It’s been 10 years since the death of Paul Naschy, Spain’s finest purveyor of horror, and it still seems somehow unreal and unfair. He was 75 years old and boasted an acting career that lasted from 1960 to only months before he died, with well over a hundred credits (often lead roles) to his name, yet Naschy still had so much to give. Despite suffering long-term depression and undergoing major heart surgery, his spirit, enthusiasm and unpretentious adoration of genre cinema made him feel irrepressible. I could well imagine his barrel-chested form wrestling the Grim Reaper into submission and stealing his gown as a prop for use in a later film but no, Naschy has gone…
Although in 2001 he was awarded the Gold Medal For Fine Arts (a Spanish equivalent of a knighthood), he died with little money and his work is not often well recognized or even well distributed outside of his native country, which is a tragedy because so much of it is so great. Unlike a lot of prolific genre auteurs, Naschy never seemed to burn out. Even a below average Naschy film has more going for it than some of his peers’ best efforts and he had a policy of never under-delivering, always giving way more than expected.
The first time I read about Naschy, the article mentioned Howl of the Devil – a film in which he writes, directs and plays dual lead roles as well as 10 different famous monsters – and I knew I was going to love him.
His most famous films are the “El Hombre Lobo” series (officially 12 films) featuring his own Polish wolfman creation, Waldemar Daninsky. When he wrote the script for the original The Mark of the Wolfman (1968), he was still a professional weightlifter with only very minor acting roles to his name but his unforgettable debut turn as Daninsky shot him into the hearts and minds of the Spanish public (as well as gaining solid international distribution on the drive-in/grindhouse circuit). It’s easy to see why even now.
Although it’s perhaps aesthetically similar to a low-rent Hammer production, Naschy’s nascent themes were already cohering. He’s by no means the first or the last to make a monster character sympathetic but Daninsky is one of the most endearingly tortured of them all. Naschy plays the role with such heart, it’s hard not to love his brooding wolfman and really feel for him when his nature is driving him to violence. This idea – of man’s baser nature fighting against a desire to do good – became very much the root of what he’d explore throughout his next forty years of filmmaking, with increasing intellect and emotion.
The Daninsky cycle took its cues from Universal Monsters and soon El Hombre Lobo would find himself up against various ghouls in films like Werewolf vs Vampire Woman, Dr. Jekyll and the Werewolf, The Werewolf and The Yeti, The Beast and the Magic Sword (which appropriated Japanese mythology), and The Monsters of Terror, in which aliens researching the fears of human beings, bring to life a vampire, a mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, and the dead wolfman Daninsky to put into a travelling circus!
After the collapse of General Franco’s regime in Spain, censorship laws relaxed and Naschy hit the 1970s running at top speed with a series of smash hit adult horrors that rate among his very best work. Horror Rises From The Tomb (1972) introduced the character of Alaric de Marnac, a mediaeval warlock seeking bloody revenge on his descendents; The Hunchback of the Morgue (1972) saw Naschy take on the Quasimodo story as “Gotho” the Hunchback and remains one of his more restrained, melancholy gothic efforts; and Count Dracula’s Great Love (1972), an eerie and beautiful mood piece is almost in the dreamlike vein of Jean Rollin. For me, these really are still some of the best films to come out of Spain in any genre and are well worth your time.
But of course these are his more well-known efforts. If I were to write a straight retrospective of Naschy’s body of work and go into detail on everything, I’d be here weeks so instead I’ve chosen to focus on three of his lesser-known but best films, all of which are well worth rediscovery and reappraisal by genre fans.
It wasn’t just classic Hammer and Universal monsters that influenced Naschy. What kept his work so fresh was his continued interest in the genre. For example, when the Italian giallo films were popular, Naschy tried his hand at them, with Seven Bodies for Scotland Yard (1971), A Dragonfly For Every Corpse (1973), and Blue Eyes Of The Broken Doll (1974), all of which are worthy entries into the cycle. He does this not out of a desire to cash in as much as just a genuine, almost childlike sense of exploration. He was inspired by what he saw and wanted to put his own stamp on the genre.
The most unusual example of inspiration striking Naschy (not to mention his dogged determination to follow these creative impulses through to the end) is an unusual drama called El Transexual (1976, directed by José Jara). The apparent seed for this was planted during Naschy’s visit to a gay club in Madrid. While at the urinals, he encountered a beautiful drag queen and – surprised and intrigued – struck up a conversation which led to his assertion that he would make a film about the plight of Madrid’s gay subculture in the ’70s.
Homosexuality was still illegal in Spain in the 1970s, with many LGBT people serving time in prison, so for anyone – let alone a straight man who, at the time, was still a very popular icon – to make a film like this shows Naschy’s fearlessness as a filmmaker and, for this alone, El Transexual should be admired in context.
Naschy plays a hard-bitten journalist on the trail of a transexual who’s disappeared after promising to sell him her story. It’s maybe not the most gripping or well structured mystery and much of it is told in clunky flashbacks that lead to a grim conclusion (one apparently based on a true story) but what shines through is Naschy’s tremendous compassion for the community. The mystery scenes are intercut with narration from a real life trans-woman who explains transexuality in a matter-of-fact way for an audience almost certainly unfamiliar with it at the time.
We also get about a third of the film devoted to musical performances from gay/trans cabaret acts in 70s Madrid which is a rare, unique document of a largely undocumented time and place (due, again, to the illegality of it). Despite the film’s narrative flaws (and it was scripted and shot very quickly on little budget in between much ‘bigger’ films), El Transexual is a worthy addition to any Naschy fan’s collection. In his script, he touches on many of the major social issues facing the gay community then (marriage, adoption, homophobia, persecution from the law, etc) which still resonate now.
It may seem like a leap but I feel it’s easy to imagine Naschy could find something he related to in this world of flamboyant outsiders and this empathy/affinity gives the film strength. At the risk of sounding offensively reductive, El Transexual is not as far removed from Naschy’s oeuvre as it may initially seem. In the same way, he turned the wolfman Waldemar Daninsky into a real character and a tragic, romantic hero that crowds could truly love, Naschy is trying to show his straight audience that the people many of them they see as “monsters” and who are still being imprisoned for their sexuality are in fact real and human and have feelings the same as everyone else. The fact that Spain banned it instantly (and there’s almost no violence or sex in it) is a testament to his guts in just going ahead and making this provocative piece of underground socio-political cinema against the odds.
Around the same time as El Transexual, Naschy began directing his own films as well as writing and acting and, again, took to this new skill like a natural. His first directorial effort was Inquisition (1976), a loose follow-up to The Devil’s Possessed (1974). Both films look at the idea of witchcraft; Devil’s Posssessed in the context of Naschy as a Gilles de Rais style baron who uses black magic to gain power, whereas Inquisition shows him as a witch-finder who falls in love with (or under the spell of?) a witch.
The progression between the two films is a testament to both Naschy’s rapidly blossoming talent and the budgets he was able to work with by the mid-70s. Inquisition is a fierce political piece drawing vicious parallels between General Franco’s regime and the Spanish Inquisition, with specific focus on feminist issues pertinent to 70s Spain – again, another subject virtually alien to the genre at the time. It throws in gorgeous visuals, lavish sets/costumes and plenty of sex and violence to ‘sweeten’ the bitter pill of righteous politics for a mainstream audience…
This unofficial ‘trilogy’ of period films ends with, by some distance, the best of the lot, The Traveler (1979). Naschy himself claims this is his favourite of all the films he made and it’s a crime it’s not more widely seen or well-regarded. Here he plays Leonardo, the “master of all hoodlums”, a traveling 17th century conman who believes himself to be the earthly incarnation of Satan himself. He begins the film as a homeless beggar but, through acts of cruelty, theft and deception, works his way up through Spanish society only to find that, the further he climbs, the more evil mankind can be…
Although it has moments of quite broad black comedy reminiscent of Pasolini, The Traveler is a searing damnation of greed with some very moving, visceral scenes that are tough to forget. When Leonardo and his young apprentice Tomas find themselves living in luxury at last, Tomas feels ready to leave behind their life of crime and talks optimistically of how he looks forward to a future free of misery and war now he has money. In return, Leonardo feeds him a vision of a distant future in which Tomas sees (grueling actual stock footage of) Nazi concentration camps and the atom bomb, and his mind completely breaks.
Most effective of all is when Leonardo is beaten nearly to death and crucified on a gravestone opposite a statue of Christ. There’s a crippingly beautiful shot, against the sunset, as Naschy delivers a venomous monologue to the statue, screaming what a fool Christ was to give his life for pigs such as humanity. This is intercut, powerfully, with a once “good” woman, whom Leonardo has raped and impregnated, hanging herself, convinced she has given birth to the antichrist. Often Naschy’s films are melancholy yet optimistic as he searches for the good even in the darkest of places. The Traveler is perhaps the one where he allowed himself to truly explore not just society’s abject corruption but also to nakedly, boldly address his own depression. Almost certainly his best onscreen performance and a must-see for anyone interested in European horror cinema.
As tastes changed in the early ’80s, Naschy found his audience waning. He made some Daninsky films in an effort to revive his popularity but times had moved on; classic monsters and philosophical subtexts were out of fashion. The slasher was on the rise and, while Naschy was no stranger to sex and gore, this wasn’t his style. After a couple of commercially unsuccessful thrillers in 1984 and the death of his father, Naschy took a three year break from filmmaking (his longest since the 1960s) and spiralled into a deep depression. The result of the break and his ‘comeback’ movie, however, was a masterpiece. Howl of the Devil (1987), while commercially his least successful of all since post-production issues meant it never even received an official release, is his most ambitious, personal and beautifully insane piece of work.
It’s hard to encapsulate everything Naschy says and does with this film as it’s a complex, multi-layered and post-modern exploration of horror as a genre, that really takes in and spits out as much as it possibly can. Naschy plays (primarily) twin brothers, Alex and Hector Doriani. Alex is a B-Movie horror actor and Hector is a serious thespian. They despise one another and when Alex dies, his son Adrian (played by Naschy’s own child Sergio) is placed into Hector’s reluctant care. Hector beats the boy, abuses the servants and, by night, abducts and drugs prostitutes for his weird sex games, so the grieving, terrified Adrian retreats into a world of fantasy based on characters played by his late father.
Through these fantasies, we get the mindblowing pleasure of Paul Naschy playing no fewer than 12 roles. Besides Alex and Hector, he is also Rasputin, Quasimodo, Bluebeard, Frankenstein’s Monster, Fu Manchu, The Phantom of the Opera, Mr Hyde, Waldermar Daninsky, a mummy/zombie and, ultimately, Satan. These vignettes range from affectionate, nostalgic and touching (directly paying tribute to Naschy’s own childhood, discovering and loving monster films for the first time) to angry, passionate punches thrown at the Spanish government, the Catholic church and, indeed, his own lost audience.
The most heartbreaking scene of all has to be the Daninsky one; Naschy as a muted, whimpering wolfman appearing to his own son, with tears in his eyes, tamed for good; an allegory for the decline in popularity of he and his monstrous kind; an apology perhaps that he’s no longer the star he once was. It perhaps sounds self-indulgent on paper but, as ever, is performed with such sincerity it’s hard not to see and feel the poignancy.
On one hand Howl of the Devil is over-ambitious and feverish; a kaleidoscope of screaming performances, gratuitous nudity and ever-increasing absurdity. Arguably, he revisited similar terrority more successfully in his magnificent (and rightfully well-acclaimed) 2004 epic Rojo Sangre but Howl of the Devil is its scrappier, rougher little brother. Rojo Sangre is a far more accessible and sophisticated film but Howl is such a heartfelt piece, it’s hard to resist. An unashamed love letter to the artform he mastered and a furious lashing-out at the audience who rejected his genius. For those who appreciate his work, this is stuff that will really raise the goosebumps.
It’s very rare for work this personal and introspective to also be so flamboyant and excessive but this is precisely what made Naschy so compelling. He was unafraid to follow his heart, however odd the places it led to could be. The three films I’ve looked at here represent just a fraction of what he accomplished but prove that even in his “deeper” back catalogue, there are some absolute classics to be found. Naschy never backed down from taking an idea and making it as special as he could. Five years on, the world is still a darker place without El Hombre Lobo and there will, almost certainly, never be another filmmaker quite like him.
Long may horror fans enjoy discovering his legacy.