Naschy Does Japan: THE BEAST AND THE MAGIC SWORD (1983)
"Unlike the films about Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) which had a certain continuity," points out Paul Naschy in his autobiography, MEMOIRS OF A WOLF MAN, "Waldemar Daninsky can move freely through time and space." While some might view the lack of continuity as evidence of shoddy film-making, this liberation from logic and linearity actually gave Naschy the room to create one of the most dynamic and interesting series of horror films, one originating in the late 1960s with MARK OF THE WOLF MAN and going through the 1990s (or even the new millenium if one chooses to include Fred Olen Ray's TOMB OF THE WEREWOLF, which I don't.) Following the gothic lavishness and visually lush THE NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF (1980), Naschy created what he views as one of his hallmark achievements in THE BEAST AND THE MAGIC SWORD (1983), a film that removes Daninsky from his usual gothic surroundings and places him in 16th-Century Japan. The resulting film truly deserves present-day re-discovery.
In his memoir, Naschy describes how he found inspiration in a Kyoto legend regarding a bandit known as "The Beast." He writes, "The outlaw had murdered a number of people in the forest--in the 16th century Japan still possessed considerable areas of woodland. . . . The legend tells how The Beast was captured and made to take part in a singular combat against a Bengal tiger. The man from the woods won the fight." Incorporated into the film, this legendary encounter results in an excellent set-piece, as in wolfman form, Daninsky takes on bengal tiger within the ghostly mansion of a Japanese witch. Indeed, the Japanese setting of this film does not change the fact that, like other Daninsky films, the world occupied by the wolfman also includes witches, ghosts, vampires, and other otherworldly creatures. Naschy recycled these tropes throughout the series, in many cases repeating many plot elements, but the new cultural lens gives these repititions a sense of freshness and newness they often lack in previous films.
Arguably, one of the pleasures of Naschy's films comes out of how the actor/screenwriter/director finds different ways of telling the same story. In this case, Daninsky's curse spans generations, beginning in when the Polish hero, Irineus Daninsky, vanquishes a seemingly indestructable "vampire" warrior for a Spanish noble. Driven by revenge, the warrior's witchy wife attacks Irineus' pregnant spouse with the skull of a wolf, resulting in the curse that ultimately leads the 16th-Century Waldemar to Japan. Once there, he seeks the aid of Kian, a Japanese expert in the occult and bad-ass swordsman, who must balance his impulse to cure and aid Daninsky with his duty to protect his community. As these things generally go, nothing turns out ideally, but from the stand-point of horror cinema, some terrific sequences result, including the aforementioned tiger scene and another in which the werewolf chews and drools his way through a Kyoto brothel.
The screen-caps here obviously look less than perfect and bear witness to how this film desperately needs a proper restoration. The recent DVD release of NGHT OF THE WEREWOLF by the now defunct BCI succeeded in turning a few heads and helped others see what the rest of us were raving about. As a grander achievement, THE BEAST AND THE MAGIC SWORD deserves similar treatment. Hopefully we won't have to wait much longer.