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Plot: Waldemar Daninsky faces Countess Elisabeth Báthory… again!

El Retorno del Hombre Lobo (or The Return Of the Wolfman, released in North America as The Craving in 1985 and, at a later stage, internationally as Night of the Werewolf) was the first of two El Hombre Lobo episodes produced during the eighties. Times were changing and audience tastes were no different. The wicked and wild excesses of the 1970s had given way to the staunch conservativism and rampant debauchery of the 80s. The American slasher had become the new horror standard and suddenly Paul Naschy no longer found himself to be the trailblazer he once was. He experienced increasing difficulty in securing North American distribution for his features and back at home in Spain box office returns weren’t what they once were either. It was the dawn of a new age and Spain’s fiercest proponent of the macabre and the fantastic found himself out of step with what the younger generation was producing. As daunting as the circumstances might have been Naschy forged onward. As legend has it this was a personal favorite of Naschy’s and it’s easy to see why. Waldemar Daninsky never was in finer form in the more recent episodes than he is here.

That the Eurocult wave was cresting was apparent by 1976 and four years later the situation was even more dire. The death of Generalísimo Francisco Franco in late 1975 not only meant the slow crawl towards democracy and increased freedom on all fronts, it also signaled the end of mass government funding for the arts, including domestic cinema. If it wasn’t terrible enough Spanish and Italian exports had a hard time competing with big budget Hollywood box office hits as The Exorcist (1973) and Jaws (1975) (which didn’t stop both countries from trying and producing a veritable deluge of alternately obnoxious and hilarious no-budget imitations and knockoffs) and were only getting limited theatrical engagements in North America, once their primary market. To add insult to injury, the home video market was about to explode in just a few years from where they were. Naschy however refused to go gently into that good night and saw these newly-imposed restrictions as an opportunity to cut costs by writing, producing and directing his own features. He had made a television documentary on Madrid's Prado Museum and its art collection for Japanese company Hori Kikaku and they extended their gratitude by providing finances for whatever Naschy wanted to make. Thus he got together with partners Augusto Boue, Masurao Takeda from Dálmata Films, and Julia Saly and formed Acónito Films. Acónito (the scientific term for wolfsbane) would be responsible for all prime Naschy films this decade. Acónito Films produced a spate of features but only a few fall within the purview of this review.

While Mark Of the Wolfman (1968) set the stage it was from the much protracted first sequel Assignment Terror (1969) onward that the El Hombre Lobo became a recurring character in the Naschy canon. Sequels would appear annually (or every other year) up until and including The Werewolf and the Yeti (1975). In that five-year stretch Paul Naschy explored other avenues such as history, superstition and religion. In the decade of the international slasher craze and the domestic Cine-S movement Naschy staunchly stuck to his guns and produced an El Hombre Lobo installment on the 1970s model. Never below milking production assets, plot contrivances and locations for all they were worth The Return Of the Wolfman arrived a year after his Biblical parable The Traveller (1979) and will look and feel instantly familiar. By this point Naschy had accumulated enough experience in front and behind the camera to direct the productions which he had written. There’s a point, and a valid one at that, to be made that by the time The Werewolf and the Yeti (1975) rolled into cineplexes around the world that the series had strayed too far into the action-adventure direction. If there ever was a time to reinstate the franchise to its gothic horror roots, that time was now. Still, there’s no denying that after a decade-plus of sequels the formula was starting to wear thin. Which isn’t necessarily to its detriment as this one is thoroughly entertaining.

Hungary, 16th century. In the royal court of the Habsburgs Kings of Hungary and the Palatine of Hungary Countess Elizabeth Báthory (Julia Saly, as Jully Saly) is tried and executed. Báthory has been accused to torturing and killing hundreds of girls and women. She’s to be walled up in her chambers in Castle of Csejte in the Little Carpathians near Vág-Ujhely and Trencsén (or present-day Nové Mesto nad Váhom and Trenčín, Slovakia) where she’ll be left to die. Two of her vassals are executed for their involvement in her heinous crimes. Also on trial is Polish nobleman Waldemar Daninsky (Jacinto Molina Álvarez, as Paul Naschy), a known lycanthrope and scourge of the region, is tried for his killing sprees in wolfen form and his association with Báthory. On top of these individual accusations the two are accused of witchcraft, vampirism, and diabolism. A dagger made of silver of the Mayenza chalice is driven through Daninsky’s heart and an iron mask is secured on his face to keep him from biting.

Centuries later grave robbers Veres (Ricardo Palacios) and Yoyo (Rafael Hernández, as Rafael Hernandez) remove the dagger and the mask. Released from bondage the tortured nobleman takes up residence in his castle where he lives with his servant Mircaya (Beatriz Elorrieta). One day parapsychology students Erika (Silvia Aguilar) and Karen (Azucena Hernández, as Azucena Hernandez) arrive in the Carpathians with Barbara (Pilar Alcón, as Pilar Alcon) joining them shortly after once she has removed her old professor (Narciso Ibáñez Menta, as Narciso Ibañez Menta) from the equation. The three are able to locate Báthory’s tomb and the find leads to Erika becoming obsessed with Báthory and falling under her hypnotic spell. Her obsession leads Erika to perform a resurrection ritual. Waldemar Daninsky falls in love with Karen and when he realizes Báthory has been revived and is feeding on the local population he turns against his former mistress vowing to protect the woman he loves at his own peril.

If the above summary didn’t make it abundantly clear The Return of the Wolfman is more of a “greatest hits” rather than a straightforward sequel. After the insanity of The Werewolf and the Yeti (1975) the series had been absent for half a decade. For that reason instead of breaking new ground with the character Naschy borrows liberally from prior key episodes and its contemporary surrounding productions. The mainplot is a slightly condensed composite of The Wolfman versus the Vampire Woman (1971) and The Return Of Walpurgis (1973) with varying shades of Horror Rises From the Tomb (1973), Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (1974) and Devil's Possessed (1974) as well as assorted individual plot elements from Fury Of the Wolfman (1972) and Doctor Jekyll and the Wolfman (1972). With Beatriz Elorrieta’s Mircaya there’s the obligatory nod to Joseph Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla and Pilar Alcón’s Barbara could be seen as a loving wink to British cult icon Barbara Steele, the once-and-future queen of vintage Italo gothic horror. As Waldemar Daninsky had been away for half a decade perhaps a reintroduction was needed. Call it truth in advertising but The Return Of the Wolfman does indeed feel reinvigorated and acts as a symbolic return and a new beginning. To its everlasting credit The Return of the Wolfman opens with a sun-baked pool scene prescient of the Cine-S movement where you halfway expect to see a buck naked Eva Lyberten, Vicky Palma or Andrea Albani splashing around, but somehow never do. On top of that it has a disco theme that makes the theme to Cannibal Ferox (1981) appear sensible.

After the relatively low-key (at least in terms of casting) The Werewolf and the Yeti (1975) the first El Hombre Lobo episode of the eighties is brimming with familiar faces. Naschy was in the habit of casting the most beautiful Spanish women and here there’s the delectable trio of Silvia Aguilar, Julia Saly and Azucena Hernández. Aguilar had been in The Traveller (1979) and the Eurocrime romp Human Beasts (1980) (that also co-starred Julia Saly) and the sex comedy The National Mummy (1981). Saly usually worked behind the scenes as a producer and sporadically acted in that which she produced. In that capacity she could be seen in, the fourth and final Blind Dead episode Night of the Seagulls (1975), The People Who Own the Dark (1976), Inquisition (1977), Demon Witch Child (1978), the sex comedy Madrid al desnudo (1979) and The Cantabrians (1980). Hernández was Miss Catalonia 1977, had briefly worked as a model which naturally led to acting. Prior to her excursion into Spanish horror with El Hombre Lobo she could be seen in the Cine-S precursor Intimate Confessions of Stella (1978), and Bacanal en directo (1979). In the early 1980s Azucena transitioned into acting on the stage, did television and participated in zarzuelas. Her ascension to superstardom was cut tragically short when in the night of 15 to 16 October 1986 she was involved in a serious car accident in Las Rozas de Madrid. In the collision she sustained severe spinal cord injuries that left her paralyzed.

Also present are Beatriz Elorrieta (not using her Beatriz Lacy alias) from Necrophagus (1971), Narciso Ibáñez Menta from The Dracula Saga (1973) and Ricardo Palacios from 1001 Nights (1968) (with Luciana Paluzzi) and Juan Piquer Simón's Journey to the Center of the Earth (1977). In a rather unthankful role as a senior bandit is Luis Barboo, he of The Case of the Scorpion's Tail (1971), Female Vampire (1973), The Loreley's Grasp (1973), Return of the Blind Dead (1973), The Witches Mountain (1973), Night Of the Assassins (1974), The Pyjama Girl Case (1977), Supersonic Man (1979) and Conan the Barbarian (1982). Unfortunately Naschy never found the time and space to cast German sex comedy starlets Ursula Buchfellner, Olivia Pascal, Betty Vergés, Edwige Pierre, Christine Zierl, or Biggi Ludwig in one of his features. Imagine what Paul Naschy could have conjured up with someone like Sabrina Siani, Florence Guérin, Olivia Pascal, Andrea Albani or, god forbid, Maribel Guardia.

In the decade of the American slasher and the Italian gore epic Naschy produced what, by al accounts, was a deliciously baroque gothic horror throwback. His association with Julia Saly allowed Naschy to produce a number of more artistic ventures across a variety of genres. The Saly years was Naschy’s last brush with relevance, both artistic as in terms of box office returns, of any kind. Whereas The Werewolf and the Yeti (1975) was the last vintage offering The Return Of the Wolfman and the Japanese co-production The Beast and the Magic Sword (1983) were the last of the Daninsky saga to turn a profit. From the mid-180s onwards (coinciding with the fall of Cine-S which had begun in 1980) Naschy and Spanish horror at large would experience a dark period from which El Hombre Lobo, the Spanish Lon Chaney never truly recovered. In the following decades only two more Waldemar Daninsky episodes would materialize. For a number of years Spanish fantaterror was nothing but a relic from a distant past until Álex de la Iglesia revived Iberian horror with his The Day Of the Beast (1995).

Plot: the Shelleys visit Byron and compete to write the scariest story they can.

Even the most talented and serious of directors like to unwind from time to time and indulge themselves in what by all accounts should be considered pulp. For British filmmaker Ken Russell that was Gothic. To avoid any and all possible confusion Gothic is, well, uh, a gothic. Albeit one that may just be a tad intellectual, overwritten and verbose for the average moviegoer. Based upon a well-documented event in the life of British poet Lord Byron and bearing poster art based on Henry Fuseli's 1781 painting The Nightmare, Gothic is a grand triumph of style over substance and form over function. What inspired Russell to do Gothic? Who knows? If the official history is to be believed Russell received a similar script from actor Robert Powell some ten years before but the project failed to find backing. Gothic was attractive to Russell because of its comedic overtones and satirical nature. Russell is known around these parts as being the man behind the Oscar-winning film Women in Love (1969), the inventor of nunsploitation with The Devils (1971), The Who rock opera Tommy (1975) and the psychotronic sci-fi epic Altered States (1980). He famously had directed a number of biopics from classical composers of the Romantic era as Edward Elgar, Frederick Delius, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Gustav Mahler, and Franz Liszt. Gothic was made after Altered States (1980) and the erotic thriller Crimes of Passion (1984) in a period when Russell had directed music videos (a nascent artform with the formation and rise of MTV in 1981) for Elton John and Cliff Richard with his Sitting Duck production company.

The basis for the screenplay were the frequent visits of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his soon-to-be wife Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin as well as Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont to Lord Byron and his personal physician Dr. John William Polidori and valet William Fletcher at the Villa Diodati estate on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland during the summer of 1816. Lord Byron rented the mansion from 10 June to 1 November 1816 to get away from various scandals (separation from his half-sister Augusta Leigh and later Annabella Millbanke) and pressure from creditors and ever-mounting debt. Kept indoors due to the "incessant rain" of The Year Without a Summer (Mount Tambora in Indonesia had erupted a year earlier) the five aspiring poets challenged each other to conjure up the most fantastic horror tales they could think of. Shelley commited Julian and Maddalo, Prometheus Unbound, and The Cenci to paper, Godwin produced Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus; Polidori came up with The Vampyre, or the ancestor to the modern vampire horror, and Byron contributed Don Juan, Fragment of a Novel, and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. That Frankenstein and The Vampyre both have become timeless horror classics speaks to the imagination of what exactly transpired that night. With Gothic Ken Russell takes a few liberties and posits one possible scenario of what such a visit could have entalled. Haunted Summer (1988) told largely the same story (albeit without the horror overtones and religious allusions/iconography) and it was used as a framing device for the monochrome Universal Pictures horror classic Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

The Year Without a Summer, 1816. After his contentious separation from Annabella Millbanke, rumours about his scandalous, incestual relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh and with pressure from creditors as his debts mount English nobleman and Romantic poet George Gordon Byron (Gabriel Byrne) has fled to Switzerland (“a selfish, cursed, swinish country of brutes. It just happens to be placed in the most romantic region in the world," if the Lord is to be believed). He has settled at Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva with his eccentric personal physician Dr. John William Polidori (Timothy Spall) and valet William Fletcher (Andreas Wisniewski). He has befriended Percy Bysshe Shelley (Julian Sands) and has taken to inviting him, his soon-to-be wife Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Natasha Richardson) as well as her stepsister (and one of his previous conquests), Claire Clairmont (Myriam Cyr) for a relaxing getaway at his opulent estate. On the night of 16 June the five the bohémiens indulge on a feast of food and drink while debating philosophy, religion and humanistic logic. The five engage in a playful game of hide-and-seek, read excerpts from Fantasmagoriana and conduct a séance around a human skull. The guests are beckoned by Lord Byron, who’s clearly in a state of visible hallucinatory ecstasy and madder than ever, to abandon all vestiges of morality, civility and decorum by drinking Laudenaum-laced wine as he challenges them to devise the most macabre and scariest stories they possibly can…

It’s easy to see why Russell, ever the master stylist and technician, would be attracted to this particular script. There’s barely a premise and an absolute dearth of characterization, and that is putting it mildly. Since there isn’t a whole lot of story to tell this allows Russell to indulge in all his visual quirks and all of his usual distractions. You’d imagine that Russell saw Gothic as a stylistic exercise and a satirical deconstruction of gothic horror and its myriad conventions and contrivances. As such Gothic is awash with grandiloquent philosophical debates, pregnant with religious allusions and full of the deepest of cleavage and gallons of blood. Which should count for something because all of the horrors here are mere figments of the fevered imaginations of a bunch of privileged debauched aristocrats. In other words, Gothic is a horror wherein literally nothing happens but does so breathtakingly beautifully. With this being pretty much a genre exercise Gothic is custodian to Russell’s usual visual experimentation. Him and director of photography Mike Southon make full use of Gaddesden Place and Wrotham Park in Herfordshire. You wouldn’t be able to tell from the interior and exterior (however limited they are) that Russell was working on a drastically lower budget than usual. When the camera is not gliding across the plains of the rural English countryside it’s lingering on Natasha Richardson. The score by Thomas Dolby is fittingly schizophrenic. Dolby was the man behind the 1982 novelty hit single 'She Blinded Me with Science' and by 1986 he was on to his third solo album with "The Flat Earth" which had its own hit single with 'Hyperactive!'. Dolby had his own brush with acting in Howard the Duck (1986) and the vampire horror spoof Rockula (1990). Contrary to popular belief it was not him but engineer Ray Dolby who founded Dolby Laboratories that was the main driving force behind all Dolby-related audio innovations from the mid-1960s onward.

You’d almost think that Ken Russell saw Renato Polselli’s showcase in psychotronica Black Magic Rites (1973) and wanted to do something similar with this. It might not have the rapid-fire editing, three different timelines, the acres of skin or a rough equivalent to Rita Calderoni but his spirit certainly dwells here. Gothic answers the question what Frankenstein Unbound (1990) would’ve looked like if it focused more on the amourous liaisons between Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and Lord Byron instead of the misadventures of Dr. Joe Buchanan and his nominal adversary and his colleague in the scientific arts Baron Victor Frankenstein and his Monster. This has the hallmarks of a director indulging in a low-effort diversion or creative distraction. Historically it’s interesting for being the debut of Natasha Richardson (who was married to Liam Neeson from 1994 to 2009 when she died in a skiing accident) and the camera obviously loves her. Byrne and Sands are their usual mad selves and it’s always good seeing Dexter Fletcher and Timothy Spall in supporting roles. Nothing much may happen in Gothic but it does it oh so very beautifully. If nothing else, Gothic is what a Jean Rollin or old Hammer horror could have looked like on a modest Hollywood budget.