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Monday, February 8, 2010

The Beast & the Magic Sword (1983) review


Paul Naschy (Waldemar Daninsky/Irineus Daninsky), Shigeru Amachi (Kian)

Directed and written by Jacinto Molina (Paul Naschy)

***WARNING! This review contains pics of nudity***

Irineus (left) and Otton (Gerard Tichy; right) drink to the impending death of Bulko

In Medieval Middle Europe, Emperor Otton has captured Bulko, a vicious barbarian, the leader of an opposing army. Fearing retaliation by Bulko's concubine, a powerful witch named Amese, Otton opts to have the warrior fight to the death with one of his brave soldiers. Only Irineus Daninsky steps forward. He successfully slays Bulko but incurs the wrath of Amese in the process. Cursing the Daninsky name for generations by way of a supernatural wolf skull, she is summarily shot down by Otto's men.

Waldemar and Kian duel to the death to save the doomed wolfman's soul

Years later in Spain, the seventh son of the Daninsky lineage suffers from lycanthropy, the curse of Amese. Learning of a Hebrew magician named Salom Jehuda, Waldemar seeks him out. With the ability to cure his sickness, Waldemar's hope for a remedy is ruined when a group of inquisitors kill the old man for sorcery. Daninsky fights them off in time for the dying alchemist to instruct him to journey to Japan to find another disciple belonging to their order. This man, Kian, a Japanese samurai, possesses the skills needed to lift the werewolf curse. The search is on to obtain a magical katana which can lift the curse of Amese and free Daninsky's soul forever.

Paul Naschy takes his famed character, the doomed romantic, Waldemar Daninsky to Japan for this tenth lycanthropic adventure. Adventure is an applicable term here as the film jumps time periods twice during the first 20 minutes before shifting its location to Japan for the duration of the movie. A bit overlong at 109 minutes, the film is quite possibly the most lavish production the Spanish horror star ever mounted. It's definitely the most entertaining.

As he would often do, Naschy not only stars in, but also writes and directs this picture. He does a better job than many of the more esteemed directors he was often assigned to work for. Naschy's script is epic in scope and it comes across admirably on screen. Considering this was a co-production between Amachi and Aconito Films, the opportunity for a bigger budget is dutifully taken advantage of.

Waldemar the werewolf battles the female demon and her warriors

A few years prior to this film being made, Naschy was approached by a Japanese production company to produce a lengthy series of documentaries about European heritage. After shooting a large number of these as well as appearing in some Japanese television programs, the ambitious filmmaking personality was then attached to a series of films supported with Japanese financing. The first of these being EL CARNAVAL DE LAS BESTIAS (HUMAN BEASTS) in 1980. THE BEAST & THE MAGIC SWORD soon followed with the shooting taking place at Toshiro Mifune's film studios.

For those that might think a European werewolf situated in Feudal Japan a bizarre combination, it's not unusual at all considering Japan has its own regional legends dealing with shapeshifters that have formed the basis for a number of manga's and several films as well. Sonny Chiba starred in one called WOLFGUY: ENRAGED LYCANTHROPE (1975) and the more recent KIBAKICHI movies are examples. The look of Daninsky changed slightly from film to film, but never quite as different as he's seen here. The Japanese financiers wanted a more Nipponese look to the wolfman character. Make up artist, Fernando Florido came up with a creation using a Japanese engraving as a template.

While it's a little slow for the first 30 to 40 minutes, the action comes fast and thick once the setting shifts to Kyoto. From that point on the script wildly throws a menagerie of fantastical elements at the viewer making good use of the unusually long running time. This Naschy film has everything and then some. There's witches, black magic, monsters, swordfights, topless female ninja assassins, magical weapons and some stunning sets and cinematography.

Naschy feverishly studied Japanese black magic folklore to lend his script some added credibility. To his surprise, the Japanese producers wanted the film to be shot as it was scripted. Authentic 16th century accouterments were specially created for this picture from the buildings down to the wardrobe. Although the film was a rather spectacular undertaking, it wasn't a completely smooth shoot for director Naschy. He had occasional troubles with some of the Japanese cast and crew who found it difficult to fathom an outsider shooting a film built around Japanese culture and ancient legends.

Kian attempts to cure Daninsky of his cursed ailment

Even with the deck stacked against him in this curious Asian-European horror/fantasy extravaganza, Naschy does a marvelous job at the helm. His efforts were well rewarded when, after the first screening, acclaimed director, Akira Kurosawa, shook his hand and congratulated the nervous Naschy on capturing the time period and essence of Japanese cinema.

Kian is attacked in the bath by multiple assailants

There are a number of great sequences in THE BEAST & THE MAGIC SWORD (1983) that easily makes this the most action packed entry in the Spanish icon's long list of credits. One scene occurs in an outside bath where a topless female assassin attempt to snuff out Kian. When she fails, a group of ninjas appear and attempt to cut Kian down. This action scene is well executed as are the others featured throughout the film. The characters of Waldemar and Kian get pretty much equal screen time once the action movies to the Kyoto setting.

The incredible wolf vs. tiger scene

When Kian's efforts fail to cure Daninsky, his sister, Kinga, seeks the aid of an old witch high up in the mountains. It turns out that this woman is a centuries old ghost who has no intention of curing the foreigner, but instead to use him as an instrument of her revenge. This leads to an incredible sequence where Waldemar battles a tiger in a dungeon. What makes this scene thoroughly jaw dropping is that there are no close ups with a fake tiger and long shots of a sedated animal in a "death struggle" with a stuntman. It's a full on duel between man-beast and beast. It's one of the most impressive sequences of its kind and a testament to the animal trainer willing to get down and dirty with a Bengal tiger. Naschy states in his memoirs that the animal was fed 25 chickens before shooting this scene in an effort to keep it from eating both him and its trainer.

Daninsky patronizes a brothel and gets a little too carried away

Another scene of interest sees our hairy hero bust into a brothel and lay waste to everyone inside. The exploitation element is on display here as the wolfman enjoys ripping away the women's clothes before biting them in the neck. More scenes of Waldemar the werewolf taking out whole squads of samurai and female assassins follow in quick succession.

Kian returns to the haunted castle to lay claim to the magic sword

Then it's back to Kian again who has decided to make a trek to the old witch's haunted castle to retrieve a magical katana that will stop the werewolf once and for all. This sword fight inside the demon sorceress's abode is the best one in the film and is on a par with most chambara swordfests. Actor, Shigeru Amachi was notable for appearing in a lot of prestigious Japanese genre films such as THE GHOST OF YOTSUYA (1959) and several long running film series' such as ZATOICHI, SHINOBI NO MONO and NEMURI. He's quite good to watch on screen and often steals the film away from Naschy. He even sings one of two Japanese songs heard during the film.

With all this action, the film is further complimented by a striking amount of Gothic sets and ambiance that permeates so much of the movie. It's glaringly obvious that Naschy gave an inordinate amount of care to this production and it stands as a major highpoint in the man's career. It's not without some minor flaws, though. There's very little gore here save for a decapitation and the graphic aftermath of a torn out throat. The fantasy and fight elements take precedence over the bloody bits.

Waldemar fights against a cadre of samurai soldiers

Naschy continued on with a couple more entries in his Daninsky series, but it should have ended right here. This was the perfect send off for his most famous creation. This Spanish DVD presentation (one of the key contributors being Naschy's son, Sergio) lovingly restores this film to a standard never before seen.

Sadly, there are no English options whatsoever. A 70 minute interview with Naschy covering eight of his films recently released to Spanish DVD (including INQUISITION and VENGEANCE OF THE MUMMY) is also lacking English subtitles. Still, the film isn't too difficult to follow and this movie and disc is highly recommended to serious fans of the extraordinary Spanish actor, writer and director, the late Paul Naschy.

This review is representative of the Spanish Vellavision/Resen all region PAL DVD


J. Astro said...

Like you mentioned near the end there, the picture quality is reeeeally something here, especially for a Naschy flick. Great screen caps!

venoms5 said...

J, I can safely say this was $34 well spent. INQUISITION is looking good, too, so far. I'm really anxious to see EL CAMINANTE. I'm saving it for last. In that one, Naschy plays the Devil who wanders about making trouble for mankind.

Carl (ILHM) said...

I was going to say the same, that is one of the best Naschy transfers I have ever seen! Man I cant say Im not jealous here V, I have been wanting to see this one for quite some time and the review only sparked infinitely more interest! Someday, someday..

As you mentioned, I was really impressed with the attention to the period in the set design and costuming, looks great! I also like that hombre lobo's appearence shifts ever so slightly between the films.

venoms5 said...

This one really took me by surprise. Someone I know had a bad quality bootleg of it some years ago. Only saw a bit of it then. Seeing it now and cleaned up, it's a totally different experience. I don't know if it's because I'm a kung fu nut, or what, but this was the best film I've seen the man in so far.

Carl (ILHM) said...

I wonder if a clean version of FURY OF THE WOLFMAN would have the same affect?

venoms5 said...

There is a new Spanish DVD for it, too. It's 81 minutes long in PAL. That would make it around 85 minutes in NTSC speed. I never cared for that one, but a restored version MIGHT make it a less agonizing experience. It's a shame, though, that his second Wolfman movie no longer exists.

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