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Night of the Werewolf (1981)
Vampires versus werewolves is the horror equivalent of that eternal struggle between pirates and ninjas, only toothier and hairier. With Night of the Werewolf (original Spanish title: El Retorno del Hombre-Lobo), we have a film that doesn't bring much new to the genre in terms of plot. It's pretty standard fare, with no great twists or turns you couldn't see coming. The film is mostly a rehashing of ideas from a previous film that also features Paul Naschy, La Noche de Walpurgis (also known as Werewolf Shadow), though this is not uncommon for any of Naschy's werewolf films. Unlike the shabby remakes of today, this is actually an instance of refining old ideas into a better movie. The film is a product of its time, in both the good nostalgia of the vibrant cinema of the late seventies/early eighties, as well as the unfortunate gender portrayal trappings of that era. Overall, however, the film entertains more often than it upsets.
Night of the Werewolf starts in the distant past, somewhere around the middle ages, at the execution of Elizabeth Bathory (Julia Saly), Satanist witch, and her enslaved werewolf minion Waldemar Daninsky (Paul Naschy). Waldemar, glad to be finally free of Bathory's control, seems almost happy to be put into the "mask of shame" and staked through the heart with a silver crucifix. After the opening credits (and the catchy yet totally laughable music that accompanies them), we cut to a poolside where two women and men, all in skimpy bathing suits, who throw exposition at us until we have three women out on a road trip to resurrect evil with Bathory. Meanwhile, grave robbers unearth Waldemar's exquisitely preserved corpse under the night of the full moon, and accidentally revive the wolf by pulling the silver cross from his chest. From there, we end up with a series of strange, Gothic romance style misadventures that lead to a showdown between vampiric Bathory and lycanthropic Waldemar.
The true magic of the film is hard to quantify. It's in how it feels both partly timeless as well as a product of its time. When we start, it's a period piece, and a decently constructed one at that. But the instant the opening credits begin, the soundtrack bursts into this funky tune with a thumb-popping bass line. Nothing could be less ancient times than a funky, popping bass groove song. In its own strange way, however, the tune is endearing; it shouts "This was made in the early eighties!". The film soon backs this statement up with visual evidence by jumping to a pool scene with its art deco style swimsuits, manly chest hair, and skimpy bikinis, though these factors are short lived. A mere twenty or so minutes later, the film is so engrossed into a Gothic rural setting that the film could easily be back into the ancient times when Bathory and Waldemar were executed. This is in no way a detriment to the film, the setting comes with a compliment of stunning ruins, creepy castles, and decadent furniture that are all pleasing to the eye. The film transcends a time period, at least once it's beyond the initial hurdles, and that's what helps make the film not feel as dated as other eighties horror, such as Prom Night. But when the datedness becomes apparent, mostly in the early film, it's appealing, it brings a warm feeling of nostalgia as opposed to revulsion, and that's what helps it all work.
Before continuing, however, I must touch upon the not-so-warm feeling that arises due to the gender portrayals in Night of the Werewolf. If you have any feminist bent at all, you'd best shut off your brain while watching. The film casts almost all of its women in a negative light; we have Bathory's evil manipulation, the hissing malice of the other vampiric women, and women being utterly unable to save themselves from two rapists without male intervention. The sexism is an undercurrent, something that could easily leave a bitter taste in your mouth. It is a testament to the quality of Night of the Werewolf that one can set aside this issue, and just enjoy the film for what it is, looking beyond the sexism.
Which brings us to the big highlight or the leader of the pack, as it were. Ángel Luis De Diego's makeup work in this film is spectacular. Naschy's werewolf is the product of practical effects, and as such seems so much more real than many awful modern CG creations. The look is very much like Lon Chaney Jr.'s infamous lycanthrope, which is a good thing. With this practical makeup, the furred hands and face of Waldemar, we see something real, something tactile. There's no second guessing it, like the overly computerized werewolves of Underworld. It's another one of those things that gives a nostalgic dating to Night of the Werewolf. It evokes the images of the classic sort of horror, that just makes you feel good about the film. But it is not only De Diego's werewolf work that is great, but also the marred visage he created for Mircaya (Beatriz Elorrieta), Waldemar's servant woman. The makeup manages to make her look heavily scarred, not in a terrible, horrific manner, but in a way that accentuates the sympathy you feel towards the character. The only makeup misstep in the film comes with the female vampires; their pale makeup looks rather blotchy and obvious at times. Overall, however, the makeup work is absolutely, positively superb.
The best endorsement to the film I can give is that after renting this, I made sure to pick it up on Blu-ray as soon as I could. You can really enjoy Night of the Werewolf overall. Its aesthetics and make-up are great, and that actually is more than enough to keep you occupied for the full length of the film. Not to mention, you'll get that popping bass theme from the opening credits jammed in your head for days. So go ahead, give it a shot. It's a great way to spend ninety-two minutes.
This review is part of Spanish Horror Week, the second of five celebrations of international horror done for our Shocktober 2008 event.