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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: who or what lurks within the darker bowels of the English countryside?

The 1970s were a decade of constant and grand innovation in horror and exploitation. No other subgenre went through greater evolution than the vampire movie. Hammer, the British film studio that once led the charge in revitalizing classic horror, found itself falling behind the times. Continental Europe and Latin America were pushing the envelope by infusing the old-fashioned gothic horror with a healthy dose of blood and boobs. The earliest example of the form probably being monochrome shockers as The Slaughter Of the Vampires (1962), Emilio Vieyra’s Blood Of the Virgins (1967), and Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (1969). What really led to a veritable deluge of erotic vampire horrors were two little genre exercises from France and Spain, respectively. It were Jean Rollin's The Nude Vampire (1970) and Jesús Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos (1971) that introduced some of the most enduring innovations to classic vampire lore. Their impact was so profound and immediate that it compelled Hammer to respond with the Karnstein trilogy of Vampire Lovers (1970) (with Polish bombshell Ingrid Pitt), Lust For A Vampire (1971) (with Danish ditz Yutte Stensgaard), and Twins Of Evil (1971) (with marvelous Maltese minxes and Playmate of the Month for October 1970 Mary and Madeleine Collinson). Rollin and Franco were fringe filmmakers who could appeal to an arthouse audience if they were so inclined. The Nude Vampire (1970) and Vampyros Lesbos (1971) not only were beautiful to look at, above all and before anything else they extolled the virtue of the female form, preferably disrobed and gyrating.

When he came to make Vampyres José Ramón Larraz had perfected his female-centric, sexually-charged formula to its most poignant form. While his debut Whirlpool (1970) and Deviation (1971) showed the occasional limitations in budget it was with Scream… and Die! (1973) and Symptoms (1974) where Larraz found his footing. Vampyres was hardly the first of its kind. It was preceded by Daughters Of Darkness (1971) and The Velvet Vampire (1971) (with Celeste Yarnall) on each side of the Atlantic and by Paul Naschy’s Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973) and The Dracula Saga (1973). It was consummate horror enthusiast Amando de Ossorio who had truly kicked open all the doors with his delightfully old-fashioned Malenka, the Vampire’s Niece (1969). Vampyres was a culmination of everything that Larraz had done at that point and the added benefit of experience allowed him to execute his vision in the ways he desired. Vampyres deconstructed the vampire film as much as it innovated upon it. The anemic premise was more of an excuse to work around limitations in budget and locations. What it lacked in production value it made up with acres of skin and lesbian histrionics courtesy of professional nude models Marianne Morris and Anulka Dziubinska. Larraz was as much of a provocateur as he was a businessman. He filmed where the money took him and what was fashionable on the market. In case of Vampyres the money took him to the pastoral, fog shrouded English countryside for an erotic vampire romp. Vampyres made no qualms about what it was and neither did Larraz for that matter. Against impossible odds Vampyres would become the quintessential Spanish vampire epic. In other words, Vampyres was, is, and forever will be, a stone-cold classic of European weird cinema and there was no immediate need (or want) to have it remade.

How often does a remake attain the level of the original? Practically never, a few rare examples notwithstanding. Regardless, Víctor Matellano has done just that and it conclusively proves that remakes, especially if they arrive some forty years after the fact, are as futile and pointless as these things usually tend to be. Which doesn't take away from the fact that Vampyres gets most of everything right. Perhaps the biggest difference is that this Vampyres opens with the quote, "she sprang from the bed with the force of a savage animal directly to my wound, sucking my life's blood with indescribable voluptuosity” from the short story La Morte Amoureuse (or The Dead Woman in Love) by Théophile Gautier. If nothing else it immediately sets the tone for what you’re going to get. Boasting two hot new stars, a swathe of young talent and half a dozen ancient Iberian horror icons Vampyres has its black heart in the right place and never is afraid to claw for that nostalgia itch. Regardless of one’s own feelings about the necessity of remakes of beloved classics the good thing is that Matellano obviously has a deep love and kind appreciation for the 1974 original. His well-intended and lovingly crafted remake of it is an enjoyable enough homage if you come to it with metered and measured expectations. While we hold the original as an untouchable and unsurpassed highpoint of nudity-laced Spanish fantaterror Matellano happens, by design or by happenstance, upon a few improvements by tweaking a few minor variables in his modern treatment. Is Víctor Matellano the Álex de la Iglesia or Alejandro Amenábar of the Instagram and Tiktok generation? Only time will tell.

Harriet (Verónica Polo, as Veronica P. Bacorn) and John (Anthony Rotsa) have travelled to the English countryside for a vacation and to shoot a documentary of local superstition concerning forest-dwelling witches. Harriet is the most pro-active in regards to the documentary while John just sees it as a convenient excuse for a little relaxing getaway. The young couple has brought along their mutual friend Nolan (Víctor Vidal) who hopes to make amends with his jilted ex-girlfriend Ann (Alina Nastase). In another part of town Ted (Christian Stamm) has checked in in his hotel, and decides to explore the environs. The receptionist (Lone Fleming) and hotelier (Caroline Munro) wax philosophically about what fate awaits him. Ted spots Fran (Marta Flich) wandering along the road, and offers to drive her to wherever she’s going. Fran directs him to a nearby mansion, offering him a drink to relax and immediately starts to seduce him. When he wakes up the following morning he has a nasty gash on his arm. Bewildered he stumbles into the tent of John and Harriet who take to looking after his injury. The following night he runs into Fran again, but this time she’s in company of her friend Miriam (Almudena León) and a man called Rupert (Luis Hacha) and his lady friend Linda (Remedios Darkin). When he wakes up the next morning Ted finds it odd to discover the lifeless and naked body of Rupert in what appears to be a car accident. This prompts him to investigate the darker bowels of the aristocratic mansion and somehow he manages to get himself locked in the cellar.

The next night Fran and Miriam bring in another victim to exsanguinate. When they are done with him they discover Ted locked in the cellar, and their weakened guest doesn’t mind the prospect of a potential threesome, even if the two women end up draining him of more than just his seed. After they’re finished with him and he’s in a dazed and confused state of phlebotomized stupor, Fran and Miriam feast on each other. Harriet has experienced going-ons at the mansion, mostly in the form of a mysterious scythe-wielding man (Antonio Mayans) skulking the environs, and decides to investigate. Her curiosity leads to her to mausoleum beneath the mansion, and the crypts wherein Fran and Miriam reside during the day. John returns from his morning excursion to find Harriet investigating the mansion, and leads her back to their tent moments before she’s bound to find the captive Ted. Fran and Miriam surmise that Harriet and John are posing too much of a threat and zone in on them. It might just be enough for Ted to plan his escape. The morning after his escape Ted is woken up by a real estate agent (Hilda Fuchs) and a senior couple (Conrado San Martín and May Heatherly) and learns that the mansion has been abandoned for decades.

In what turns out to be a very respectable remake this new incarnation follows the story faithfully and loving re-creates all the signature scenes and moments. Perhaps its faint praise but by changing a few variables around and slightly altering the lead character dynamic somehow has managed to improve on the Larraz original. The most important change here is that this Vampyres focuses on the kids first and only then introduces the motorist as a more abstract secondary viewpoint character. It also helps that the kids are actual young adults and not grown-ups like in the original. Less original is perhaps the reason why these kids are on their little excursion. They are out camping on a quest to document a tale of witches in local superstition in what can only be described as the umpteenth retread of The Blair Witch Project (1999). Reflecting the drastically lower budget the camper has been downgraded to a simple tent. And then there are the two incredible leads, Marta Flich and Almudena León. If you want to nitpick, Matellano has not kept the blonde-redhead duo intact. Perhaps there’s a point to be made that the supposedly aristocratic homestead isn’t sufficiently palatial and time-worn enough. What considerably bogs down Matellano’s homage is that it’s shorn of that vivid color palette and warmth of old-fashioned 35mm with hard/soft lighting and in its stead is that desaturated color scheme and washed out grey cinematography of digital video. It’s surprising how much this looks like the median Rene Perez indie or Arrowstorm Entertainment feature but these are truly minor criticisms.

Marta Flich and Almudena León throw themselves into the roles made legendary by Marianne Morris and Anulka Dziubinska and do so convincingly and completely. Whereas Morris and Dziubinska were professional nude models that allowed Larraz to use their bodies – contorted, exposed and otherwise - as canvas, Flich and León are acting professionals up for a challenge. To their everlasting credit (and like their predecessors some forty years earlier) they are absolutely not shy about baring their skin and getting covered in blood. Also not unimportant is that Matellano was wise enough to change the age brackets of the vampires around. Marta Flich is the youngest of the two and her seduction of the motorist makes more sense in that regard in contemporary times. When Almudena León finally joins in the whole thing becomes ever so more potent. Vampyres also gives Eurocult fans something to chew on with a host of familiar faces from Mediterranean pulp cinema. Caroline Munro, Lone Fleming, Antonio Mayans, Conrado San Martín, Hilda Fuchs, and May Heatherly represent several decades’ worth of some of the finest Spanish exploitation. It’s great seeing beloved old screen veterans paid respect to with major or minor supporting roles.

The prominence of La Morte Amoureuse (or The Dead Woman in Love) gives Vampyres a beautifully poetic undertone rendering it broadly French, narrowly fantastique, and specifically, Jean Rollin with its hazy oneiric atmosphere and very minimalist premise. As far as remakes go Vampyres is one of the better examples of why such an exercise occasionally yields worthwhile results. For one, it gets the tone right and stays very close to the original with only minor deviations here and there. Marta Flich and Almudena León have some obvious chemistry on-screen and are separately (and together) as beautiful as actresses like them come. Yet how hard they might throw themselves into their respective roles and the filth and the sleaze they get to partake in they never quite attain the same sizzling sensuality as the original duo of Marianne Morris and Anulka Dziubinska. Is this remake perfect? No, obviously not. It would be folly to expect such a thing. Something like this was never going to be able to capture that impossible to explain sweltering atmosphere of dread and sleaze that the 1970s as a decade so perfectly encapsulated. Yet the last thing Vampyres can be accused of is not trying to channel the spirit of the original. While it may not quite get there exactly it’s never for a lack of trying.