Craig J. Clark — Aug. 30th 2012
When one thinks of the great big-screen werewolves, the names that spring to mind are likely to include Lon Chaney, Jr., Oliver Reed, Robert Picardo, David Naughton and maybe even Jack Nicholson. Of them, Chaney has the clear advantage since he played the Wolf Man in no fewer than five films, but the most prolific of them all was Spanish horror icon Paul Naschy, who starred in a dozen films as his signature character, the reluctant werewolf Waldemar Daninsky. On top of that, Naschy also wrote most of them (as he did with many of the horror films he made over the course of his decades-long career) and even directed a few, Renaissance man that he was. Through it all, he proved that making horror films wasn’t a means to an end or a stepping stone to other things. Horror was his passion and of all the monsters he played, Waldemar Daninsky was the one that was closest to his heart.
Born Jacinto Molina Alvarez on September 6, 1934, Naschy adopted his stage name when he was pressed into service as the lead in 1968’s La Marca del Hombre Lobo, which he wrote but hadn’t planned on acting in. The title translates to Mark of the Wolf Man, which would have been perfectly serviceable, but it was somewhat nonsensically redubbed Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror when it was released in the States because the American distributor had already promised exhibitors a Frankenstein picture. It might very well have been, though, because the film that inspired Naschy to write the screenplay in the first place was Universal’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, which had made a great impression on him as a child. In this case, though, he pitted his Hombre Lobo against a pair of vampires — and it wouldn’t be for the last time.
There’s a bit of plot before Naschy gets turned into a werewolf, as he stalks a pretty young countess whose would-be fiancé doesn’t take kindly to the interloping nobleman. That all changes when two gypsies take shelter at the Castle of Wolfstein and disturb the tomb of a werewolf which kills them both and goes on a rampage in the village. While out hunting the wolves that are believed to be responsible, Naschy saves his rival, but is unfortunate enough to be bitten by the beast. He thinks he has a few days before the bite takes effect, but before he knows it he’s sprouting fur and fangs and retreats to an abandoned monastery where he can be locked away during the full moon. When the countess tracks him down, she sends for a doctor who supposedly has a cure for lycanthropy, but it soon becomes apparent that he and his wife are vampires whose only interest is in chaining Naschy up and calling on Satan to possess his body. (This is definitely a case where the cure is worse than the disease.) He gets free in time to put a stake in their plans, though, and is himself put down with a silver bullet, but it didn’t take long for him to get back up again.
Aside from Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror, which was restored to its original length for the Shriek Show DVD, few of the later films in the series have been released uncut in the States, and the ones that were have since gone out of print. Good thing the Anchor Bay versions of 1971’s Werewolf Shadow and 1973’s Curse of the Devil can still be readily found. And since there’s no real continuity between them, it’s possible to skip around the series without worrying about getting lost in the plot. It is possible, however, to get lost in all of the alternate titles they’ve gone out under over the years.
Originally called La Noche de Walpurgis (or Walpurgis Night), the film that has variably been released as The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman and Werewolf Shadow finds Waldemar Daninsky living in a remote region of northern France, splitting his time between looking after his mad sister Elizabeth and looking for a cure for his lycanthropy, which he contracted in the Himalayas. Into their lives come a pair of graduate students looking for the final resting place of the notorious Countess Wandesa, who drank the blood of virgins to stay young — until some pesky villagers drove a silver crucifix through her heart, that is. Faster than you can say “I totally saw that coming,” Countess Wandesa’s grave is disturbed, one of the grad students is enslaved to her, and the other finds herself falling in love with Naschy because he co-wrote the script and wants to kiss her hard on the lips and have a look at her breasts. There’s more to their relationship, of course, but that’s the gist.
After his initial werewolf transformation, it’s a while before Naschy wolfs out again, but when he does it’s well worth the wait. (Not since Michael Landon has a werewolf been so prone to drooling as Waldemar Daninsky.) And when he reveals his affliction to his lover, I have to say she takes the news extremely calmly. (I guess that’s what comes of writing your thesis on the study of the black arts.) Naturally, the whole thing reaches its climax on Walpurgis Night, with Waldemar battling multiple female bloodsuckers (as opposed to the single Vampire Woman promised by the public-domain title). At no time, however, does his shadow becomes a plot point, which raises the question of what exactly happens when a werewolf sees its shadow. Does it get six more weeks of rabies shots?
As for Curse of the Devil, it was originally released as El Retorno de Walpurgis (or The Return of Walpurgis), which makes it sound like a direct sequel to La Noche de Walpurgis, but it actually gives Waldemar Daninsky a completely different origin story. Way back in the past, one of his ancestors killed a knight in a duel and then put an entire coven of witches to death, but not before their leader, Elizabeth Bathory, could put an unnecessarily complicated curse on him. Fast forward an unknown number of years and we pick up Waldemar as he’s taking part in a wolf hunt. He shoots the beast, but the body he recovers is that of a man, which enrages the gypsies who come to claim it and conveniently fulfills the first part of Bathory’s curse. Next the gypsies summon a skinny guy in an all-black body stocking (who has an obvious zipper running down his back) who chooses which one of them is going to smuggle a wolf’s skull into Waldemar’s castle, seduce him, spill some of their own blood on the skull and then use it to nip the guy in the chest, thus infecting him with the werewolf’s curse. (Sounds simple enough, right?) And there’s no way to trace her back to the gypsies since the lucky lady who gets the job is killed right after she does the deed by an escaped criminal who’s prowling around the castle grounds.
If that seems like a lot of set-up to get Naschy to turn into El Hombre Lobo, it is (the movie’s nearly half over before he makes his first kill). And if you’re wondering why Naschy felt the need to throw a garden-variety maniac into the mix, that’s probably so the police could have somebody else to pin the murders on while the villagers all mumble about the werewolf they’re convinced is on the loose. Meanwhile, Waldemar makes the acquaintance of an engineer from Budapest and his two daughters — the lovely Kinga and her slutty sister Maria — and you’ll never guess which one becomes werewolf chow and which one gets to stab him in the chest with a silver dagger and end his suffering. (If there’s one detail Naschy picked up from Universal’s Wolf Man and definitely ran with, it was the notion that a person had to love the werewolf to be able to kill him.)
To date, the only Waldemar Daninsky film that has received the Blu-ray treatment is 1980’s El Retorno del Hombre Lobo (or Return of the Wolf Man), which was called The Craving when it first showed up on these shores and was more sensibly retitled The Night of the Werewolf later on. The first film in the series to be directed by Naschy, it opens in 16th-century Hungary with the sentencing and execution of Countess Elisabeth Bathory (yes, her again) and her followers, whose ranks include a relieved Waldemar Daninsky, who was helpless under her power. In fact, he doesn’t mind it one bit when an iron mask is clamped down over his face (shades of Mario Bava’s Black Sunday) and he’s stabbed in the heart with a silver cross. One credit sequence later, we’re in the present day and scientist-turned-Satanist Erika has located where Bathory and company are entombed and plans to sacrifice her traveling companions Karen and Barbara to bring them back to life. Even before they get there, though, two grave robbers choose the night of the full moon to break into Daninsky’s crypt (smart thinking, fellas!) and remove the silver cross from his chest — and he repays them by tearing their throats out. As for the girls, they’re waylaid on the road by bandits who plan to take advantage of them and are all dispatched by a crossbow-bearing stranger who naturally turns out to be Daninsky.
When the girls reach the castle their car breaks down, but that doesn’t trouble Erika since she isn’t planning on leaving. Daninsky and his disfigured servant Mircaya make themselves known (he identifies himself as “Mr. Burko”) and the girls settle in just in time for the full moon, during which Daninsky kills a random couple. On the night of the second moon his transformation is witnessed by Karen, but he’s kept at bay by Mircaya bearing the silver cross and instead kills a random camper and a random girl collecting water from a well. Meanwhile, Erika resurrects Bathory, who immediately puts the bite on her and summons an undead servant just because she can. And because she’s Elisabeth Bathory, the scene where she bathes in someone’s blood is pretty much mandatory, as is the one where she ages rapidly after being vanquished. Daninsky has to wait for the next full moon before that can happen, though, because otherwise he won’t “have enough power to face that demon.” Of course, having seen her in action, I’m pretty sure he could have taken her anytime. I’ll bet he just wanted to be all decked out in fangs and fur when he did the honors.
Coming Soon: The Rest of El Hombre Lobo