Thursday, June 26, 2008

CURSE OF THE DEVIL (1973) d. Carlos Aured

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Was there ever a movie monster as compelling as the werewolf? There are so many things to like about lycanthropes and for that reason, time and again they continue to be the hairy heart of horror films. They can tear through a village causing just as much bloody mayhem as a vampire. Like vampires, they have super strength and seem to have the life eternal. While neither is indestructible, they are both pretty damn hard to kill too. Unlike vampires, they can return to their original persona and blend in with decent society for the respite between full moons. Like vampires, there seems to be a suaveness and charm to the hirsute and ever-so-hip wolfman. Unlike vampires, once they’ve sated their bloodlust and the full moon wanes, they can curl up by the fire with a good book or sit by a mere sipping a fine wine. Vampires have to crawl back to their dank cellars and lock themselves inside their musty coffins, perpetuating a mildewy stench that must be impossible to dispel. Carlos Aured’s CURSE OF THE DEVIL is one of the more enjoyable additions to the Werewolf film canon, and with Spain’s urbane Paul Naschy playing the lead role, you know you’re in for a good time.

CURSE OF THE DEVIL is the story of Waldemar Daninsky, the Polish aristocrat who unknowingly stumbles into an age-old curse placed upon his family during the Middle Ages by the Bathorys, whom his ancestor destroyed during the Inquisitions that swept across Europe. Waldemar takes into his castle a young woman found by the roadside and in need of assistance. Little does he know that she is a cleverly concealed trap by which the Curse of the Wolf will be inflicted upon him. After her blood and a wolf skull’s fangs infect him with lycanthropy, Waldemar is cursed to stalk the night in search of blood and flesh to sate his hungers. It is only the love of a young woman named Kinga Wilowa that offers Waldemar any hope of saving his soul and the villagers from further bloody rampages.

If you are looking for an intensely technological examination of the strengths of the new BCI release over the older Anchor Bay disc, you won’t find it here. I will leave that to better versed technophiles like George Reis, who can do a far superior job of analyzing very precise elements of the new dvd. Please read his review of this film and WEREWOLF SHADOW, which I previously reviewed. I would rather turn my lyrical talents towards praising this fine old gem and why I had such a good recent experience.

CURSE OF THE DEVIL has a fairly straightforward story built around a plot structure that Paul Naschy used time and again in his movies. The film starts with scenes from the ancestry of Mr. Naschy’s character, only to jump into the present or the recent past where the main storyline commences. In the case of CURSE, we shift from the height of Medieval times to the 19th Century. After that, with one non-linear plot device exception, the rest of the narrative is fairly standard as Naschy’s character goes through the stages of having the curse inflicted upon him, not understanding his curse, denying the curse, despairing over the curse, facing up to the curse and then meeting his doom. Along the way, he makes friends, finds love, deals with lust, betrays and/or slays friends and finds his fate. Naschy’s penning of the screenplay was not terribly original. What makes this film a lot of fun are all the visual elements that make the story come alive.

Having seen many Paul Naschy films and several of his werewolf performances, this is one of the most engaging. While his chemistry with Kinga, played by Fabiola Falcon, is not as dynamic as say that of Gaby Fuchs in WEREWOLF SHADOW, Naschy’s performance as the werewolf himself was superb. Between the excellent makeup and the infernal majesty of Paul Naschy, the undeniable aura of power and pandemonium that exudes from his wolfman is mesmeric. In addition, we SEE the werewolf often in this story and he slashes his way through the town of Sibelunka with style. Whether it’s leaping from tree tops, running along the castle parapets, soaring over banisters or stalking through the forest undergrowth, CURSE’S werewolf is a constant presence and an indubitable force. As for Naschy’s co-star, while not having beauty of Helga Line in HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB, Fabiola Falcon has a stateliness and purity that radiates from her in such a way as to be a perfect contrast to the benighted Waldemar Daninsky. The rest of the cast give strong supporting performances as either superstition-wracked peasants, Doubting Thomases soon to be slain or fodder for the fangs of the Furry One.

CURSE OF THE DEVIL also looks and sounds good. Set in a spectacular castle surrounded by an idyllic countryside, this film really feels like it takes place in the Carpathians and wasn’t just shot somewhere off the beaten path in Naschy’s native Spain. Special attention was given to interior set props, costuming and camera angles so that every scene is lavish and lovely. When the camera turns to exteriors, whether it is day or night, mood is the focus and the atmosphere is palpable. There are sparkling streams and winsome waterfalls juxtaposed with sylvan glades when the mood needs to be tranquil. When malevolence is required, full moons glare down over formidable castle walls or they illuminate shadowy woods filled with hidden purpose and menace. Add to that a simple but well chosen orchestral score that feels like it was played by a 19th Century ensemble, and there is more than enough to make up for the somewhat predictable storyline.

What also adds to the impact of this film is that you can chose between the English dubbed track and the Castilian audio track. For me, there is never any choice and my enjoyment of this film was immeasurably increased by being able to hear Mr. Naschy’s native language fall upon my ears. While there are times when the Castilian audio track is a little crackly or the sound mix is inconsistent, I’ll take that over English dubbing any day. While Anchor Bay’s original release of CURSE was very well done, they used an English dubbed track that is one of the worst I have ever heard and there is no question those voices ripped pleasure from my soul faster than the hummingbird’s wings could beat. This time, no such larceny took place.

As with WEREWOLF SHADOW, the extras menu is a little thinner than one would hope for, but then again, how many Paul Naschy interviews can there be? In addition to the two audio tracks, there are two trailers, one in Castilian and one in English. There is a sizable stills gallery which has a mix of color and black and white publicity stills, behind the scenes stills, screen grabs and a few examples of poster art. As always, there is the outstanding liner notes booklet by Mirek Lipinski. If you overlook these notes, a fair percentage of your appreciation of this dvd will be lost.

As long as I live, I hope film makers will continue to mine the rich vein that is the werewolf story. While I am intrigued that a new film about The Wolfman starring Benicio Del Toro will soon hit theaters, I would prefer that it is not mainstream Hollywood that provides us with updated fare. Maybe Guillermo Del Toro will make a new werewolf film, or possibly Daniel Myrick. Since werewolves are debonair, effete and charismatic, I would prefer to see people who can bring those same qualities to werewolf films, just as Paul Naschy did throughout most of the 1970s. If you haven’t seen CURSE OF THE DEVIL, treat yourself. If you have seen it, what are you waiting for? See it again as I did, revel in the animal magnetism of The Master, then go out and howl at the moon until your neighbor throws a boot at you.

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