[Tearing Through Werewolf Cinema] 'Assignment Terror' Saw the Return of Paul Naschy's Waldemar Daninsky!
Welcome to a weekly series in which Doris V. Sutherland takes readers on a trip through the history of werewolf cinema...
...In Assignment Terror (originally released in 1969 as Los Monstruos del Terror) a scientist is sent from his dying homeworld to Earth disguised as a human. His mission is to wipe out all of humanity and claim Earth for his own species; his method is to exploit Earthling superstition by manufacturing an army of monsters derived from terrestrial legend. But before he can commence the cloning process, he must find an authentic specimen of every supernatural species. One of the monsters he obtains is the werewolf Waldemar Daninsky (Paul Naschy)—but he soon finds out the hard way that a monster with a human heart can be hard to control.
Created by directors Tulio Demichelli and Hugo Fregonese along with writer Jacinto Molina, Assignment Terror is the first publicly available follow-up to The Mark of the Wolf Man, which introduced Paul Naschy’s werewolf antihero Waldemar Daninsky; Naschy has claimed that an intermediate film, Las Noches del Hombre Lobo, was at least partly completed but never released. Whether we call it the second or third entry in the series, Assignment Terror sums up the central ethos behind the Daninsky films: continuing the old Universal monster crossovers into the sixties (an era dominated by a swinging Hammer) and beyond.
And as far as monster crossovers go, this one is eager to bring back as many old favourites as it can. Naschy’s werewolf is joined by a mummy (Gene Reyes), a Frankensteinian monster (Ferdinando Murolo) and a vampire (Manuel de Blas) who is introduced as a skeleton on display at a carnival and—in a plot point swiped neatly from House of Frankenstein–-revived when the stake is removed from his ribcage. Presiding over this diablerie is the extraterrestrial villain Odo Varnoff, played by Michael Rennie essentially as an evil version of his benevolent alien from The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Putting a selection of monsters in a film is rather easier than giving them things to do, of course. In practice, the only member of Michael Rennie’s monster mash to be an actual character is Daninsky. The vampire is given a few Lugosi-cribbing scenes but is ultimately sidelined. Meanwhile, the mummy and (ahem) Farancksalan Monster end up as interchangeable automata. Oddly, an early scene has a character read from an encyclopedia of monsters and name not only the four fiends who turn up in the film, but also a fifth who is missing in action: the golem. Presumably the filmmakers realised just how redundant a third lumbering brute would be.
The strongest member of the whole cast turns out to be Michael Rennie’s alien. Odo initially appears easy to laugh off—he comes across as a television newsreader who’s wandered onto the set of Doctor Who—but the character’s strengths come through when he begins brutalising his underachieving underlings. The very detachment that makes him ludicrous to start with suddenly makes him all too credible as a cold-blooded sadist who has slid his way into the corridors of power. As Odo loses control of his henchpersons one by one, his assortment of allies and mind-control victims tumbling like dominos, Assignment Terror turns out to have a pretty engaging plot on its hands.
The film’s biggest shortcomings have less to do with the monsters and more to do with the material that films of this sort mistakenly throw in alongside their monsters. We get a completely forgettable subplot about a nominal good guy, even though the dissent in Michael Rennie’s ranks would be enough to sustain the film. Meanwhile, the Universal-established notion that a werewolf can only be killed by a woman who loves him is amended so that the woman must also kill herself—necessitating a cobbled-together story of doubly-doomed love for Daninsky.
Avid fans of B-movie schlock will have learned to put up with such lapses, of course. And when Assignment Terror reaches its monster-versus-monster climax, featuring such spectacles as the werewolf shoving the mummy into a rotating mill-wheel before setting him on fire, the misjudgments are easy to forgive. All in all, Assignment Terror proves a memorable second (or third) outing for Paul Naschy’s lycanthrope.
By Doris V. Sutherland