Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Tomb of the Werewolf (2004)

After a whopping 11(ish) entries, more than most series, certainly containing the same lead, there came something surely no-one was expecting-A 12th Hombre Lobo film! In the mid-2000s, if you can believe it! With how horror was doing at that point, in America's DTV market no less, can this possibly live up to previous entries, let alone the position of final entry in such a longstanding series?...

A TV crew for a gimmicky psychic network teams up with new landowner Richard Daninsky to search for some hidden treasure at his ancestral home in Transylvania. Waiting for them is housekeeper Elizabeth, who has a dark secret. She is really Elizabeth Bathory, whose pact with the devil condemned past nobleman Waldemar Daninsky to a cursed existence. Now she seeks to bring him to life to complete her evil plans...

Tomb of the Werewolf came in 2004, courtesy of Fred Olen Ray of all people! Modern king of zero budget b-movies. This makes it the odd one out, and the only entry in the series not to be produced in Spain, or with Naschy behind the scenes in some capacity. It's also easily the worst received in the series! This may partly be because it's an easy target, but there's another reason-The marked lack of Paul Naschy, who's probably only in the film for 10 minutes, max.

Having now seen it for myself, I don't think Tomb is the worst film ever made (although it'd certainly hit the bottom of the series if only by default), and it's a passable enough b-grade chiller meets sexploitation. It's never really scary, and softcore porn sounds pretty unwelcome for classic horror, but for what this is it manages to be an alright mix of both worlds.

But this leads into a big issue. I'm not sure why it's even a Hombre Lobo film. If Ray had this classic Spanish horror star for just a few days, enough for a supporting part, it could've just been a standalone flick. No reason why it had to be about this particular werewolf. Instead this builds up a false expectation of what the movie will even be.

The story is basic enough. I liked the idea of a treasure hunt at a werewolf's castle, and was disappointed when this never really happens. The young folk have only just got settled when the villain starts her plan. It's a shame, since that premise has promise!

The film has an alright pace, but it takes a little too long for some things to get started. By the time things finally kick off it's pretty much time for the climax.

We get our first glimpse of the werewolf in a brief flashback to Waldemar, who unwittingly makes a pact with evil to save his love Eleanor's life, only to be cursed. He disappears for almost half the film, before finally making a return, to kill some period inappropriate locals.

The final act begins with a showdown between Bathory and defacto heroine Amanda, and it's a surprisingly quick fight! For all her strength she didn't stand much of a chance. But I'm glad, as it removes her from the board and lets the titular werewolf finally shine for the last stretch. It's a good final scene, with some melancholy and romance as you'd expect from a Hombre Lobo film.

Meanwhile, the climax completely bypasses the young heroes, who are out hunting non-existent wolves the whole time. I wondered if the film would have a cheap shock ending that makes no sense, but it all seemed pretty chipper!...until... I swear I can read these kinds of movies like a book! Still, a jugular bite's nothing you can't put a bandaid over!

The dialogue is lightly amusing, and genre-savvy in lines that are either fun, sometimes cringey or dumb. I got a kick out of one girl's line about reading old texts-"Well the f's and s's all look alike, but you can muck it out if you try". Then there's the cheesy TV bumper line "So viewers, the real question is, can true love survive, despite space, time, greed, and lest we forget, really really gross death things and stuff?"

Bloodsucking witch Elizabeth Bathory is the true main villain, and totally steals the spotlight from the man we wanna see. At least she has a basis to exist as a character, since Bathory herself or expys were a staple of past entries. Her part in the prologue is pretty funny. She's lusting after a young maiden, but decides it'll be worth more if she denies herself this treat and offers it instead to her master...Who turns out to be pissed! He's like 'You bothered me for this?'. Whoops. coulda just had her yourself, Liz!

The TV crew here are tolerable, and not that stupid, but that's all. Remember how I said Lycantropus wasn't just about a bunch of sex-obsessed teens stealing the spotlight from the older people? Well that describes this bunch to a tee! Admittedly they're not teens, but they're young, look like models, and like to get naked! And wouldn't you know it, just about every girl here happens to enjoy more than male company.

Richard Daninsky is a pretty good guy, and I liked him. He's friendly, honest, and I was bummed out when he died. Then there's psychic Amanda, whose presence among the guest list is a mystery. There's a good amount of intrigue to her. Is she good? Maybe a vampire hunter? Or a ghost from the past?

And Waldemar himself is ok. I was afraid he'd only appear in flashbacks, but he eventually resurrects. He spends half the time as a werewolf, but he also shares a connection with Amanda, leading to some good interactions, but too short and infrequent.

As can be expected from some of Fred Olen Ray's films, Tomb of the Werewolf verges on softcore porn at times. To paraphrase things slightly, one girl is brushing her hair, and her topless friend helps her unhook some from her bra, and would you look at that, they're both naked and ready for sex! A later line is the lame "I always fantasised on what you might look like...y'know, naked", which somehow gets a score from that guy! Thankfully these scenes never stretch on too long, although this also means they cut off before the interesting stuff begins.

Tomb runs at a brisk 82 minutes, but there is a longer cut out there, under the name of The Unliving. This version reputedly has longer sex scenes, and extra violence? I'd be slightly curious to check it out, but anything past 82 for a film like this would be pushing it.

The effects here are good in some ways, disappointing in others. But understandably so given the budget. There's some decent blood and grue, and the werewolf make-up is a highlight! It's maybe a little too fluffy, but it's a good design, and looks consistent with past entries too! The transformations are done entirely with cheesy CGI, and it's pretty groanworthy, but it is what it is.

The locales in Tomb are decent. While Eastern Europe may be a cheap shooting location (a boon for low budget vampire pictures!), this is shot in Hollywood, courtesy of some good sets. The establishing shots are ok some places, and look like video game graphics in others, with an odd FMV quality.

If nothing else Fred Olen Ray is a competent director, and he does a good job filming a Gothic horror.  There is one issue that plagues Tomb of the Werewolf though. It's shot on video! This could be overlooked, but for the 12th and final entry in a series that was otherwise shot on film, it does render this one as looking more like a cheap TV production.

The music is likewise mixed. You've got some ok Gothic tunes, but then you've got cheesy Skinemax tracks, and out-of-place heavy metal. It's disappointing for the last entry in this series to end on shitty screamo.

The acting here isn't as bad as I feared, although is still marred by poor delivery here and there. Credit where credit's due the modern setting makes the presence of young Americans not a big deal. Jay Richardson is one of the better actors, while Leland Jay is ok, although comes off a little high at times. Michelle Bauer looks perfect for a role like this, carrying an icy charm. She does well, though a bit stiff delivering her olde timey thee's and thou's with her modern American accent. Same for the guy playing the devil.

And then there's Paul Naschy himself. Despite his small role he gives some humanity. He's made up with a pretty fake wig and goatee, but he actually looks years younger than he did in Lycantropus! There he looked his age (62). I don't know if he just had older age make-up on in that film, or younger in this one, but it's pretty surprising. Despite being around 70, Paul dutifully gets into the wolf make-up (with the help of a stuntman I'm not sure), and shreds some villagers one last time! Of special note is his voice! Usually Naschy was either dubbed into English, or speaking in Spanish. But here he's speaking English himself, and he sounds adorable! He's just like Puss in Boots!

And lastly, there's a more recent DVD release I'd be interested in checking out someday, to give the commentary track a listen. Not only because Fred Olen Ray is apparently a charming storyteller (if he's anything like Jim Wynorski, I look forward to it!) it would also explain some things I was wondering, about the film's origins, how it is what it is, Paul's involvement, etc.

Tomb of the Werewolf is mixed at best. It's not awful, and has a few mild positive qualities in its own right, but as an entry in the Hombre Lobo series, particularly the final one, it's a great disappointment. It won't hurt if you're a Naschy completist, but you're better off with most of his other works...

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