Thursday, March 10, 2011

Clonin' the Barbarian: ATOR THE IRON WARRIOR (1987)

Ever have one of those nights where you are soaked in sweat from a fever dream brought on by spicy sausages and sharp cheese in which you were a warrior with a strangely feminine hair cut who is pursuing a red-haired witch and is in turn being perused by Gary Gygax's vision of Darth Vader while everything feels like a Duran Duran video? No? Yeah, well, I haven't either, but I'm certain that Alfonso Brescia did!

The film opens with a pair of twin kids who look like they are dressed up to reenact memorable moments from a Godfrey Ho ninja flick. As young Ator and Trogar are playing ball among stone pillars a red-haired witch appears, grabs Trogar and vanishes. The witch, Phoedra (Elisabeth Kaza) is tried and convicted of treason against the king in a courtroom that consists of giant blue faces of the judges and a witness box that is made up of a red, perpetually moving hula hoop. Hmmmm... Why is it that while watching this I always get the strangest feeling that Marlon Brando should be in here somewhere. I know, weird, huh? Since she will not give up the kid to lessen her sentence, she is convicted to be banished for exactly 18 years.

After returning from her 18 year banishment, Phoedra reveals what she has been doing all that time; turning Trogar into a black-clad, silver skull masked, heavy breathing badass! With a scarf. Hey, he might catch a chill or something. Phoedra, still pissed at the king, floats into the palace on Princess Janna's (Savina Gersak) 18th birthday bearing a gift of Ator and Trogar's ball and curses the Princess to fall in love with the owner of the ball. Of course this is just setting the stage for the arrival of Trogar who proceeds to slaughter the birthday participants in slow motion. As if putting them all to the sword wasn't good enough, Brescia decides that Trogar can use the forc - err, I mean, he can use telekinesis, to rip spears off of walls and out of hands and send them flying across the room to impale the king like a pin-cushion.

As much as his backstory has changed, some things have stayed the same. The laconic Ator still has a way with words, as in this exchange which follows a statement of intent to exact retribution on Phoedra and Trogar:
Princess Janna: "What if they kill you?"
Ator: "Then I die."
Obviously Ator's deep philosophizing remains unaltered by time and Brescia's pen.

Meanwhile Ator has spent his time engaged in practicing new hairstyling techniques and now sports a... is that a French braid with a tail? And a single ear-ring that looks like it came from the local Ye Olde Headshoppe? Who's got two thumbs and is ready to raawwk? This guy! And what do guys who are ready to raawwk do? Rescue bare-breasted maidens! Hells yes, that's what I'm talkin' about! While rescuing the topless hottie from some rather Arabic-looking scallywags, Ator leads her across a chasm that is connected by a bridge made of rope and wooden slats. Halfway down they find themselves trapped in the middle and yes, that's right the bad-guys cut the bridge ropes and Ator and the princess swing on the severed end, slamming into the cliffside. Where have I seen that before? Oh, yeah, NATE AND HAYES (1983). Indiana who? Come on now, you know that INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984) completely plagiarized that iconic scene from the lesser known and possibly, *ahem*, less successful adventure film NATE AND HAYES. You remember that flick, right? Back when Tommy Lee Jones was just a B-movie actor with a unibrow and he starred alongside that kid from CADDYSHACK who proved that the only reason he was any good in that is because he was playing the straight man to top comic talent.

Matter of fact, Brescia pays homage (that's what fucking Quentin fucking Tarantio fucking calls it in his "work", so it fucking applies for fucking Brescia too, goddammit) to RAIDERS with a scene in which Ator and Janna are chased through caverns by giant boulders, which would be in itself good enough to recommend giving this flick a spin, but there is so much more. Some scenes are just plain freakin' weird for absolutely no reason whatsoever. At one point Ator must scare off a group of midgets who look like they came over from the set of one of the PHANTASM movies to stand around in a circle while banging rocks together as the princess is spread-eagled on an altar with a sword balances on its point on her throat. Of course this is all an illusion, but damn it's an elaborate one. If you are going to trap someone who is trying to rescue a girl, why not just have the girl sitting there? Do we really need midget monks banging rocks? I guess we do.

Other memorable moments include a sequence where Ator must obtain the Golden Chest of the Ancients which looks like Pinhead's personal cigar box. After arriving at the temple, Ator finds the chest on a cylindrical chantry and hesitantly moves in to steal it. when he finally clutches it, the whole temple starts to shake and he must run out ducking debris. It's nice to see that Brescia loves RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK as much as we do, except Brescia is going to do it one better! Not only does the temple start collapsing, but it sets off a puff of gunpowder from a hide-a-key sitting in a swimming pool. I mean, a volcano. Yep, that's what I meant. Volcano. Oh, and what does the box actually do, I hear you ask? Well, if you throw it at the ground it'll encase someone in ice. Ummmm... yep, that's what it does!

Let me nail my colors to the mast here. I love this flick. Not so much because it's bad like other Brescia films, but because it's completely off in its own little world. Sure BEAST IN SPACE (1980) was off its rocker, but there were long patches of numbing tedium weighing it down. Here the film moves at a brisk pace (though ironically, it is frequently in slow motion) and is completely unabashed in its total dream-like strangeness and shows a complete lack of fear in being not at all what you were expecting. Much like Fulci's CONQUEST (1983) cheerfully drove out into far left field and never looked back, here Brescia seems completely unconcerned by the fact that he is going to change Ator's backstory and dive into moments that are completely surreal to the point of being unexplainable without sounding annoyingly pretentious. Just what is the underlying metaphor for the princess' dress inexplicably changing from red to blue halfway through the film? It must symbolize her transcendence to the world of adulthood and innocence lost... See? You'll want to throw a beer bottle at me after that.

As if Brescia's random oddness wasn't enough, his obsession with Superman, Darth Vader and the Indiana Jones films is pretty damned entertaining in its own right. Sure, on the heels of films such as the mind-liquefyingly bizarre SHE (1983), this may seem pretty linear, but this is more like if Luis Bunel had taken a dive into swordsploitation after watching too many American and Italian films. This feels like it should have been a dream sequence from another movie that would cause people to walk out of the theater saying "that was a great movie, but what the hell was with that dream sequence?"

Amazing as it may sound, Brescia actually turns in a pretty damn well made film. Does it boast the production values of CONAN? No. SWORD AND THE SORCERER? Nope. It definitely does not. But everything right down to the cinematography is head and shoulders above D'Amato's ramshackle rip-offs. Really! Brescia! I know! Veteran composer Carlo Maria Cordio, who provided scores for everything from CALIGULA: THE UNTOLD STORY (1982) to SONNY BOY (1989) to CONTAMINATION .7 (1993), does a great job syncing his eerie electronica and contrasting DEEP RED-era Goblin-esque score with Brescia's slow motion everything. Amazingly it all comes together and works as a cohesive whole. It's not a proper Ator sequel, it's not a carbon Conan copy and it never feels quite as cheap as it really is. For these reasons I actually feel that Brescia, for all his crimes against science fiction cinema, manages to top Joe D'Amato, at least this once.

Iron Warrior by Mediafloh

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