Lycanthropy April - The Beast and the Magic Sword
In going through my backlog of movies for review here on the site, it’s become pretty apparent that a lot of them can be broken down into groups and so…provided my attention span can keep up with it…[Easier said than done. Whatever happened to the last two entries of the Romero-zombie-thon you were doing? – Ed.] okay, we’ll be TRYING to do some theme months around here. For the first of these, well, I noticed that I had at least 8 werewolf movies in the stack (I keep finding more) so, without further ado…
Welcome to Lycanthropy April!
For our first entry, I figured there was really only one way to do it. No, not with the Lon Cheney Jr. original…and while I gotta admit I’m tempted to do a second look at the Benicio del Toro/Anthony Hopkins film as I feel it gets more hate than it deserves…nah. Not right now. Instead, it was time to fix a hole in my own movie knowledge and that is the Hombre Lobo films of Paul Naschy.
Born Jacinto Molina Alvarez, Paul Naschy was a weightlifter before turning to acting. I point this out first because, seriously, the instant you lay eyes on him this is pretty apparent. BUT…and that’s a huge but there, do NOT think of this in terms of Schwarzenegger…no, we’re talking like Olympic power lifters: short, squat and dense. The best way I can describe it is with the old saying ‘built like a brick shithouse’. While he would play practically every classic monster that one could think of (Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Hunchback, Dr. Fu Manchu) he had a particular affinity for the Wolfman and thus would star in 11 films dedicated to the creature…writing 8 of them. [Actually, there are rumors of a twelfth, the second of the series ‘Nights of the Wolfman’, but it is considered to be lost. – Ed.] Now, for the Naschy neophyte, such as myself…this series ends up being a tough nut to crack. Thankfully, no, there isn’t much in the way of continuity. All stories deal with a Polish Count Waldemar Daninsky…but even how he gets this curse varies from movie to movie. Instead, the problems arise from two problems: first, some of the discs are out of print making the films difficult to find and second, these films were released under various titles thus also making the films difficult to find! Modern releases and third party distributors such as Shout Factory and Mondo Macabre are starting to bring these titles back to the forefront…and good on ‘em for doing so.
For my first foray into this series, I had to start with The Beast and the Magic Sword…and you’ll see why from the plot. Cursed generations ago, Count Valdemar Daninsky travels to feudal Japan to find a samurai nobleman who belongs to a secret brotherhood of scientists and scholars and may be able to provide the cure that Daninsky seeks to finally cure him of his lycanthropy.
Now, as I said before, the origins for Daninsky’s affliction are generally different in each of the films…so the wiki tells me. In this instance, he himself is never bitten…but instead when an ancestor of his kills the leader of an army of invaders at the behest of his emperor, the newly-widowed queen curses the bloodline by puncturing the womb of said ancestor’s pregnant wife with the skull of a wolf. But it’s not that immediate child that gets the curse…it’s the seventh son that is born under the full moon. Okay, so maybe it was that son…but we’re never really explicitly told and, the way the film jumps forward in time, we’re led to believe that it feels like ‘seventh son’ was more of a ‘seven generations later’ sort of thing. Who knew curses had time delays?
Even though each origin is different, in each Daninsky werewolf movie, the cure is always the same: silver through the heart. But it just can’t be anyone…oh no. If it’s just anyone, once the silver is removed, Daninsky is revived. No, in order for release from his tortured existence and for those movie credits to roll…the death blow has to be administered by someone that loves him. And given that Daninsky, in spite of his looks, is written to be a suave, James Bond type…rest assured, there’s never a shortage. Heck, we start this film with two candidates his wife Kinga (who makes me want to apologize to the revamp of MST3K for naming Felicia Day’s character that) and his newly adopted blind girl Esther. He got Esther while visiting a Jewish member of this aforementioned brotherhood of scientists and scholars who was stabbed by vigilantes at the behest of the Inquisition for wanting to help Waldemar.
Let me just stop myself there. I making this film sound complicated…but it really isn’t. It’s very simple: Do you like werewolves, samurai, ninjas, scantily clad sorceresses, cheap gore effects (like that very bright 70s blood) and movies that look for any way to get a female character’s top off? Then yeah, this one’s for you. Sure, we’ve got some story here but just when you get tired of reading the subtitles, that’s when the fights kick in. And to fulfill the last part of my earlier question, yes, one of those fights takes place in a brothel. Oh, and yes, you’ll be reading subtitles thanks to Mondo Macabre’s recent blu-ray release…which is of pretty darn good quality. Honestly, I was planning to review this movie anyway with a Spanish DVD I grabbed off of Amazon.es that didn’t have English subs…but with the new blu-ray release, I actually had an idea as to what was going on.
This leads me to what might be considered a failing of the movie…I don’t particularly think so though. You see, this was made in 1981…but it feels so much more like a product of the 60s or 70s. Looking back, one might presume to say ‘well, this was a conscious choice to keep the look of all the films in the series similar’…but anyone familiar with this kind of cinema knows that any thought like that is total bullshit. Sure, this was a co-production between Spain and Japan…but, well, when you look at the Godzilla films that were released during this era [Yeah, there weren’t any. – Ed.]...sigh, fine maybe Gamera? [Kind of a stretch, but I’ll allow it. – Ed.] Neither country had yet rounded the corner the way Hollywood had thanks to the explosion of effects films in the late 70s…and it shows. So yeah, if you’re expecting an American Werewolf in London type transformation scene [That’s another movie for the pile, by the way. – Ed.], that’s not gonna be here. And that’s fine, because our werewolf looks more like the one from the Universal classics anyway. In that regard and in that context, the retro vibe here works well.
Lastly, I wanted to point out what drew me to this particular series. You see, part of the tragedy of Waldemar Daninsky is the wandering. Although a Polish count, just in this movie alone we see him go from Poland to Spain and then to Japan. All he needs is a plaid shirt, a jeans jacket and a pair of bellbottoms…and you can queue up that Lonely Man piano solo, can’t ya? While I’m certain that Kenneth Johnson’s reinterpretation of the Hulk for American television owe little, if anything, to the blighted Polish count…well, I just can’t but wonder if it does and Johnson’s just too much of a douche to admit it.
Although The Beast and the Magic Sword takes place toward the end of the Waldemar Daninsky films and sure, it might be more retro than what its 1981 release date might suggest, but if you’re looking for the fabled Three Bees (Blood, Breasts and Beasts), you’ll find them all here. Again, if I don’t have your attention after saying “Werewolf vs. samurai, ninjas and scantily-clad sorceresses”, then this movie isn’t for you. However, if your eyes just lit up, this movie lives up to that very simple premise and by the time the credits roll, you won’t be disappointed. It’s by no stretch perfect, but damn is it fun!