Monday, 24 December 2012

Fangs of the Living Dead

1969, Spain / Italy, Directed by Amando de Ossorio
Colour, Running Time: 74 minutes
Review Source: Download; Video: 1.33:1, Audio: Mono

Receiving legal notification that she is in line to inherit a castle, Sylivia ('the most beautiful woman in Italy, according to her boyfriend's mate...) heads off to the foreign land of the building's location - two weeks before her wedding - to collect what's due to her, intending to be back with a fortune just in time to try on her dress. Jetting off she discovers a strangely antiquated land where superstitious locals fear the very mention of the castle that she's come to inherit. Arriving at the castle she learns that her ancestor was burned at the stake for alchemy - or 'necrobiology' as it's rather eloquently put in the English dub. Apparently the woman was attempting to prolong human life by unnatural means, and it would appear she succeeded: now the inhabitants of the castle are vampires! Furthermore, the residing count wants Sylvia to abandon her more conventional relationship in favour of remaining at the castle for the rest of eternity, or at least until the place is razed to make way for a new Tesco. Soon her boyfriend is also showing up, along with his perpetually present companion, to make sense of her letter to break the whole thing off.

Amando de Ossorio is of course the man famously responsible for the Blind Dead films, four cult horror/exploitation vehicles about the corpses of the Knights Templar returning to life to reap havoc on the living. Another nice piece by the writer/director was La Noche de los Brujos, or Night of the Sorcerers to the non-Spanish out there. Before any of those films he tried his hand at the Gothic Horror, an already successfully explored arena by the likes of Hammer and various Italians (notably Mario Bava of course), and gave the world Malenka, crudely retitled for American cinema and video releases as Fangs of the Living Dead. Somehow they roped in Anita Ekberg to play the title role(s), who had already established herself as Miss Sweden at the beginning of the fifties before embarking on a film career (probably little realising that she would one day end up wandering around a castle fending off bloodsuckers of the night with her breasts half exposed!). She actually strikes me here as an older, slightly more chiselled version of Milla Jovovich. Her character's adventure to a land almost lost in time is typical of 60s European Gothic cinema, and harks back to the days of some of the Universal monster movies. Similarly typical is the picturesque medieval castle populated by the undead. Part of the appeal of this Spanish example of the genre, I have to say, is the presence of a number of busty barmaids who serve at the local inn and vampire ladies wandering around the castle itself. Whilst the historic structure itself is an atmospheric delight, this injection of partially exposed female flesh makes the film all the more attractive to look at...
I get the impression that most people who have seen Malenka are nearly bored to the grave with its neanderthal stagger, but I think the film has been unfairly treated by its US distributors since the original theatrical screenings, a malignity that afflicted almost everything, exploitation-wise, that came out of Europe around the late fifties through to early seventies. For a start the film is severely cut, of around fifteen minutes - this can never help narrative coherence, character development, or aura-building. Secondly the conclusion of the film in this shorter, more widely seen cut, is silly and disjointed to the extreme - I understand this was also a change made to the original version. In addition, the image that I've seen on the various releases available, aside from lacking in fine detail, is always heavily cropped - it's impossible to assess and appreciate image composition in such severely compromised circumstances. The last main concern is, as always, to do with English dubbing. It is rather ridiculous and makes it almost impossible to take the film seriously (unless the viewer is able to look past that), although it does introduce a number of highly amusing moments: after clumsily reading out his fiancee's letter which quite simply states 'My dear niece, I am pleased to inform you that you've now the right to everything your mother has left you' Sylvia's baffled husband-to-be exclaims, 'Good Lord, we've got to decipher it' - classic stuff! There do seem to be quite a few humorous moments but it's difficult to say how much of this is down to the English interpretations made during the dubbing process, or whether de Ossorio actually intended odd moments of humour. Production restrictions were unfairly placed upon de Ossorio at the time, notably with budget (as de Ossorio himself once amusingly stated, the producer "was Jewish, very strict on money" [Dark Side Magazine September 1996 issue]), and when the producer decided to prematurely close down the shoot, forcing the writer/director to cut together what footage he had, changing drastically from his original story in places as a result - it's not a surprise that given the aforementioned American distribution issues, along with the production problems themselves, the results are not proficient and coherent. I understand that a DVDR ripped from a Dutch VHS contains the longer version of the film, though still dubbed in English, and such black market versions can be purchased from one or two sites that specialise in this kind of material - of course I don't condone such stuff but in the absence of anyone coming forward to release the film properly it's a temptation that lingers. I can only hope, most likely in vain, that someone unearths the correct version of Malenka for a legitimate disc one day, because I really don't think it's anywhere near as bad as general opinion might suggest.

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