If DVD has done anything, and frankly this applies to the entire realm of home video, it’s the introduction of foreign and outsider cult figures to an otherwise clueless commercial audience. Names like Jose Mojica Marins, Sonny Chiba, and Chow Yun-Fat went from literal unknowns with a small, devoted demographic following their films to overnight format icons. The availability of their movies, and the Internet’s capacity to spread said obsessive love around, turned the tide away from the typical Tinseltown twinkies and back toward these undeniably unknown quantities.
Perhaps one of the most enigmatic entries into this hallowed who’s-who is Paul Naschy. Known in his native Spain as the country’s Lon Chaney, his numerous horror films have cemented his status as a menacing, mercurial macabre presence. Yet until the advent of VHS, you had to wait for the local late, late show or Saturday shock theater rerun to see some of his work. Now Troma Entertainment treats us to one of his most unusual, a boisterous bodice ripper with supernatural overtones known originally as La Orgía de los muertos. Retitled The Hanging Woman for its US release, this slick supernatural sudser offers the multitalented actor in a solid supporting role. But even when he’s not the lead, Naschy simply dominates the screen.
In a small Scottish village, the death of a nobleman sends his relatives scrambling. His new wife wants everything. Unfortunately, his daughter stands to inherit everything. When the young woman turns up dead (hanging from a cemetery tree, thus the title) local law enforcement thinks it’s suicide. Evidence later implies she was murdered. When an unknown heir shows up, a nephew named Serge Chekov, the constable considers him a suspect. Soon, however, it’s apparent that darker forces have taken over the household. The widow dabbles in black magic. The doctor in residence reanimates the dead. And a perverted graverobber named Igor appears to hold the answers as to why the town is plagued by such undeniable evils.
Imagine Dark Shadows with nudity and you’ve got a pretty good idea of The Hanging Woman‘s allure. This Gothic soap opera, overloaded with plot and resulting onscreen exposition, is so manipulative and melodramatic that when something startling comes along (Naschy’s character is a grimy little scumbucket who takes pictures of - and occasionally fraternizes sexually with - the dead) that it throws everything for a loop. Director José Luis Merino tries to maintain a tone of seriousness and suspense, but the storyline is so scattered and moves at such a stumblebum pace that it’s almost impossible to feel anything other than confusion. Still, you have to give The Hanging Woman credit - it definitely offers up some fascinating tidbits among the less memorable material.
The whole zombie subtext works because Merino keeps them off camera for most of the movie. When they arrive, they provide a sickening spectacle in all their rotting corpse corruptness. Similarly, the witchcraft angle is also intriguing, since it suggests more is going on than what turns out to be a rather straightforward whodunit. But the best thing about The Hanging Woman is the performances. Everyone here is excellent, from Stelvio Rosi who resembles a lost member of the Moody Blues in his Serge Chekov regalia to the dishy Dyanik Zurakowska, who may not have much in the cleavage department, but sure puts on an alluring front. With other evocative turns by the performers in perfunctory roles (policeman, flustered city official), Merino makes his material work.
Naschy, however, is the key to everything. He’s not just a supporting part of the story, he’s an aura, a magnetic personality permeating every facet of the film. We understand early on that Igor is part of some bigger plan, that his love of the dead is being exploited by someone who understands his needs. Even the wicked widow dresses up like a recently interred body to get him into the boudoir, her confidence, and her bed. From the threat he presents to authorities to the last act reliance on his prowess as an unlikely alibi, Naschy owns The Hanging Woman. When he’s on camera, we are mesmerized by his obvious charisma. When he’s off, we wonder when Igor will return to the plot. While there are better movies that illustrate his undeniable superstardom in his oeuvre, The Hanging Woman is a great way to see how one actor can singlehandedly lord over an entire period piece production.
Troma earns extra points for providing us with another movie as part of this newly released DVD. While not starring Naschy, it too is from Spain and features Dyanik Zurakowska as a young woman who promises her lover that they will always be together - even after death. Entitled The Sweet Sound of Death, this morose monochrome effort from 1965 offers an interest contrast to Hanging Woman‘s more lurid color conceits. Troma also tricks out the disc with numerous added features. There’s an interview and commentary with Merino (in Spanish with subtitles), a new Q&A with Naschy, a talk with Ben Tatar (who specialized in dubbing foreign films into English) and a career overview tied to this film entitled “Paul Naschy 101”. Add in a few trailers, a photo gallery of vintage lobby cards, and a decent set of tech specs, and The Hanging Woman disc provides all the necessary digital context to clarify Naschy’s legacy.
While not a classic, The Hanging Woman definitely has its high points. It’s got some great locations, a splash of sinister finesse, more than a few ripe red herrings, and a performance by Naschy that’s not to be missed. But like most cult figures who are just finding their footing in the nu-media realm, there are dozens of better examples of the actor’s work to be discovered. Companies like Troma are definitely thanked for finding these often rare releases and putting them out for appreciated fans to fuss over. But just like the canon of Brazil’s Coffin Joe, whose decade long career has been reduced to a half dozen DVDs, Paul Naschy deserves a broader cinematic perspective. Of course, the hope is that a release like The Hanging Woman will spark further interest in the amazing macabre icon. As with many who’ve seen home video inspired interest, he definitely deserves it.