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Plot: estranged sibling returns to the old family seat, finds eccentric relatives.

León Klimovsky’s La saga de los Drácula (The Dracula Saga internationally) has retroactively attained cinematic immortality not only because it was a direct competitor to Paul Naschy’s own Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973) but because American audiences have unconsciously known it for years as footage of it featured in the Edward Furlong thriller Brainscan (1994) some twenty years later. It elevated derivation into an artform and made a star out of unlikely leading lady Tina Sáinz (in an ironic twist of fate this would become the most remembered title in her repertoire) and Narciso Ibáñez Menta’s portrayal of Dracula as a world-weary homebody is as memorable as the portentous, decaying Hammer-on-a-budget atmosphere that The Dracula Saga prides itself on. Who better suited to direct something like this than Argentinian transplant León Klimovsky? He had directed the Paul Naschy El Hombre Lobo features The Werewolf vs the Vampire Woman (1971) and Doctor Jekyll and the Wolfman (1973) as well as The Vampires Night Orgy (1973) after all. Highly atmospheric in its predilection towards aristrocratic decadence and brimming with both macabre playfulness and sweltering Mediterranean eroticism The Dracula Saga is the zenith of Spanish vampire horror – and not to be missed for that reason alone.

With Klimovsky at the helm it’s no wonder that The Dracula Saga is pervaded with that Argentine weirdness. The spirit of Emilio Vieyra is alive and well here. There would no The Dracula Saga without The Blood Of the Virgins (1967). Neither would there be José Ramón Larraz’ Vampyres (1974) for that matter. In the five years between 1970 and 1975 there was incredible surge of gothic horror throwbacks after Jean Rollin arguably single-handedly started the French horror industry with The Rape Of the Vampire (1968) and The Nude Vampire (1970). However it was Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971) that really codified the subgenre, put Spain on the international cult map, and kicked off the vampire craze in continental Europe. Following the box office successes of Rollin’s early vampire works and Franco’s delirious exercise in psychotronic sleaze the rest of Europe couldn’t stay behind. Before long there was The Wolfman Versus the Vampire Woman (1971), and Daughters Of Darkness (1971). Even America contributed their sole classic to the subgenre with The Velvet Vampire (1971) (with Celeste Yarnall). 1973 was an absolute banner year with the likes of Black Magic Rites (1973), Count Dracula's Great Love (1973), The Vampires Night Orgy (1973), The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973), Joe Sarno’s Vampire Ecstasy (1973), and A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973). Vampyres (1974) and Nude For Satan (1974) arrived a year later but were no less important. The Dracula Saga echoes The Slaughter Of the Vampires (1962) just as much as it does A Woman Posssessed (1968) (with Libertad Leblanc).

Narciso Ibáñez Menta was the member of an important family of theatrical artists. He was a pillar in Argentine and Spanish horror and terror, on both the big - and small screen. In the sixties he and his son Narciso "Chicho" Ibáñez Serrador were the creative forces behind several successful series for Argentine and Spanish television. Menta had played the role of Dracula earlier in the Argentine mini-series Otra vez Drácula (1970). In 1973 he returned to the big screen with The Dracula Saga (1973) from director León Klimovsky, with whom he had worked two decades before on the series Three Appointments With The Destination (1953). Helga Liné was a beloved gothic horror icon thanks to roles in The Blancheville Monster (1963), Nightmare Castle (1965) (with Barbare Steele) and Horror Express (1972) (with Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Silvia Tortosa). Betsabé Ruiz was a fixture in Spanish horror with appearances in The Werewolf vs the Vampire Woman (1971), Horror Rises From the Tomb (1973), The Loreleys Grasp (1973) and Return of the Blind Dead (1973). Tina Sáinz on the other hand came from the soccer comedy Las Ibéricas F.C. (1971) and has since gone on record saying that The Dracula Saga is her sole claim to international fame. More recently Sáinz had a 15-episode recurring role in the series Cable Girls (2017-2020) where she could be seen alongside Blanca Suárez from The Bar (2017). María Kosty has since built a career in television while Cristina Suriani remains a humble unknown.

Summoned back to her ancestral homestead in Bistriţa in the Carpathian mountains after an unspecified stay in London, England 5 months pregnant Berta (Tina Sáinz, as Tina Sainz) and her husband Hans (Tony Isbert) find themselves stranded as their carriage is forced to make an unforeseen stop as the horses are spooked and refuse to go any further into the Borgho Pass. On their way through the woods the young couple come across an injured young maiden (María Luisa Tovar) who just regains consciousness. Passing out from her incurred blood loss the half-naked maiden collapses once again, leaving it to Hans to see to it that she gets to the village. Sufficiently startled by the bloody sight and the howling of wolves the two make it to the inn. There they are greeted by a superstitious, long-haired, hunchbacked local who warns them about the tolling funeral bell from the nearby cemetery. "The cemetery of Vlad Tepes," he ominously intones, "is inhabited only by the dead!" With the maiden laid out on a table a helpful villager tears open her shirt to clarify that she has biting marks on her neck as well as on her chest. Crutch-bound town physician Dr. Karl (Heinrich Starhemberg, as Henry Gregor) infers that it must be another animal attack, something they have been experiencing lately. One-Eye (Ramón Centenero, as Ramon Centenero) meanwhile jokes about the situation as the priest (Luis Ciges) insists that the maiden "provoked wickedness" and that “there on the table you see LUST stretched out!" all while getting a good eyeful himself. The constable (José Riesgo, as Pepe Riesgo) meanwhile is all too enthusiastic to cast blame on a band of gypsies which allegedly (but not really) have been a scourge of the region for some time.

In the inn providing lodging the two make their acquaintance with iron-fisted matriarch Sra. Mamá Petrescu (Mimí Muñoz, as Mimi Muñoz) and the grumpy Sergei (Fernando Villena). Hans quickly catches the eye of the innkeeper’s nubile daughter Stilla (Betsabé Ruiz, as Betsabe Ruiz) as Berta and himself settle into their temporary accomodation. Stilla wantonly throws herself a the virile Hans, but he kindly rejects her all too obvious advances. Stilla then retreats back to her room where she’s overtaken by a mysterious blackcloaked figure. The following morning Berta and Hans are having breakfast when they are greeted by the patrician Gabor (J.J. Paladino), the Count’s administrator, who will bring them to Castle Dracula in his horse and carriage. Once at the castle Berta insists on seeing the graves of her forefathers and she notices the coffins of her grandfather and cousins in the family crypt, despite the fact that they are supposedly all waiting to meet her. The couple are left to enjoy lunch alone at their palatial abode with none of their hosts making an appearance. None of this helps improve Berta’s mood, fatigued from her pregnant state and worn from the journey. In one of the rooms Hans is spellbound by the portrait of a regal, beautiful woman that Berta is unable to identify. Once the sun has set Gabor informs the couple that the family is ready to meet them now and they’re invited to join them at the dinner table.

Here we are introduced to Count Dracula (Narciso Ibáñez Menta as Narciso Ibañez Menta), his dazzling second and much younger wife Munia (Helga Liné), his hot-to-trot stepdaughters Xenia (María Kosty, as Maria Kosti) and Irina (Cristina Suriani) as well as maid Sra. Gastrop (Elsa Zabala) and butler Gert (Javier de Rivera). Denied affection by his very pregnant Berta, Hans first falls headlong into the hungry embrace of the noble Munia, who quite matter-of-factly drops her gown for him, and then later Hans is seduced by a willing Irina and Xenia in an adjacent chamber. Some time later the Count explains the history of the Dracula lineage to his granddaughter, that they are descendants of Vlad Tepes, the warlord of Wallachia, and that Berta’s child will ensure the survival of the nearly-extinct bloodline. The Count also entrusts Berta that the family suffers from a peculiar affliction that makes their skin ashen and pale and makes them unable to withstand sunlight. There’s an heir, hidden somewhere within the attic and periodically it’ll be fed a villager or undesirable, but he’s "the result of the excesses and degradations of my ancestors!" and unfit on many fronts.

One night the Count lets himself into Berta’s room as she’s fast asleep but can’t bring himself to vampirize his granddaughter. Instead they will let nature run its course. The clan has locked Berta into the castle. There she slowly descends into madness, is prone to hallucinations and spells of chewing her hair – all while experiencing severe abdominal pains that the Count finds easily explainable. "Don't you understand?" he barks at one point, "She's being eaten from the inside!" Meanwhile Xenia and Irina defile the priest in the woods. One day Berta is wandering the hallways when she runs into a couple of gypsies in the process of breaking-and-entering. She pushes the man (Manuel Barrera) falling to his death in the spiral staircase and the woman (Ingrid Rabel) is fed to Valerio - a role so important that it wasn’t even credited - the ravenous Cyclops, dwarfish, hunchbacked, web-fingered abomination that the Count occassionally whips into subservience. In the following weeks Berta does give birth to a son, but when she comes about she finds him dead in her arms. The apparent loss of her newborn son fetters the last tenuous vestiges of what remains of her sanity. Grabbing an axe from a wall she steps into the family crypt, and coldly murders her relatives one by one. After all that bloodshed and carnage she retreats back to her room where she succumbs to the bloodloss from childbirth as blood of her relatives drips on her newborn son. As the closing narration informs the Dracula bloodline lived on for many centuries of solitude.

Plotwise The Dracula Saga steals from the best. It has the stranded couple experiencing vehicular trouble and the strange people at the village inn mumbling cryptic warnings about ancient evil in the remote castle from The Kiss Of the Vampire (1963). Like in Necrophagus (1971) Berta’s relatives envelop themselves in secrecy about their true nature until facts, and a heap of exsanguinated cadavers, force them to come clean. Just like Amalia Fuentes in Blood Of the Vampires (1966) and Anita Ekberg in Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969) it has a young maiden realizing that the eccentricity of her estranged relatives is borne from the fact that they’re actually vampires. Since no horror movie is complete without an obligatory monster, a plot point liberally borrowed from The Blancheville Monster (1963), The Dracula Saga not only has the abomination Valerio, but also Berta’s unborn son, who is a spawn of evil just like in Rosemary’s Baby (1968). The Dracula Saga is one of those great patchworks that through the supreme art of derivation is one of those unique recombinants. It never quite becomes a saga the way it promises but it’s certainly epic enough considering the limited budget.

The most unique creation of The Dracula Saga is Valerio, the monocled, dwarfen, webfingered, hunchbacked abomination with a most carnivorous appetite. Apparently the product of years’ worth of inbreeding. In the tradition of The Blancheville Monster (1963) the diminutive monster is locked away deep in the bowels of Castle Dracula and his cries (that of a sobbing woman) emit through the walls. When Berta comes eye to eye with the horror she’s already so far in shock that the little monster doesn’t even register. Valerio has no menionworthy function besides being a convenient excuse to dispose of various extraneous characters without much in need of an explanation. The innkeeper’s daughter played by Betsabé Ruiz and the gypsy woman portrayed by Ingrid Rabel both meet their ends after being locked into a room with Valerio. As Berta turns into an axe-murderer and slaughters her vampire relatives Valerio comes out as one of the survivors. The screenplay, of course, makes nothing of it – and Valerio is forgotten about as soon as he's introduced. It’s a wonderful piece of prosthetics and practical effects for a movie with a budget as modest as this one.

The Dracula Saga is ripe with that thick, decaying Mediterranean atmosphere of mildew, cobwebs and candlelabras that defined the best of Italian, Spanish, Mexican and Filipino gothic horror. Ricardo Muñoz Suay and José Antonio Pérez Giner succeed in providing a regional take on that very stylish almost Hammer-like atmosphere with the usage of good period costumes, vivid use of colors and a hypnotizing harpsichord and organ score by Antonio Ramírez Ángel and Daniel White with public domain music from Johann Sebastian Bach. Filming took place at La Coracera Castle in San Martín de Valdeiglesia in Madrid, one of Spain’s great horror castles. The castle had earlier featured in The Blancheville Monster (1963), The Mark Of the Wolfman (1968), Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969), Assignment Terror (1970), The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (1971) and Necrophagus (1971), among others. Francisco Sánchez photographs the suitably sarcophagal location with its shadowy bowels, ornate hallways, candlelit interiors with age-old dusty tomes, time-worn candelabras, and cobwebbed dungeon basement beautifully.

As with any Hammer inspired production there’s no shortage of absolutely ravishing women everywhere you look. Betsabé Ruiz and María Luisa Tovar were never shy about taking their tops off and The Dracula Saga takes full advantage of that. Helga Liné even has a brief full-frontal scene whereas the pregnant Tina Sáinz remains clothed at all times. Sáinz’ tomboyish charm was already one of her biggest assets in Pedro Masó’s Las Ibéricas F.C. (1971). In no other Spanish vampire movie are the undead so dried out, parchment skinned, ashen-looking as they do here. The contrast of the pallid complexion of the vampires and the rosy skintones of the living is perhaps one of Klimovsky’s greatest achievements.

As the scion of kitschy gothic horror pulp as The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960), The Slaughter Of the Vampires (1962) and The Blancheville Monster (1963) That the last happened to feature Helga Liné in her first major role only adds to the authenticity. The Dracula Saga is derivative in exactly the right ways. It never becomes quite as oneiric as Gerardo de Leon’s Blood Of the Vampires (1966), as impossible to follow as Renato Polselli’s unsurpassed exercise in psychotronic excess Black Magic Rites (1973) or Luigi Batzella’s Nude For Satan (1974) a year later. Tina Sáinz certainly is no Amalia Fuentes, Soledad Miranda, or Rita Calderoni.

That doesn’t take away that The Dracula Saga is as delirious as some of Italy’s finest offerings. Spanish horror was always atmospherically richer and thicker in the macabre sense than its Italian counterpart and The Dracula Saga has plenty on offer. Klimovsky makes good use of the mist-shrouded locales and foggy, candlelit interiors and the bevy of bosomy belles ready to drop top whenever required. It had worked so wonderfully well for him some two years prior with Paul Naschy’s El Hombre Lobo The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (1971). No. In those times before Vampyres (1974) this is a monumental achievement rightly remembered as a well-deserved high zenith of early 1970s Iberian gothic horror throwbacks. Helga Liné had made a decent living starring in stuff like this, for young Tina Sáinz it is, was, and remains an anomaly in an otherwise respectable and long career. No wonder everyone remembers her for this.

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 screenplay 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.