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Plot: Waldemar Daninsky faces Countess Elisabeth Bathory… 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), 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: griefstricken nobleman is forced to confront his family’s dark past.

There’s a reason why Necrophagus (released in North America rather cynically as either Graveyard Of Horror and alternatively The Butcher Of Binbrook to profit from the then-emergent giallo cycle and the gothic horror revival, respectively) is considered nothing but a long forgotten footnote in the annals of Spanish horror. Even by 1962 the Mediterranean and Latin American gothic was more risqué and sexier than this. It’s a feeble and futile attempt to do a period piece horror in the vein of Hammer for an Iberian audience – and Necrophagus obviously failed gloriously. With half the Spanish cast hiding behind pseudonyms, the usual washed up American expatriates collecting a paycheck and a director with more enthusiasm than talent you know exactly what you’re in for. It’s never a complete disaster like The Witches Moutain (1973) two years later and while it didn’t outright kill Madrid’s career it certainly didn’t help either. For all intents and purposes, Necrophagus is a beautiful trainwreck that could, and should, have been so much more than we ended up getting.

In the grand scheme of things Miguel Madrid Ortega is a largely overlooked director with a minuscule body of work that is largely inaccessible, obscure and forgotten. Ortega started out as an actor in the Jesús Franco production The Sadistic Baron von Klaus (1962) and a number of comedies and dramas before turning to directing. Unlike the oeuvres from Paul Naschy, Léon Klimovsky, Amando de Ossorio, Miguel Iglesias, Javier Aguirre, Juan Piquer Simón, and Jesús Franco his prime trio of features are mostly remembered for the wrong reasons. There’s Killing Of the Dolls (1975), a minor giallo that garnered some infamy with the tragical killing of its 29-year-old doll Inma DeSantis in an unfortunate car accident in the Sahara Desert in Morocco and the drama Bacanal en Directo (1979). His delightfully demented debut effort Necrophagus arrived just in time to profit from the gothic horror revival. Madrid was neither a hack like Raúl Artigot nor a talent taken before his time the way Claudio Guerín was.

After a business trip abroad aristocrat Lord Michael Sharrington (Bill Curran) returns to the old family seat in Scotland. There he learns that his wife Elizabeth (Inés Morales, as Senny Green) has expired in childbirth and that his brother and lord of the manor Robert (J.R. Clarke), the Earl of Binbrook and “the greatest scientist in the world”, has mysteriously disappeared. His brother has left Binbrook Castle to his wife Lady Anne (Catherine Ellison, as Catharine Ellison), her niece Margaret (Beatriz Elorrieta, as Beatriz Lacy) and his former assistant Dr. Lexter (Frank Braña, as Frank Brana). Living near are Elizabeth’s mother Barbara (María Paz Madrid, as Yocasta Grey) and Michael’s sisters-in-law Lilith (Titania Clement) and Pamela (María Luisa Extremeño, as Marisa Shiero). When Michael, shellshocked from the loss of both his wife and their unborn child, is met with hostility and obstinate silence whenever inquiring after his late wife. His sisters-in-law vy for his affections, berate one another for trying to sabotage Michael’s marriage and as such are constantly at each other’s throat. With the female members of the household shrouding themselves in secrecy and with no answers forthcoming, Michael decides to do some investigating of his own. The only person in town willing to talk is geriatric physician Dr. Kinberg (Antonio Jiménez Escribano).

As a man of science the only logical thing for Sharrington to do is disinterring his wife. There he comes to the shocking conclusion that not only her coffin, but all of the coffins in the cemetery, are vacant. The graveyard is haunted by cloaked, masked figures that pry open caskets. He finds out that his brother was on the verge of an important scientific breakthrough in his research into “the origin of man”. His latest experiment, one he performed on himself, dealt with “the transmutation of human cells” and left him with a craving for human flesh. Lady Anne and Lexter are aware of Robert’s carnivorous appetites and satiate his cravings by providing him with cadavers exhumed from the burial ground, or fresh bodies from Lexter’s deceased patients. Since that time the town does not speak of its hidden horror, The Butcher Of Binbrook, who they keep from preying on the living by feeding him their dead. To avoid suspicion Lady Anne and Lexter have ensnared caretaker Mr. Fowles (Víctor Israel) and Inspector Harrison (John Clark) in their graverobbing scheme. Lady Anne is broke and in a deviant sexual liaison with Lexter, and the two won’t let anything or anyone – living, dead or undead - get in the way in their quest for self-enrichment.

The screenplay by Madrid, under his usual alias Michael Skaife, is needlessly convoluted for what otherwise is a fairly straightforward Frankenstein variation. A non-linear narrative – full of sepia-toned flashbacks and dream sequences – isn’t what you’d typically expect of a gothic horror piece, and it needlessly complicates what ought to be a standard genre exercise. What it lacks in finer writing it overcompensates with that thick, decaying Mediterranean atmosphere of mildew, cobwebs and candlelabras. It desperately wants to make viewers believe it is British and a Hammer Horror movie but nothing could be further from the truth. Curiously, it’s also practically bereft of the two things that Mediterranean gothic horror usually thrives upon, namely nudity and blood/gore. Nudity, when and if it appears, is implied rather than shown, and the gore is absolutely minimal. The cinematography isn’t exactly riveting but at least director of photography Alfonso Nieva makes good usage of the San Martín de Valdeiglesias and Pelayos de la Presa monasteries in Madrid and the graven snow-covered landscapes look absolutely chilling. The ominous score from Alfonso Santisteban is fittingly brooding but hardly exemplary. Marisa Shiero, Titania Clement, and Beatriz Elorrieta hold their own well enough, but aren’t exactly on the level as Rosanna Yanni, María Elena Arpón, Betsabé Ruiz, or Rita Calderoni. Neither is María Paz Madrid a leading lady on remotely the same level as Eurocult pillars Lone Fleming, Luciana Paluzzi, Silvia Tortosa, Diana Lorys, Adriana Ambesi, or Perla Cristal. Necrophagus makes the most from its creaky production values, but the dire lack of funds are rather obvious.

Granted, everything here is decidedly second-rate. None of the lead cast were known stars or bankable names, with only supporting actors Frank Braña, Antonio Jiménez Escribano, and Víctor Israel lending any marquee value. In fact Necrophagus was such concentrated effort of awful that it single-handedly ended more careers in front of the camera than it ushered in. It was powerful enough to kill the careers of María Paz Madrid, Marisa Shiero, Titania Clement, Catherine Ellison, John Clark, and leading man Bill Curran. Many of whom did little, if anything, of interest afterwards. Of the supporting cast only Inés Morales, Víctor Israel, and Frank Braña were able to escape its shadow unscathed and had long careers afterwards.

In the 1960s Frank Braña had parts in Sergio Leone’s western epics A Fistful Of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966) before turning up a decade later in cinematic cannonfodder and exploitation pulp as Alfonso Brescia’s budget – and talent deprived Battle Of the Amazons (1973), Miguel Iglesias’ jungle genre-hybrid Kilma, Queen of the Amazons (1976), the feminist barbarian epic Hundra (1983) (with Laurene Landon), and the three Juan Piquer Simón features Supersonic Man (1979), Pieces (1982), and Slugs (1988). Beatriz Elorrieta continued to act until 1986 before becoming a costume designer and working almost exclusively for her husband Javier Elorrieta. Víctor Israel was a macaroni western pillar with a storied career spanning four decades and several exploitation subgenres. As such he can be seen in Horror Express (1972) (with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing), The Witches Mountain (1973), The Wicked Caresses Of Satan (1975) (with Silvia Solar), The Werewolf and the Yeti (1975) (with Paul Naschy, Verónica Miriel, and Silvia Solar) and Hell Of the Living Dead (1980).

Everybody has to start somewhere and Necrophagus was but the second horror feature for special effects craftsman Antonio Molina, who had worked on Paul Naschy's Universal Monster-science fiction extravaganza Assignment Terror (1969) (with Michael Rennie and Karin Dor) and a host of spaghetti westerns and macaroni combat efforts earlier. Molina’s later credits include classic and not-so-classic Spanish horror ventures as The Wolfman vs the Vampire Woman (1971), Horror Rises From the Tomb (1973) and Jess Franco’s Eurociné jungle cheapie Devil Hunter (1980). In the following decade Molina worked himself into the mainstream with Pedro Almodóvar’s Live Flesh (1997) and All About My Mother (1999).

Necrophagus has the look and feel of a Filipino production, or of a lesser Paul Naschy feature, and information on the existence of a more explicit international cut is scarce to non-existent. It’s entirely within the realm of possibility that the production couldn’t afford to shoot additional footage for an international market release. Unbelievably, Miguel Madrid won the prize for best director at the 1971 Festival of the Cine de Terror at Sitges, Catalonia for Necrophagus. That Madrid would only direct Killing Of the Dolls (1975) and Bacanal en Directo (1979) in the aftermath proved that he had more enthusiasm than talent and that him winning the best director award at Sitges was premature at best.