Monday, October 21, 2019

Assignment Terror / Los monstruos del terror (1970)

Halloween always gets me in the mood for the classic Universal monsters, so I thought I would revisit a Spanish monster mash-up (done in the vein of Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) and House of Frankenstein (1944)) that I had not seen in over ten years.

Assignment Terror is one of the Paul Naschy films I revisited the least for some reason. Naschy wrote and starred in it, but at the same time I couldn’t help thinking it needed a little more Naschy. Paul Naschy’s scripts usually come off as real personal projects, but, even with the presence of the Universal monsters that inspired Naschy’s childhood love for horror, I didn’t quite feel that as much with Assignment Terror. But to be fair, it is quite early in Naschy’s filmography. Plus, I can see how Naschy might’ve thought it best to have his tragic lycanthrope character Waldemar Daninsky step aside a little to make room for the other classic monsters. In the end, it still ends up being Naschy’s show and what I think is an alright old-school monster movie that has got a few neat tricks up its sleeve. The whole thing is of course messy and flawed but also kind of whacky and fun.

Naschy was tasked by the production company Prades P.C. with writing a script for a big budget monster movie. This ended up being filled with body snatching aliens and alternate Spanish versions of Dracula, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s monster, and The Mummy. In his memoirs, Naschy wrote that he also included a golem monster, who unfortunately does not end up in the movie, aside from being briefly referenced in a tome of monsters that is leafed through by the inspector character (Craig Hill) in the film. The tome, titled “Anthology of the monsters by Professor Alrich D. Farancksalan” actually features really cool monster artwork. According to Naschy, the film was a troubled production. It was first directed by Hugo Fregonese who walked out on the project only after a couple weeks and had to be replaced by Tulio Demicheli.

Naschy’s Fury of the Wolfman (1970), made shortly after, combined sci-fi with horror, and also included some very interesting werewolf S&M, whereas Assignment Terror opts for a much heavier sci-fi approach, toning down considerably any gothic horror elements that one might expect from this kind of film. There are space aliens looking to annihilate or overthrow the human race in order to take over Earth, since their own planet “Ummo” can no longer sustain them, and they plan to use mankind’s superstition and fear of legendary monsters against them in order to achieve this aim. The leader of this operation is Dr. Odo Warnoff (Michael Rennie), a very gentlemanly bad guy. Together with his assistants, Maleva Kerstein (Bond girl Karin Dor) and Dr. Kerian (Ángel del Pozo), they intend to use their highly advanced technology to revive monsters that humans are all too familiar with from legend. 

The inclusion of monsters similar to Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man might seem a little out of place in a ‘60s space-agey sci-fi, but this does still inevitably lead to some fun brawls between the monsters, with the most memorable in this case being The Wolf Man vs. The Mummy.

I do like the compelling idea of making monsters through science. It almost feels like the movie is asking the question: what if modern science could one day render make-believe monsters (the familiar ones from horror movies) real? 

There isn’t much science to it though, since reviving the monsters generally consists of removing a silver bullet or a stake, or using a magic mirror. The science motif is more in the use of a colorful, vibrant, and hokey laboratory, where the aliens do their work on mind control of humans and monsters, as colorful chemicals smoke and bubble, flashy lights accompany sci-fi sound effects, and servants are tortured with ultrasonic waves and electroshocked into submission. Things start to feel a little episodic, and not necessarily in a bad way, with the aliens travelling to different locales to recover the corpses of the vampire (at a carnival) Count Janos de Mialhoff (Manuel de Blas), the wolf man (in a cemetery) Waldemar Daninsky (Naschy), the mummy (in Egypt) Tao-Tet (Gene Reyes), and the pages from the aforementioned tome that contain the secret to creating El monstruo de Farancksalan (Ferdinando Murolo).

I personally thought the Dracula figure, Count Janos de Mialhoff, was quite terrifying in this. Like Howard Vernon’s Dracula, he doesn’t speak but is still very dangerous even when tied down, as he will immediately hypnotize anyone who looks into his eyes. There was just something extra creepy about him and the way the film really imparts Dracula’s predatory prowess. When he does get loose, as to be expected, he heads straight for the slumbering Maleva Kerstein. 

The aliens in this are able to appear in human form, particularly deceased humans. With gentlemanly elegance and psychopathy, Dr. Warnoff leads the mission of growing an army of monsters in the lab in order to destroy mankind while leaving the planet intact, hence the reason they pass on exploding the nuclear weapon arsenal. He actually seems very kind and approachable but can also be very cold and cruel, while warning his alien brethren to not allow themselves to be weakened by human emotion, particularly that of love and emotional weakness. Maleva Kerstein seems to struggle with these feelings whenever she is in contact with a man, as she eventually falls for her co-worker Dr. Kerian. Their attraction to one another while in their human bodies is entirely foreign to them, which suggests sex and love do not exist on their planet. Dr. Warnoff of course sees this as a threat to the mission and takes drastic measures.

I honestly thought Michael Rennie was pretty good in the role of Dr. Warnoff. He seemed committed, playing it straight faced, despite how ridiculous things sometimes got. I was convinced by his performance as a distinguished intellectual bad guy with little sense of wrongdoing, since he is acting entirely in the interest of his own alien race. By the way, the idea of aliens appearing as humans is cool and all, but I’m a little disappointed we never got to see them in their natural forms. Apparently there originally was supposed to be scenes filmed with flying saucers that did not make it into the film for budgetary reasons.  

Paul Naschy’s wolfman performance is as sincere and brutal as always, even if the victim count is a little low here, which is made up for with the Mummy vs. Wolfman fight, where we kind of find out the obvious that a shambling mummy is no match for a werewolf (well unless we’re talking about the mummy Paul Naschy played in La venganza de la momia (1975)). El hombre lobo puts that mummy in a centrifuge of fire, and it is pure madness. That mummy in the spinning wheel of fire is what I remembered most about this movie. It’s not just fire but g-force that defeats the mummy. How do they come up with something like that?

The comely Patty Shepard, shortly before she was Countess Wandesa Dárvula de Nadasdy in The Werewolf Versus the Vampire Woman (1971), is the love interest to Inspector Tobermann (Hill). She ends up in peril and a prisoner to The Count. 

Assignment Terror has got a real groovy score that is credited to Franco Salina. It’s easy to conclude that the upbeat theme heard during the intro credits doesn’t fit, but I love the different flavor it lends to the old-school monster motif; plus, it reminds me a little of Burt Bacharach’s theme to Casino Royale (1967). The soundtrack also contains the appropriate spooky music as well.

Assignment Terror is obviously not the best in Naschy’s horror filmography, but it certainly stands out, going more in the sci-fi direction while downplaying the gothic horror aesthetic. It just barely does adequate justice to the classic Universal monsters and really is just a charming Spanish revisit of the monster mashup gimmick that feels so endearing during Halloween season that just awakens my childhood love for all the classic monsters together in the same story, which I believe for me is thanks to growing up with the Castlevania (1986) video game and The Monster Squad (1987). If you’re a fan of Paul Naschy and also thought Jess Franco’s Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein (1972) needed a little more Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) thrown in to it, then by all means, have a gander at Assignment Terror.

© At the Mansion of Madness

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Macumba Sexual (1983)

For me, going back to Macumba Sexual is going back to my Jess Franco origins, as it was the second Jess Franco film I ever saw, the first being Mansion of the Living Dead (1982). I came across both Severin DVDs of these films at a video store in 2007 and took a chance with Mansion first even though I was expecting it to be terrible (I had heard of Jess Franco and a not so revered zombie movie by the name of Oasis of the Zombies (1982)). At the time, I was desperate for something new, and I was sort of fascinated by the cheap looking blind dead Templar rip-offs on the DVD cover (Diet Tombs of the Blind Dead?). My expectations were low, but it turned out to be a funny, sexy, ultra-weird, and surprisingly atmospheric horror movie with a captivating lead actress, Lina Romay (born Rosa Maria Almirall). I shortly went back to the store for Macumba Sexual and, despite some frustrations, have been hooked on Jess Franco ever since (thanks Severin!).

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Evil Eye / Malocchio (1975)

Evil Eye is that kind of movie that gracefully tries to do it all but ends up not really knowing what to do with itself afterwards. When looking at the film as a whole, it feels like a nice recap of the enduring motifs of the giallo, occult, gothic horror, and erotica film, and for that it will surely find a place in the hearts of Eurocult fans (it certainly has for me), but it’s hard to tell if it is a work of genius, a mistake of a masterpiece, or just an empty, routine cash-in. Is it great or not-great? I honestly have referred to it as both.
The Spanish, Italian, Mexican co-production Evil Eye (aka Mal de ojo in Spain, Malocchio and Eroticofollia in Italy, and Más allá del exorcismo in Mexico) is directed and co-written by Mario Siciliano. It was also co-written by Spanish writers Julio Buchs and Federico De Urrutia. Interestingly, Buchs and De Urrutia have several co-writing credits together, such as Alta tension (1972) and A Bullet for Sandoval (1969), many of which Buchs directed. Evil Eye seems to be the very last film either writer worked on. Julio Buchs died in 1973 before the film was released.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Sex of Angels / Il sesso degli angeli (1968)

This wicked looking poster for the nominally X-rated Italian/German drama The Sex of Angels and the Google plot synopsis, which reads “young women steal a yacht and kidnap a young man and spend a weekend having sex and doing drugs,” really aren’t all that misleading, although there’s a lot more to the story. The poster also exaggerates the situation, as what is depicted is rather the result of a conundrum brought on by irresponsibility followed by an even more irresponsible course of action. 

The setup to The Sex of Angels is, of course, an appealing one to the male fancy. Being seized by three beautiful modern-day angels and taken on a boat ride into the endless summer of ’68? Why not? It sounds like a good time, and for the most part it is, but in trying to postulate what the film might be trying to say with its outcome, I can’t help but put it in the context of ‘60s youth counter culture and the sexual revolution and see it as a cautionary tale of seduction and widespread use of LSD and what I thought was a kind of critical impression of the behaviors of the “sexually liberated.”

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Alice or the Last Escapade / Alice ou la dernière fugue (1977)

I’ve been a fan of Alice in Wonderland since I was a kid, although I didn’t read Lewis Carroll’s Alice books until I was an adult, which was prompted by my first viewing of Jan Svankmajer’s Alice (1988), and ever since reading them I’ve been pretty enthusiastic about keeping an eye out for films inspired by or adapted from the books, which was what attracted me to the French surrealist film Alice or the Last Escapade in the first place. I thought the film did a pretty good job at creating an interesting new take on Alice in Wonderland (without actually being about Alice in Wonderland) while also being a bit derivative and having an ending that viewers will no doubt have seen before that I still thought was beautifully executed. It’s also very much of the ‘70s Eurocult sensibility and a product of its time, but it feels like there’s also a little something here for everyone, including the curious Alice in wonderland fan (who doesn’t mind a lightly inspired non-adaptation), and even the surreal, the arthouse, or even the gothic horror fan.

Friday, December 21, 2018

House of the Damned / La loba y la Paloma (1974)

House of the Damned is that generically titled, sort of misleading, pleasant delight that reminds me of why I still enjoy exploring near-forgotten Eurocult films from decades past with the word “House” in their titles. It’s far from the traditional haunted house horror and is more of a peculiar seaside murder drama that still hits a lot of the right notes for Spanish horror fans. The translation of the Spanish title is something like The She Wolf and the Dove, which I think is referring to Sandra and Maria (played by Carmen Sevilla and Muriel Catalá), the two main female characters who are also featured on the different regional title posters.
Which one of them is supposed to be the wolf and which one is the dove?

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Dunwich Horror (1970)

Before AIP’s The Dunwich Horror, a 1970 film adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror novella The Dunwich Horror from 1929, not a whole lot had been done yet to try and bring Lovecraft to the screen. The Haunted Palace from 1963 is partially based on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward; Die, Monster, Die! from 1965 is a loose adaptation of The Color out of Space; The Shuttered Room from 1967 is an adaptation of August Derleth's story of the same name that was inspired by Lovecraft, and The Crimson Cult from 1969 only takes mild inspiration from Dreams in the Witch House. As far as I can tell, The Dunwich Horror is the first film to be a faithful attempt at a direct title adaptation of an HP Lovecraft story. Not surprisingly some liberties were taken with this film, such as updating it for the late '60s, early '70s, but that’s always to be expected. I do think the The Dunwich Horror movie, for its era, does do Lovecraft justice, even if it doesn’t quite live up to the novella.

It was filmed in Mendocino California, a small coastal community that kind of passes for a New England looking town. I don’t think there was any kind of ocean near Dunwich in the original story, but the seaside connection is suitably Lovecraftian and serves the film well, as it’s usually filmed at night to look dark and ominous with unseen horrors.

The stylish occult and satanic animated intro credits set to the classical and catchy main theme by Les Baxter is a great start that gets you into both a ‘70s and a Lovecraft mood. It has a cartoony and imaginative way of painting the ceremonial birth of the main character Wilbur Whateley on Sentinel Hill. Even the film's detractors agree that this animated segment is terrific.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Sex of the Devil / Il sesso del diavolo - Trittico (1971)

How could any Eurocult horror fan resist being attracted to a movie with a poster like this and a title like Sex of the Devil? Whether or not the movie delivers what it promises on the cover is another matter, but when beholding such an epic, suggestively satanic, occult, and erotic poster like this one (centering on what I thought looked a little like a possessed Mia farrow), a spectacular fantasy of a movie is birthed in the mind of the observer, one that is often very different from the movie in reality, for better or worse. I admit to initially being attracted and baited in to this film based solely on this poster. Sex of the Devil not surprisingly turned out to be something other than I had imagined, and if it weren’t for that advertisement I may have never found it. So basically, the movie poster did its job, and I slowly fell in love with another movie.

Despite not being what I expected and bearing the usual pacing and plot resolution issues, Sex of the Devil still delivered the goods, and, in the end, it ended up delivering what it promised on the poster as well.

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