Horror Rises from the Tomb (1972)

Scream Factory’s new 5-disc, 5-film set The Paul Naschy Collection seeks to bring wider exposure to Spain’s horror auteur, writer/director/star Paul Naschy. Scream has modeled this set after their three indispensable volumes of Vincent Price films, which I hope means this will be just a first installment. Of course Naschy has been well known to Eurocult fans for a long while. His most prominent recurring role was the Lon Chaney Jr.-styled werewolf Waldemar Daninsky in films such as La Marca del Hombre Lobo (1968, released in the States with the unlikely title Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror) and La Noche de Walpurgis (aka Werewolf Shadow or The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman, 1971). But Naschy also strongly identified with the demonic undead warlock Alaric de Marnac, who appears in the first film on Scream Factory’s collection, Horror Rises from the Tomb (El Espanto Surge de la Tumba, 1972). De Marnac is the Headless Horseman, Dracula, and Bela Lugosi’s zombie overlord from White Zombie all rolled into one. And that’s what I like about Naschy’s approach to horror: he doesn’t discriminate; all horror tropes are fair game. Horror Rises from the Tomb, directed by Carlos Aured (Curse of the Devil), begins like Black Sunday (1960) before unexpectedly turning into Night of the Living Dead (1968) for a short while, then embraces vampire iconography with equal parts Lugosi, Christopher Lee, and Jean Rollin. Gratuitous gore and nudity are abundant, and the pace never slows. If you like 70’s exploitation films at all, it’s hard to not enjoy the madness that Naschy is up to.

A séance summons the disembodied visage of Alaric de Marnac (Paul Naschy).

In an evocatively shot prologue set in 15th century France, Alaric de Marnac (Naschy) and Mabille de Lancré (Helga Liné, Nightmare Castle) are escorted through a misty valley to their execution for the crime of practicing witchcraft. De Marnac is ordered to have his head removed and buried separately from his body. In the present day, his descendant Hugo de Marnac (Naschy again) attends a séance with his friends, including Maurice (Victor Alcázar) – whose lineage also dates back to the days of Alaric de Marnac – and Elvira (Emma Cohen, Cut-Throats Nine). The séance summons the spirit of de Marnac – or his head, at any rate – who gives the exact location where his head has been buried by speaking through the medium’s lips (an effect both eerie and silly). This prompts a journey to an ancient estate to verify the spirit’s claims – actually Naschy’s own family home, which provided the suitably Gothic shooting location for many of his films. Along the way they encounter highwaymen who are immediately dispatched by the bloodthirsty, lynch-happy locals, the first of many bizarre scenarios which unfold throughout the film. The estate’s caretaker wields a sickle and is intent on resurrecting de Marnac (a set-up similar to the one in Dracula: Prince of Darkness), so good thing Hugo and Maurice just arrived to dig up the warlock’s severed head. Maurice, who has been secretly, obsessively painting images of the decapitated de Marnac under the ghost’s malevolent influence, is psychically given the precise GPS coordinates to dig up the desired head, which is perfectly intact. The caretaker – after using his sickle to kill off a teenage girl to whom we’ve just been introduced – steals the head and takes it to a hidden shrine. Maurice now falls completely under the thrall of de Marnac and assists in his resurrection, as well as that of de Marnac’s lover Mabille de Lancré. The two raise zombies and begin to prey on the locals by sneaking into their bedchambers Dracula-style, seducing and killing them. They also sleep in matching coffins.

A Rollin-esque epilogue with Emma Cohen as Elvira.

I’ll be honest, I couldn’t keep track of all the characters introduced, disrobed, and slaughtered. Apart from Naschy’s multiple roles and the Barbara Steele-like performance by Liné, the biggest impression is left by beautiful Emma Cohen as Elvira, whose role gets larger as the story deliriously progresses. Surprisingly, it is she, not Naschy’s Hugo, who thwarts the evil plot using a talisman medallion and a silver needle. In a final image straight out of Rollin’s oeuvre, she stands on a shore in the pre-dawn hours while snow (or ash?) falls around her and drops the medallion in the water. (It is typical of the film’s dubbing that the splash has a few seconds’ delay.) There are other stylish touches throughout the film: Hugo fighting off zombies with his swinging torch, lighting them on fire as they come close; de Marnac’s defeat, as blood suddenly appears at the seam in his neck – his sorcery is undone, and his body is splitting in two again. But the film’s greatest value is its fever dream approach to narrative, taking us from one familiar image to another like a tour of the last few decades of horror film, nothing quite sticking but everything punched up to maximum effect. Although Scream Factory was not permitted access to the original elements for the Naschy films in this collection, Horror Rises from the Tomb looks fantastic, and among the extras are “alternate clothed sequences” from the more chaste print which could safely screen in Spain. The other films in The Paul Naschy Collection are Vengeance of the Zombies (1972), Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (1973), Night of the Werewolf (1980), and Human Beasts (1980).

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Final Exam (1981)

By 1981, slasher films were at their peak – in volume if not in quality. The box office success of the low budget Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) guaranteed several years of imitators aimed at teenagers, the public’s moral outrage be damned. Final Exam (1981) is pretty typical of the quickie, formula-driven product from this year, neither exemplary (like The Burning) nor abysmal (like Don’t Go in the Woods). As with all slashers it has a central exploitable gimmick, which can be summed up by its tagline, “Some May Pass the Test…God Help the Rest.” Okay, so it’s not the most compelling gimmick (this one takes place at a college!), but I have a weakness for campus-set B-movies, and the central pleasure of this film from writer/director Jimmy Huston (My Best Friend is a Vampire) is its inexperienced but overly-enthusiastic young cast, the community college shooting locations, and the fact that the whole film feels like it was pasted together with a glue stick like construction paper decorations hanging in a school gymnasium.

Nerdy Radish (Joel S. Rice) excitedly tells good girl Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi) and frat boy Mark (John Fallon) about a recent murder at a nearby college.

The film opens with what might be the most clichéd set-up in the horror subgenre: a couple parked in a convertible at a make-out point wondering about those strange noises in the night. Despite concerns that the local frat boys might be lurking just outside their vehicle pranking them, they shrug it off and continue to make out. The boy is killed. The girl screams. Takes a breath. Then screams again. Takes another breath. The killer isn’t wearing a mask; he doesn’t look particularly tall, but he’s strong. He stabs his victims with a large knife. He wears blue jeans. The only narrative innovation of Final Exam is that the killer is completely unexplained. After he slaughters teenagers at this college, he moves on to Lanier College and begins another round of murder. We don’t learn his name or any hints of his past; in any other slasher he would be the victim of a frat boy hazing gone wrong, now bent on revenge. Almost indifferently, director Huston reveals his face during the final scenes, but he is no one the audience is expected to recognize. Radish (Joel S. Rice), the film’s pocket protector-wearing horror movie fan and true crime lover, explains that mass murders can happen at any time and for any reason, and so the story takes this approach. Perhaps uncomfortably for a modern viewer, a final exam session is interrupted by a terrorist attack – ski-mask wearing gunmen who hop out of a van and spray bullets at the college students – until we learn that this is just another fraternity prank. (Well, it’s obvious this is a red herring from the start, but it’s awkward to watch it unfold nonetheless.) Radish phones the local sheriff (Sam Kilman), who chastises him over the lack of dead bodies. His discussion with the college kids and the gym coach (Jerry Rushing) is interminable. Nonetheless, the sheriff will now vanish from the film.

DeAnna Robbins as Lisa, sleeping her way into good grades.

Another unique aspect of Final Exam: apart from the opening sequence, the killings will not start until an hour into the film. This might have been an opportunity to better develop the characters, as in Bob Clark’s classic Black Christmas (1974), but the results are variable. Of the assortment of young adult stereotypes, the “good” (and presumably virginal) kids Radish and Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi) come off the best, and you root for them, even though Radish is given to delivering lines like “There’s no such thing as a free brunch” – or perhaps because he says things like that. His painful attempt to flirt with her in her dorm room is, perhaps, the most horrifying moment in this “horror movie.” And yet he feels authentic, even when amateur actor Rice gives line readings that occasionally approach Eddie Deezen levels. Let me make this clear: “Radish” is indispensable to the enjoyment Final Exam provides. And Courtney we can identify straight away as the Final Girl, but she seems like an authentic college student, not a genre-sculpted caricature. On the other hand, her roommate Lisa (soap actress DeAnna Robbins) is the pretty blonde who’s cheerfully sleeping with her professor to pass her tests, and gets the requisite nude scene; and the frat boys Mark (John Fallon) and Wildman (Ralph Brown) are as deplorable as they are two-dimensional. A dull subplot, barely developed, involves Gary (Terry W. Farren), a frat pledge tormented by Mark and Wildman, and Gary’s ambivalent girlfriend Janet (Sherry Willis-Burch, Killer Party). Characters like these leave us begging for the killings to start.

Mark discovers a body stuffed into a locker.

As for the “kills,” they’re not much, and it’s a joke that this film made Britain’s Video Nasty list. When they finally get going, they at least arrive with speed, the cast dispatched rapidly. The most creative death involves one frat boy’s murder via weight bench, although another, as the killer bursts suddenly from a door and drags his victim through it, is admirably out-of-nowhere. The final confrontation has shades of giallo movies as Courtney is pursued to the top of a bell tower, the steps encircling a vast drop to the bottom of the gallery. But the ending also underlines just how much Huston is striving to copy Halloween, briefly suggesting that the killer might be invincible. I can’t imagine too many teenagers going to the drive-in to see Final Exam in 1981 were particularly entertained; it’s too slow without justifying its pacing, and when the action does kick in, it’s not gory or shocking enough to stick in the memory. But modern viewers can appreciate that it’s unglossy and oddly sincere for a slasher film. Shot in Selby, North Carolina (with a cast recruited out of Los Angeles), it has the feel of a regional genre film, and the enthusiasm of this amateur production is evident and genuine.

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