If the name Paul Naschy isn't up there with Roger Corman, Charles Band, and William Castle in the Hall of Fame of All-Time Great Schlock Filmmakers, you've still gotta give the guy his props. Over the course of a career spanning five decades (and still going), the Madrid-born Naschy has written, directed, and starred in nearly one hundred grindhouse spectaculars, building a monumental oeuvre of exploitation cheapies with titles like 'Horror Rises from the Tomb,' 'Revolt of the Dead Ones,' 'The Beasts Carnival' and 'Howl of the Devil' (not to mention no less than a dozen movies with the word 'Werewolf' in the title). Few of these drive-in gems are great -- heck, most are pretty awful -- but Naschy is an auteur who has always known his limits and never condescended to the genre ghetto he's been banished to. Even at his most inept, Naschy is always charming.
Although some of the world's greatest filmmakers (including Welles, Hitchcock, Capra, and Hawks) have yet to see a single one of their films hit Blu-ray, BCI has bestowed that high-def honor on Naschy, and here we have this double-feature presentation of two of his better-known films, 'Vengeance of the Zombies' (1973) and 'The Night of the Werewolf' (1980). These two flicks from the middle act of Naschy's career are not necessarily his best, but for the uninitiated, they offer a fine introduction to his unique brand of over-the-top Spanish horror.
'Vengeance of the Zombies' (1973) is typical of most of the horror films being produced in Spain at the time. Before the slasher glut would invade US cinemas in the late '70s, the genre was still stuck mired in post-Hammer rip-offs, lifts of Romero's 'Night of the Living Dead,' and weak Argento giallo rehashes. 'Vengeance' throws in a dash of all three, plus some good old-fashioned witchcraft, grave robbing, and animal sacrifice (and even a voodoo doll for luck).
Naschy takes on three roles here, toplining as lead Krisna, an Indian mystic who runs a sort of "Last Bed & Breakfast on the Left," where the unsuspecting can go to mediate on life's travails (and listen to weird hippie music). One of his devoted followers, Elvire (Rommy) pays Krisna a visit, and soon succumbs to bizarre dreams and other strange episodes. Meanwhile, an unknown killer is currently on the loose in the town, murdering nubile women and turning them into zombies. I wouldn't even dream of ruining how all of this ends up being related...
'Vengeance of the Zombie's weakest attribute is that writer Naschy (Leon Klimovsky would direct this time around) tries to do too much. There is an "everything but the kitchen sink" mentality, with so much going on that I was never sure exactly sort of movie Naschy wanted to make. It's also blatantly derivative of Argento, right down to the gratuitous bloodletting (clearly splattered on the screen to cover the glaring deficiencies in the story) and the bizarre use of score, which is like a third-rate version of Pino Donaggio. All of this is still entertaining, of course, but even at only 90 minutes, Naschy's pastiche wears thin quickly.
By contrast -- though I'm reticent to use the words "Paul Naschy" and "accomplished" in the same sentence -- 'The Night of the Werewolf' (aka 'The Craving' in the US) is arguably in the top tier of Naschy's screen efforts. Yet another installment in Naschy's long-running Count Waldemar Daninsky werewolf series, this entry benefits from a solid sense of craftsmanship and a admirable reverence for the traditional gothic underpinnings of the lycanthrope mythology.
Naschy (who also directed) returns to star as Daninsky, who has been peacefully at rest for a few hundred years, following the death of his long-deceased vampire-love, Countess Elizabeth Bathory (Julia Saly). Unfortunately, a pair of graverobbers inadvertently resurrect him, so he moves into exile in a castle, alone and waiting for the next full moon.
The plot really kicks into motion when a group of three aspiring archeologists (all nubile young women, of course), pay him a visit. In a ridiculous plot that only Naschy could think up, one of the women immediately falls in love with him, while another ends up resurrecting Countess Bathory, who proceeds to try and suck her way through the entire countryside in a quest for world domination.
If all of this sounds stupid, it is. But where 'Night of the Werewolf' distinguishes itself is in Naschy's surprisingly capable direction. The lighting, costumes, and production design are superior for this type of fare, and if the film is a bit slow-paced by today's standards, it still generates a palpable sense of impending dread. I also like Naschy's werewolf design, which harks back to the Lon Chaney classic 'The Wolf Man' and, while cheesy, is nonetheless effective.
'The Night of the Werewolf,' like 'Vengeance of the Zombies,' is still an homage, and detractors of Naschy continue to label all of his work as purely derivative. Which is likely why he continues to suffer from a lack of esteem even in cult horror circles. Yet I found his blatant unoriginality strangely charming. I suspect this Blu-ray double feature will do little to sway those unconverted to the Cult of Naschy, but if you're a fan of the genre yet unfamiliar with his legacy, this is as good a place as any to start.
BCI presents 'The Night of the Werewolf' and 'Vengeance of the Zombies' as a double-feature on two BD-25 single-layer discs. Both films are encoded at 1080i/MPEG-2 and re-mastered in high-definition from the original negatives. The results, if uneven, are above-average for fare of this type and certainly offer an improvement over BCI's previous standard-def DVD releases.
'Vengeance of the Zombies' is clearly the superior of the two. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the source that BCI dug up is in quite nice shape, with a clean and consistent look that's only marred by a few speckles and dirt. I was impressed with the fairly deep blacks and well-modulated contrast. Colors are pretty vibrant, particularly the harsh reds and deep blues, while fleshtones are not bad for a film from 1973. Of course, you're not going to get anywhere near the kind of textured, fully-detailed high-def presentation as you would on a new theatrical release (shadow delineation here is particularly poor, with lots of grain in the dark scenes), but 'Vengeance' looks way better than I expected.
'Werewolf,' despite being the newer of the two films (having been shot in 1980, seven years after 'Zombies'), left me nonplussed. Shot in 1.37:1 (it's pillarboxed here for 16:9 displays), the source looks much more worse for wear. Grain is heavier, there are more print imperfections, and visible depth is much flatter. I also thought darker scenes were a bit too washed out and lacking in fine detail, and there is some visible noise in the shadows. Colors however remain pretty good, even if they aren't as sharp as 'Zombies.' And all things considered, even if 'Werewolf' doesn't match 'Zombies,' it's certainly watchable for a low-budget, trashy little movie like this.
(Note: As this is a double feature disc, I've averaged out the Video scores for both films to achieve the overall composite rating. If taken on their own terms, I'd give 'Vengeance of the Zombies' a 3.5/5, and 'The Night of the Werewolf' a 2.5/5.)
'The Night of the Werewolf' and 'Vengeance of the Zombies' each receive identical audio options: the original Castilian Spanish in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (448kbps), and optional English dubs in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (448kbps) and 1.0 Mono (192kbps). As the English dubbing is atrocious, I didn't even bother with those mixes -- not that the original Spanish fares that much better.
Both 'Werewolf' and 'Zombies' sound weak. Low bass is flat, flat, flat, and 'Zombies' in particularly screechy and brittle high-end so typical of low-grade exploitation. Though labeled a 5.1 mix, I was hard-pressed to locate much in the way of surround activity, though 'Werewolf' fares a little better here, with at least some minor sounds emanating from the rears. As I don't speak Spanish, it's hard for me to say how intelligible dialogue reproduction is on either feature, though judging by the muffled sound of some of the lower tones and the harsh high-end, I suspect it's not that great. (In fact, at time I contemplated just turning down the sound and watching the subtitles.) If both 'Werewolf' and 'Zombies' are at least listenable, they are also not any more that. (Individual audio scores: 'Night of the Werewolf' 2.0/5, and 'Vengeance of the Zombies' also 2.0/5.)
BCI originally released both 'The Night of the Werewolf' and 'Vengeance of the Zombies' on standard DVDs as "special editions," and the company has carried over the same batch of extras here. (In fact, even the menus are a direct port of the DVD -- there's not an "on-the-fly" navigation option as is usually standard on Blu-ray releases.) It's a pretty marginal package, though I guess Naschy fans will find it entertaining. All the video extras are presented in 480i/MPEG-2 video only.
Paul Naschy has been called Spain's answer to Vincent Price, Lon Chaney, and William Castle all rolled into one, and his work can certainly be just as bad. Yet I enjoyed the retro-silliness of both 'The Night of the Werewolf' and 'Vengeance of the Zombies' (giving the nod to the former), so fans of the grindhouse should check out this Blu-ray. The transfers are inconsistent but also reach some impressive heights, and there are even a few nice extras, too. With a retail price of only $29.98 for two flicks, this is a no-brainer for Naschy fans.