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Necrophagus (1971)

Plot: griefstricken nobleman is forced to confront his family’s dark past.

There’s a reason why Necrophagus (released in North America rather cynically as either Graveyard Of Horror and alternatively The Butcher Of Binbrook to profit from the then-emergent giallo cycle and the gothic horror revival, respectively) is considered nothing but a long forgotten footnote in the annals of Spanish horror. Even by 1962 the Mediterranean and Latin American gothic was more risqué and sexier than this. It’s a feeble and futile attempt to do a period piece horror in the vein of Hammer for an Iberian audience – and Necrophagus obviously failed gloriously. With half the Spanish cast hiding behind pseudonyms, the usual washed up American expatriates collecting a paycheck and a director with more enthusiasm than talent you know exactly what you’re in for. It’s never a complete disaster like The Witches Moutain (1973) two years later and while it didn’t outright kill Madrid’s career it certainly didn’t help either. For all intents and purposes, Necrophagus is a beautiful trainwreck that could, and should, have been so much more than we ended up getting.

In the grand scheme of things Miguel Madrid Ortega is a largely overlooked director with a minuscule body of work that is largely inaccessible, obscure and forgotten. Ortega started out as an actor in the Jesús Franco production The Sadistic Baron von Klaus (1962) and a number of comedies and dramas before turning to directing. Unlike the oeuvres from Paul Naschy, Léon Klimovsky, Amando de Ossorio, Miguel Iglesias, Javier Aguirre, Juan Piquer Simón, and Jesús Franco his prime trio of features are mostly remembered for the wrong reasons. There’s Killing Of the Dolls (1975), a minor giallo that garnered some infamy with the tragical killing of its 29-year-old doll Inma DeSantis in an unfortunate car accident in the Sahara Desert in Morocco and the drama Bacanal en Directo (1979). His delightfully demented debut effort Necrophagus arrived just in time to profit from the gothic horror revival. Madrid was neither a hack like Raúl Artigot nor a talent taken before his time the way Claudio Guerín was.

After a business trip abroad aristocrat Lord Michael Sharrington (Bill Curran) returns to the old family seat in Scotland. There he learns that his wife Elizabeth (Inés Morales, as Senny Green) has expired in childbirth and that his brother and lord of the manor Robert (J.R. Clarke), the Earl of Binbrook and “the greatest scientist in the world”, has mysteriously disappeared. His brother has left Binbrook Castle to his wife Lady Anne (Catherine Ellison, as Catharine Ellison), her niece Margaret (Beatriz Elorrieta, as Beatriz Lacy) and his former assistant Dr. Lexter (Frank Braña, as Frank Brana). Living near are Elizabeth’s mother Barbara (María Paz Madrid, as Yocasta Grey) and Michael’s sisters-in-law Lilith (Titania Clement) and Pamela (María Luisa Extremeño, as Marisa Shiero). When Michael, shellshocked from the loss of both his wife and their unborn child, is met with hostility and obstinate silence whenever inquiring after his late wife. His sisters-in-law vy for his affections, berate one another for trying to sabotage Michael’s marriage and as such are constantly at each other’s throat. With the female members of the household shrouding themselves in secrecy and with no answers forthcoming, Michael decides to do some investigating of his own. The only person in town willing to talk is geriatric physician Dr. Kinberg (Antonio Jiménez Escribano).

As a man of science the only logical thing for Sharrington to do is disinterring his wife. There he comes to the shocking conclusion that not only her coffin, but all of the coffins in the cemetery, are vacant. The graveyard is haunted by cloaked, masked figures that pry open caskets. He finds out that his brother was on the verge of an important scientific breakthrough in his research into “the origin of man”. His latest experiment, one he performed on himself, dealt with “the transmutation of human cells” and left him with a craving for human flesh. Lady Anne and Lexter are aware of Robert’s carnivorous appetites and satiate his cravings by providing him with cadavers exhumed from the burial ground, or fresh bodies from Lexter’s deceased patients. Since that time the town does not speak of its hidden horror, The Butcher Of Binbrook, who they keep from preying on the living by feeding him their dead. To avoid suspicion Lady Anne and Lexter have ensnared caretaker Mr. Fowles (Víctor Israel) and Inspector Harrison (John Clark) in their graverobbing scheme. Lady Anne is broke and in a deviant sexual liaison with Lexter, and the two won’t let anything or anyone – living, dead or undead - get in the way in their quest for self-enrichment.

The screenplay by Madrid, under his usual alias Michael Skaife, is needlessly convoluted for what otherwise is a fairly straightforward Frankenstein variation. A non-linear narrative – full of sepia-toned flashbacks and dream sequences – isn’t what you’d typically expect of a gothic horror piece, and it needlessly complicates what ought to be a standard genre exercise. What it lacks in finer writing it overcompensates with that thick, decaying Mediterranean atmosphere of mildew, cobwebs and candlelabras. It desperately wants to make viewers believe it is British and a Hammer Horror movie but nothing could be further from the truth. Curiously, it’s also practically bereft of the two things that Mediterranean gothic horror usually thrives upon, namely nudity and blood/gore. Nudity, when and if it appears, is implied rather than shown, and the gore is absolutely minimal. The cinematography isn’t exactly riveting but at least director of photography Alfonso Nieva makes good usage of the San Martín de Valdeiglesias and Pelayos de la Presa monasteries in Madrid and the graven snow-covered landscapes look absolutely chilling. The ominous score from Alfonso Santisteban is fittingly brooding but hardly exemplary. Marisa Shiero, Titania Clement, and Beatriz Elorrieta hold their own well enough, but aren’t exactly on the level as Rosanna Yanni, María Elena Arpón, Betsabé Ruiz, or Rita Calderoni. Neither is María Paz Madrid a leading lady on remotely the same level as Eurocult pillars Lone Fleming, Luciana Paluzzi, Silvia Tortosa, Diana Lorys, Adriana Ambesi, or Perla Cristal. Necrophagus makes the most from its creaky production values, but the dire lack of funds are rather obvious.

Granted, everything here is decidedly second-rate. None of the lead cast were known stars or bankable names, with only supporting actors Frank Braña, Antonio Jiménez Escribano, and Víctor Israel lending any marquee value. In fact Necrophagus was such concentrated effort of awful that it single-handedly ended more careers in front of the camera than it ushered in. It was powerful enough to kill the careers of María Paz Madrid, Marisa Shiero, Titania Clement, Catherine Ellison, John Clark, and leading man Bill Curran. Many of whom did little, if anything, of interest afterwards. Of the supporting cast only Inés Morales, Víctor Israel, and Frank Braña were able to escape its shadow unscathed and had long careers afterwards.

In the 1960s Frank Braña had parts in Sergio Leone’s western epics A Fistful Of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966) before turning up a decade later in cinematic cannonfodder and exploitation pulp as Alfonso Brescia’s budget – and talent deprived Battle Of the Amazons (1973), Miguel Iglesias’ jungle genre-hybrid Kilma, Queen of the Amazons (1976), the feminist barbarian epic Hundra (1983) (with Laurene Landon), and the three Juan Piquer Simón features Supersonic Man (1979), Pieces (1982), and Slugs (1988). Beatriz Elorrieta continued to act until 1986 before becoming a costume designer and working almost exclusively for her husband Javier Elorrieta. Víctor Israel was a macaroni western pillar with a storied career spanning four decades and several exploitation subgenres. As such he can be seen in Horror Express (1972) (with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing), The Witches Mountain (1973), The Wicked Caresses Of Satan (1975) (with Silvia Solar), The Werewolf and the Yeti (1975) (with Paul Naschy, Verónica Miriel, and Silvia Solar) and Hell Of the Living Dead (1980).

Everybody has to start somewhere and Necrophagus was but the second horror feature for special effects craftsman Antonio Molina, who had worked on Paul Naschy's Universal Monster-science fiction extravaganza Assignment Terror (1969) (with Michael Rennie and Karin Dor) and a host of spaghetti westerns and macaroni combat efforts earlier. Molina’s later credits include classic and not-so-classic Spanish horror ventures as The Wolfman vs the Vampire Woman (1971), Horror Rises From the Tomb (1973) and Jess Franco’s Eurociné jungle cheapie Devil Hunter (1980). In the following decade Molina worked himself into the mainstream with Pedro Almodóvar’s Live Flesh (1997) and All About My Mother (1999).

Necrophagus has the look and feel of a Filipino production, or of a lesser Paul Naschy feature, and information on the existence of a more explicit international cut is scarce to non-existent. It’s entirely within the realm of possibility that the production couldn’t afford to shoot additional footage for an international market release. Unbelievably, Miguel Madrid won the prize for best director at the 1971 Festival of the Cine de Terror at Sitges, Catalonia for Necrophagus. That Madrid would only direct Killing Of the Dolls (1975) and Bacanal en Directo (1979) in the aftermath proved that he had more enthusiasm than talent and that him winning the best director award at Sitges was premature at best.