Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Curse of the Devil (1973): or, the Werewolf Worries the Witches

The morning dew dampened the footfalls of of the knight's mighty steed, its barding shining in the newly risen sun. A stamp of its foot and a metallic shake of its head gave notice to the rider that it, too, shared his impatience. Across the field, the Black One sat his horse like a demonic crusader, his dread mace seeming to drink the little sunlight that made its way down to him. The air stood still, nature seemed to hold its collective breath; no crow cawed, no insect strummed. With an unholy cry, the Black Knight shot across the field in a flurry of hoof-beats, his night-mare tearing great divots from the earth. Waldemar kicked his spurs in return, launching forward, baring his teeth in a silent grin, sure of his victory over evil... from Waldemar: Portrait of a God by the Duke of DVD.

So opens the 1973 Naschy opus El Retorno de Walpurgis, aka Curse of the Devil. Waldemar Daninsky has come unstuck in time, and is now an armored witch hunter and defender of the Church, sallying forth to fight the covens and black knights in Satan's service who were apparently rampant in medieval Spain. After a truly epic battle with the Black Knight, whose constant cries to Satan for aid cannot save him from Waldemar's wicked biting blade (Waldemar, the definition of badassery, taunts the evil knight with such banter as "I'll be your exorcist--not with a cross, but with a sword!"), the not-so-gentle Good Knight Daninsky rides to the knight's castle where a bevy of witches waits in the Chapel of Evil. He strides in majestically, throws a gauntleted hand in their direction, and growls "I'll see you bitches in CHAINS!" You know this is one Inquisitor who is NOT screwing around.

"Chains, do you hear me? CHAINS!"

After dangling the associate coven members from the castle drawbridge in a visually stunning scene, Waldy the Witch Hunter prepares to immolate their leader in the usual fashion. Unfortunately but also as usual, he immolates too late and allows the witch ample time to curse his ancestors from the pyre before making an ash of herself. If I ever burn a witch, you can bet your ass I'm going to slap a gag on that chick. My grandkids will thank me.

Flash-forward a couple of generations and we find Waldemar Daninsky the Younger hunting on his vast ancestral estate. Possibly the quarry is quail or pheasant, but as luck would have it Waldemar bags a werewolf. How he's able to kill the beast with standard bird shot (and in broad daylight) is not explained, but before you can question it we learn that the lycanthrope was one of those dirty, thieving gypsies who have long been the bane of the Daninskys' existence.

Not ones to take a kin-killing lying down, the gypsies refuse the remorse-ridden Waldemar's offer of recompense and instead hold a Black Mass. Satan appears wearing a mo-cap suit of the darkest black, and one of the young gypsy girls sheds her gossamer gown to couple with the Devil in a most vile and arousing scene. Then this bride of Satan is off to the Daninsky estate to visit upon our hapless hero THE CURSE OF THE DEVIL!

The scene wherein Waldemar is afflicted with werewolfery here is doubtless one of the most visually interesting of the sort I've seen. Using her feminine wiles to seduce the lord of the manor, the girl sneaks out while he's asleep to retrieve the bleached skull of a wolf. Returning to the bedchamber, she uses the skull to wound Waldemar on the chest, thus condemning him to change at the next full moon. It's gorgeously done, wonderfully weird, and really a high point in a movie chock full of them.

Waldemar gets a little head.

Having accomplished her mission the gypsy girl flees into the night, her translucent gown billowing behind her in the moonlight. (Zang.) But both she and we have a surprise in store for us, as from out of nowhere a crazed killer leaps out from behind a tree and buries an axe in her chest! Not since The Shining have I been so gobsmacked by an axe attack. Having been brought to eternal justice for her crime, the gypsy girl expires.

Of course the wheels are set in motion now for a wondefully tense third act, as Waldemar wolfs out and the crazed killer remains on the loose, so that Waldy's heinous acts of villager-slaughter are assumed to be the work of the (other) lunatic. Meanwhile a wealthy foreigner's two daughters have appeared on the scene and both have eyes for Lord Daninsky. While the younger girl is more worldly-wise and more agressive, it's the elder redhead who steals Waldemar's heart. Not to be outdone, however, the little sister lures Daninsky to a woodland hunting shack and kicks into high-seduction gear. "I came here a virgin," she says, once her ruse is discovered, "but I'm NOT going to leave that way!" Milady, with Naschy around, you needn't worry.

Unfortunately the foolish girl has chosen the night of the full moon as the evening of her deflowerment, which climaxes both literally and figuratively with Waldemar wolfing out and taking more than her maidenhead. So sad, a youthful flower plucked before she fully bloomed! And by plucked, I mean "had her throat ripped out."

"Why do my dates ALWAYS end this way?"

Waldemar is guilt-ridden as usual, desperately seeking a way out of his curse--and of course the only way out is for his true love to kill him. But before that happens we get lots of other great stuff, including an angry, torch-bearing mob hanging Waldemar's hired man for imagined crimes (Ah, those torch-bearing villagers, God bless 'em--always out there, burning witches at the stake, hunting werewolves, hanging people. Where would we be without 'em?), a gruesome end for our serial-killing red herring, a wonderful "The End...OR IS IT?" finale, and plenty more.

But perhaps the piece de resistance is THE SINGLE MOST ASTONISHING LEAP ATTACK EVER COMMITTED TO FILM, as a wolfed-out Waldy performs a picture perfect SOMERSAULT off a stairway landing to come crashing down on a hapless blind old woman below! Talk about death from above! The beauty, the horror, the Naschy! It brings a tear to one's eye.

I have a lot of fun watching Naschy for the "cheer for him, laugh with him" nature of some of his crazy monster mashes, but Curse of the Devil is one that's NOT so bad it's good--this one is so GOOD it's good. One thing that really amazed me and set this apart from some of the other Naschy flicks was the cinematography and the sets. Now the cinematographers who worked on Paul's films seemed always to have at least a few good shots in them, but they were often mixed up with lots of boring or outright inept ones. Not so here. Director Carlos Aured, who worked with Naschy on such other horror classics as The Mummy's Revenge, Horror Rises from the Tomb, and House of Psychotic Women, here gets some truly STUNNING mise en scenes, really wonderful shots, such as when the gypsies are leaving Waldy's castle: a low-angle shot of them coming across the drawbridge with the majestic ruined castle lit very eerily in the background. Also some of the nature scenes on Waldemar's property as he courts his love are just gorgeous stuff. The lighting and set design in the black mass and other scenes were superb and beautiful, and that castle set--I wonder where they got it, because it was just perfect. Just a beautiful film to look at, and the pristine Anchor Bay transfer helps loads.

If you want to get into Naschy but aren't sure about tackling some of his goofier fare, Curse of the Devil is a great place to start. One of his most visually accomplished and narratively cohesive flicks, that still retains that patented Naschy charm. 6 Thumbs, and more if you can find 'em. See it, or I'll see you in chains, bitch!

PS--I stole these images from I hope they don't mind.

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