Spain has delivered many of the most successful horror films of the last decade, from Gothic tale The Others to Blair Witched zombie apocalypse [REC]. This seems unusual for a country where horror had long been a genre swimming against the tide. While Spanish horror fans have many reasons to rejoice these days, they are also mourning the loss of their original and iconic king of horror, Paul Naschy, who passed away at 75 in December 2009.
Throughout his long career, Naschy dedicated all his efforts to dignifying the horror genre in his country of birth. He was always more successful abroad than in Spain, but during the last years of his life his compatriots began to recognise his talents. He went from being the object of a discreet cult following to achieving wide recognition, when he received Spain’s Gold Medal in Fine Arts in 2001.
He was often referred to as the Spanish Lon Chaney: Chaney Jr. was the only actor who performed four of the major monsters of Universal Pictures (the son of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man and the Mummy), and Naschy beat this mark by portraying Dracula himself, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy, Fu Manchu, the Devil, Mr. Hyde, Quasimodo, the Phantom of the Opera and, above all, the werewolf. He was the actor who played the Wolf Man the greatest number of times (sixteen, doubling Chaney’s count), the largest part of these in the recurrent role of the dark and tortured werewolf of his own creation, Waldemar Daninsky.
Born in Madrid in 1934 as Jacinto Molina Álvarez, Naschy grew up in the post Civil war era, under Franco’s dictatorship. Comics and film sagas provided some escapism and shaped his taste for the fantastic genre. Later in his life, he would recall that his first true horror experience came from the flickering frames of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The evil stepmother terrified young Jacinto so much that he literally wet himself. On a different occasion, he managed to sneak into the projection of Frankenstein meets the Wolfman (Roy William Neil, 1943), the film that he often quoted as his favourite and the one that made the deepest impact on him. The performance of Chaney Jr. would be the catalyst of what would later become his life passion, and the monster mash of the title remained one of his sempiternal obsessions, a concept that he would reproduce many times throughout his career.
Naschy was multitalented, hard-working and restless. An architect, a writer of pulp novels (he flirted with Western genre under the pseudonym of Jack Mills), and a keen sportsman (his extraordinary physique was shaped up through professional weightlifting), his first contact with the film industry came as an extra in classics like King of Kings (Nicholas Ray, 1961). He gained experience as a secondary actor, assistant producer or assistant director in various Spanish films. But in the late sixties, he wrote his first script, signed with his real name, Jacinto Molina. It was called La Marca del Hombre Lobo. The horror genre was an oddity within the parameters of Spanish cinema, and had had very few exponents, such as Expressionism inspired classic La Torre de los Siete Jorobados (Edgar Neville, 1943) or the first films by Jess Franco introducing his famous Doctor Orloff (The Awful Dr. Orloff, 1961). Up to that time, Spanish horror had never featured a classic monster on film. Naschy’s script was rejected by several producers, but finally captured the interest of a German company that was looking for a project worthy of using 3D and stereophonic sound. The successful final product, La Marca del Hombre Lobo, was directed by Enrique López Eguiluz, shot on location in Madrid and released in 1968 as a Spanish and West German co-production.
The development of the film was beset with unforeseen circumstances. The role of the werewolf was initially going to be offered to Chaney Jr., but the star was over sixty, which made him inappropriate for the role. After testing several actors, the producers suggested Molina’s name. He knew the story well, he had some acting experience and his muscular physique could make him look daunting on screen. His name, though, wasn’t judged to be commercial enough, so Molina, at the request of the German producers, decided to borrow the surname of a weightlifting champion and became Paul Naschy. It would be the name that he is most often referred to, even in his natal country.
But this wasn’t the only name that had to be changed. The werewolf of his script was initially called Luis Huidobro, native from Asturias, a mountainous region in the North of Spain. The censorship of Franco, who previously described Hammer’s Dracula as a product ‘aimed at the mentally deficient’, considered that a monster couldn’t have Spanish nationality. Thus Huidobro became Polish and changed names to Waldemar Daninsky. The character would feature in thirteen films and would be resuscitated time after time to reappear in different contexts –France, Hungary, Tibet.
Daninsky was Polish by accident. We can’t help but wonder what could have happened if Naschy had exported an Asturian wolfman. Curiously enough, Hammer’s The Curse of the Werewolf (Terence Fisher, 1961), had featured Oliver Reed as a wolfman that was Spanish also accidentally: even though the story was inspired by Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris, the location was altered to make use of some sets left over from an abandoned project about the Inquisition. Needless to say the film was never released in Spain, as it’s easy to imagine what Franco’s censors thought of it.
The initial choice of Asturias as the place of origin of Naschy’s creature seems a very logical one. The region, where the actor’s mother came from, is rich in werewolf folklore. The transformation of men into the most feared beasts of their geographical context is common ground in any mythological system (see Baring Gould’s The Book of Werewolves), and the wolf is a natural presence in the forests of Asturias. Many of the lycanthrope legends in the area are associated with a Christian curse directed to an individual who transgressed a religious taboo, particularly by eating meat during the period of Lent. A creative product within the era of Franco that combined national taboos, sexuality and the beast within was bound to be censored.
Naschy was clearly fascinated by Gothic horror, and his main influences were Universal monster pictures. He always recognised the strong weight of Universal’s Wolf Man Lawrence Talbot, the character first portrayed by Lon Chaney, but he also admitted to being proud of having given the monster a strong charge of sexuality, and a brutal, less naïve nature. His performances as a werewolf are extraordinarily physical, and his creature remains uniquely raw, contrasting with the usual stoicism exuded by Daninsky in human shape.
His re-interpretations of Universal monsters always include a mixture of violence and eroticism, as was also common in the Hammer productions of the era. Naschy, who described himself as a true romantic, always felt fascinated by the element of tragedy in the dual quality of the wolfman, and by the relationships of the man-monster with the opposite sex – a theme that is powerfully evident in Daninsky’s comeback of 1977, Curse of the Devil.
The success of the formula in Europe and America impelled the horror film industry in Spain. Beside Naschy’s films, the most popular were Armando Ossorio’s Blind Dead series, with its iconic and terrifying zombie Templar knights. But the socio-political context was changing. After Franco’s death in 1975 came the transition to democracy. The end of censorship brought the consolidation of two film tendencies: the political and the erotic. There seemed to be no place for the fantastic genre. At the same time, Gothic horror formulas became exhausted in Europe. Naschy had to re-invent himself: he accepted roles in different film genres, but also started directing his own scripts so as not to abandon his passion.
Naschy’s take on the lycanthrope hasn’t been repeated in any other Spanish production. The myth was adapted in a more realistic way in El Bosque del Lobo (Pedro Olea, 1971). Based on the true story of Manuel Blanco Romasanta, a self-confessed werewolf from the region of Galicia in the northwest of Spain, the film left the fantastic elements aside to present the character as a psychopath, featuring a chilling interpretation by the also recently deceased José Luis López Vázquez. In 2004, Paco Plaza directed an adaptation of the same story in Romasanta (The Werewolf Manhunt), with Julian Sands as the psychopathic wolfman. Naschy had said that no Spanish actor of these days would qualify to play the werewolf, except perhaps Javier Bardem. Certainly Bardem would have been a much better choice than Sands, whose cold Romasanta lacks the charisma and the energy of Daninsky.
It seems that, after the comeback of vampires and zombies, the time is now ripe for the Wolf Man to rise again. In an interview shortly before his passing, Naschy revealed his excitement about the upcoming remake by Universal, and revealed that he was going to appear in it as the werewolf who bites Benicio del Toro/ Lawrence Talbot. Sadly, his filming commitments made it impossible.
After four decades, Waldemar Daninsky remains Naschy’s most famous creation and is still in good shape, as is proved by the re-edition of the original films and the launch of a new comic series based upon them. Naschy’s agenda was kept busy until the end. His last work as an actor was in the Lovecraft-inspired Gothic horror La Herencia Valdemar, released in Spain in January 2010. He left some projects unfinished, including filming his script Mi perro Aquiles, for which Christopher Lee (who wrote the prologue for his biography) was due to play the Spanish icon por excelencia, Don Quixote.
Whereas Naschy’s films will inevitably continue to divide opinions, his efforts for giving the genre some respectability and a true voice in his country have started to be acknowledged. His passion and tenacity helped make a way for other Spanish horror films to come. What attracted him to the werewolf was the idea that evil can lurk in the heart of anybody. A clerk, a priest, a banker, the beast lives in the heart of all of them. Naschy lived a life dedicated to horror because he recognised its importance: ‘Horror is immortal. While death keeps being the unknown frontier, horror films will still be relevant’.
First published in Fortean Times no. 259
Baring Gould, Sabine: The book of werewolves. Senate, 1995.
Gil, Alberto: La censura cinematográfica en España. Ediciones B, 2009.
Diccionario de Cine Español. Alianza editorial, 1998.
La Marca del Hombre Lobo (López Eguiluz, 1969)
La Noche de Walpurgis (León Klimovsky, 1971)
Curse of the Devil (Carlos Aured, 1977)