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Plot: Polish nobleman is bitten by wolf during hunting expedition

Jacinto Molina Álvarez was born in 1934, and thirty-four years later he was a champion weightlifter, former architect student, graphic designer, failed pulp western novelist, and occassional film extra. Álvarez came from a line of men with artistic inclinations. His father, Enrique, was a renowned fur and leather craftsman and Emilio, his grandfather, was an acclaimed sculptor of religious iconography. Álvarez wrote the screenplay in a month with inspiration coming from a feature he saw at a matinee when he was 11. He hoped for it to go in production, but in 1962 Spain chances were slim as the country had no horror cinema culture worthy of the name. The once almost respectable Jesús Franco had made a few attempts, but a fantastique and straight up horror were unheard of. A take on the classic Universal Monsters, or an escapist fantasy, was what Álvarez’ werewolf was envisioned as instead of some profound rumination on mortality or the human condition. The Mark Of the Wolfman - the first chapter in the epic, multi-decade spanning saga of cursed Polish nobleman Waldemar Daninsky - became a box office succes, making Paul Naschy a household name in his native Spain - and launched a lucrative franchise spawning no less than a whopping 11 sequels over multiple decades.

The road from conception to execution for The Mark Of the Wolfman was beset by troubles from all sides. The story was originally meant to be set in Spain, but the oppressive regime from Generalissimo Francisco Franco would ensure it would never find proper funding. Salvaging Álvarez’ fantastique from looming obscurity was West German production company Hi-Fi Stereo 70. The company initially approached faded icon Lon Chaney, Jr. to play the cursed nobleman, but advanced age and throat cancer forced him to politely decline. In view of the situation Álvarez would play the character himself. To accomodate the changes the nationality of the lead character was changed from Spanish to Polish. Hi-Fi Stereo 70 urged Álvarez to adopt a non-Spanish alias as an actor. Thus was born Paul Naschy; a portmanteau of then-current pope Paul the Sixth and Hungarian weightlifter Imre Nagy.

The alias allowed Alvarez to write screenplays under his own name and act under his international alias Paul Naschy. One of the directors offered the project was Amando de Ossorio who passed on it, believing that horror would never take off in Spain. Upon the box office success of The Mark Of the Wolfman de Ossorio would start his own horror productions with with gothic horror potboiler Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969), The Loreley’s Grasp (1974), The Night of the Sorcerers (1974) and the memorable Tombs Of the Blind Dead (1972), the Knight Templar zombie movie birthing the (mostly consistent) Blind Dead franchise. In 2001 Naschy was given Spain’s Gold Medal Award for Fine Arts by King Juan Carlos I.

Realizing Naschy’s werewolf screenplays were directors Enrique López Eguiluz, Carlos Aured, Javier Aguirre, Miguel Iglesias, and former Argentinian dentist León Klimovsky. Klimovsky would direct Naschy in The Werewolf and the Vampire Woman (1971). In the Enrique López Eguiluz directed The Mark Of the Wolfman, the first Waldemar Daninsky epic, Nashy attracted some of the most recognizable talent of the day, including Julián Ugarte, Ángel Menéndez, Carlos Casaravilla, Dyanik Zurakowska, and Rosanna Yanni. Argentine actress Rosanna Yanni would cross paths with Carlos Casaravilla and Julián Ugarte in Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969), with Naschy in The Hunchback Of the Rue Morgue (1973) and Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973). Yanni would be one of many continental belles to partake in the sports comedy Las Ibéricas F.C. (1971) as well as Terence Young’s breasts-and-games peplum spectacular The Amazons (1973). Antonio Jiménez Escribano was in Necrophagus (1971). Ángel Menéndez would play men of science in The Devil Came From Akasava (1971), an Eurocrime romp from Jess Franco, and in Amando de Ossorio’s The Loreley’s Grasp (1974). Dyanik Zurakowska and Aurora de Alba would co-star with Naschy again in the León Klimovsky directed Vengeance Of the Zombies (1973). The Mark Of the Wolfman was one of the last acting parts for Manuel Manzaneque, who would bid the acting profession farewell and become a respected wine maker in Spain.

In The Mark Of the Wolfman Polish aristocrat Waldemar Daninsky (Jacinto Molina Álvarez, as Paul Naschy) finds himself attending a period-costumed masked ball at the estate of Count Sigmund von Aarenberg (José Nieto, as Jose Nieto) in Germany in honor of his daughter Janice (Dyanik Zurakowska, as Dianik Zurakowska) 18th birthday. Von Aarenberg wants her to marry her respectable friend Rudolph Weissmann (Manuel Manzaneque), son of judge Aarno Weismann (Carlos Casaravilla) whom he is friends with. After the prerequisite dance Janice is attracted to the diminutive Daninsky instead. Meanwhile a gypsy couple Gyogyo (Gualberto Galbán, as Gualberto Galban) and Nascha (Rosanna Yanni, as Rossana Yanni), whose horse-drawn caravan was driven off the road earlier by Weissmann, break and enter into the delapidated castle Wolfstein. Gorging on wine found in one of the cupboards the two drunken troublemakers, or the fairer half of them at least, desecrates one of the tombs by removing a silver cross.

Unbeknownst they have released long-dormant lycanthrope Imre Wolfstein from captivity and into the peaceful countryside nearby. As Wolfstein claims several victims among the populace a hunting party is mounted, led by forestkeeper Otto (Ángel Menéndez, as Angel Menendez). It is under these circumstances Daninsky and Weissmann make their acquaintance, with Daninsky killing the wolfman with a silver dagger – but not without sustaining serious injury himself during the altercation. In search of a cure he meets experts in the occult Dr. Janos Mikhelov (Julián Ugarte, as Julian Ugarte) and his beautiful assistant Wandessa (Aurora de Alba). As Daninsky comes to grips with his wolven affliction, Rudolph becomes enchanted with silky seductress Wandessa and Janice is instantly spellbound by the very metrosexual Janos Mikhelov. As these things tend to go Mikhelov and Wandessa have their own plans for Daninsky...

There's a sense of pathos to Daninsky that far outweighs Naschy's tendency to overcompensate in dramatic gesticulating and overcompensating for his lack of height. Dyanik Zurakowska, Rosanna Yanni, and Aurora de Alba steam up every scene they are in. Yanni, a former model in Italy and before that a chorus girl in her native Argentina, wields her most formidable weapon, which is her deep cleavage and heaving bosom. Zurakowska provides the necessary youthful exuberance and her attraction to the vertically-challenged Daninsky is as inexplicable as anything else. Neither Yanni nor Zurakowska were ever particularly shy about baring their bust if that was required. Aurora de Alba was the original Wandessa, and she would torture Daninksy again in The Werewolf and the Vampire Woman (1971), at which point Patty Shepard had taken on the role and again in The Werewolf and the Yeti (1975) where Silvia Solar inherited the part. Location shooting at the El Cercón Monastery in Madrid, later used in de Ossorio’s Tombs Of the Blind Dead (1972), lush usage of Mario Bava-esque colors (blue and red feature prominently), as well as shadowy, cobwebbed interiors, and earthen Spanish locations add tremendously to the production value. The Mark Of the Wolfman has all elements of a good Mediterranean European gothic horror venture.

As expected from a screenplay written in a month there's more than a few interesting creative choices made. First, the pitting of Waldemar Daninsky (who in a Hollywood script would be the bad guy) against a pair of well-preserved vampires. Julián Ugarte’s metrosexual Janos Mikhelov was several decades ahead of its time. It's an especially daring move on Naschy's part making Mikhelov a metrosexual as homosexuality was illegal in Spain in the 1970s. That Naschy wrote a few scenes of his character frolicking with Dyanik Zurakowska, and Aurora de Alba is everything you'd expect of a novice screenwriter, and who could honestly blame him? Rosanna Yanni and Dyanik Zurakowska were some of the most desirable actresses of the day and that both became stars in their own right speaks volumes. The inclusion of Rosanna Yanni is purely to raise the temperature even further and, as always, Yanni doesn’t disappoint. Well, Rosanna seldom disappoints.

Compared to any of the later installments The Mark Of the Wolfman is conservative and restrained, which doesn’t mean it doesn’t go completely off the rails. A lycanthrope nobleman is beset by a pair of vampires while a young maiden and the fairer half of the vampire couple lust after him, one of them quite literally? Rosanna Yanni’s very low-cut dress inspires poetry and the dusty, cavernous locales give a delightfully old fashioned (as, say, something of a decade earlier) look that adds immensely to the authenticity. Barrel-chested Paul Naschy was never much of an actor but he displays the hunger you’d expect of a young actor starring/writing in his own vanity project. Daninsky would cross time zones and continents, face off against a variety of supernatural enemies to varying levels of success, and always have one (or more) buxom belles inexplicably drawn to his hairy masculine chest. The Mark Of the Wolfman has the distinction of being the first to introduce Waldemar Daninsky to the world and catapulting Paul Naschy to international cult superstardom. For all the criticisms that could be leveled at Jacinto Molina Álvarez as an actor, writer, producer, and director Iberian horror would have been a lot duller if it weren't for his presence...

We hesitate to describe Amthrya as Italian death metal - even though they hail from Italy and do indeed play death metal - if only because the usual connotations that come with such description do not apply and might even give the wrong impression to listeners. The fact is that Amthrya has little to nothing to do with the likes of Hour Of Penance, Fleshgod Apocalypse, and Hideous Divinity – even if they (for better or worse) have come to define Italian death metal as it’s currently known. Amthrya bears no semblance to more cavernous acts as Ekpyrosis or Ferum either. No. Amthrya is something else entirely and they don’t let themselves be pinned down to one convenient regional sound. “Incision Of Gem” is their first with former Opera IX frontwoman Abigail Dianaria (no, that’s not her real name) behind the mic who has adopted a whole new stage persona and calls herself Kasumi Onryō (no, that’s not her real name either) now. Appearances can be deceiving and no release makes a better case for this than “Incision Of Gem”, where nothing is ever what it seems…

Life is stranger than fiction. The best thing to ever happen to Opera IX in the last 18 years was the recruiting of Kasumi Onryō, the heir apparent to legendary frontwoman Cadaveria who left the band in acrimony after 2000’s “The Black Opera”. Onryō brought Opera IX back from the brink of irrelevance with her devilish womanly wiles and reinstated some of the occult magick that defined the greatest Cadaveria-era works. “Back to Sepulcro” - Onryō’s debut with that band - was a lot of things. For the most part it was an exercise in redundancy redeemed by the inclusion of two new songs. More importantly, it allowed giovane donna Onryō to showcase her vocal abilities. These abilities are now put to even better use in Amthrya, a unit consisting of nobody you ever heard of or anybody important for that matter. Again, looks can and will be deceiving. Even though Kasumi Onryō has a penchant for dressing up like Sadako from Ringu (1998) and its hand drawn artwork is richly adorned with kanji and folkloristic drawings “Incision Of Gem” is not a conceptual effort about ghosts and apparitions of Asian mythology. It might very well be the most ambitious project la signora Onryō has partaken in.

The intro ‘Mist of Perdition’ sounds like an unused atmospheric moodpiece written by Romeo Díaz and James Wong for a Tsui Hark A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) tie-in feature that the world somehow never got. The music that follows it on the other hand holds the middleground somewhere between the Dutch, German, and Finnish schools of death metal without ever sounding like either. It never gets quite as abstract and left-of-field as “Nespithe” from Demilich, nor as absurdly technical and structurally dense as Pavor, or as mechanical/angular as Gorefest (circa “False”). However, it clearly takes influence from all three to a greater or lesser degree. The "Nespithe" influence is present in the riffing and drumming and while the rhythms never get quite as out there as their Finnish forebears the spirit is there. The dry guitar tone and some of the more post-influenced chord progressions and accents recall Brood Of Hatred and Golem (circa “Dreamweaver”) in equal measure. Amthrya never stays conventional very long and the bass guitar is as integral to the compositions as any of the other instruments. That ‘Anesthesia Survival’ was chosen as a single is only normal as it’s pretty representative for what “Incision Of Gem” aims for. Onryō is at her best and most primal in a cut as ‘Ebony Gem’ and ‘Letters to my Dears – Thoughts Of A Lost Man’ where she’s allowed the space to unleash and alternate her many singing styles at different times. Which brings us to the proverbial elephant in the room and the one true point of contention (if it can be called that) that we have with Amthrya and “Incision Of Gem”. Why is so little made of Kasumi Onryō’s fascination with Asian folklore and mythology?

That the lyrics she’s singing deal with psychological deterioration and diseases of the mind is a creative choice we’re not going to contest because at least they are put to mildly entertaining Asian ghost horror imagery. Far more damning is that except for the intro segment and a guest appearance from Kotama Omen Mako from MagdaleneJu_nen (マグダラ呪念) and Hiroyuki Takano from Church of Misery precious little actually capitalizes on the Asian imagery the record so proudly boasts. In our heart of hearts we’re hoping that Amthrya ropes in session musicians to lay down some guqin, shamisen, shakuhachi, or koto melodies or even invites 瑜子 from Bloody Tyrant (暴君) to provide pipa for atmospheric breaks or as interludes on their third effort. It’s unfortunate that the usage of ethnic Asian instrumentation is limited to merely the intro. Hopefully future releases will integrate these sections into actual songs or use them as moodsetting interludes, or preferably both. There’s plenty of precedent after all, whether it’s Nile and their Egyptian segments, Morbid Angel and their ritual wanderings, or Hate Eternal integrating ritual ambient into some of their songs. What Opera IX did for Italian folk music on “Sacro Culto” Amthrya should aim to do for ethnic Asian music on any of its planned future releases. The potential here is unlimited.

The closest companion to “Incision Of Gem” are “Suspended from the Cosmic Altaar” from American death metal duo Apocrophex and “Skinless Agony” from Tunisian death metal act Brood Of Hatred, although each put their own spin on what is roughly the same formula. Unlike the Apocrophex record this one doesn’t come bearing artwork from Raúl González. That isn’t to say that the artwork from Kasumi Onryō doesn’t fit the package because it most certainly does. It stays within the monochrome spectrum which is befitting for what Amthrya is trying to convey here. Ultimately one’s enjoyment of “Incision Of Gem” depends purely on one’s preferences. The sense of theatrics and melodrama is typically Italian while the music most certainly is not. Above all this is a record that grows with each listen. This isn’t a death metal record to listen for an easily digestible fix nor has it any hooks to drag first-time listeners in. No. Amthrya is the kind of band that demands the listener’s full attention to truly absorb the layers and nuance of their work. That alone makes them worthy of adulation compared to all these other more conventional Italian death metal sounding bands. None of them are seldom as interesting as Amthrya is here – and that sells Amthrya as the superior practitioner.