lost cause for about a decade and a half. “Kingdoms Disdained” might not be the pined after rejuvenation of Morbid Angel, but a stark reminder that Azagthoth and his comrades can still deliver the goods when they set their minds to it. Now if only they’d channel that newfound focus towards a more consistent productivity.