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Plot: resurrected vampire lord vows to cover the world in darkness…

Vurdalaki (released domestically as Вурдалаки, in most of Europe as Vamps, and in North America as Ghouls) is probably the closest a contemporary gothic horror has come to the mid-sixties model. Also not unimportant is that Vurdalaki is a loose but surprisingly faithful adaptation of the 1839 novella The Family of the Vourdalak from Aleksei Konstantinovich Tolstoy. Vurdalaki harkens back to the halcyon days of monochrome when atmosphere reigned supreme, and bodice-ripping, blood-drinking, bosom-baring vampires were something solely existing in the fevered and over-active imaginations of viewers, directors, and producers alike. Sergey Ginzburg has imbued his Crimean gothic horror throwback with an incredible sense of modesty, perhaps relying on digital effects a bit too much where practical effects would have worked far better. That being as it may, Vurdalaki is an inoffensive gothic horror offering – although it sort of makes you wish it tried a little harder. For all the things it does right, it’s often too modest for its own good.

In 18th century Russia the Empress Elizaveta Petrovna sends her government secretary godson Lyubchinsky Andrej Vasilevich (Konstantin Kryukov) and his aide Paramon (Roman Madyanov) to a remote corner of the Carpathian Mountains near the border with the Ottoman Empire. They are ordered to collect exiled monk Lavr (Mikhail Porechenkov) at the Spassky Monastery and bring him to the capital of Saint Petersburg under the guise of urgent government business. When Andrej is rebuffed by Father Lavr on grounds that the village needs him more – and that whatever business the Empress Elizaveta has is none of his concern. Andrej and Paramon prepare for the month-long journey back to the capital. Before they depart Paramon spots a virginal young shepherd girl bathing in a nearby lake, but is injured by said girl before catching a glimpse of her. Milena (Aglaya Shilovskaya) promises to take Paramon to the family farm to treat his injuries. There Milena lives with her parents Gorcha (Mikhail Zhigalov) and Mariki (Yuliya Aug) as well as her older and younger brother Georgyi (Konstantin Milovanov) and Misha (Ivan Shmakov). As Paramon recovers and Andrej spents time on the farm he falls in love with Milena.

Meanwhile, resurrected vampire lord Vitold Bishteffi (Andrey Rudenskiy) and his loyal servant Turok (Igor Khripunov) have taken up residence in the former’s old castle. According to Bishteffi’s calculations in three days from now a constellation that happens only once every 150 years will occur and grant him untold powers. With the blood of a specially selected virgin he will be able to live in daylight. When he does he and his breed will subjugate mankind and restore vampires as the dominant class. Vitold orders Turok to bring Milena to the castle for a black magic rite but when he finds opposition from Andrej and Paramon more draconic measures are required. That night Bishteffi unleashes his imprisoned vampires to devour the village and expand his army of undead fiends. The force is too overwhelming and Milena does fall into enemy hands. Now with an army big enough to mount a counter-attack Vitold launches an all-out raid on Spassky Monastery. Will the combined forces of Andrej, Paramon, and Father Lavr be enough to repel Bishteffi’s legion before they overrun the world?

Like the classic Italian, Spanish, and Latin American gothics here too religion (Orthodox Christianity) is an integral part of the proceedings and there’s no shortage of religious iconography. Vurdalaki is pretty secular for the most part and initially introduces Father Lavr as a cynical clergyman wary of government interference. The aide Paramon is in the midst of a crisis of faith and completely useless for most of the first two acts. The three-man team of Andrej, Paramon, and Father Lavr and with Milena acting as the sacrificial virgin Vurdalaki at times feels like a Slavic riff on The Day Of the Beast (1995). Even moreso when Lavr starts reciting Revelation 21:1 during the wurdulak raid on the farming hamlet and the monastery. And just like in that movie Paramon regains his faith after the shared experience of warding off the undead horror.

Anybody weaned on, or familiar with, vintage gothic horror will recognize a few classic scenes. Vitold Bishteffi’s resurrection is lifted straight out of Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel. Just like Hélène Rémy in The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960), Lyla Rocco in The Playgirls and the Vampire (1960), and Barbara Hawards in The Monster Of the Opera (1964) Milena too hears the voice of blood, although she can’t immediately place it. Bishteffi performs a rite just like in Terror In the Crypt (1964) or Twins Of Evil (1971) – and like Damien Thomas in that Hammer classic he’s far from an imposing vampire lord. The vampires in the dungeon is something straight out of The Monster Of the Opera (1960). Even though Vurdalaki adheres by much of the classic tropes, it couldn’t be much more of an antithesis of what the genre used to thrive on several decades ago. This largely stems from this being a Russian production, and Russia (although constitutionally secular) is staunchly and devoutly Orthodox. Vurdalaki is filled to the brim with religious iconography and leans heavily on the religious aspect.

The reason to see Vurdalaki is model Aglaya Shilovskaya. Back home in Russia Shilovskaya is a television personality and singer. She had a spread in Maxim Russia (January, 2017) and presented the sixth season of The Voice Kids in 2019. The closest comparison we can think of is probably Nicola Posener. Director of photography Andrey Gurkin manages to capture Shilovskaya from various flattering angles, but those hoping Vurdalaki would get some bare flesh and bounce out of Shilovskaya will be sorely disappointed. She gets exactly one semi-revealing scene during the bathing in the lake, but that’s as far as it goes. On the whole Vurdalaki tends to gravitate more towards a bog-standard action movie than a straight-up horror. Arrowstorm’s five-part Mythica (2014-2016) saga amped up the horror more than Vurdalaki ever does. And that’s a sad thing because this could have been an excellent throwback to the horrors of yore. Instead director Sergey Ginzburg keeps everything respectable and modest at all times. The Love Witch (2016) oozed sensuality from every pore. Dead Man Tells His Own Tale (2016) was tenser. This is about the farthest from Blood Of the Virgins (1967), Black Magic Rites (1973), The Dracula Saga (1973), and Nude For Satan (1974) as you can possibly get.

As is pretty much the standard these days and no matter how much we might hate it digital effects are the order of the day – and Vurdalaki, sadly, is no different. Everybody is impeccably clean for the times too, and not a single soul has a speckle of dirt on them despite this being primarily set in a farming hamlet. On the plus side, the action direction, cinematography, and choreography is better than it has any reason to be. The scimitar duel between Andrej and Turok especially is a fine piece of action filmmaking, moreso because Ginzburg refrains from using the maligned shaky-cam and the editing is not nearly as frantic as is the norm these days. It would probably have benefitted from old-fashioned practical effects, and tends to etch closer to Underworld (2003) and Van Helsing (2004). This is a far-cry from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) or any of the Latin American and Mediterranean European vampire flicks that inspired it. Which is really an elaborate way of saying that Vurdalaki is a vampire movie without any bite. If this is in any way representative for the general state of Russian horror, it looks like you’re not missing much of anything.

Plot: Waldemar Daninsky calls upon Dr. Henry Jekyll to cure his lycantropy

The fifth installment in the continuing saga of cursed Polish nobleman Waldemar Daninsky benefitted from an experienced cast and director. Being nestled in between the masterful gothic horror - and erotic vampirism tour de force The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (1971) and the more epic inclined Carlos Aured directed Curse Of the Devil (1973) certainly didn’t help any. Filmed from a screenplay from the hand of the Spanish Lon Chaney himself, Paul Naschy (as Jacinto Molina) and with a befittingly creaky score by the prolific Antón García Abril and an uncredited Adolfo Waitzman, Doctor Jekyll and the Wolfman was directed by versatile Argentinian filmmaker León Klimovsky. With Klimovsky behind the camera and Naschy writing and starring, the fifth iteration of the El Hombre Lobo saga barges forward with a kinetic energy and commits itself fully to its sillier diversions. Silly though it might be Doctor Jekyll and the Wolfman is at its strongest when it dials up the decrepit atmosphere and when it allows Klimovsky to indulge in his artful quirks. Despite, or in spite of, all that it never quite reaches the atmospheric pomp of The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (1971).

Behind the camera would be frequent Paul Naschy collaborator León Klimovsky – the brother of the renowned Gregorio Klimovsky, Argentine’s greatest eminence in mathematical logic, philosophy and epistemology, who would receive 8 Honoris Causa doctorates and a declared citizen of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires - was a trained dentist who took to screenwriting and later directing. Legend would come to call him the “fastest director” in Spanish cinema. Klimovsky was famous in Argentine for his many literary adaptations, religious and arthouse films – even though he always worked on the fringes of domestic cinema. The Argentinean of Russian descent had a long association with Buenos Aires-based Argentina Sono Film, a company believed to have had strong ties with the Perón government. Raúl Alejandro Apold, film critic at El Mundi, became head of publicity at Sono Film and would be promoted to propaganda chief for the Perón regime.

Under mounting pressure, and to maintain a source of income, Klimovsky left the Argentine film industry in 1955 when the military dictatorship of president Juan Domingo Perón collapsed after his second term. Settling in Spain Klimovsky rapidly made a name for himself by shooting a number of exploitation movies, spaghetti westerns among them, in Mexico, Italy, Spain and Egypt. Uncommon for the time Doctor Jekyll and the Wolfman was shot directly in English and did not have to be overdubbed for the international market. Upholding the traditions of producing a feature under Franco’s repressive National-Catholic regime two versions were shot: a clothed version for the domestic market and a more nudity-laced version for the various international markets. Domestically Doctor Jekyll and the Wolfman was received to mostly mixed and generally negative reactions. It wasn’t the greatest El Hombre Lobo feature but it certainly wasn’t the worst by a long shot either.

Doctor Jekyll and the Wolfman coincided with the Jekyll & Hyde craze of the early 1970s and capitalized on the emerging the Marquis de Sade cycle that swept over French and Iberian genre cinema from the late sixties onward. For that reason the female lead character is named Justine. José Frade originally had expressed interest to produce the feature and Naschy and him worked on the screenplay. The production agreement fell through when Frade was stricken with ill health and Arturo González took over. Partly set in England Doctor Jekyll and the Wolfman gets most of its production value out of the exterior scenes shot in London and Westminster featuring famous tourist attractions as Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, the Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Soho where Mr. Hyde embarks on a brief reign of terror. For that occassion British actress Shirley Corrigan was cast among the leads. Corrigan had appeared in the Dario Argento giallo Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) and the Belgo-Italian horror sub-classic The Devil’s Nightmare (1971).

Moving forward Shirley travelled to Germany to appear in Ernst Hofbauer’s Schoolgirl Report 6: What Parents Would Gladly Hush Up (1973) and Housewife Report International (1973) as well as appearing in Around the World with Fanny Hill (1974) and the Hubert Frank Tiroler sex comedy Unterm Röckchen Stößt das Böckchen (1974) (which translates to Under the skirt, the Little Boot hits). The remainder of the cast consisted of Spanish regulars including bit parts for María Luisa Tovar, the darkhaired sister of Loreta Tovar, Marisol Delgado and Lucy Tiller. The most interesting of the supporting cast is Heinrich Starhemberg, who in actuality was Austrian Prince Heinrich Rüdiger Karl Georg Francis von Starhemberg and son of actress Nora Gregor. A year down the line Starhemberg would play a bigger character in Klimovsky’s The Dracula Saga (1973) where he would use his Henry Gregor stage alias for the first time.

Upon learning of the death of his parents wealthy middle-aged entrepreneur and proud Hungarian Imre Kosta (José Marco, as Jose Marco) decides to take his young trophy wife Justine (Shirley Corrigan) on honeymoon to the old country. The couple end up having vehicular malfunctions in the environs of the medieval looking Baliavasta, near Transylvania, a village that time forgot somewhere around 1490 and which the script insists is in Hungary (and not Romania where Transylvania actually is). As Imre inspects the engine Justine goes wandering about and is scared half to death when a disfigured leper emerges from the bowels of one of the nearby derelict buildings. The two take up lodging in the village inn where innkeeper Gyogyo (Barta Barri, as Barta Barry) spouts ominous warnings to avoid the old cemetery claiming that it’s cursed and that it is too close to what the villagers collectively refer to as The Black Castle (whether the members of Dimmu Borgir are/were Paul Naschy fans has, sadly, never been disclosed). In the inn a trio of bandits led by Otvos (Luis Induni) and Thurko (Luis Gaspar) lay eyes upon the wealthy couple and before long are hatching a plan to rob the tourist duo. If the tales in the village are to be believed The Black Castle hides a horror even greater than those haunting the old cemetery. Shrugging off the innkeeper’s tales as plain old provincial superstition Imre and Justine set route for the old graveyard.

While inspecting the ancestral grave Kosta’s Rolls-Royce is broken into by the trio of undesirables that had been lustily eying Justine ever since they entered. Imre attempts to stop the robbery and is violently stabbed to death for his trouble. The three brothers then set their eyes on Justine, but they are stopped by the sudden appearance of a blackclad Waldemar Daninsky (Paul Naschy) who, in short order, kills Thurko and his unsavory partner; one with a reversed bear hug and crushing the other beneath a boulder. Justine, who has fainted from such manly intervention as convention would dictate, is taken into The Black Castle by Daninsky and when she comes to Justine finds herself in an opulent bedroom. Picking up a candlelabra she aimlessly strolls the barely lid corridors for a bit only to find Waldemar brooding over Imre’s lifeless body. Understandably startled Justine tries to flee, but she’s scared into a cowering husk by the same disfigured leper that nearly attacked her in the old cemetery a few hours earlier. Waldemar and Uswika Bathory (Elsa Zabala) escort Justine back to her chambers. While Bathory explains Daninsky’s affliction to Justine, him and the leper bury Imre in ancestral ground. Taken aback by so much kindness and compassion Justine takes a shine to the diminutive Daninsky. Sworn to avenge the slaying of his brothers Otvos stirs the village into a torches, pitchforks and silver bullets wielding mob, killing Bathory by beheading in the chaos, necessitating Daninsky and freshly widowed Justine to flee to England.

In London, Justine contacts her dear old friend Dr. Henry Jekyll (Jack Taylor), a grandson of the character from the famous 1886 Robert Louis Stevenson novel, a prominent scientist at the prestigious Biological Research Clinic. Jekyll is of the opinion that with a revised version of his father’s serum he will be able to rid Daninsky of his his wolven form by letting his latent Mr. Hyde personality, borne from the same inborn evil as his lycantropy, manifest itself. He will then be injected with an agent that purges Mr. Hyde from his being, taking the lycantropy with it. Jekyll instructs Waldemar to come to the clinic on the day of the next full moon whereupon Jekyll and his trusted protégée Sandra (Mirta Miller, as Mirtha Miller) will conduct their experimental treatment. On his way to the clinic Waldemar boards an elevator with an attractive young nurse (Marisol Delgado) which breaks down until the full moon rises.

Waldemar succumbs to his lycanthropic nature, brutally mauls the nurse and after technicians fix the elevator the wolven Daninsky bursts into the foggy London streets killing a young prostitute (María Luisa Tovar) in the process. Apropos of nothing Waldemar is brought into the clinic again and the experimental treatment is administered. Against all odds the experiment is a success and Daninsky is freed from his monstrous affliction. Sandra, even madder than her elder scientist mentor, is jealous of the attention Justine is giving Jekyll and she plots to set Mr. Hyde (Paul Naschy) loose in retribution. She stabs Jekyll to death and injects Waldemar with another dosage of the Mr. Hyde serum. In the form of Mr. Hyde the Polish nobleman unleashes a brief reign of terror before the stroboscopic lights of a discothesque release his werewolf form once again. Will Justine be strong enough to end the life of the very man she has come to love?

Jack Taylor, Mirta Miller, José Marco, Barta Barri, and Luis Induni were all regulars in Spanish exploitation and all are fine form. Miller especially is excellent as the quite insane Sandra. She's far more of a presence here than in Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973) a year down the line. Taylor is his usual suave self and while not quite as masculine as, say, a Tony Kendall or Pier Luigi Conti his turn as Dr. Henry Jekyll is commendable as he’s genuinely concerned for Naschy’s well-being. Naschy’s second part as Edward Hyde is far more unintentionally comedic than it ought to be. Compared to the preceding chapters the El Hombre Lobo is far more brutal here. In short succession he kills two no-name characters that just happen to be beautiful actresses. María Luisa Tovar was usually called upon whenever a production needed an attractive, semi-exposed victim and Betsabé Ruiz or Cristina Galbó weren’t available. Marisol Delgado would serve similar purposes in Amando de Ossorio’s The Loreley’s Grasp (1973), Attack of the Blind Dead (1973), and Javier Aguirre’s The Killer Is One of Thirteen (1976), although she wasn’t nearly as prolific as Tovar was. Lucy Tiller, of Terence Young’s The Amazons (1973), has another throwaway role in a long line of such. Tiller, it seems, could never quite catch a break.

Doctor Jekyll and the Wolfman bears more than a passing resemblance to the earlier Assignment Terror (1969). Like its forebear it never quite knows on what atmosphere to settle and the basic plot of mad science unleashing classic monsters is refurbished in its entirety. At worst Doctor Jekyll and the Wolfman feels the grip of grip of franchise fatigue clawing on itself. Thankfully the following two episodes would take a far more epic - or downright campy approach. That isn’t to say that Doctor Jekyll and the Wolfman is in any way bad, it’s clearly a lesser episode, but it still manages to be quite effective when it wants to be. Doctor Jekyll and the Wolfman has Naschy and Klimovsky seemingly on auto-pilot. Everything lines up the way you expect it to, and everything works the way it’s supposed to. It never commits itself to same level of insanity as some of the episodes prior or since. While serviceable, it never quite carves out a place of its own in the series. With León Klimovsky behind the camera it never lowers itself to the level of The Fury of the Wolfman (1970) but it also never reaches the peaks of Klimovsky’s superior The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (1971), or the Carlos Aured directed Curse Of the Devil (1973). Neither does it have the excesses of Miguel Iglesias’ The Werewolf and the Yeti (1975), the last of the vintage El Hombre Lobo installments.