It almost borders on amazing that The Valdemar Legacy (La Herencia Valdemar) has not been embraced as a cult item by horror fans around the globe. The Spanish production name-checks such genre icons as Poe (borrowing the name "Valdemar" from one of his stories) to Lovecraft (the alleged source of inspiration for the screenplay) to Aleister Crowley, Bram Stoker, and Lizzie Borden (all of whom appear as characters). As if that were not enough, Spanish horror star Paul Naschy appears in his final screen role, proving the monster-kid credibility of writer-director José Luis Alemán. All of that makes The Valdemar Legacy sound like a fanboy's dream of home movie, but the film is actually a lavishly mounted affair, beautiful to watch and drenched in ominous atmosphere, with enough production value to rival similar efforts by Tim Burton and Guillermo Del Toro. Viewers eager to enjoy terrors dressed in the accoutrements of Gothic horror may have a good time, though slow pacing and a misguided ending undermine the effectiveness.
Like one of Nobuo Nakagawa's Japanese horror film from the 1950s, (e.g., Black Cat Mansion), The Valdemar Legacy takes a modern-day story and wraps it around an extended flashback, with events in the two time sequences sharing equal weight in the narrative. The story begins in present day with Luisa Llorente (Silvia Abascal) called in to value an old mansion after a previous appraiser mysteriously disappears. Llorente discovers her predecessor's body in the house, then encounters a ghostly presence; Llorente escapes with some caretakers, who keep her locked up. Seeking to avoid publicity, the mysterious Valdemar Foundation (which is overseeing sale of the property) brings in Tramel (Oscar Jaenada ), a private investigator, to find Llorente. On a long train ride to the property, Dr. Cervia (Ana Risueño) explains the history of the house to Tramel.
Lazarus Valdemar (Daniele Liotti) and his wife Leonor (Laia) used to operate a foster home out of their house. A photographer, Lazarus raised funds for the orphanage by conducting phony seances during which he took "spirit" photographs. The Valdemars are exposed after they refuse the blackmail demands of an unscrupulous reporter. Lazarus is thrown in jail, but Leonor receives help from Aleister Crowley (Paco Maestre). In exchange for freeing Lazarus, Crowley wants the photographer to conduct another séance, because Crowley has determined that Valdemar's fakery has inadvertently made genuine contact with the other world. The ritual goes awry, releasing a demon that inhabits the body of a corpse, leading to a conflagration at the house, and then...
Instead of returning to the present to wrap up the story, The Valdemar Legacy stops with a "To Be Continued..." cliffhanger, leaving the Llorente's predicament completely unresolved. This is not only frustrating; it is mildly insulting. The Valdemary Legacy presents itself as an old-school ghost story that builds slowly to a climax, but the methodical pace fails to reward viewer patience with a worthwhile payoff.
Consequently, The Valdemar Legacy winds up feeling like one long back story - almost like the pilot episode of a television series, with subordinate characters introduced not because they will do anything interesting now but because they will show up later in Part 2. The strategy is effective in terms of igniting interest in viewing the sequel, The Valdemar Legacy II: The Forbidden Shadow (La Herencia Valdemar II: La Sombra Prohibida); unfortunately, that film is not available in the U.S. except as an import DVD and as a YouTube rental (in Spanish without subtitles).
Before its abrupt ending, The Valdemar Legacy is a visually impressive exercise in old-school horror; though few Lovecraft elements emerge (expect more in Part 2), the story is an entertaining mashup of familiar tropes and figures, enhanced director Alemán's obvious love for the genre. The makeup and effects work are well crafted, though the computer-generated imagery sometimes reveals its digital origins. Although the script is slow to get anywhere, sympathetic performances help to hold our attention until the third-act séance finally delivers the goods,with hell literally breaking lose.
There is a certain black humor in the notion that the resulting horror not only inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula; it also gave Lizzie Borden a flash of insight on how to deal with her "family problems." These esoteric touches may not draw a wide audience, but fans should get a kick out of seeing a film clearly aimed at viewers with their knowledge base. Fans will also be happy to see that Naschy (a cult figure for his many screen appearances as doomed werewolf Count Waldemar Daninsky) is quite good in a non-scary supporting role as the Valdemar's faithful butler.
If you want to see old-fashioned Gothic horror realized with 21st century craftsmanship, Alemán's exercise in affectionate nostalgia feels less embalmed than Crimson Peak. A pastiche whose familiarity is part of its appeal, The Valdemar Legacy brings its cliches to life with winning enthusiasm, unhindered by any ambition to reinvent the genre. If not for the narrative missteps, it would be a real gem.
Note: The Valdemar Legacy was - but no longer is - available for streaming through Hulu.com. It is still available on YouTube, though misleadingly labeled under La Herencia Valdemar 2. Watch the film here.