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Plot: 100 contestants, 3 locations, 1 winner. Let the games begin.

In lieu of Mermaid Team (美人魚戰隊) (2018) and/or Rescue (絕色營救) (2019) not yet having spawned their expected sequels due to the pandemic it’s up to the little guys to stick it out until the big names make their return. That next best thing might very well be Run Amuck (橫行霸道) from directorial tag-team Qin Peng-Fei and Liu Xiao. If one was to wager a guess we probably wouldn’t be too far off to assume that the two are fans of the Lu Yun-Fei (路云飞) Girls with Guns oeuvre. The Mainland China webmovie market is rife with female-centric action (either in the regular or science-fiction variant) and Run Amuck is mercifully a cut above the competition in any number of ways. The shoot-outs are energetic and well choreographed, the explosions are big, and the humor is on-point. All four leads are easy on the eyes and can act better than most. Judging by the open-ending this is meant to launch a franchise. Here’s hoping that it does.

The most prestigious and nationally televised e-sports event is the national finale of the virtual reality massively multiplayer online first-person shooter game (MMOFPS) Run For Your Life. Every year 100 contestants compete to be anoited China’s best player, win the grand prize of 10-million RMB and the vaunted ticket to the world championship. Before partaking in said world championship the winning team will undergo rigorous training at the boot camp under AK Empress (Clara Lee Ching-Man). Zhang Ying-Xun (Fang Yan) is the reigning national champion currently standing undefeated. He’s a celebrity in his own right and adored by thousands. Also competing are four girls from different walks of life: Shen Yue (Zhang Hao-Yue) is supposed to honor her mother’s wishes and get her degree in medicine. She has failed most of her exams and ranks as the eternal n° 2 in Run For Your Life. She’s a former protégée of Zhang Ying-Xun and he’s none too pleased with her decision to go solo. Da Xiao (Chen Yu-Wei) heads up her own one-woman driving company Xiaoxiao Driving and needs the money to reimburse for an unfortunate road collision. Wang Jia-Nan (Yuan Ling-Yan) might look like your average superficial fashionista but she has enrolled to take revenge on her ex-lover Wang Xiao-Fei (Qiang Lei), an avid player of the game. Lastly, Fu Xiao-Fei (Monroe Zhang Meng-Lu) has no mentionworthy skills in either the real world or the virtual one, has bluffed (or grifted) her way into the game, and hopes that winning the game will usher in a reversal of fortune for her and her family. She clearly is in deep water in more ways than she can wrap her cute little head around.

After the computer randomly selects 25 teams of 4-person crews each of the girls end up on the same team. The contestants are parachuted into the first battle arena and after the initital exchange of gunfire and the resulting skirmish three major teams emerge. First, there’s Zhang Ying-Xun and his three dead-weight no-name superfans. Second, there’s Wang Xiao-Fei and his trio of bumbling idiots and lastly, there’s Shen Yue and her girls. Everybody is in awe of Shen Yue - better known by her handle The Sniper Queen - a lonewolf and expert markswoman who immediately exhibits excellent leadership skills. Da Xiao is a master strategist and currently employed well below her skill level as designated chief of transport. Wang Jia-Nan excels at close combat and skirmishes but her quick-to-anger temper and impatience often will have her walking into obvious traps and killboxes. That, and she has a bone to pick with her ex-lover Wang Xiao-Fei. Fu Xiao-Fei has no experience in the game but loves the collectables and shows a talent for hoarding loot; be they health potions, grenades, or power-ups. When Fu Xiao-Fei accidently blows up the team and they respawn in a different location on the first map with only the basic weapons and equipment Shen Yue is frustrated and angrily divests herself from the team. Distraught and panicked Wang Jia-Nan, Da Xiao, and Fu Xiao-Fei bravely do battle in pursuit of Shen Yue. Will they able to convince The Sniper Queen to rejoin their ranks – and will they be able to overcome their own shortcomings and interpersonal differences to become the four-woman wrecking crew they are destined to be?

Everything comes full circle. What is Run Amuck if not a bit of Mainland China straight-to-VOD action fluff reimagining Battle Royale (2000) as a fictional virtual reality e-sports event that is one part eXistenZ (1999) and one part The Expendables (2010-2014)? To its everlasting credit Run Amuck goes full-on with the videogame allusions as the different contestants can be seen scrambling for ammo, power-ups, and as the game progresses the girls modify their avatars and their weapons, and level up their skills by farming for experience points. Each girl displays a specific talent and if they learn to work together and combine their talents they will become undefeatable. At one point Zhang Ying-Xun can be found camping, but he’s summarily blown up by his bumbling idiot team members for his infraction. Thankfully there’s no sewer level but the girls either run into or lay traps themselves. Fallen contestants turn into loot boxes and when these lie out in the open surely there must be enemies ahead. Of course there’s a vehicular combat level and to get to a rendez-vous point the girls not only need to ward off swarming enemies but have to cross the bombing area connecting the two. To the surprise of absolutely nobody Wang Jia-Nan is trapped by her former lover prompting Fu Xiao-Fei to manifest incredible bravery to save any and all of her teammates. The final duel involves (what else?) a tank. As convention dictates there’s a bickering comic relief commentator duo, ostensibly modeled after Junior Bruce from Death Race 2000 (1975). The girls (Zhang Hao-Yue, Chen Yu-Wei, and Yuan Ling-Yan to a lesser degree) in true Sino tradition brandish vertigo-inducing cleavage and fashionable (half) cornrow haircuts (Chen Yu-Wei and Monroe Zhang Meng-Lu).

The star of Run Amuck is Zhang Hao-Yue (张昊玥) and she has the makings of a new Chrissie Chau Sau-Na (周秀娜). Whether she’ll become the next Ni Ni (倪妮), Yu Nan (余男), or Fan Bin-Bing (范冰冰) and crossover into the English-speaking world remains yet to be seen. Chen Yu-Wei (陈雨薇) is an actress in the Daniella Wang Li Danni (王李丹妮), Pan Chun-Chun (潘春春), Miki Zhang Yi-Gui (张已桂), and Yang Ke (杨可) mold but she’s far better equipped in terms of acting ability, physical and otherwise. Monroe Zhang Meng-Lu (张梦露) could become one of China’s new comedy superstars if her performance here is any indication. More importantly, all four leads clearly have chemistry and it would be criminal not to use that to the fullest extent. That said the ladies wouldn’t have anything to work with were it not for the action direction from Ge Xiang-Long and pyrotechnics and special effects work from Chai Man-Ting. The choreography is servicable although hardly spectacular by Chinese standards (which means it’s still leagues above Hollywood on average) and judging by the amount of different locations, vehicles, weapons, and the varying sizes of the explosions there clearly was quite some money behind Run Amuck. That Run Amuck isn’t as subtextually rich as Battle Royale (2000) was expected. Hopefully the proposed sequel will have a chance to explore some of that besides the obligatory explosions. In anticipation of Lu Yun-Fei’s fourth Chinese Expendables entry, this will do.

Plot: Waldemar Daninsky desperately tries to lift a curse on his bloodline.

The seventh chapter in the ongoing saga of immortally condemned Polish nobleman Waldemar Daninsky The Return Of Walpurgis (for some reason released in the English-speaking world as Curse Of the Devil) restores the franchise to its former glory after the effective but underwhelming Doctor Jekyll and the Wolfman (1972). It is probably the most ambitious and epic of all the El Hombre Lobo episodes as it begins with a surprisingly well realized prologue set in 15th century during the Spanish Inquisition and then cuts to a 20th century present in early seventies Spain. Once again filmed from a screenplay by Paul Naschy (as Jacinto Molina) The Return Of Walpurgis follows Daninsky as he tries to undo a curse haunting his bloodline for the several centuries. Director Carlos Aured admirably rises to the task of realizing Naschy’s vision and even if it doesn’t have the visual flair and atmospheric finesse of The Wolfman Versus the Vampire Woman (1971) or the sheer excess and insanity of The Werewolf and the Yeti (1975), Waldemar Daninsky rarely was in finer form than he is here.

Carlos Aured was not one of Spain’s more prolific filmmakers, amassing a filmography of a modest 15 movies in 12 years. Aured started out in the 1960s as an assistant director to, among others, León Klimovsky on The Wolfman Versus the Vampire Woman (1971) where his association with Paul Naschy began. Naschy and Aured would collaborate on Horror Rises From the Tomb (1973) and The Mummy’s Revenge (1975) before the latter became one of the key directors in the Barcelona softcore scene of 1978-83 with the shortlived Cine S or “el destape” movement. In that capacity he was one of the instigators of said movement with the likes of Ramón Fernández, Jaime de Armiñán, Jorge Grau, Mariano Ozores, Eloy de Iglesia, Vicente Aranda, and José Ramón Larraz. Aured was a frequent collaborator with Alfonso Balcázar, Iquino, or Jaime J. Puig. Cine S were quasi-comedic soft erotic romps featuring the likes of Verónica Miriel, Amparo Muñoz, Adriana Vega, and Sara Mora. However, it was Ignacio Farrés Iquino’s The Hot Girl Juliet (1981) that truly launched Cine S and Andrea Albani, a former basketball player and swimmer, before more largely similar romps sprung from the same genetic stalk. Albani wasn’t an Iquino discovery exclusively as she debuted in José Ramón Larraz’ Madame Olga’s Pupils (1980) a year earlier. After the Cine S genre collapsed Carlos Aured would return to the terror and horror genres with The Enigma of the Yacht (1983) with Silvia Tortosa and Trapped in Fear (1985). Two years later, in 1987, Aured would retire from filmmaking after the Deran Serafian (who did his share of acting in Italian shlock) directed Alien Predator (1987), which he produced, went over schedule with his US partners heaping the debts on him.

Somewhere in 15th century Spain Grand Inquisitor Ireneus Daninsky (Paul Naschy) ensures a great victory for his tribunal as he defeats a warlock, long rumored to be at the heart of the witchcraft and Satanic activity that has flooded his dominion, in a horseback duel. Countess Elizabeth Bathory (María Silva) and her handmaidens decide to invoke Satan in retribution for the slaying. Before they can do so Daninsky is able to capture them, subjecting the heretics to auto-da-fé. Bathory’s handmaidens are hung from the castle walls and Bathory herself is burned in effigy. Before being consumed by the flames Elisabeth Bathory places a curse on Daninsky and all of his descendants. 4 centuries later Waldemar Daninsky (Paul Naschy) lives in a remote castle somewhere in the far reaches of the Carpathian mountains with his housekeeper Malitza (Ana Farra) and valet Maurice (Fernando Sánchez Polack, as Fernando S. Polack). On a hunting excursion with his friend Bela (José Manuel Martín, as Joe Martin), the latter shoots a silver bullet at what he believes to be a wolf. His prey turns out to be a stray gypsy man. Daninsky offers a monetary compensation to the gypsy clan for their loss. The clan matriarch (Elsa Zabala), a descendant of Countess Bathory, doesn’t believe his guilt to be genuine and instructs coven member Ilona (Inés Morales, as Ines Morales) to seduce the lovelorn lord. In the throes of passion Ilona curses Waldemar with lycantropy by slashing a pentagram into his chest with the same wolf skull used in the black mass ceremony earlier. Ilona subsequently flees into the woods where she is promptly hacked to pieces by escaped deranged axe-murderer Janos Vilaya.

Meanwhile in the 20th century Hungarian mining engineer Laszlo Wilowa (Eduardo Calvo) moves to the region for a year-long research project, bringing with him his blind wife Irina (Pilar Vela) and two daughters Kinga (Fabiola Falcón, as Faye Falcon) and Mariya (Maritza Olivares, as May Oliver). The attraction and affection between Kinga and Daninsky is instantaneous and their courtship is very much a thorn in the side of Mariya. That doesn’t stop Mariya from attempting to seduce and sway Waldemar into her embrace. Mariya is succesfull in her attempt but happens to do so on the night of the full moon. Not only does she seduce Waldemar in the hideout of axe-murderer Janos Vilaya, but Daninsky’s full moon sickness results in the both of them getting horribly slaughtered when he turns werewolf. Malitza, whose maternal feelings for Waldemar might just be a tad too strong, agrees to help him dispose of the cadavers. The sudden influx of homicide and unexplained deaths attract the attention of police inspector Roulka (Mariano Vidal Molina, as Vidal Molina). He attributes the spate of murders to the fugitive Janos Vilaya, but has to revise his initial theory when village kids happen upon the axe-murderer’s decomposed body one day. Before long the village has mounted a torch- and pitchfork bearing lynch mob to hunt and kill the beast, but mistake Maurice, Waldemar’s valet, for the recluse nobleman and gruesomely kill him. As the legend goes, only a woman that truly loves Daninsky will be able to kill him – but will Kinga be strong enough to drive a silver dagger through the heart of the man she loves?

As these things tend to go, the screenplays to every El Hombre Lobo feature is basically the same. Individual elements might differ from one installment to the next, and they tend to be reflective of the prevailing trend of the year they were made it in. Formulaic does not quite cover the workman-like efficiency of Naschy’s screenplays. The Return Of Walpurgis carries over the Bathory character from the prior year’s Doctor Jekyll and the Wolfman (1972) and Elsa Zabala is given a larger part here than in the prior chapter. That The Return Of Walpurgis does not possess as much of the visual flair of earlier installments can be attributed to the editing and the cinematography. Director of photography Francisco Sánchez delivered much better work on The Dracula Saga (1973) the same year and the editing by María Luisa Soriano is a bit on the choppy side. Soriano was a regular in Spanish exploitation cinema having worked on Necrophagus (1971), and The Devil Came From Akasava (1971) prior. She would persevere with Naschy on The Mummy’s Revenge (1975) and lend her services to Juan Piquer Simón’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1977) and Eurociné zombie debacle Zombie Lake (1981). Special effects man by Pablo Pérez worked on Horror Express (1971) and would collaborate with Paul Naschy on his amiable Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973) and the Gilles de Rais epic Devil’s Possessed (1974). The score by Antón García Abril is functional enough but does not offer much of note.

While never descending to the lows of The Fury of the Wolfman (1970) and largely eclipsed by the all-out insanity of its successor The Werewolf and the Yeti (1975), this El Hombre Lobo installment is defined purely by its functionality and likeness to its companion pieces Horror Rises From the Tomb (1973) and Devil’s Possessed (1974). As before Paul Naschy was able to attract some of the most beautiful domestic starlets with Fabiola Falcón, Maritza Olivares, and Inés Morales. Maritza Olivares is a typical Spanish beauty of the time, following in the footsteps of Dyanik Zurakowska, Aurora de Alba, Rosanna Yanni, Barbara Capell, and Shirley Corrigan. There never was any shortage of beautiful women in any of Naschy’s productions and it’s unfortunate that he never was able to work with continental European cinema belles as Silvia Tortosa, Luciana Paluzzi, Cristina Galbó, Diana Lorys, or Paola Tedesco. In the same respect it’s almost unbelievable that Naschy never ended up casting late Franco muse Soledad Miranda, mousy but sensual Susan Hemingway, domestic Cine S superstars Andrea Albani, and Eva Lyberten or even French import Florence Guérin in one of his productions. Neither would British exploitation stars as Candace Glendenning, Luan Peters, Judy Matheson, Valerie Leon, or Jenny Hanley (especially considering their association with Hammer) or Latin American imports as Gloria Prat and Susana Beltrán have felt out of place in an El Hombre Lobo episode.

It goes without saying that The Return Of Walpurgis was a tad too ambitious with its period costume prologue, brief as it might have been, on the budget that it had. The character of Waldemar Daninsky is interesting enough in itself, and it’s rather unfortunate that every episode insists on rewriting the origin of his lycanthropy while retaining the character’s basic kind-heartedness and pathos. At least here Naschy attempts to illustrate some kind of bloodline and how the transgressions of one Daninsky impact the life of a much later descendant. The concept is commendable enough but it would be cast to the side for the next installment. There’s seldom any continuity from one El Hombre Lobo chapter to the next and that robs them of any emotional connection the viewer could have built with any of the characters from one movie to the next. The Return Of Walpurgis isn’t the place to expect any important improvements or innovations in the El Hombre Lobo formula or canon. Two years later The Werewolf and the Yeti (1975) would shake up the formula a bit. That it was the craziest El Hombre Lobo feature up to that point helped tremendously too. The Return Of Walpurgis on the other hand is very much just another day at the office.