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Plot: brillant scientist is thrown in time and meets Dr. Victor Frankenstein…

Frankenstein Unbound was part of a brief gothic horror revival with the likes of big budget features as Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) as well as The Haunting (1999) and House on Haunted Hill (1999). That none have really stood the test of time speaks volumes in and of itself. No matter how you spin it, Hollywood’s attempt to resuscitate the old school gothic horror was met by audience distinterest. The most notorious of said revival was probably Frankenstein Unbound. Frankenstein Unbound, true to its nature as a down-market kitschy 1960s gothic throwback, is far closer to something as The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960) and Kiss of the Vampire (1963) than to the more serious (and pretentious, if we’re being the least bit honest) Francis Ford Coppola and Kenneth Branagh gothics of the day. Twenty years after his failed World War I epic Von Richthofen and Brown (1971), at the ripe age of 64, Corman was lured back to directing and paid a handsome $1 million for his trouble. History would record Frankenstein Unbound as Corman’s final directorial effort. The Haunting Of Morella (1990) and Huntress: Spirit Of the Night (1995) had the decency to plaster everything with acres of skin whenever the plot stalled. Frankenstein Unbound has no such exploitative inclinations – and is much the worse for it.

There’s no real historical precedent to explain the sudden and brief resurgence of the gothic in the nineties other than that amidst the slasher, cannibal and zombie craze of the 80s an old school ghost flick seemed more than a bit redundant. By the dawning of the new decade the slasher, cannibal and zombie subgenres themselves were on the verge of extinction – and, within context of no other subgenre having risen to the occassion of replacing them, it’s almost logical that directors would look to the past for inspiration. Considering that science fiction was having something of a revival Brian Wilson Aldiss’ Monster trilogy was a gift from the gods. Frankenstein Unbound was the first of the trilogy that also included Moreau’s Other Island (1980) and Dracula Unbound (1991). The title of Aldiss’ novel being a portmanteau of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. Producer Thom Mount from The Mount Company had set his sights on adapting Frankenstein Unbound. Who better than the man who produced all those Edgar Allan Poe gothics? Thus he approached Roger Corman with a budget of $11.5 million ($1 million entirely for Corman), some of the hottest stars of the day and a leisurely seven weeks which to shoot it in. Frankenstein Unbound was produced in alliance with Trimark Pictures and to be distributed domestically and abroad by 20th Century Fox. Part science-fiction, part gothic horror, and all camp Frankenstein Unbound fared poor at the box office making a meager $335,000. 20th Century Fox, in their infinite wisdom, canned all sequels.

The year is 2031. In New Los Angeles brilliant scientist Dr. Joseph Buchanan (John Hurt) is demonstrating the prototype of a state-of-the-art particle beam weapon at the Hawkings Institute in California that he’s currently developing for the military. He assures observer General Reade (Mickey Knox) that his laser weapon will make enemy troops disappear. Buchanan’s own motives are more humanitarian in nature as he seeks to devise a weapon that will rid the world of all wars. The only side-effect is that the weapon causes massive atmospheric disturbances and time-slips. Driving home one day Buchanan becomes engulfed in one such disturbance and is whisked back to 19th century Geneva, Switzerland shortly after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars. In the village tavern he barters with the innkeeper (Geoffrey Copleston) for a meal and gleans from a newspaper that he’s in the year 1817. The man reading said newspaper is local nobleman Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Raúl Juliá) and shortly thereafter Buchanan makes his acquaintance with budding novelist Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (soon-to-be Shelley) (Bridget Fonda). Godwin is attending a trial where Frankenstein’s maidservant Justine Moritz (Catherine Corman) is found guilty of murdering the Baron’s younger brother. Orbiting around Godwin at Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva are fellow writers Lord Byron (Jason Patric) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (Michael Hutchence), the latter with whom Mary is romantically involved.

Unable to save Justine from the gallows Buchanan wows Mary with his computer-equipped sentient 1988 ItalDesign Aztec Roadster and shows her a copy of Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus – the very manuscript she has just begun writing. Mary is backs away frightened by Joe’s vast knowledge of the future. One night Joe makes his acquaintance with Frankenstein’s wife Elizabeth Lavenza (Catherine Rabett) and that same night happens upon Victor in the middle of a heated argument with his monster (Nick Brimble). The creature threatens to kill the entire village if its demands for a mate aren’t met. In retaliation the creature kills Catherine to force Victor into making her into a potential mate. Instead Frankenstein claims the reanimated Catherine as his own, sending the creature into a fit of rage. During its rampage Buchanan is able to blast it into the far future. After an arduous journey through a frozen wasteland Joe happens upon his abandoned laboratory where it dawns upon him that he is a Frankenstein of his own and that the very monster that he warned Victor against is one of his own making. His monster has become unbound and has turned the world he knew, or remembered, into a desolate frozen hellscape.

How Corman was able to rope in this many respectable A-list performers is anybody’s guess. The biggest names in the cast are John Hurt, Raúl Juliá, and Bridget Fonda. Hurt was in Alien (1979), The Elephant Man (1980), Night Crossing (1982), Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) and Scandal (1989) and at the turn of the century he could be seen in, among many others, Lost Souls (2000), Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001), V for Vendetta (2005) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). Juliá would break into the mainstream with The Addams Family (1991), Addams Family Values (1993) and the lamentable Street Fighter (1994). Fonda on her part was on the verge of making it big with Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Godfather Part III (1990), the hit comedy Doc Hollywood (1991) (with Michael J. Fox), the thriller Single White Female (1992) (opposite of Jennifer Jason Leigh), the Sam Raimi horror comedy Army of Darkness (1992), It Could Happen to You (1994) (with Nicholas Cage) and the Quentin Tarantino blaxploitation homage Jackie Brown (1997).

In supporting roles there are Jason Patric from The Lost Boys (1987), Sleepers (1996) and Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997); Catherine Rabett from The Living Daylights (1987), Michael Hutchence from Australian new wave/pop rock band INXS (he would be found dead from an apparent suicide in a Sydney Ritz-Carlton hotel room some seven years later), Geoffrey Copleston from Lucio Fulci’s One on Top of the Other (1969), Tinto Brass’ Salon Kitty (1976), the poliziottesco A Man Called Magnum (1977), Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (1977) and Francis Ford Coppola’s ill-advised The Godfather: Part III (1990); as well as John Karlsen from Werewolf in a Girls' Dormitory (1961), Terror in the Crypt (1964), the Barbara Steele gothic The She Beast (1966), The Insatiables (1969), The Beast Kills in Cold Blood (1971), Daughters of Darkness (1971) and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989).

No matter how much Frankenstein Unbound might pretend to be a throwback to the Edgar Allan Poe gothics of old that Corman made a name in, it’s very much a product of its time. What that means in practice is that it for long stretches at a time focuses more on the science fiction than the gothic horror that arguably was its strong suit. Instead of a bodice-ripping, blood-drenched gothic full of ancient family curses and decaying castles for some inexplicable reason it’s more interested in fancy cars, computers and green lasers. For all bad things that can be said about Kenneth Branagh’s pretentious Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994) at least it had the guts to actually spill some actual guts (even if it were Helena Bonham Carter’s) when and where it mattered. It’s a sad day indeed when Jim Wynorski made the better gothic horror that year with his Corman produced The Haunting Of Morella (1990). Corman’s offering had the respectable A-listers but, more importantly, Wynorski had Lana Clarkson and Nicole Eggert and neither were shy about baring their boobs at every possible turn. Special effects man Nick Dudman and his crew were wise in keeping the grotesque monster design faithful to the book no matter how ridiculous it looked. The dialogue is campy, the visual effects have dated badly and the monster is defeated by handclap activated laser beams. You can’t get any cheesier than that. Frankenstein Unbound might have been pulp of the highest order but clearly everybody was having fun.

Frankenstein Unbound is both an anomaly and a curio for and in the decade it was produced in. It wasn’t as over-the-top, comedic nor gory as any of the slashers, zombie and cannibal flicks of the preceding decade; neither was it for that matter self-aware and meta enough to deconstruct the old Frankenstein story or how blatantly ridiculous Brian Wilson Aldiss’ upon which it based was. In a post-Hardware (1990) world Frankenstein Unbound is just a wee bit silly and for a modest budget Hollywood feature this could have been a whole lot worse. Corman’s direction is purely functional and doesn’t possess a whole lot of flair or individual style, but Corman as always more of a “behind the scenes” kind of guy. And who wouldn’t jump on the chance of getting a decent paycheck for something that he had perfected decades earlier? If Frankenstein Unbound is remembered for anything, it’s for Roger Corman directing for the last time. And maybe for the better too. Corman excelled at producing and recognizing young talent early on. As a director he isn’t bad, he just isn’t very special either. For once you’re better off checking out Jim Wynorski’s The Haunting Of Morella (1990). It might be equally as silly as a free-for-all gothic horror pastiche, but at least it’s not burdened by a completely unnecessary science fiction wrap-around story. Sometimes less is more.

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.