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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: businessman gets lost in the Yugoslavian wilds and encounters vampires.

The Night Of the Devils (or La notte dei diavoli back at home in Italy) is a minor entry in the continental European vampire horror canon at the dawn of the wicked and wild seventies. The basis for the screenplay was the 1884/1950 Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy novel The Family of the Vourdalak. Mario Bava had first adapted it in the ‘I Wurdulak’ segment of his Black Sabbath (1963) and now almost ten years later it was time for a more contemporary adaptation. Overall it leans closer to the understated dread of Damiano Damiani's The Witch (1966) than to the psychotronic exuberance and excess of Jean Rollin, Mario Mercier, Luigi Batzella or Renato Polselli. In more recent years Tolstoy’s story was faithfully adapted in the Crimean gothic Vurdalaki (2017).

With credits dating all the way back to 1936 director Giorgio Ferroni was a dyed-in-the-wool craftsman who had a solid, if mostly undistinguished, career in Italian genre cinema. True to form he did everything from spaghetti westerns and poliziotteschi to comedies and documentaries. What he seemed to excel at, however, were peplum and horror on a budget. In that capacity he directed the atmospheric little gothic Mill of the Stone Women (1960) (an underseen and underrated Italian sub-classic) and a slew of entertaining pepla, including but not limited to, The Trojan Horse (1961), Conquest of Mycene (1963) (with Rosalba Neri) and The Lion Of Thebes (1964). His most prestigious and widely seen features were probably his liberal adaptation of Euripides' classic tragedy The Bacchantes (1961) and the World War II epic The Battle of El Alamein (1969). Amidst the vampire horror craze of the early 1970s he contributed the minimalistic, anachronistic and quiet The Night Of the Devils. Produced by Eduardo Manzanos and featuring an ensemble cast of Italian veterans as well as special effects from Carlo Rambaldi The Night Of the Devils would be Ferroni’s last horror outing before his death in 1981. Another minor classic is hardly the worst way to go out.

Yugoslavia, 1972. On his way to a business appointment Italian lumber importer Nicola (Gianni Garko) takes a dusty road through some particularly thick woods wrecking his 1967 Fiat 124 Sport Coupé as he tries to avoid crashing into a mysterious woman. Forced to look for help in these unhospitable environs he happens upon a family of eccentric woodcutters sequestered away in a 19th century tenement somewhere in darker bowels of the deep woods. When he spots the world-weary Ciuvelak clan they are in the process of burying the recently deceased brother of patriarch Gorka (William Vanders, as Bill Vanders). As Nicola asks Gorka whether there’s any possibility of someone driving him to the nearest village for repairs the old man spouts an ominous warning about the woods not being safe whenever night falls. Gorka invites Nicola to stay overnight at the family homestead and continue his journey home the following day. In short order he meets Gorka’s wife Elena (Teresa Gimpera), eldest son Jovan (Roberto Maldera, as Mark Roberts), daughter Sdenka (Agostina Belli) as well as his cousins Irina (Cinzia De Carolis) and Mira (Sabrina Tamborra). The next morning Jovan commences repairs on Nicola’s car as Gorka announces that he’s going to hunt down the “living dead” witch (Maria Monti) that supposedly haunts the woods and has cursed the Ciuvelak clan with an unspecified malady. If he doesn’t return that same evening at 6 o’clock sharp they are to kill him with no questions asked.

That night Gorka does return to the homestead and comes bearing a severed hand as evidence for his slaying of the witch. As the hours pass Sdenka insinuates herself into Nicola’s chambers and Gorka spirits little Irina away into the blackness of night. The strangeness becomes almost too much to bear when Nicola is witness to Irina returning as one of the living dead and Jovan is forced to drive a stake through Gorka’s heart. As one by one members of the Ciuvelak fall victim to the curse of the living dead Nicola soon finds himself in a fight for life and limb as the clan descends upon the homestead. Bloodied and bewildered he manages to escape within an inch of life and somehow he’s able to navigate the woods. Exhausted from his ordeal Nicola passes out near an idyllic stream. He’s brought to the local mental ward where he’s examined by doctor Tosi (Umberto Raho) and before long law enforcement in the form of officer Kovacic (Renato Turi) wants to interrogate the vagrant in expensive attire. The physician informs the inspector that the man spends his nights peering out of the window, “looking into the darkness like a scared, cornered animal.” Shortly thereafter a beautiful woman introduces herself claiming she knows the wealthy foreigner. As the doctor takes the woman to see the man, he flees from his room in abject horror.

Ferroni managed to assemble quite the cast for this atmospheric little horror ditty. First and foremost, there’s peplum and spaghetti western veteran Gianni Garko. Garko was a mainstay in Italian pulp cinema that somehow always remained somewhat of a second-stringer. His credits, among many others, include the giallo The Flower with the Deadly Sting (1973), The Psychic (1977) as well as the German sex comedies Three Swedish Girls in Upper Bavaria (1977) and Summer Night Fever (1978). The lowest he had to go was with Alfonso Brescia’s craptacular space opera Star Odyssey (1979) and bounced back with Luigi Cozzi’s space peplum Hercules (1983). The other monument here is Umberto Raho. Raho was a pillar of peplum, spaghetti western and Eurospy. Raho had acted alongside two of Britains greatest imports. First with Barbara Steele in The Ghost (1963), Castle Of Blood (1964) and The Long Hair of Death (1965) and in between with Vincent Price in The Last Man on Earth (1964). Towards the end of the decade he acted alongside unsung Polish import Magda Konopka in the fumetti Satanik (1968). He was in the giallo The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) from Dario Argento as well as Amuck (1972) from Silvio Amadio. Other noteworthy appearances include, among others, The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave (1971) (with Erika Blanc) and the slightly deranged The Exorcist (1973) imitation Enter the Devil (1974) (with Lucretia Love and Stella Carnacina) from Mario Gariazzo.

Agostina Belli was one of the classic redhead belles that effortlessly alternated between mainstream fare, comedies and horror. As such she could be seen in the sugary sweet Romina Power-Al Bano musicarello period piece Symphony Of Love (1970), the horror Scream of the Demon Lover (1970), the giallo The Fifth Cord (1971), the Lucio Fulci sex comedy The Senator Likes Women (1972), Scent Of A Woman (1974) (the American remake with Al Pacino, Chris O’Donnell and Gabrielle Anwar from 1992 was as soulless as it was unnecessary – but, god forbid, if the average American has to read subtitles on an import), The Career of a Chambermaid (1976), the amiable The Omen (1976) imitation Holocaust 2000 (1977), the period piece Manaos (1979) as well as the comedies Dear Wife (1982) and Go Ahead You That Makes Me Laugh (1982). Her strangest outing was perhaps the E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) imitation The Brother from Space (1988) from the specialist in such things, Mario Gariazzo. The other illuminating presence is Teresa Gimpera, a reliable pillar in continental European pulp, who could be seen in Night of the Scorpion (1972), the gothic horror Crypt Of the Living Dead (1972), the Alfonso Brescia giallo Naked Girl Murdered in the Park (1972), the sex comedy Healthy Married Life (1974) and León Klimovsky's illicit The Last Man on Earth (1964) remake The People Who Own the Dark (1976).

What this most closely resembles are the two Mario Mercier features Erotic Witchcraft (1972) and A Woman Possessed (1975) as well as the American fantastique Blood Sabbath (1972) (with Dyanne Thorne, Susan Damante and amply endowed Swedish softcore porn star and sometime Russ Meyer muse Uschi Digard). Ferroni understands, perhaps better than anyone else, that less is always more. For this atmospheric, gothic-tinged horror he and director of photography Manuel Berenguer make full use of the sylvan location and the arboreal surroundings. It’s not a big leap from here to the naturalistic environs in which Jean Rollin frequently dabbled or something like Seven Women For Satan (1974) from Michel Lemoine. What little money there was, was obviously spent where it mattered. One year later León Klimovsky would use a similar premise for his The Vampires Night Orgy (1973), except there an entire town of vampires descended upon a travelling couple thrown together by circumstance. Amidst the deluge of gothic horror revivals, The Night Of the Devils was a sobering earthy and grounded affair with none of the supernatural overtones that more or less were the standard of the day. Instead it uses a sprawling natural environment to utmost effect and electrifying performances from Garko and Belli heighten the experience.

While arguably 1973 was the banner year for Italian gothic horror, 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of this little talked about slice of Italian gothic pulp. For an Italian production it comes off as either very French or British, depending on your preference. If you’re looking for a low-key production that’s overflowing with atmosphere and not some extravagant special effects spectacle as, say, The Devil’s Wedding Night (1973) (with Rosalba Neri) or The Dracula Saga (1973) (with Helga Liné, Betsabé Ruiz and Cristina Suriani), The Night Of the Devils will be right up your alley. What Night Of the Damned (1971) was to the giallo and what The Witches Mountain (1973) was to the Spanish fantastique and witchcraft horror, this is to the Italian gothic. This is a wonderfully understated feature that banks heavily on its natural surroundings to sell what otherwise is on its face a patently ridiculous premise. Just like Mill of the Stone Women (1960) twelve years earlier The Night Of the Devils is a boundlessly atmospheric and creaky gothic that manages to push all the right buttons and is custodian to exemplary performances from Gianni Garko and Agostina Belli. With the benefit of several decades of hindsight it’s near criminal that Giorgio Ferroni has gone down in history as a reliable but underappreciated second-stringer.