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Plot: alien lifeform plans to conquer Earth by preying on mankind’s oldest fears

The box office success of The Mark Of the Wolfman (1968) demanded a follow-up to cement Paul Naschy’s reputation as the new promise of Spanish horror. That follow-up came in the form of Assignment Terror (released domestically as Los Monstruos del Terror and in North America as the heavily-cut Dracula vs Frankenstein), a pulpy showdown of epic proportions in the tradition of House of Frankenstein (1944). As an Italian/German/Spanish co-production it passed the hands of several directors, and was the swansong performance of veteran Hollywood actor Michael Rennie. Assignment Terror is a lot of things, but for the most part it is campy. It is, in all likelihood, the least conventional of Naschy’s enduring Waldemar Daninsky saga. It has everything. Aliens, mad scientists, vampires, mummies, and Waldemar Daninsky in what amounts to a supporting role - Assignment Terror has it all, and none of it makes any sense.

Assignment Terror was the swansong effort of producer Jaime Prades and the beginning of the darkest period of the El Hombre Lobo saga. Prades produced the historical drama El Cid (1961) as well as the Biblical epics King Of Kings (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). Assignment Terror was the first Waldemar Daninsky installment to follow the elusive (and believed to be largely fabricated) French co-production Nights Of the Werewolf (1968) of which allegedly no prints survive. Assignment Terror had a larger budget than The Mark Of the Wolfman (1968), but most of it was squandered as a host of directors came and went and costs spiraled out of control. The sequel The Fury Of the Wolfman (1970) didn’t fare much better either with director José María Zabalza being in a state of constant inebriation, forcing star and scriptwriter Paul Naschy to handle direction in his absence. Despite the difficulties Naschy managed to rope in an assortment of Spanish, German and American stars for the second El Hombre Lobo feature, one that initially was known under the working title El Hombre que Vino de Ummo, or The Man Who Came from Ummo.

To save their highly-advanced race from extinction two delegates from the planet Ummo are teleported to Earth to prepare said planet for imminent colonization. To facilitate their plans they take corporeal form with the bodies of a pair of recently diseased scientists serving as their host. Odo, the leader of the alien colonists, possesses the body of the aging Dr. Varnoff (Michael Rennie) whereas Maleva overtakes biochemist Melissa Kerstein (Karin Dor), primarily chosen for her dark eyes and luscious curves. The two reanimate Dr. Kirian Downa (Ángel del Pozo, as Angel del Pozo), a young war surgeon killed in the field, for his surgical prowess. The aliens figure that the easiest way to conquer Earth is to prey upon mankind’s oldest fears and superstitions. To that end Odo decides that a visit to the local temple of knowledge, the library, is in place. Upon leafing through the pages of the Anthology Of the Monsters by professor Ulrich D. Varancksalan, an old tome depicting age-old horrors, Odo’s mind is suddenly illuminated. They will resurrect a number of literary, historical and folkloristic monsters from pages torn, quite literally at that, straight out of the arcane tome.

The aliens do not come upon this idea immediately, but only after witnessing a gypsy sideshow fortune-teller attraction at the local carnival. In a scene directly lifted from Universal’s House of Frankenstein (1944) the duo come across the vampire as part of a carnival exhibit. Maleva is instructed to use her comely charms on the male half of the duo while Odo will manipulate the gypsy woman (Helga Gleisser, as Ella Gessler) into removing the stake from the skeleton of the famed vampire Count Janos de Mialhoff (Manuel de Blas). Bolstered by their initial victory Odo and Maleva resurrect Varancksalan’s Monster (Ferdinando Murolo), and interred Polish nobleman Waldemar Daninsky (Paul Naschy, as Paul Naschi). With Daninsky’s considerable wolven strenght at their disposal the aliens travel to Egypt to disentomb Tao-Tet (Gene Reyes), an acolyte of Amun-Ra, in the Valley of the Kings. The recent deaths of two prominent scientists and the disappearance of a librarian (Diana Sorel) pique the interest of inspector Henry Tobermann (Craig Hill) who promptly opens an investigation into the strange going-ons. His search for clues brings him into the orbit of go-go-boot-wearing Ilsa (Patty Shepard, as Patty Sheppard), the daughter of Judge Sternberg (Peter Damon), who had his own encounter with werewolves as a young man in Germany a generation earlier as was depicted in The Mark Of the Wolfman (1968).

American actor Robert Taylor had expressed interest to Naschy in doing the picture, but it would be an aging and deadly ill Michael Rennie who landed the part. As before Paul Naschy (as Jacinto Molina Álvarez) wrote the screenplay and slated to direct was Hugo Fregonese, a Spanish national that had directed several western and adventure films in Hollywood in the 1950s and 60s. Fregonese lasted only a few weeks into production, and Argentinian expat Tulio Demichelli took over. Persistent hardships during production eventually took their toll on Demichelli and the naturalized Spaniard soon departed the production as well. Following Demichelli’s defection Antonio Isasi-Isasmendi stepped in allowing the troubled production to be completed. Allegedly German producer Eberhard Meichsner had a hand in directing too. With four people occupying the director seat at various points the jarring tonal shifts are all but expected. Director of photography Godofredo Pacheco lensed The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962), an atmospheric low-budget take on French production Eyes Without A Face (1960) and in all likelihood the only Jesús Franco film worth seeing. Naschy’s love for pulp was well-documented and Rennie’s character name is probably a tribute to horror legend Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood’s science fiction yarn Bride of the Monster (1955). Special effects artisan Antonio Molina has a diverse resumé that includes high-profile offerings as Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother (1999) and Live Flesh (1997), but also Jess Franco’s Devil Hunter (1980), the blaxploitationer Shaft in Africa (1973) as well as classic and not-so-classic Spanish horror ventures as Horror Rises From the Tomb (1973), Necrophagus (1971), and The Wolfman vs the Vampire Woman (1971).

The biggest name on the bill is Michael Rennie, a respected Hollywood veteran known for his role as alien Klaatu in the Robert Wise genre classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and for his roles in the big budget peplum Princess of the Nile (1954) with Debra Paget, and the historical war epic The Battle of El Alamein (1969). Towards the end of the sixties Rennie was, like many of his contemporaries, forced to act in continental European low-budget schlock as Antonio Margheriti’s The Young, the Evil and the Savage (1968), León Klimovsky’s Commando Attack and Surabaya Conspiracy (1969). Karin Dor was a Bond girl in Lewis Gilbert’s You Only Live Twice (1967) and figured into Alfred Hitchcock’s Topaz (1969). Dor was a muse of director Harald Reinl and in that capacity she appeared in the Karl May adaptations Winnetou: the Red Gentleman (1964) and Winnetou: the Last Shot (1965), as well as several Edgar Wallace krimis.

Greenville, South Carolina’s Patty Shepard would get her own El Hombre Lobo feature with the León Klimovsky directed The Wolfman vs the Vampire Woman (1971) and later would turn up in the gothic horror throwback The Witches Mountain (1975) from Raúl Artigot. Diana Sorel would turn up in José María Elorrieta’s The Curse of the Vampire (1972). Assignment Terror was one of the earlier roles of Manuel de Blas, husband of Shepard and an institution in Spanish cinema and television. Ángel del Pozo was an exploitation regular that appeared in the Alfonso Brescia spaghetti western The Colt Is My Law (1965), Eugenio Martin’s gothic horror ensemble piece Horror Express (1972), and Terence Young peplum breastacular The Amazons (1973), among many others.

The first El Hombre Lobo excelled in rustic gothic horror atmosphere. Assignment Terror on the other hand is pure, unbridled camp. The premise is completely ridiculous and its appallingly bittersweet to see an ailing actor of Rennie’s caliber forced to lower himself to cinematic tripe as this. Karin Dor, Diana Sorel, Helga Gleisser, and Fajda Nicol are all easy on the eyes as Naschy seldom disappoints in his choices of female talent. Daninsky is much more of a supporting role with the attention squarely on the Universal Horror monsters. The all-but-expected “emotion vs intellect” subplot emerges once the aliens begin to succumb to the fleshly desires of their corporeal form. Dr. Warnoff catches Maleva in flagrante delicto in between the sheets with Kerian, and promptly sends Varancksalan’s Monster to murder his accomplices. For maximum shock footage of a grisly real-life open-heart surgery was included for Naschy’s resurrection scene. It just as tasteless and unnecessary as it sounds. Naschy is only the sixth-billed in the cast despite being the hero of the piece, but he has the obligatory bosomy blonde that falls in love with his vertically-challenged character.

The Golem, who briefly appears in the Anthology Of the Monsters, doesn’t materialize for budgetary reasons. Not that it would have improved Assignment Terror in any way. The screenplay by Naschy (as Jacinto Molina Alvarez) is a convoluted mess that is frequently hard to follow and nigh on borders on the incoherent, despite the apparent simplicity of the premise. The selection of these specific Universal Monsters probably served as pretext for Naschy to portray them at a later point. After all Naschy would play Dracula in Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973), the Mummy in The Mummy’s Revenge (1975), and Frankenstein’s Monster in Howl Of the Devil (1987). More importantly it gave Patty Shepard a taster of the El Hombre Lobo universe before starring in her own feature with The Wolfman vs the Vampire Woman (1971). In its defense, at least some of it had a point. The special effects by Antonio Molina are good for the time and the budget and Assignment Terror doesn’t shy away from the grue. Emblematic for Spanish horror at the time several scenes seemt to suggest the existence of a more nudity-heavy print for the international market. In the beginning of the decade several Italian horror productions already pushed the envelope in terms of eroticism. However it would never see domestic release with the repressive Franco regime still in power.

Assignment Terror is pulp of the purest variety. The El Hombre Lobo franchise worked best as loosely connected gothic horror genre pieces, and that would be what Naschy would return it to. All of the subsequent sequels would follow the formula, with each focusing on whatever was most marketable at that time. The Fury of the Wolfman (1970), The Wolfman vs the Vampire Woman (1971), The Return of Walpurgis (1973) and The Werewolf and the Yeti (1975) all are vastly superior to Assignment Terror for wildly different reasons. While there’s little to connect all installments besides the presence of Daninsky there were certain standards Naschy strived for. Assignment Terror was the first El Hombre Lobo installment to miss the mark. Thankfully the franchise would return to prime with the swathe of sequels that soon followed. In between El Hombre Lobo sequels Naschy continued working on other projects - some which were at least as good, if not better - than his most enduring creation.

Plot: the sins of the father shall be visited upon the daughter

Lady Frankenstein is another of the many Italian gothic horror potboilers with the always enchanting Rosalba Neri in the titular role. Based upon a story by Dick Randall, and written by, among others, Edward Di Lorenzo and directed by Mel Welles (and an uncredited Aureliano Luppi), Lady Frankenstein boasts an international cast including faded Hollywood star Joseph Cotten, exploitation regulars Paul Müller, Herbert Fux, and Mickey Hargitay. Lady Frankenstein stays true to the basic tenets of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein novel and oozes with enough rustic gothic horror charm, and a surprising amount of Neri nudity, to compensate for the somewhat lackluster script and a distinct lack of striking visuals.

Director Mel Welles had worked for exploitation mogul Roger Corman for over a decade by the time Lady Frankenstein was put into production. According to an interview with Welles in the 2007 Louis Paul tome Tales from the Cult Film Trenches one of the producers – Harry Cushing, a well-to-do American living in Italy - had a thing for Neri and built Lady Frankenstein, originally from a script called Lady Dracula, as a project specifically with her in mind. Neri did not reciprocate Cushing’s advances. When some of the financing fell through at the last minute Roger Corman stepped in. Despite not having a solid script when principal photography began, and the involvement of no less than six writers (Umberto Borsato, Edward Di Lorenzo, Egidio Gelso, Aureliano Luppi, Dick Randall, and Mel Welles), Lady Frankenstein never devolves into incoherence despite a minimum of plot.

In Lady Frankenstein Baron Frankenstein (Joseph Cotten) and his assistant Dr. Charles Marshall (Paul Müller) have at long last mastered the ability to revive an exanimate subject. In a revolutionary transplant, lifted wholesale from The Giant Of Metropolis (1961) and later repurposed in Marino Girolami’s cynical cross-genre exercise Zombi Holocaust (1981) a decade after this pompous gothic horror romp, the two scientists will place the brain of the soon-to-be-hung Jack Morgan (Petar Martinov) in a recombined body they prepared earlier. Lecherous vulture, part-time grave robber and full-time creep, Tom Lynch (Herbert Fux) is overjoyed at the idea of his old enemy finally becoming of use to him. Lynch assists both scientists in bringing their experiments to fruition as long as there is a monetary compensation. Throwing caution to the wind, and against Marshall’s protests, Frankenstein senior is adamant in commencing the experiment regardless of the circumstances.

At that point the Baron’s college graduate daughter Tania (Rosalba Neri, as Sara Bay), now bearing a degree in medicine from the same faculty that ousted her father many years prior, arrives at the old homestead. Despite a quarter century age gap the middle-aged Marshall has been pining for Tania for several years. Tania immediately puts her comely charms to use, winding Marshall around her finger, while getting wind of her father’s dabbling in illicit necro-biologic experiments. As the Creature (Peter Whiteman) becomes animate Marshall leaves to summon Tania to witness the resurrection. This leaves the geriatric Frankenstein to the mercy of the Creature’s super-human strength. As Tania and Marshall return to the laboratory they find the lifeless body of Frankenstein the elder, and the Creature having fled into the nearby woods. Soon the Creature’s rampage prompts an investigation by Captain Harris (Mickey Hargitay). In a three-way power struggle for survival Tania, Lynch, and Harris attempt to outwit each other.

As it turns out Tania does admire Marshall, but not on the way he probably imagined, or desires. Tania has taken a liking to feebleminded but able-bodied stableboy Thomas (Marino Masé) and by her reasoning Thomas’ frame with Marshall’s brain as a guide would form the ultimate countermeasure against the elder Frankenstein’s homicidal Creature. Tania’s seduction (and corruption) of Thomas foreshadows Neri’s work in The Devil’s Wedding Night two years later. In a plot scribbled from James Whale’s The Bride Of Frankenstein (1935) Tania builds a second creature not for her late father’s Creature, but for herself. “Who is this irresistible creature who has an insatiable love for the dead?asked the poster and Tania, in the form of seductress Rosalba Neri, fits that descriptor like no other. To nobody’s surprise Frankenstein the younger is forced to betray her creation, and Lady Frankenstein ends in a sizzling climax, both literal and figurative, that leaves Harris, thwarted at every turn, picking up the pieces.

Joseph Cotten, an American actor in his twilight years, had appeared in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), and The Third Man (1949), Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt (1943), the Richard Fleischer science fiction classic Soylent Green (1973) with Charlton Heston, Airport ’77 (1977) alongside George Kennedy and Gone With the Wind (1939) star Olivia de Havilland, and Michael Cimino’s big-budget western fiasco Heaven’s Gate (1980). From 1971 onward Cotten frequently appeared in low-budget Italian exploitation shlock. In 1969 Rosalba Neri had figured into a trio of Jesús Franco productions with the likes of Luciana Paluzzi, Maria Rohm, and Christopher Lee but also starred in the offshore giallo Top Sensation with Edwige Fenech. Neri appeared in the Fernando di Leo giallo The Beast Kills in Cold Blood (1971). A year after Lady Frankenstein Neri starred another gothic horror piece with L'Amante del Demonio (1972), and The French Sex Murders (1972) with Anita Ekberg and Evelyne Kraft, later of The Mighty Peking Man (1977) and Lady Dracula (1977). In 1973 Neri graced the screen, alongside Mark Damon, in the gothic horror throwback The Devil’s Wedding Night.

Swiss actor Paul Müller made uncredited appearances in respectable productions as El Cid (1961), and Barabbas (1961) before becoming a pillar in continental European exploitation cinema, primarily in Italy and Spain, through turns in Mario Bava’s I Vampiri (1956), Mario Caiano’s Nightmare Castle (1965) with Helga Liné, Amando de Ossorio’s Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969) with Rosanna Yanni, and in the Jesús Franco productions Eugénie (1970), Vampyros Lesbos (1971), The Devil Came From Akasava (1971) and Nightmares Come at Night (1972) with Soledad Miranda, and Diana Lorys. Hungarian actor Mickey Hargitay, father of Emmy and Golden Globe winner Mariska from long-running police procedural Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999), ended up in the Italian exploitation industry and had appeared in Revenge Of the Gladiators (1964), Bloody Pit Of Horror (1965), and The Reincarnation Of Isabel (1973). Marino Masé debuted in the peplum comedy The Rape Of the Sabines (1961) with Roger Moore, and appeared in Nightmare Castle (1965), Emanuelle Around the World (1977), Luigi Cozzi’s Contamination (1980), and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part III (1990).

Herbert Fux was a veteran of German TV and cinema, having appeared in popular series as Tatort (1972), Der Alte (1980), der Bergdoktor (1992), and mainstream cinema hits such as The Three Musketeers (1993) and Astérix & Obélix contre César (1999). In exploitation circles he appeared in some of the Kommissar X action/adventure movies through out the 1960s, and a few Tiroler sex comedies from Franz Josef Gottlieb and Alois Brummer in the 1970s, and uncredited in the budget-deprived Lady Dracula (1977) opposite of Evelyne Kraft. Fux portrayed the Devil that copulated with nubile starlet Susan Hemingway in the Jesús Franco production Love Letters Of A Portuguese Nun (1977). Fux was dubbed in the English language version by director Mel Welles, himself an experienced actor.

One of the more interesting aspects of Lady Frankenstein is its pronounced feminist angle, which isn’t strange considering its release that coincided with the Women’s Liberation movement that was gaining momentum in 1971. Tania Frankenstein is, for good or ill, an emancipated, highly intelligent, determined, coldly calculating woman that will stop at absolutely nothing - including murder - to finish her late father’s experiments on reanimating the dead, or acquire the man she craves. From the moment she is introduced, and especially after her father’s passing near the half hour mark, all men, in one way or the other, become subservient to her whims. Tania’s ambition and desire to vindicate her father’s theories eventually pushes her into the same god-like madness that can only lead to death and destruction. As the only character worthy of an arc it is Tania that becomes the crux in the travails in each of her male co-players. The men that circle around Tania are either bottomfeeders (Lynch), boytoys (Thomas), useless idiots (Harris) or willing accomplices (Marshall). In a Freudian slip that results in her killing Tania exclaims “Thomas!” in a particular passionate lovemaking session with the Marshall-Thomas creature, unleashing jealous rage in the latent Marshall part.

While not among the worst of Frankenstein adaptations Lady Frankenstein is emblematic of gothic horror of the day. It's portentous and heavy on that rustic Hammer Horror atmosphere but on a fraction of the budget. The distinguished presence of Joseph Cotten and the always alluring Rosalba Neri can only carry the rudimentary script so far. Like Spanish production Necrophagus (1971) it is thick in atmosphere, but seldom yields any heart-stopping visuals or arresting imagery. It's functional and competently directed, but rarely inspired as such. There's enough Neri nudity but Lady Frankenstein never aspires to the pompous erotic heights of The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973). Rosalba Neri had appeared in better movies, both before and after, Lady Frankenstein. The score by Alessandro Alessandroni is majestic and gloomy in equal measure. Neri's presence might make it of interest to Italian gothic horror fans, or completists - but Lady Frankenstein probably wouldn't be remembered today if it weren't for her portraying the titular character.