Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Clonin' the Barbarian: DEATHSTALKER (1983)

In the realm of CONAN knock-offs there is a lot of latitude to be just plain odd. As long as some really basic requirements were met, screenwriters were  allowed to run free and explore their own personal fantasies and throw out the strangest nonsense to hit the screen in years. Nobody did this better than the Italians, but Roger Corman cannot be accused of not making the effort and screenwriter Howard R. Cohen (who went on to script the equally outlandish 1985 classic BARBARIAN QUEEN) was right in there with him. Clearly knowing that he can’t totally out-weird the Italians, Corman goes for some his trade-mark tongue in cheek humor. And speaking of cheek, there is more bare ass on display here than a nursery at changing time. But I’m getting ahead of myself... or behind, rather. The icing on the cake would be the casting of the superhot Playboy covergirl Barbi Benton, who amazingly was never actually a Playmate, but was every bit as famous after gracing no less than three covers. I remember back in the day, that was the main selling point and the first thing anyone mentioned when the film came up in conversation. Without her, this film would have never been as successful as it was. DEATHSTALKER's opening weekend recouped the films budget and it went on to gross just under $12 million. If that sounds like chump change compared to films that have opening weekends that rival that number, however $12 million is not even a quarter of the budget of these big studio films. The ratio of budget to gross for DEATHSTALKER is one that studio moguls would push their grandmothers into oncoming traffic for.

Starting off with a stylized chase sequence, a scruffy rapscallion has robbed someone and kidnapped a rather scruffy hottie and is about to have his evil way with her. Suddenly some cave troll looking dudes show up and put the kaibosh on his attempt at some horizontal handiwork. They chase him through the forest, corner him and just when you think his number is up, a muscle-bound warrior with blow-dried hair (Rick Hill) steps in to save the day… by killing all the cave dudes, the thief and setting about trying his luck with raping the girl!
More Conan than CONAN, that’s his motto! Deathstalker’s attempt at some hot medieval love is interrupted by an old man who happens to be the former king of the realm. His throne was usurped by the evil wizard Munkar (Bernard Erhard) and as he tells Deathstalker:
King: “A brave man could get inside Munkar’s castle and kill him!”
Deathstalker: “You need a fool.”
King: “No! A hero!”
Cue orchestral sting and choir. Camera pulls in close on Deathstalkers face...
Deathstalker: “Heroes and fools are the same thing.”
Yep, Deathstalker ain’t gonna have none of that saving the kingdom crap, but rides off in the direction of the castle anyway, beacause, what the hell, there could be some good killing and looting to be had.

On the way he runs into a witch who imparts the wisdom of the Three Powers of Creation. Munkar possesses the Amulet of Life and the Chalice of Magic, but what he doesn’t have is the Sword of Judgement. She knows where he can find it, and if he finds it and unites the three Powers, he “can do anything. You will be the power!” What does that mean? Hell if I know, but it sounds good to Deathstalker!

In one of the oddest moments in the film, Deathstalker finds that a small troll that sounds a bit like a borscht-belt comic guards the sword in a tiny cave. The only way Deathstalker can obtain the sword is by freeing the troll of his curse and turning him back into a man... oh, and defeating the huge troll that is lurking right around the corner. Says the troll, “I can only be led to freedom by a boy who is not a boy.” Wait… what?! What the hell does that mean? No time to worry about that though as the sword turns Deathstalker into an 8-year-old boy who leads the little troll out of the cave. Blinded by the light the troll exclaims “I can’t see” and stumbles face first into a small lake. Wah, wah. Nothin' funnier than a blind man doing a pratfall!

Apparently there are a LOT of people running about in the countryside as Deathstalker rides into a fray between a peppy british chap in a scale-mail midriff named Oghris (Richard Brooker, who previously played Jason Voorhees himself) and a bunch of chowderchinned peasants trying to… wait for it… rape a girl that they have kidnapped! There seems to be a lot of this going around. After Deathstalker saves the day Oghris informs him that there is a tournament at the castle to see who Munkar’s heir will be. Deathstalker, the bright ray of sunshine that he is, tells Oghris that it’s not much of prize since Munkar can’t die. This doesn’t really dampen the Brit’s spirits all that much presumably because they are not in England and all of that sunlight is providing a massive boost of B vitamins to his system. That's my theory, anyway.

On the way, they run into more trouble when they are accosted by a cloaked highway man! A swordfight breaks out only to discover that the cloak hides a bare chested warrior – a bare chested female warrior (Lana Clarkson)! Kaira’s rather unobtrusive thong at first it seem like a very limited defensive piece, however, I suspect that it is really difficult to concentrate on your attack with her bodaciousness jiggling in your face. As luck (or plot convenience) would have it, Kaira is participating in the tournament as well and thus a team is formed! Well, the teamwork between Deathstalker and Kaira might be a little bit stronger as they practice a bit of thrust and parry that evening. Sucks to be Oghris, trying to sleep through that racket. Speaking of racket, the music score by ├ôscar Cardozo Ocampo is  an integral part of the overall package. Here the big, epic sounding orchestral score punctuated by choir harmonies actually acts as an underscore to the subtle skewering of the genre. Ocampo went on to do Corman's less exciting AMAZONS (1986), but sadly strayed from the genre after that.

Oh and Munkar is evil. How do we know that? Never mind that he has a captured princess, deposed a king and mis-manages his guards by allowing them to sexually harass his harem without even so much as a write up! Nope, aside from the complete lack of pigminatation (dude, step away from World of Warcraft once in a while) and the my-friend-is-learning-how-to-be-a-tattoo-artist ink on the side of his head, he likes to feed fresh eyeballs to his toothy, sock-puppet monster who lives in side a treasure chest. But that doesn’t make him really evil. What makes him really evil, is that he makes his victim watch the feeding process with their one remaining eye. Now that is eeeeeevil!

Before the tournament starts we of course need a feasting sequence. Let’s see, where’s my list? Midgets? Check! Slave girl? Check! Female Mudwrestling? Hell yeah! Damn, this movie is a porn insert short of a Bob Guccione production! In addition to that we have a beefy dude with the head of a pig, a weedy Jewish guy and oh yeah, Barbi Benton chained to a boulder in a Jean Rollin outfit. I suddenly remember why this movie made such an impression on me when I was 13. That and the totally disturbing scene in which Munkar decides the best way to assassinate Robin Ho – err, I mean Deathstalker, is to turn his henchman into Princess Codille (Benton) and attempt to seduce and kill him. Whaaaaa? The punchline to this scene is when the bare-breasted Kaira puts her arm around the half-clad Codille impersonator and consolingly says “let’s get you something to wear.”

The rest of the film is a tournament in which Cohen shows his love for ENTER THE DRAGON (1973) with battles raging between various warriors (and a reworking of the classic final showdown), including a gratifyingly messy end to the skinny Jewish guy whose “comic” overacting is the thankfully brief low point of the film. Speaking of messy ends, there does seem to be some censorship going on here. The villain’s grisly demise is heavily edited to just a few quick cuts and there are several other scenes that look like they should have been gorier. Hopefully this is on the agenda for a Shout! Factory special edition. I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t be. I know why we here at VJ love it so much, but it also seems to have bridged the gap and gone into mainstream acceptance, proving to be one of the most popular movies in the genre leading to three sequels and countless of its own imitators. That is probably the strangest thing of all.

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