Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Hairy Beasts meets Assignment Naschy: La Bestia Y La Espada Mágica (1983)

aka The Beast and the Magic Sword

aka The Werewolf and the Magic Sword

This May the agents of M.O.S.S. throw their collective gaze (warning: may turn anyone into a lesbian vampire) toward everything hairy and beastly: Cerberus, the shirtless Bollywood actor of your choice and more. To stay up to date on our exploits regarding the matter, you can just follow this handy link.

Otto the Great (Gérard Tichy), ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, has beaten the Magyars decisively, but neither he nor his men dare execute their enemies' imprisoned leader for fear of being stricken by a horrible curse. The only curse-free solution would be a duel to the death, but nobody seems to be able to beat the Magyar in a fair fight. Only the Polish nobleman Irineus Daninsky (of course Paul Naschy, wearing such a frightening wig and false beard that this alone would qualify the movie for the Hairy Beasts month) dares risk his life in this way anymore. The Poles price for his heroic attempt at duelling is the hand of Otto's disturbingly young looking daughter, but hey, it's the early middle ages.

Irineus kills the Magyar in a hard-won fight, gets the hand and love (repeat after me: all women want Paul Naschy, even when he has hair on his head and in his face that makes him look like bigfoot) of the emperor's daughter, and everyone could live happily ever after, if not for the Magyar's witch wife, who some months later appears and pokes Daninsky's pregnant wife in the belly with a wolf's skull, cursing all future generations of the family with lycanthropy.

Half a millennium later, at the end of the 16th Century, the curse is still up and running, and Irineus's descendant Waldemar (also Paul Naschy, though with not quite as terrifying hair) appears with his "companion" (yeah, I don't know either) Kinga (Beatriz Escudero) at the home of enlightened Jewish alchemist, physician and wise man Salom Jehuda (Conrado San Martín), hoping the sage will be able to find a cure for the curse that's haunting him.

Alas, before Jehuda is able to help Waldemar (something he isn't even sure is possible), antisemitism and witchcraft fear strike, and some masked asshats murder the old man, only to be summarily dispatched afterwards by Waldemar's superior fighting skills. Jehuda has just long enough to live to ask Wally to take in his blind daughter Esther (Violeta Cela) - already in love with Waldemar like every woman in the world ever - and to send Wally and his harem on their way to the next enlightened man of science who just might be able to help: a man named Kian (Shigeru Amachi), living and working in Kyoto.

Next thing we know is that Kyoto is stricken by a series of bestial killings which always occur during the time of the full moon, for Waldemar isn't able to find Kian as easily as he hoped and now spends his time not doing anything to restrain his wolfman alter ego and moping about it afterwards like all Waldemar Daninskys do, the pricks.

Ironically, Kian is one of the people tasked with hunting down whatever and whoever is killing its way through town and country. It takes some time for the universally educated - he knows his Japanese culture but also Greek mythology, European werewolf myths and even talks about brain surgery later on - man to believe in something as ridiculous as a werewolf, but once he stares down Wolfman-shape Wally after a bordello massacre, there's no disbelieving for him. After the encounter, Kian doesn't need much time to find the Pole.

For inexplicable reasons, Kian then decides to find a cure for Waldemar instead of killing him outright, but, as it went for Jehuda, his attempts at finding a cure lead him nowhere. But hey, at least Kian's younger sister Akane (Yoko Fuji) becomes another woman who falls for fattening Paul Naschy's scriptwriting-induced charms, because Japan means "harem manga", right?

Things become even more difficult for Kian thanks to a would-be Jubei Yagyu (just look at the guy and his ninjas and don't tell me that's not what he's supposed to be even if he wears a different name) and his lust for vengeance for nothing in particular, and an evil sorceress (Junko Asahina) who - as women not falling under the Wally's spell always do - wants the wolfman as her new pet monster. The only question is which of the three girls lusting after Naschy's paunch will survive the film to kill him in the end.

Say what you will about Paul Naschy, but the man was as driven a filmmaker as anyone you could name, the kind of guy I wouldn't at all be surprised to find using something like Kickstarter for a financial infusion if he were still alive. As it stands, fanfunding was not in the cards during the early 80s, but even so, Naschy was not the kind guy who'd let himself be discouraged by lack of funding for his (perhaps unwise and dubious, yet also awesome) visions. If making a movie meant going outside of his native Spain and cooperating with Japanese producers, then Naschy would do that.

Naschy, never lacking in ambition and imagination, clearly wasn't content with just taking the Japanese money and running. His vision was obviously grander, and if he was working in Japan, then why not make a film taking place in Japan that was not just another of his Daninsky wolfman films but also at least in part a chambara?

Now, before any of my readers start dreaming about the awesome possibilities of a Naschy horror movie at its most dream-like crossed with the insane possibilities of Japanese exploitation, be advised that neither Naschy nor the Japanese genre film industry was at the height of power at this stage of their respective existences, so the ideas of La Bestia's incredible awesomeness you might possible have will have to be adjusted to a much more modest level.

For alas, this is one of those Naschy movies that - especially in its first half - does feature many more scenes of people telling each other the plot than scenes of said plot actually happening. While the European parts of the film may sound a lot like a medieval legend, their execution is rather bland and non-committal, with the more exciting moments sandwiched between many scenes of two guys in bad medieval costumes sitting stiffly in front of a nailed-down camera. It's clearly a budgetary problem this time around, for whenever things actually do happen, they are rather exciting.

Once we have arrived in Japan, there are still more "tell, don't show" moments to come, but the scenes of excitement and interest are getting quite a bit more numerous. Some of the action scenes are particularly good, with Naschy (surprisingly, when you keep in mind we are talking about a guy who writes himself as irresistible to all women in his scripts, though the Japanese producers may have had a hand in this for all I know) often stepping down and leaving room for Shigeru Amachi to kick ninja ass in not exactly inspired yet well-done scenes that have a lot more in common with action in Japanese films than those in Spanish ones, leaving me with the question which Japanese director was responsible for these scenes.

Even later in the film, once Waldemar visits the witch, even the irrational, dream-like mood one hopes for in a Naschy movie makes a late appearance and doesn't leave the film afterwards, as if it, once conjured up, were impossible to dispel again. The film's highpoint in this regard is clearly Shigeru Amachi's fight against a group of oni that's all moodily artificial light and strangeness.

La Bestia features other elements I found remarkable, like the fact that some of its true heroes are an elderly Jew and his daughter - both realized without much racial stereotyping - and a scientifically minded samurai, with the film using an exploitation film version of their respective cultures, yet clearly treating them and these cultures with a respect you don't generally find in exploitation films; as if the enlightened humanism these characters believe in would take over Naschy's often not quite as enlightened world view by their mere presence. A nice addition to that is a scene in which the sorceress (of all people) scolds Waldemar for being an egotist, not giving a damn for the people he kills during his wolfman escapades, and quite in love with his own tragic whining. Plus, there's a pretty dangerous looking scene of Naschy wrestling a tiger.

As it is often the case with Naschy's films, all the great moments and clever details don't really come together to make the great whole the director/writer/producer/star had already proven he could create if given the opportunity, but they're more than enough to make La Bestia Y La Espada Mágica a film worth watching. The trick, as always, is to treat every moment that works and every idea that succeeds as a moment where Naschy (the tragic and slightly unsympathetic hero even behind the camera) triumphs over the circumstances within and without that hold him back, and just live with the film's failures.


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