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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.

Plot: one woman dares stand up against an evil industrialist empire.

The second Babes with Blades feature came three years after the entertaining but ultimately misguided Warrioress (2015). The Flower Of Sarnia was conceived and conceptualized during post-production on Warrioress (2015), and it was to be even more ambitious than the first. Once again everybody from the Babes with Blades stunt team was involved but this time Cecily Fay would not only write, produce, direct, edit, act, and score – she would also double as costume designer and action choreographer. Seeing it as an opportunity to showcase her team it’s a vehicle by, with, and for stunt people. A labor of love for everyone involved. The Flower Of Sarnia became Babes with Blades: The Flower Of Sarnia before being rebranded to just Babes with Blades. And that’s what it ultimately is all about. Call it truth in advertising. Babes With Blades delivers exactly what it promises. It’s about babes… with blades.

Whoever thought that Cecily Fay would give up after the protracted release of Warrioress (2015) might as well looks elsewhere because Cecily isn’t going anywhere. No, it seems all the troubles she was beset with during production of her debut feature only added more to her resolve to get a second out. And that perseverance and determination is at least to be admired, even in light of how Babes with Blades presents no real progress (from a technical – or writing standpoint) from Warrioress (2015). We’d love nothing more for Cecily than that she’s able to produce that one feature that would finally break her through to an audience beyond martial arts enthusiasts. To its credit Babes with Blades is in every way to superior to things like Geisha Assassin (2008), a glorified martial arts demo reel that didn’t so much pretend as to have a story. No. Babes with Blades suffers from exactly the opposite, the action scenes sometimes get in the way of the story. Where character scenes would’ve sufficed there are seemingly never-ending action scenes. Sometimes it just is better to have a character forward the story arch with words instead of punches, kicks, and blades.

The galaxy trembles under the tyrannical rule of the Visray empire. The planet Sarnia is “under seige” (no, really). Azura (Trudie Tume) is taken captive by the invading forces. Twelve years pass, and Azura (Cecily Fay) has escaped the clutches of her captors and now hides on the mining planet of Draiga 5. There she survives by staying out of sight. One day Azura is discovered and imprisoned by Visray patrols. She’s sold to slavetrader Sef (John Robb, as Jon Robb) and is forced into gladiatorial combat for the amusement of Section Commander Sorrentine (Joelle Simpson). Sorrentine is grooming her son Peltarion (Daniel Everitt-Lock) as a successor. The catacombs are overflowing with rebellion and the headforce – the brave Viridian (Cheryl Burniston), the feisty Amber (Yennis Cheung), and pricefighter Dahlia (Lauren Okadigbo) – have managed to plant a deep undercover operative in the court with Kewan (Michael Collin). Before long Azura is deemed recuperated enough for gladiatorial combat. It’s at this juncture that Kewan hands her an arcane tome from which she learns ancient martial arts.

Empowered by the knowledge from the tome Azura comes face to face with the fearsome and feared Andromeda (Jo Marriott) and later Freya (Heather McLean). Much to the chagrin of both Sef and Section Commander Sorrentine both end up defeated in the arena, and Azura soon becomes the people’s favorite combatant. With Azura’s popularity ever increasing the freedom fighters realize that the hour draws near. In Azura they not only have a formidable champion, but also their new messiah, linchpin, and figurehead for their plebeian revolution, an insurgence strong enough that it may topple the cruel Visray regime that has long oppressed them. When it’s time for Dahlia to combat Azura in the ring the various rebel factions must come together. Azura’s motives are of a more personal nature. Exacting revenge for the slaying of her people, and Section Commander Sorrentine is the most directly responsible. The only question is: can Azura put her vendetta aside and rise to lead the revolution?

While by no means original Babes with Blades manages to pack just about everything in what is not really a whole lot of story to begin with. The general template is that of Bloodsport (1988) with a central character archetype straight out of Spartacus (1960) and a non-ambiguous good-evil out of Star Wars (1977). All of that is overlain with a negligible dystopian science-fiction component and steampunk cosplay aesthetic. Sadly, it takes the route of Lithuanian shlockfest Amazons and Gladiators (2001) rather than that of Mortal Kombat (1995) (a masterclass in storytelling/worldbuilding through economic exposition and succint character introductions) or Gladiator (2000). At one point Azura is even put in a weaponized necklace, sort of like the kids in Battle Royale (2000). When Azura comes to face to face with Andromeda and Freya both get an introductory line in their respective fight, but the screenplay never introduces them properly, nor what milestone they represent in Azura’s ascent to legendary hero. Pacing is problematic at best and once past the 55 minute mark (when Azura’s gladiatorial combat wraps up) Babes with Blades sort of collapses in on itself.

All of this could have been easily resolved had each contestant represented an actual obstacle and a milestone in Azura’s growth as a character. This would have made her eventual duel with Dahlia that much more powerful, especially if we weren’t privy to the fact that Dahlia was actually a rebel – and even moreso if the reveal of Dahlia’s true loyalties coincided with the coup d'état staged by the uprising rebellion (that now anticlimactically transpires post the arena fights) crushing the Visray empire in one swift blow, simultaneously putting Azura in gladiatorial combat with her arch nemesis. Andromeda and Freya now appear as regular contestants and not imposing figures they were probably were meant as. Script problems aren’t the only thing that grind Babes with Blades down. There’s the expected shaky camerawork that either is hyper-active or positioned in such a way that the action is occasionally hard to follow, or that completely irrelevant things clog up the frame. The lighting in the Magna Science Adventure Centre in Rotherham, South Yorkshire is mostly put to good use. Some of the more vibrant hues give it that artsy Mario Bava feel. The exteriors of the Crossness Pumping Station in London are good for what they are, but that’s about it. Given that this is the work of one woman makes it impressive in a technical sense. At least Cecily Fay is not Neil Breen. No, Fay’s modest catalogue is perhaps closest to pre-2013 Rene Perez.

And it’s not as if Cecily Fay, Lauren Okadigbo, and Yennis Cheung are novices either. No, that’s about as the furthest from the truth as you could get. Cecily Fay was a stunt performer in Prometheus (2012), and Skyfall (2012). Lauren Okadigbo was a stunt performer in Wonder Woman (2017), Justice League (2017), Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) and most recently doubled for Zendaya in Dune (2021) and Nathalie Emmanuel in F9 (2021). Yennis Cheung was in a handful of Hong Kong and South Korean martial arts movies in late 90s before relocating to the UK. That about makes Lauren Okadigbo the Helen Steinway Bailey of the piece. Music commentator and punk rock monument John Robb (of The Membranes and Goldblade, as well as editor-in-chief of Louder Than War magazine) is surprisingly solid as a poor man’s Vinnie Jones or Jason Statham. The focal point, of course, is Cecily herself. Don’t be fooled by her diminutive stature and petite frame, Fay is Britain’s own Angela Mao Ying, JeeJa Yanin, or Veronica Ngo and it’s nigh on unbelievable that this woman is practically unknown.

To its credit Babes with Blades offers a veritable avalanche of high-octane Hong Kong-inspired action routines but is marred by non-existent cinematography, choppy editing, a hokey score, and amateur actors with more enthusiasm than talent. The near-constant barrage of death-defying action sequences, both with weaponry and without, work exactly the way you want them to; but it are the character – and exposition scenes where Babes with Blades fails most glaringly. As Warrioress (2015) before it Babes with Blades has the thinnest veneer of story as a preamble to have as many action sequences as humanly possible and like that one this too often looks like a Luis Royo, Boris Vallejo, or Frank Frazetta canvas brought to life. In other words, Babes with Blades is full of, well, babes in skimpy constumes and/or impractical armor. Fay’s Lollipop Chainsaw cheerleader costume pretty much is a futuristic make-over of the little number she wore in Warrioress (2015). Babes with Blades probably would do good in hiring Ukrainian bellydancer Diana Bastet as their resident costume designer. Whether Babes with Blades is actually an inprovement over Warrioress (2015) depends entirely on your preference for no-budget, shot-on-video action demo reels with an absolute dearth of story. Since this one comes bearing The Flower Of Sarnia as chapter title that reasonably suggests there’s going to be sequels at some point. When, and if, it does hopefully it comes bearing Ken Kelly or Lorenzo Sperlonga poster art.