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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: Polish nobleman is bitten by wolf during hunting expedition

Jacinto Molina Álvarez was born in 1934, and thirty-four years later he was a champion weightlifter, former architect student, graphic designer, failed pulp western novelist, and occassional film extra. Álvarez came from a line of men with artistic inclinations. His father, Enrique, was a renowned fur and leather craftsman and Emilio, his grandfather, was an acclaimed sculptor of religious iconography. Álvarez wrote the screenplay in a month with inspiration coming from a feature he saw at a matinee when he was 11. He hoped for it to go in production, but in 1962 Spain chances were slim as the country had no horror cinema culture worthy of the name. The once almost respectable Jesús Franco had made a few attempts, but a fantastique and straight up horror were unheard of. A take on the classic Universal Monsters, or an escapist fantasy, was what Álvarez’ werewolf was envisioned as instead of some profound rumination on mortality or the human condition. The Mark Of the Wolfman - the first chapter in the epic, multi-decade spanning saga of cursed Polish nobleman Waldemar Daninsky - became a box office succes, making Paul Naschy a household name in his native Spain - and launched a lucrative franchise spawning no less than a whopping 11 sequels over multiple decades.

The road from conception to execution for The Mark Of the Wolfman was beset by troubles from all sides. The story was originally meant to be set in Spain, but the oppressive regime from Generalissimo Francisco Franco would ensure it would never find proper funding. Salvaging Álvarez’ fantastique from looming obscurity was West German production company Hi-Fi Stereo 70. The company initially approached faded icon Lon Chaney, Jr. to play the cursed nobleman, but advanced age and throat cancer forced him to politely decline. In view of the situation Álvarez would play the character himself. To accomodate the changes the nationality of the lead character was changed from Spanish to Polish. Hi-Fi Stereo 70 urged Álvarez to adopt a non-Spanish alias as an actor. Thus was born Paul Naschy; a portmanteau of then-current pope Paul the Sixth and Hungarian weightlifter Imre Nagy.

The alias allowed Alvarez to write screenplays under his own name and act under his international alias Paul Naschy. One of the directors offered the project was Amando de Ossorio who passed on it, believing that horror would never take off in Spain. Upon the box office success of The Mark Of the Wolfman de Ossorio would start his own horror productions with with gothic horror potboiler Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969), The Loreley’s Grasp (1974), The Night of the Sorcerers (1974) and the memorable Tombs Of the Blind Dead (1972), the Knight Templar zombie movie birthing the (mostly consistent) Blind Dead franchise. In 2001 Naschy was given Spain’s Gold Medal Award for Fine Arts by King Juan Carlos I.

Realizing Naschy’s werewolf screenplays were directors Enrique López Eguiluz, Carlos Aured, Javier Aguirre, Miguel Iglesias, and former Argentinian dentist León Klimovsky. Klimovsky would direct Naschy in The Werewolf and the Vampire Woman (1971). In the Enrique López Eguiluz directed The Mark Of the Wolfman, the first Waldemar Daninsky epic, Nashy attracted some of the most recognizable talent of the day, including Julián Ugarte, Ángel Menéndez, Carlos Casaravilla, Dyanik Zurakowska, and Rosanna Yanni. Argentine actress Rosanna Yanni would cross paths with Carlos Casaravilla and Julián Ugarte in Fangs Of the Living Dead (1969), with Naschy in The Hunchback Of the Rue Morgue (1973) and Count Dracula’s Great Love (1973). Yanni would be one of many continental belles to partake in the sports comedy Las Ibéricas F.C. (1971) as well as Terence Young’s breasts-and-games peplum spectacular The Amazons (1973). Antonio Jiménez Escribano was in Necrophagus (1971). Ángel Menéndez would play men of science in The Devil Came From Akasava (1971), an Eurocrime romp from Jess Franco, and in Amando de Ossorio’s The Loreley’s Grasp (1974). Dyanik Zurakowska and Aurora de Alba would co-star with Naschy again in the León Klimovsky directed Vengeance Of the Zombies (1973). The Mark Of the Wolfman was one of the last acting parts for Manuel Manzaneque, who would bid the acting profession farewell and become a respected wine maker in Spain.

In The Mark Of the Wolfman Polish aristocrat Waldemar Daninsky (Jacinto Molina Álvarez, as Paul Naschy) finds himself attending a period-costumed masked ball at the estate of Count Sigmund von Aarenberg (José Nieto, as Jose Nieto) in Germany in honor of his daughter Janice (Dyanik Zurakowska, as Dianik Zurakowska) 18th birthday. Von Aarenberg wants her to marry her respectable friend Rudolph Weissmann (Manuel Manzaneque), son of judge Aarno Weismann (Carlos Casaravilla) whom he is friends with. After the prerequisite dance Janice is attracted to the diminutive Daninsky instead. Meanwhile a gypsy couple Gyogyo (Gualberto Galbán, as Gualberto Galban) and Nascha (Rosanna Yanni, as Rossana Yanni), whose horse-drawn caravan was driven off the road earlier by Weissmann, break and enter into the delapidated castle Wolfstein. Gorging on wine found in one of the cupboards the two drunken troublemakers, or the fairer half of them at least, desecrates one of the tombs by removing a silver cross.

Unbeknownst they have released long-dormant lycanthrope Imre Wolfstein from captivity and into the peaceful countryside nearby. As Wolfstein claims several victims among the populace a hunting party is mounted, led by forestkeeper Otto (Ángel Menéndez, as Angel Menendez). It is under these circumstances Daninsky and Weissmann make their acquaintance, with Daninsky killing the wolfman with a silver dagger – but not without sustaining serious injury himself during the altercation. In search of a cure he meets experts in the occult Dr. Janos Mikhelov (Julián Ugarte, as Julian Ugarte) and his beautiful assistant Wandessa (Aurora de Alba). As Daninsky comes to grips with his wolven affliction, Rudolph becomes enchanted with silky seductress Wandessa and Janice is instantly spellbound by the very metrosexual Janos Mikhelov. As these things tend to go Mikhelov and Wandessa have their own plans for Daninsky...

There's a sense of pathos to Daninsky that far outweighs Naschy's tendency to overcompensate in dramatic gesticulating and overcompensating for his lack of height. Dyanik Zurakowska, Rosanna Yanni, and Aurora de Alba steam up every scene they are in. Yanni, a former model in Italy and before that a chorus girl in her native Argentina, wields her most formidable weapon, which is her deep cleavage and heaving bosom. Zurakowska provides the necessary youthful exuberance and her attraction to the vertically-challenged Daninsky is as inexplicable as anything else. Neither Yanni nor Zurakowska were ever particularly shy about baring their bust if that was required. Aurora de Alba was the original Wandessa, and she would torture Daninksy again in The Werewolf and the Vampire Woman (1971), at which point Patty Shepard had taken on the role and again in The Werewolf and the Yeti (1975) where Silvia Solar inherited the part. Location shooting at the El Cercón Monastery in Madrid, later used in de Ossorio’s Tombs Of the Blind Dead (1972), lush usage of Mario Bava-esque colors (blue and red feature prominently), as well as shadowy, cobwebbed interiors, and earthen Spanish locations add tremendously to the production value. The Mark Of the Wolfman has all elements of a good Mediterranean European gothic horror venture.

As expected from a screenplay written in a month there's more than a few interesting creative choices made. First, the pitting of Waldemar Daninsky (who in a Hollywood script would be the bad guy) against a pair of well-preserved vampires. Julián Ugarte’s metrosexual Janos Mikhelov was several decades ahead of its time. It's an especially daring move on Naschy's part making Mikhelov a metrosexual as homosexuality was illegal in Spain in the 1970s. That Naschy wrote a few scenes of his character frolicking with Dyanik Zurakowska, and Aurora de Alba is everything you'd expect of a novice screenwriter, and who could honestly blame him? Rosanna Yanni and Dyanik Zurakowska were some of the most desirable actresses of the day and that both became stars in their own right speaks volumes. The inclusion of Rosanna Yanni is purely to raise the temperature even further and, as always, Yanni doesn’t disappoint. Well, Rosanna seldom disappoints.

Compared to any of the later installments The Mark Of the Wolfman is conservative and restrained, which doesn’t mean it doesn’t go completely off the rails. A lycanthrope nobleman is beset by a pair of vampires while a young maiden and the fairer half of the vampire couple lust after him, one of them quite literally? Rosanna Yanni’s very low-cut dress inspires poetry and the dusty, cavernous locales give a delightfully old fashioned (as, say, something of a decade earlier) look that adds immensely to the authenticity. Barrel-chested Paul Naschy was never much of an actor but he displays the hunger you’d expect of a young actor starring/writing in his own vanity project. Daninsky would cross time zones and continents, face off against a variety of supernatural enemies to varying levels of success, and always have one (or more) buxom belles inexplicably drawn to his hairy masculine chest. The Mark Of the Wolfman has the distinction of being the first to introduce Waldemar Daninsky to the world and catapulting Paul Naschy to international cult superstardom. For all the criticisms that could be leveled at Jacinto Molina Álvarez as an actor, writer, producer, and director Iberian horror would have been a lot duller if it weren't for his presence...