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

1 comment:

  1. The soundtrack at times is sprightly and easy listening like a travelogue's background music. The music during the mummy resurrection is awesome.