Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Beast and the Magic Sword (1983): or, Samurai Werewolf


One of the wonderful things about becoming a Paul Naschy fan in this day and age is that, once you've realized the bottomless store of cinematic joy Jacinto has on tap, there's just SO much more out there for you to leap into head-first. Naschy was almost as prolific as he was manly, with damn near 100 acting credits and 39 for screenwriting on imdb alone. In the early days of my evangelism this would have been frustrating, since most of those movies are still either out-of-print or were never issued stateside. But now, thanks to the wonders of Technology, there are channels through which the devoted fan can pour his creamy love over even the most obscure entries in the Molina Oeuvre. And that, brothers and sisters, is a Very Good Thing.

Naschy's 1983 effort The Beast and the Magic Sword (La Bestia y la espada mágica) is one of those that saw release in the US, had a short VHS run, and then disappeared into the Iberian Hinterlands and the libraries of collectors. And it's a shame, too; in scope, acting, production values, and sheer horror/fantasy joy, it's one of the most impressive and entertaining Naschy flicks I've ever clapped my eyeballs on. And as all my readers should know by now, that's not a piece of praise I throw around lightly.

A simple three-word phrase should help explain: WEREWOLF VERSUS NINJAS. Let's dive in, shall we?

Note: Please don't let the sub-par quality of the screengrabs scare you. This movie is totally worth it.

"Y'all ready for this?"

Sometime in the early 80s it seems Naschy was approached by some Japanese investors and given the opportunity to make a series of documentaries on the history of Spain for airing on Japanese TV. As part of the deal, he was also able to secure funding for two full-length fiction films, this one and the excellent horror/thriller Human Beasts (recently released by Deimos DVD in an excellent special edition). Never one to let a creative opportunity pass by unexploited, Naschy crafted a script for his tenth entry in the Waldemar Daninsky saga--one which would send his cursed nobleman seeking a cure for his malediction in the wilds of Feudal Japan!

At an hour and fifty minutes, The Beast and the Magic Sword is one of the longer films Naschy produced, and it's wonderful to see him explore the space. We open in war-torn pre-medieval Europe, where the Emperor Otton is having trouble keeping his enemies in check--particularly those pesky Hungarians, who legend has it drink the blood of their vanquished foes and steal their souls. Otton's men have captured the Voivode of the Hungarian army, a massive barbarian named Bulcho who looks almost exactly like Sekkar Khan from Night of the Howling Beast, only without the eczema.

However, even chained in Otton's dungeons Bulcho is dangerous--his mistress Amese is a powerful witch and is still at large, and Otton is hesitant to execute the Voivode for fear of incurring her eternal curse. Bulcho must die fighting--and none of the Emperor's men are brave enough to risk both Bulcho's blade and Amese's magical wrath. To solve this problem, Otton calls in loyal Polish warlord Irenius Daninsky (Naschy, of course, looking AWESOME with his full beard, long hair, and golden circlet) to administer the Trial by Battle. If he wins, Irenius will receive the hand of Otton's daughter Uswika in marrige. Unlike her namesake in Dr. Jekyll meets the Werewolf, this Uswika is a cutie too--therefore, Daninsky agrees.

What is best in life? THIS, pretty much.

Of course Irineus kicks barbarian ASS in the fight (which is excellently choreographed and set-dressed...a real treat), hewing off his foe's head and tossing it at Otton's feet. He claims his bride, and after a few doses of Mighty Molina Manbatter Uswika finds herself pregnant with the Spawn of Awesome. None of this sits well with Amese, of course, who does the expected thing and calls down Satan's wrath on the Daninsky clan (in an *excellent* spell casting scene that pays homage to/steals from The Exorcist). Then, Amese appears before the hugely pregnant Uswika and pronounces her curse: "All the seventh-born sons will be transformed into beasts! The Daninskys will be a race of murderers! Hated and persecuted FOREVER!" Finally, to drive the point home, the witch takes a magic wolf skull and drives it fang-first into Uswika's pregnant belly, infecting her unborn child with lycanthropy before getting shot full of arrows by the royal guards! I don't care where you're from, that's BADASS.

We now fast-forward to Sixteenth-Century Toledo, where nobleman Waldemar Daninsky has drawn the seventh genetic short straw and is desperately seeking a cure for his werewolfism. He and his lady Kinga seek out scholar, alchemist, and persecuted Jew Salom, who along with his blind daughter Ester promises to cure Daninsky if he can. (The two are both members of an international secret fraternity whose members all wear the group's symbol on a necklace--one strikingly similar to the one Col. Sanders wore in Night of the Werewolf.)

But before Salom can complete his research, the local Catholics decide he's a warlock and slave of Satan and must be burned at the stake. (The unearthly howls they hear coming from his workshop on full-moon nights don't help.) Though Naschy fights off several of the anti-semitic authorities in another excellent fight scene (he kills them all in his nightshirt, because THAT'S how awesome he is), Salom is mortally wounded in the scuffle. With his dying breath, the learned Jew tells Waldemar to go to Japan and seek out wise man and fraternity brother Kian, who may be the only person who can free him from his family curse. Homeless and marked for death, Ester joins them on their quest.

Hair and the Dog that Bit You

We now cut to beautiful Feudal Japan, where The General has called a meeting of his fiercest samurai warriors to address a growing problem in the region. It seems that for the past few full-moon nights, villiagers have been found horribly murdered, as if torn apart by some wild beast. While the other warriors boast about how their katanas will make short work of the killer, even-tempered and meticulous Kian (an extremely charismatic Shigeru Amachi) wonders whether mere force of arms will be enough. When Kian's uncle stakes his life on his men's ability to bring in the beast, Kian starts investigating in earnest.

I should say here that despite the apalling video quality of the copy of this film I managed to secure, the top-drawer production values shine through at every turn. The sets in Europe and Japan are marvelous, and the costuming is great in every culture and time-period. Also, Julio Burgos' cinematography under Naschy's direction is very nice, with lots of cool compositions and moody lighting to make our monster feel at home in the Far East.

For instance, on the next night of the full moon we find ourselves in the werewolf's point of view, stalking through the eerily shadowed streets between traditional Japanese buildings for an almost Gothic feel. At the end of an alley we happen upon a brothel, where the silhouettes of jovial men and women move starkly outlined on the rice-paper windows, ignorant of the Hairy Death that stalks them in the dark.

Loves Japanese Food

Their blissful ignorance is short-lived, however, as the werewolf bursts through the flimsy portals in a blur of snarling, furry horror and proceeds to go on one of the most horrific KILL-CRAZY RAMPAGES in the Naschy canon! As the geishas rush around in a booberiffic panic, Naschy rips throats as well as kimonos, tearing huge swaths of human jerky off ho and john alike! Interrupted samurai sex leads to a useless sword-swipe and more naked carnage, and in a matter of moments the House of the Rising Sun is in a shambles, bodies heaped on each other like so much firewood! The frenetic camera work and editing here just makes it that much more exciting.

As the werewolf leaves the scene of destruction, he finds himself face-to-face with Kian, who has been following his tell-tale tracks. The stand-off between the two here is really a great piece of work, as Kian looks fearlessly into the eyes of the beast, which snarls back at him but does not attack, as if sensing the courage and determination of his adversary. Finally the werewolf bounds away, leaving Kian to clean up the bloody brothel-mess.

It doesn't take Kian long to find Waldemar, Kinga, and Ester in the cabin where they're hiding, and the guilt stricken Waldemar quickly shows Kian his medallion and secures his promise to help find the cure. Meanwhile Kinga has heard tell of a witch who lives in the mountains who might be able to help should Kian's alchemy fail. Meanwhile the aforementioned one-eyed samurai has sent ninja spies to keep tabs on Kian's investigation--in case you thought it couldn't get any awesomer.

"HELL YES."

In preparation for the cure Kian takes Waldemar to the thermal baths, where Kian's younger sister makes doe-eyes at the beefy nobleman while massaging his huge, scarred pecs. (Zang.) At this point THE NINJAS ATTACK! Not only ninjas, but FEMALE, TOPLESS NINJAS! Kian again shows his fighting prowess, towel-whipping one ninjette and stabbing another. Waldemar uncharacteristically hangs back and lets Kian do the fighting--I guess he's protecting the dude's nude little sister. Which is nice of him, really.

At this point the movie has really become more Kian's story than Waldemar's, but this is not at all a bad thing. Shigeru Amachi is really wonderful as the rational-minded scholar and samurai, projecting a calmness and authority that is just perfect for the role. His acting is spectacular throughout, whether he's tracking the moon-beast or having a post-bathtime katana duel with his one-eyed rival--another great fight scene, and one that cements Amachi as a charismatic badass worthy of the appellation "The Naschy of Japan."

Do NOT fuck with this man.

No points for guessing that Kian's initial attempt at a cure ends in FAIL, leading to more deaths and Daninksy-depression. Desperate, Kinga seeks out the witch she'd heard of before, who it turns out is a 200 year-old ghost bent on revenge against the samurai who banished her, and who wants to use Naschy as a WMD (werewolf of mass destruction) to make them pay. To make sure she'll get her money's worth, however, the witch locks Waldemar in her dungeon (using a magic silver katana for persuasion), and when he transforms has him fight her champion Serkan--who just so happens to be A FUCKING BENGAL TIGER! It's a werewolf/tiger fight! ZANG! (It was at this point that the needle on my awesome-meter snapped off and imbedded itself in the wall mere inches away from my face, but I was grinning too broadly to care.)

I could gush on and on and on about this movie, but then we'd be here all night--so instead I'll enumerate a few of the remaining awesomenesses in bullet-point form:
  • Kian's nightmare in which he sees Kinga having her belly ripped open by villagers in order to do away with Waldemar's demon seed

  • A rapid and surprising exit for two possible love interests
Yes, Ma'am!
  • Kian briefly considering BRAIN SURGERY to remove the animal part of Waldemar's mind, before deciding instead that the Beast Must Die

  • Wolfed-out Waldemar brazenly attacking an entire battallion of samurai guards and laying UTTER WASTE to them

  • An emotionally affecting scene in which Kian must assist his uncle in committing Hare Kari for his failures

  • Kian's Arthurian quest back to the witch's haunted castle to retrieve the Magic Sword with which Waldemar must be destroyed, and his subsequent epic battle with Onibaba-style demon ghosts

  • The final battle between the werewolf and our hero samurai, with the required tragic results

  • The delicious but sadly unrealized possibility that, thanks to said battle, Kian might now bear La Marca del Hombre Lobo. (I REALLY wanted a Kian Werewolf Saga!)
Easier said than done.

As I said before, the scope and ambition of The Beast and the Magic Sword is truly something special in the Naschy filmography. The mixing of time periods, the mash-up of Japanese and European myth, the competing tragedies of Waldemar's curse and Kian's honorable sacrifice, all just come together gloriously. The acting and the script are both superb (though the subtitles were a little iffy on my copy, the quality still shone through), and Naschy's willingness to stand aside in service of the story pays dividends thanks to Amachi's Naschy-an screen presence and charisma. It totally works as a supernatural fantasy/drama--not much to laugh at here, but plenty to make you stand up and cheer.

I can only hope and pray that the fine folks at BCI/Eclipse/Deimos DVD who put out those fabulous editions of several of Naschy's other great flicks last year will do the same for The Beast and the Magic Sword, because God knows it deserves it. The movie was so fantastic even in the sub-sub-par video-quality version that I watched, I can only imagine the intensity of the geekgasm that a pristine, cleaned-up print would cause. As it is, The Beast and the Magic Sword has climbed the ranks into perhaps my top 3 favorite Naschy films, and needs to be seen by his legions of new fans.

OFF THE THUMB SCALE. If you get a chance to see this one, grab it like the last potsticker. And thank me later.

When Naschy wants head, baby, he GETS IT.


5 comments:

The Flying Maciste Brothers said...

We share your joy for this epic, but don't hold your breath for a BCI/Eclipse disc -- the company is, sadly, no more... Awesome post!

Tenebrous Kate said...

This sounds absolutely astonishing, Vicar! I adore Naschy's approach to fantasy-horror, and this one sounds like it's totally beyond the pale in terms of sheer bang for the genre buck. Must-see stuff for certain. It's a bummer about BCI/Eclipse, but hopefully someone somewhere will hear our pleas for cleaned-up Waldemar goodness.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Macist Bros.: Damn and blast! That is indeed sad news. One thing's for sure: the company did not go out of business for lack of MY money! :( I bought at *least* two copies of Horror Rises from the Tomb...

@Empress: Knowing how our tastes converge when it comes to all things Naschy, I'm confident predicting you will *love* this one. Truly a great one, and deserving of SE treatment.

Ezreal said...

Speaking of Naschy, did you see him briefly pop up on Ghost Hunters a couple weeks ago? They were investigating the castle where he filmed Mark of the Werewolf. They had a brief interview with him talking about screams he heard while filming.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Ezreal--HOLY SHIT--really? I did *not* see that, but I have to track it down now! Wow, that's insane! I can only hope this is the first part of Naschy's plan to take over the US as well as Spain...

Not that I'm Naschy-obsessed or anything.

*glee*

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