Monday, 12 April 2021

The Beast and the Magic Sword (1983)

The Beast and the Magic Sword (La bestia y la espada mágic) is a 1983 Spanish-Japanese co-production written and directed by Paul Naschy (under the name Jacinto Molina). It was filmed partly in Spain and partly in Japan.

The story begins in the year 938. The Emperor Otto has defeated the Magyars and has thrown their chieftain Bulcho into a dungeon. Otto is afraid to execute the Magyar - the people believe that doing so will unleash a curse. Bulcho must be killed in single combat and only one man can be sure of doing that - Count Irineus Daninsky. The price Daninsky sets for doing this favour is the hand of Otto’s youngest daughter Iswaka in marriage.

Otto’s plan works and Bulcho is destroyed, and Daninsky marries Iswaka. But they don’t live happily ever after.

There’s one thing Otto has failed to account for - Bulcho’s mistress Armesse. Armesse is a powerful witch and she curses not just Daninsky but all his descendants. The Daninskys will be werewolves, hated and feared.

More than six centuries later the Daninskys are still cursed. Waldemar Daninsky, a distant descendant of Irineus, is a werewolf.

Waldemar is a tortured soul. He is aware of his nature and he is aware of the horrors he has perpetrated. He hates himself and he hates his fate. But what can he do? He cannot be killed.

The only man who might be able to help him is Salom Yehuda but that wise old man falls victim to ignorance and superstition. He does however manage to give Waldejmar some hope - in a distant land called Japan in a city named Kyoto there is a sage named Kian who may be able to cure him. Waldemar and his wife along with Salom Yehuda’s blind niece Esther travel to Japan but finding Kian will not be so easy. And Waldemar has already started to spread death and destruction in Japan.

While Kian is being sought by Waldemar Kian, whose wisdom is well-known, has been asked to investigate the recent spate of brutal killings. Kian is not a superstitious man but he has come to believe that the murders have been carried out by a wolf-man. He has even seen this creature. So Kian is looking for Waldemar.

Kian is not sure that he can cure Waldemar but he intends to try, a decision that has fateful consequences.

Paul Naschy was already an established star (and screenwriter) in Spanish horror cinema when he started directing in 1977. He played a wide variety of horror rôles but it was his many portrayals of the tragic werewolf Waldemar Daninsky which made him a cult icon.

Junko Asahina steals the picture as the evil but seductive sorceress Satomi. Junko Asahina had made quite a few Roman Porno movies for Nikkatsu so being seductive was no problem for her. Shigeru Amachi is very good as the troubled Kian.

It’s easy to see why so many Waldemar Daninsky movies were made. He’s a true tragic monster. He is responsible for the deaths of countless innocent people, but is he really responsible? He’s not sure himself. He was a character who lent himself to horror movies with some complexity. And he presents a real challenge. The audience has to be horrified by his evil deeds but still be able to empathise with the good side of him.

Kian is somewhat complex as well, a wise man who fears that he is not wise enough and that he may be making tragic mistakes. Which to some extent is true. He has been presented with an awesomely difficult problem in trying to save the soul of Waldemar Daninsky and his fears that he is out of his depth may be well-founded. Kian is a samurai as well as a sage so he gets to do plenty of action hero stuff as well. A character who is both action hero and sage is an interesting touch in an 80s horror movie.

There are really two heroes, Daninsky and Kian, although Daninsky is obviously both hero and villain. There’s an excellent out-and-out villain, the samurai Eiko Watanabe (Jirô Miyaguchi), a man who has long been jealous of Kian. And of course there’s the deliciously evil villainess Satomi.

There’s some gore but it’s not too over-the-top and there’s some nudity but not very much.

And since it’s set in Japan you may be wondering - are there are going to be ninjas? The answer is yes. There’s even a girl ninja. And as well as the usual werewolf mayhem there are sword fights.

There is some controversy concerning the correct aspect ratio of this film. It was shot open matte but the guys at Mondo Macabro believe that that it was intended to be shown theatrically in the widescreen format. They’ve solved the problem by providing both 4:3 and 16:9 versions on their Blu-Ray release. Being Mondo Macabro they’ve also provided us with plenty of extras including an audio commentary.

This is perhaps the most satisfying and interesting of all Naschy’s horror movies. The Japanese co-production deal was very successful, the film was made mostly with Japanese money and the budget was much higher than he was used to (and the Japanese producers were very supportive). The sets and costumes are quite lavish. Naschy was at his peak as a director - this is a rather polished movie. The meshing of European folklore and Japanese culture works well. The fight scenes are exceptionally well done. There are really two main characters, Daninsky and Kian, and both are interesting and complex. The tragic nature of the werewolf is handled cleverly and Daninsky is one of several characters whose fates have an element of tragedy to them. Unfortunately after this film Naschy’s career went downhill but The Beast and the Magic Sword remains an impressive achievement. Highly recommended.

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