Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Clonin' the Barbarian: ATOR THE INVINCIBLE (1982)

We got some serious love for a man named Joe D’Amato here at VJ, he was a one of a kind in a country that spawned some seriously amazing genre auteurs. While making rip-offs of STAR WARS (1977) and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) required sets, locations, and special effects, ripping off CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982) could be done for nothing more than some rented animal furs, a few cheap swords and patch of woodland. Throw in some toplessness of both genders and damned if you ain't got an income! This point was proven with authority as a  mere seven months after the premiere of CONAN THE BARBARIAN, ATOR was unleashed upon the world. D'Amato's films tended to be pretty threadbare on the whole, but none so much as what is probably his best known, ATOR. So successfull was this film that it spawned no less than three sequels and actually inspired impoverished filmmakers to make their own Ator wannabes.

As the opening narration tells us, there was an evil High Priest of the Spider who oppressed the land for 1000 years. A great and mighty warrior named Torin rose up to meet the challenge! And failed. Even though he was dead, he bore a son because he “cast his seed upon the wind” (eewww!). We know it’s his son because he has the mark of Torin, or a temporary tattoo that if you squint your eyes really tight kinda looks like it might be a blue eagleish looking thing. The Spider King, who’s hip to all this prophecy stuff, gets word from one of his soldiers that “the earth trembles like a virgin being draw to the nuptial bed” and realizes that this can mean only one thing! He must gather his legions (ok, his couple of dudes), and send them out to kill the child. Hmmmmm… I think I’ve heard this story somewhere before. Is there a manger involved?

A schlub who is clearly a white guy trying to pass as a mongol, named Griba (Emond Purdom, in a wig too cheap for even Amir Shervan), decides he’s going to save the child and takes him to a remote village and gives him to some surrogate parents to bring up as their own in exchange for food, herbs and whatever they want. Years later Ator has grown up, at least physically, and has discovered the proud, masculine tradition of barbarian hairstyling. After being admonished by what appears to be a seriously clingy girlfriend (Ritza Brown) for leaving her alone (to which Ator’s response is the old “I was in the forest” line), they bat their lashes at each other and have this, the film’s most infamous exchange:
Ator: “I love you.”
Sunya: “And I love you. “
Ator: “Why can't we marry?”
Sunya: “Ator, we are brother and sister. “
Ator: “I'll talk with our father.”

Dad tells Ator that he was adopted, which in this case is actually good news! Ator’s enjoyment of his wedding’s interpretive dance troupe is cut short when the Spider Priest decides that his long-time enemy Griba is hanging out there and needs to be killed, pronto. While slaughtering the innocents in their search for Griba, the Spider Priest and his men decide that they might as well kidnap Ator's bride! Big mistake. Now Ator is set forth on the path of revenge. Finally! Oh wait, no... No, now Ator has to learn to fight, or as Griba says “you have learned to fight like a tiger! That is not sufficient. Now it is time to use your heads and fight like a man!” What the hell does that mean?! For one, all those Shaw Brother’s flicks told me that fighting like a tiger was second only to fighting like a dragon, or even a monkey was pretty freakin' badass, for two... oh, never mind. After finally being trained up by Griba in the tiniest cave-dojo ever, Ator sets out to rescue his sist — err, I mean, wife. Finally!

In the first of a series of Herculean quests Ator is captured by a group of hot female warriors who decide to hold a battle to find which one of them gets the opportunity to grapple with his manhood. Hmmm… ya know these "quest" things ain't so bad, come to think of it. The winner, Roon (Sabrina Siani, who went on to star in Fulci’s CONQUEST, or at least her naked torso did), gets all fired up for her hot date and to her dismay is treated to nothing but Ator’s sob story about his love being kidnapped by the evil Spider dude. Annoyed but not about to give up on the only swingin' hammer in the forest, Roon figures at some point he’ll breakdown and use her for more than a shoulder to cry on. She decides to set herself up for disappointment and help him on his quest to stumble bravely in the face of danger.

No sooner than they have set out, they run across a witch (Laura Gemser) who seems to want the same thing (“you will be mine until you have no strength left to gratify me” – gotta love older women) and scarf down a plate of beans so large that you’d expect Slim Pikens to show up at any moment. Did I mention that Ator really isn’t much of a hero? He gets knocked unconscious when his village is being slaughtered, he gets captured by girls and when Roon gravely intones that “now we must pass through the land of the walking dead,” Ator responds “Well… if we gotta go…” Those muscles must be the only thing holding Ator upright, because it sure as hell ain't a backbone!

After fleeing the “walking dead” (a few guys in white face-paint shrouded in mist) by backing into a cave, Ator and Roon must go into the caverns under the volcano where the mystical Shield of Mordor is kept. Roon tells Ator that these are the caverns of the blind warriors who have a highly developed sense of smell, but apparently are also stone deaf as Ator stomps around like a herd of elephants and swings his sword around for no reason whatsoever. In an incredibly inexpensive, but amusingly creative moment, Ator is attacked by a shadow warrior. No, not a ninja. That would have been cool. No, here D’Amato decides that an actual shadow should attack Ator leading to some amusing choreography, or lack thereof with some clashes missing by a country mile even though loud clangs can be heard on the soundtrack. Better still, the shadow is actually winning the battle until it is defeated suddenly when Roon simply obscures the light source, leaving Ator standing there with his sword in his hand looking rather silly. As if that wasn't excitement enough (uhhhh, yeah) the climactic battle has Ator taking on a giant immobile tarantula puppet, that is so cheesy looking that Bill Rebane would look sideways at it.

It’s a much debated topic, but for a director like D’Amato to leave out the sleaze quotient seems a little odd. Sure there’s that distant shot of Siani bathing in a stream, but the film is definitely lacking in the exploitation elements of CONAN as well as it’s plethora of imitators. There are at least two scenes of violence that appear to be cut but other than that the action is completely bloodless. The only really damning evidence is the final death of the spider in which the wound gushing red water is clearly censored as it is cropped off the edge of the screen. This is a fairly common form of video censorship, particularly for films transfered to video in the early '80s. Most prints appear to be from the same source, so perhaps the original elements have been lost, but it’s interesting that as popular and well distributed on video this film has become, nobody has set out to release an uncut, widescreen print of the film on DVD. I guess that part of the prophecy was never written.

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