Skip to content

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: underground warrior sect vows to stop invasion of extraterrestrial demons.

The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is the long awaited and much overdue collaboration between director/action choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping and producer/writer/director Tsui Hark. Yuen Wo-Ping and Tsui Hark are veritable Hong Kong legends and this Mainland China feature sees both men combining their strengths to create the ultimate fantasy wuxia event movie. Allegedly a remake of Yuen Wo-Ping’s own The Miracle Fighters (1982) The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is the first chapter in a grand two-part saga chronicling an epic confrontation between good and evil on the tellurian and the celestial plains. Apparently this was very much supposed to be a Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and Legend Of Eight Samurai (1983) for this generation. Unfortunately The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia falls disappointingly, depressingly short of the mark and instead ends up somewhere along the lines of Dragon Chronicles: The Maidens of Heavenly Mountain (1994) and Mural (2011).

As producer Hark graced the world with everything from Peking Opera Blues (1986), the A Better Tomorrow (1986-1989), Once Upon a Time in China (1991-1997) and A Chinese Ghost Story (1987-1991) franchises, as well as Dragon Inn (1992), and Green Snake (1993). In capacity as director Yuen Wo-Ping worked with some of the finest martial artists, among them Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Brigitte Lin and Michelle Yeoh with a resumé including Drunken Master (1978), Snake in the Eagle's Shadow (1978), Iron Monkey (1993), Fire Dragon (1994), and Wing Chun (1994). As an action choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping is known in the West for his work on Fist of Legend (1994), The Matrix (1999), Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000) and its amiable sequel Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016). The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia sees Tsui Hark writing and producing with Yuen Wo-Ping directing. Nominated in three categories (Best Action Film, Best Costume Design, and Best Visual Effects) at the 12th Asian Film Awards and an additional two (Best Action Choreography, and Best Visual Effects) at the 37th Hong Kong Film Awards The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is shockingly average and falls well short of both Hong Kong veterans' individual and collective legacy.

action choreographer/director Yuen Wo-Ping (left) and producer/writer Tsui Hark (right)

No less than 19 production companies and three visual effects firms were involved in the creation of The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia. Interestingly, at least for those who pay attention to such things, there was no involvement from the Film Bureau who specialize in these kind of endeavours but on a much smaller scale. Probably because Hark’s screenplay somewhat condemns the corruption of ancient Chinese bureaucracy. Not only does The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia frequently ends up looking like a video game, it’s even structured like one as the merry band of spiritual warriors, each with their own superpower, embark on a perilous six chapter journey to save the world from certain doom at the hand of alien invaders. It comes replete with character power-ups, object fetching quests and end of level boss fights. It’s bad enough when Mural (2011), Angel Warriors (2013), and Ghost Story: Bride with the Painted Skin (2016) end up with better visual effects. At this rate even Bollywood has superior special effects with box office hits as Krrish (2006) and Krrish 3 (2013). You know a production is in trouble when Ada Liu Yan’s breasts attract far more attention than the grand heroic tale it’s spinning.

In ancient China during the Northern Song Dynasty agile fighter Dao Yichang (Aarif Rahman) travels to the capital of Kaifeng hoping to become the constable. Sent on a mission to intercept non-existing wrong-doers Dao quite accidently happens upon a plot much larger than himself. Chasing a strange-looking villager all through the city and into the local brothel where his goldfish turns into an oversized, three-eyed demon causing pandemonium and chagrin to prostitute Mermaid (Ada Liu Yan). The incident attracts the attention of the secretive Wuyinmen warrior clan. They have long held the prophecy that such an event would herald the coming of their destined leader. The seven Wuyinmen members have inherited the magical skills of Qimen and the Dunjia orb will allow them to repel the alien invasion. Iron Butterfly (Ni Ni) forges an alliance with Dao, which prompts Big Brother (Wu Bai) to seek out the Destroyer Of Worlds device. Meanwhile Wuyinmen doctor and strategist Zhuge Fengyun (Da Peng) happens upon waifish ingénue Circle (Zhou Dong-Yu), who's not only an amnesiac but bears the wrist markings of the prophesied Wuyinmen messiah, in a catacomb. That the fragile and slender stray also is a demonic shape-shifting monstrosity is something only Tsui Hark could come up with. With time rapidly ticking away Iron Butterfly and her brothers engage in a desperate effort to safe the world from a ferocious alien force that threatens to destroy it.

If nothing of the above comes across as your typical Tsui Hark fantastical adventure then you’re absolutely right. An everyman chases what turns out to be an alien lifeform and happens upon an impending invasion while being initiated into a top-secret organization (that civilians are blissfully unaware of even exists) and they need a certain object of great importance and magnificent power to stop said invasion from destroying all life on Earth? The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia, should there really be any doubt it is, the Chinese equivalent of Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men In Black (1997). Aarif Rahman does his best Will Smith impression, Ni Ni is Tommy Lee Jones complete with snark and cynicism, and Da Peng is Rip Torn. At various points Ada Liu Yan and Zhou Dong-Yu stand in for Linda Fiorentino. It’s depressing to see Hark imitating Hollywood, especially in light of how he once was an innovator. Only the messiah prophecy is somewhat redolent of David Lynch’s Dune (1984) but that’s the extent to which Hark deviates from the Men In Black (1997) model. For Chinese audiences the story might have been something else with its daring mix of comedy, Chinese folklore, science fiction and a decidedly Western idea of a plot. For Western audiences The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia riffs on Men In Black (1997) just a bit too close for comfort. It has neither the charm nor the goofy comedy from the Barry Sonnenfeld original. Slapstick humor has long been a boon to the work of Tsui Hark, but here it’s definitely more of a bane.

At least the story is reminiscent of both Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and Legend Of Eight Samurai (1983) but there’s where the good news ends. The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is frustratingly episodic and builds towards a climax that never really comes. It’s so busy setting up the inevitable sequel that it frequently forgets that it’s supposed to tell its own story for that sequel to make any sense. Somewhere in the early 2000s Mainland China features started to resemble 2 hour trailers more than actual movies and The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia is no different. Tsui Hark’s masterful eye for composition and use of color is painfully absent and the acrobatic action choreography from Yuen Cheung-yan and Yuen Shun-yi isn’t enough to save The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia from prematurely collapsing in on itself. As a greatest hits of sorts there are clumsy constables and well-meaning Confucian scholars, brave sword(wo)men, gravity-defying physics and plenty of beautiful women, prostitutes and otherwise, who are either chaste or promiscuous and always prefer a few slaps across the face as a form of foreplay. Most of the men are bumbling idiots constantly dangling for threesomes with girls who might, or might not, be monsters. Granted everything’s beautifully photograped by Choi Sung-Fai but it never congeals into the Chinese The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) that it probably was meant to be.

Perhaps the worst of all is that The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia never becomes more than a sum of its parts. At its best it harnesses the mad kinetic energy of We’re Going to Eat You (1980) but those moments are far and few. 34 years after Zu: The Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) you’d imagine Tsui Hark having the fantasy wuxia down to a science. If The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia was meant to rejuvenate and redefine the fantasy period costume genre then it’s perhaps time to look to at the small screen where series as Ice Fantasy (2016) and Secret Healer (2016) do the same thing to much greater effect on a comperatively smaller budget. Ni Ni is overflowing with talent even though the shadow of Joey Wong, Brigitte Lin, and Maggie Cheung looms large over her. Xie Miao was in God Of Gamblers Return (1994) and it’s always good seeing him in another high-profile production. Ada Liu Yan was in Painted Skin (2008) and Mural (2011) and her star is definitely on the rise. Yan is well underway eclipsing Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang, Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan, Wu Jing-Yi and Yang Ke in terms of bankability. Arguably Tsui Hark has seen better days and his new obsession with digital effects might very well spell the end of practical effects in his movies from here on out. Yuen Wo-Ping on the other hand helms The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia with all the finesse and professionalism you’d expect from an esteemed veteran of his caliber.

Critical – and fan reception was mixed to negative and for once they were spot on. It’s sad to see Tsui Hark, the Steven Spielberg from Asia, undertake such an ambitious project and have it fail so unbelievably spectacularly due to a hamfisted screenplay and some of the most unconvincing digital - and visual effects this side of a bad PlayStation 3 game. That the man who innovated Asian cinema time and again (by taking old folklore stories and reinventing them as action-filled special effects extravaganzas) in the past three decades now finds himself a follower instead of a leader of contemporary cinematic trends is depressing enough. If, and when, the proposed second chapter of The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia does arrive we can only hope that Tsui Hark will be able to properly amaze us with his enchanting vistas of mythical figures engaged in epic battle once again. There’s no shortage of the fantastical element in The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia, if only the human element was half as interesting as it ought to be. There is a time and place to admire Ada Liu Yan, but we have an inkling suspicion that The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia was not supposed to be it.