When the Werewolf of Spain Came to Philly: UHF Memories of Paul Naschy
[UHF MEMORIES SOON TO BE A BOOK BY YOURS TRULY!]
The television screen is filled with a close-up of a werewolf's snarling face. Apparently, the image is a poorly rendered blow-up from one of the frames from the film's 16mm syndicated print.
The silent image of the werewolf fills the screen for what seems like forever, but it probably is only two or three seconds before the voice-over narrator intones "And now, we return to ASSIGNMENT.....(pause) TERROR.
In the corner of the frame, you can make out the television channel and its call letters, Channel 48 WKBS TV. Based out of Burlington, NJ, Channel 48 was the "third tier" UHF channel in the Philadelphia area until closing shop in 1983.
On Saturday Afternoons, the channel was home to "Creature Double Feature," the host-less competitor to Dr. Shock's Shock Theater and Mad Theater on Channel 17. ("The Great Entertainer")
Paul Naschy, the one man band who was responsible for Spain's B movie monster cycle of the late 1960s and early 1970s, was a familiar figure on channel 48. Not because viewers were treated to his many movies. They were treated to seeing the same two films repeated over and over again for a decade.
The Werewolf of Spain Not So Laudatory Appearances on the Drive-in Circuit
Paul Naschy first saw Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1942) in a Madrid theater as a child and it inspired him to eventually seek a career in film. He wrote a script as a vehicle for Lon Chaney Jr. entitled La Marca del Hombre Lobo/The Mark of the Wolfman, but Chaney was too old and ill to play the role.
The producer offered the lead to Naschy and the toupee wearing powerlifter got his big break.
Many who enjoyed the horror films of the late Spanish horror icon Paul Naschy were able to view the films on the big screen in European theaters when the films were first released in Spain, Italy, France, Germany, and elsewhere.
In the United States, a large volume of Naschy's films were dumped into the drive-in circuit as the bottom half of a double-bill. Denizens of the outdoor theaters were treated to very off-kilter horror outings featuring Naschy including Werewolf vs. The Vampire Woman (1970), Dr. Jekyll and the Wolfman (1971), Jack the Mangler of London (1972), and The Night of the Howling Beast (1975). Now, the years those films were released reflect their original release date in Spain. Quite a few of Naschy's films never saw a U.S. drive-in release until many years after they were made.
And then there were the Naschy films that reached their largest U.S. audiences on UHF television. Channel 9 WOR in New York constantly ran The Fury of the Wolfman (1970) all throughout the year, despite the fact it is probably Naschy's all-time worst film. In Philadelphia, during the middle of the 1970s to about 1984, the first two Naschy films featuring his character Waldemar Daninsky, the werewolf, played repeatedly on channel 48.
The films were, of course, Frankenstein's Bloody Terror (1968) and Assignment Terror (1970).
Of Frankensteins and Wolfsteins
Websites dedicated to Naschy detail the whole sordid story about the name change and U.S. release of the film. Under the original title of La Marca del Hombre Lobo, the beautifully shot cinemascope 3-D film did well at the box office in Spain.
In the United States, Independent International had produced Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971), but could not get the prints back after a dispute with the lab. The film was already pre-booked in a decent number of theaters expecting a "Frankenstein" film. I.I. owner Sam Sherman screened a bunch of films and one was a dubbed version of Marca. Sherman felt that the werewolf named "Wolfstein" was close enough to "Frankenstein" so he added an intro stating that the Frankenstein family had become werewolves and changed their name to "Wolfstein."
Those were the glory days of drive-in hucksterism.
The film came and went on the drive-in circuit without much fanfare. Upon moving to UHF television for late night and Saturday afternoon viewing, FBT probably reached its largest audiences.
Frankenstein's Bloody Terror Hits the UHF Airwaves
"No Frankenstein in the film, but when a stake is removed from his heart, a werewolf wakes up thirsty." (One Star)
So said the summary in the TV book.
Actually, it was not a stake removed from the werewolf's heart but a silver cross. Sadly, there is no Frankenstein in this film despite the title. One star is very unfair, too. While hardly virtuoso cinema, FTB had its merits.
How it was featured on local TV helped make it memorable.
Depending upon where you lived in the United States, your experiences of watching horror hosts and horror movies on UHF varied. In Philly, very few color horror movies aired as part of the Channel 17 and Channel 48 horror/science fiction movie packages. Hammer films had a tendency to air on late at night and did not make many afternoon appearances until after 1984. Saturday afternoons featured mostly black and white horror films. Toho's Godzilla movies were in color, but they weren't horror films.
When a horror movie did air in color, it had an enormous, almost shocking impact. To the younger audiences that enjoyed horror movies on UHF, the few color films that did air certainly left a mark. Count Yorga, Vampire (1971), The Incredible Two Headed Transplant (1972), Blood and Lace (1970), Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971) drew a sharp contrast from the normal escapist Universal monster rally or mummy sequel.
What helped FBT stand out was, even though it came from the library of a drive-in releasing company, the original, longer, foreign language version had good production values and tried to stay true to its Universal inspiration. Vampires and werewolves and the overall look of the film updated the classic style to the 1960s and the werewolves were far fiercer and nastier, but this was an old school horror film and not a sleaze fest.
Granted, the script was B movie level but it never plods and moves along at a decent 71 minute pace.
And being honest, it wasn't just the production values that helped the film stand out. The incredibly haunting and weird music that accompanied Naschy's change into the werewolf (designed to drag out the 3D effects for the cinema) added a bit of creepiness to the transformation. The overall mayhem in the movie forced you to take notice. Waldemar the werewolf not only rampaged against humans and vampires, he got to battle it out with ANOTHER werewolf when he and Wolfstein square off. No other film I can think of at the time featured any werewolf brawls to the death so FTB gets extra points.
Did everyone who watched the film during the 1970s walk away with the same impression? No, but the film did have enough of an impact on fans to help establish the Naschy cult following that emerged in the late 1980s/early 1990s thanks to the monster movie and fanzine newsletter underground of the era.
The bizarre/campy opening to Frankenstein's Bloody Terror
Things Change, Time Moves On
In 1983, Channel 48 went blank. The Saturday Afternoon horror shows in Philadelphia lost their luster in 1979 when Dr. Shock, the iconic local horror host on Channel 17 passed away. Channel 48 kept showing horror movies, but something was missing. Black Belt Theater debuted on Channel 29 and Saturday afternoons became the play land of Hong Kong kung fu movies while horror moved to the evenings.
Frankenstein's Bloody Terror, at least in Philadelphia, disappeared from the UHF airwaves. It did pop up in the late 1980s on VHF. Channel 3, the then NBC affiliate, launched a new horror movie hostess by the name of Stella on the excellent Saturday Night Dead. Guess which NBC show it followed?
30+ years have passed and entire generations of people have no idea what is was like to live in a major city and have only 7 television channels. When something did air on television, it had a certain specialness because it was one of the few programs actually on the air. Without a VCR, cable TV, or DVRs, you often only saw the beginning or end of a program and then had to wait six months or so to see it again.
This oddball werewolf film was offbeat enough that it struck a cord. Naschy made several sequels and other films until his popularity died off in the 1980s.
Frankenstein's Bloody Terror is probably the most "normal" of the Naschy outings. The sequel, Assignment Terror, took off the wall incoherence to fun new levels.
Check out Part Two:
Look for more and more of my musings about UHF horrors in an upcoming book!