Vengeance of the Zombies (1972)/Night of the Werewolf (1980) [Blu-ray]

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Image nicked from Tim Lucas’s excellent Video Watchblog entry on Night of the Werewolf.

It’s surely convenience, or just

coincidence–rather than any nods to quality or pent-up demand–that these are the first two Euro-horror titles to arrive in high definition on

Blu-ray Disc. This double-feature package from BCI and Deimos

entertainment pairs two films starring the well-loved (and prolific)

Spanish horror actor Paul Naschy. Vengeance of the Zombies (La

Rebelion de las Muertas, 1972) is a potboiler from cult director Leon

Klimovsky involving a charismatic Indian cult leader (Naschy), his

less-attractive brother (also Naschy), and a beautiful redhead (Romy)

from a cursed English family. And Night of the Werewolf (La Retorno

del Hombre Lobo, 1980) is a genre mash-up directed by Naschy

in which he stars as the wolfman Waldemar Daninsky and faces off against a

bevy of vampire women led by Elizabeth Bathory herself. (Scroll way down to read about some problems with these discs.)


The films have a lot in common,

starting with Naschy’s position as tragic-romantic figure. In

Zombies, he plays the gentle spiritual guru Krisna as well as the murderous

Kantaka, with a (subtextual) vendetta against English colonialism–Romy falls in love with one Naschy while another one plots to kill

her. (Naschy also plays the devil himself in a fantasy sequence.) In

Werewolf, he’s a ladies’ man who’s prone to lose control and go

on violent rampages under the light of the full moon. Both films

feature women in filmy nightgowns (and occasionally out of them),

and both films use inappropriately jazzy lounge music on their

soundtracks. That latter tactic can be highly disorienting to an

audience accustomed to seeing gore punctuated by horror-movie stings

rather than swinging drum patterns and horn charts, but it can also

be surprisingly effective. If there’s a better music cue in

Euro-horror history than the syncopated percussion that plays in

weird accompaniment as the first beaustiful, pale zombie rises from

her grave in slo-mo in the pre-credits sequence of Zombies, I have

yet to hear it.

Those are classic zombies, by the way,

not Romero zombies. They’re the product of old-school voodoo ritual

rather than quasi-SF plot points, and while they don’t look

especially ferocious, they seem to get the job done. Vengeance of the

Zombies is liberally spattered with thick stage blood and a variety

of murders–strangling, bludgeoning, hanging, etc. (One poor

chicken gets beheaded on camera.) Klimovsky cultivates the idea of

cultish ritualism by showing his mysterious masked impresario

preparing for each killing by pouring a flammable liquid over a wax

figure and setting it afire. Those moments of creepiness aren’t

enough to overcome the film’s general air of silliness, and after the

entertaining opening (in the film’s very first scene, a worried

husband pleads with his wife, “Flora, we’ve been desecrating graves

too long”) Zombies descends into an undistinguished melange

of cheap sets and clumsy direction. Naschy’s satanic cameo, which

brings some gusto to the proceedings, is way too short.

Production values and the overall level

of craft are much higher in Return of the Werewolf. After a brief

prologue, set in 16th-century Hungary, in which both Countess Elizabeth Bathory and her servant Waldimar Daninsky are sentenced to die (“I will return from the ashes,” Bathory promises, “and I will turn your world into a hell of blood and death!”), the film flashes forward to modern

times–a quartet of good-looking young people are lounging around

poolside in swimsuits. The boys are putting the make on the girls, who await the return of weird colleague Erika from Germany, but are

efficiently rebuffed: “Shut up, you idiots. We’re scientists!” Turns out the trio are

on an expedition to unearth the final resting place of Bathory and

the werewolf. Grave robbers disturb Daninsky’s slumber; he kills them and takes up residence in an old castle. Bathory rises from the grave and two out of the three scientist women become her servants. The third falls in love with the werewolf–apparently no longer under Bathory’s spell–despite his frightening mood swings. There’s a terrific moment where

Naschy, in full howl-at-the-moon mode, really tears up the scenery,

emoting up a storm to evoke the idea of the romantic heart buried

beneath that beastly exterior. (I was slightly less impressed when I

learned that this is the ninth time Naschy has played this character;

you’d expect him to get good at it over that many years.) Low-tech

makeup effects add to the fun–Naschy’s werewolf transformation is

achieved, classic Hollywood style, with the judicious application of

spirit gum and phony whiskers, with optical dissolves creating the

transition from one stage to the next.

Don’t let me oversell it. Audiences

looking for a conventional narrative will come away

disappointed. The story is no more than serviceable; the film’s

impact will come if you look at it as a sort of garish poem, with its

subjects sexual and romantic longing. But it’s also fun. The level of imagination on

display–and a healthy imagination on the viewer’s part will help

some of the tableaux here reach their full potential–is striking

and occasionally moving, less slick and more human than the quick,

cynical horror pictures that crowd multiplex screens these days.

(Speaking of which, did Eli Roth steal an idea from that scene where Elizabeth Bathory is awakened by the blood

splashing from the slashed throat of a nude woman hanging upside-down overhead?) It’s no masterpiece, but it’s more rewarding

than much more conventionally competent multiplex offerings. Zombies: C; Werewolf: B-

HD Geek Talk

There’s a line of thinking that older,

low-budget films don’t benefit as much from high-definition transfers

as newer, expensive ones, but that’s hogwash. Anyone with eyes who’s

ever compared a standard-definition video version of a film–yes, even old black-and-white and silent pictures–to its

16mm and 35mm counterparts will be able to quickly and easily tell

the difference between a standard DVD and a competent high-definition

transfer. I haven’t see the original DVD versions of either of these

movies, but I’m confident the Blu-ray Discs well exceed them in terms

of visible detail and color rendition. There are a few problems,

though. Most bothersome is the fact that Vengeance

of the Zombies won’t play correctly. It stutters,

repeating a few frames in certain shots. Because this tends to happen

only after cuts between shots, and usually in shots that involve a

moving camera and/or some other drastic change in the image, I

suspect the problem has to do with image encoding (during disc

authoring) or decoding (on playback). I’d happily blame my PS3, but

this is the only Blu-ray Disc I’ve played to date that gives me a lick of trouble, so I suspect the

problem can be traced to compression and authoring.

A more basic problem with the Zombies

transfer is that the image has been rendered at about 1.37:1, while

it’s clear from both the image compositions and the film’s provenance

that it was almost certainly meant to be exhibited at 1.66:1 or

1.85:1 and thus would have benefited from a widescreen transfer rather than this HD-unfriendly “full-frame” version.

Finally, the black levels appeared to be way too high–and also

dramatically crushed–in the film’s opening scenes, continuing all

the way through the background of the opening credits, which looks

terrible. I was able to compensate for this somewhat by using my Sony

XBR4’s “black correction” function, which deepens

the blacks, to compensate, but this is clearly an error in the

transfer. The picture is almost completely free of dirt and

scratches, which made me suspect over-zealous noise reduction–on

closer examination, those suspicions were confirmed. The image

doesn’t exhibit the kind of over-the-top ghosting that I’ve seen in

some standard-definition DVDs, but take a look at the establishing

shots of London that immediately follow the opening titles. In the

shot panning across the Thames River, advance frame by frame and

check out the bird flying in the bottom-right-hand corner of the frame. It disappears

intermittently, in time with the flapping of its wings, as the

algorithms interpret its presence as noise in the frame.

Night of the Werewolf got the

widescreen transfer it deserves, although it seems to suffer from a

similar loss of fine detail in the image. But there’s a problem with the frame

cadence that creates a distracting herky-jerky effect that’s

especially evident when the camera is moving. It may be related to

pulldown issues–the conversions involved in translating films

shot at 24 frames a second to international video systems that run at

25 or 30 fps (and, presumably, back to Blu-ray, which supports 24p

encoding and thus should make this a non-issue).  Again, it’s possible–though I figure not likely–that this is just a problem with PS3 playback. Beyond that, I didn’t notice any egregious problems. Given

the attractive price and the lack of off-beat genre items available

on Blu-ray, I’d rather have these transfers

available than nothing at all. It’s still frustrating, and for videophiles I’m sure the frame-dropping of Zombies and the

juddery motion of Werewolf will be dealbreakers. Talk about horror

stories!

(Thanks to Michael Mackenzie and brother, who clarified some of the authoring-and-compression issues in this Mobius thread. It’s worth noting that some viewers with standalone Blu-ray players claim not to experience the stuttering and frame-cadence issues I describe above. However, out of a library of 25 Blu-ray Discs, plus a few Netflix rentals, this is the only title that my PS3 hasn’t tackled like a champ. So caveat emptor/lector etc.)

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