Cyber Monday: Project Shadowchaser Trilogy

Frank Zagarino dies hard!

Cinemasochism: Black Mangue (2008)

Braindead zombies from Brazil!

The Gweilo Dojo: Furious (1984)

Simon Rhee's bizarre kung fu epic!

Adrenaline Shot: Fire, Ice and Dynamite (1990)

Willy Bogner and Roger Moore stuntfest!

Sci-Fried Theater: Dead Mountaineer's Hotel (1979)

Surreal Russian neo-noir detective epic!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Clonin' the Barbarian: BEASTMASTER III: THE EYE OF BRAXUS (1996)

I don’t know whether it’s a curse that was cast upon the genre, but it seems any flick with a sword is doomed to turn out sequels that are determined to kill the franchise. Thanks to John Milius’ firm-footing in the realm of Hemmingway-esque machismo, CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982) was unquestionably the pinnacle of sword flicks. Thanks to Richard Fleischer’s keen insight, the glaring flaw of CONAN was that “it, for the most part, lacked humor. There were some jokes, but too much of the film was unrelieved drama.” Fleischer decided that CONAN would be much better played out as a comedy of sorts and apparently felt that he was instrumental in pushing forward Arnold’s “progress in this art of acting.” For a minute there you might think that this is all a blatant attempt to outright kill the franchise. I mean, it is called CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984) after all. Hell, even Fleischer’s follow-up, RED SONJA (1985), was a damn sight better, if only because the low-rent camp value skyrocketed to all new heights.

Such is the case with say, the BEASTMASTER films. Don Coscarelli’s 1982 film is well crafted in its own right. Then years later part 2 came along with extra doses of comedy and a penchant for filching elements from a little film called HIGHLANDER (1986) – which ironically would have its own doomed series arc. However, I am here to tell you today, that if you think BEASTMASTER 2: THROUGH THE PORTAL OF TIME (1991) was a test of your cinematic mettle, you are grossly mistaken. At least until the TV series came around, this is a rough slog through swordsville that even Joe D’Amato would saw logs through. This is my penance for hogging all the "good" Ator movies, I think.

The film opens with an aging sorcerer Lord Agon (Shakespearian actor David Warner clearly short on coins of the realm) rambling on about King Tal’s medallion, the fabled Eye of Braxus, in a tiny fiberglass cave. Why does he need it? Dunno. What is it? Dunno. But, what we do know is that he does need it and has a plan on how to get it. His cunning plan? The use the legendary Beastmaster to get it from his brother King Tal , who is now… well, sort of grown up. Ok, c’mon now Mr. Lord Agon, I think you’re just making this up as you go.

Dar is still not the sharpest claw in the paw, but he certainly means well. He saves some travelers from a maniacal bandit (Patrick Kilpatrick) and even spares the bandit’s life, and when the bandit looks up in Dar’s eyes and says “who are you?”, you will fully expect Dar to reply “I’m Batman”. Dar’s travelling companions are all the same except now his black tiger that turned into a regular tiger is now a rather tired-looking lion. Why this change was made is even more ludicrous since they actually corrected the error of Dar’s mark appearing on the wrong hand from part 2! Anyway, the travelers are conveniently on their way to see King Tal to request aid against the evil Lord Agon, but fear that the king will not grant them an audience as they have lost their tribute. Dar decides he can help. Yay Dar!

King Tal is now played by pre-steroided Casper Van Dien in hair extensions that are actually better than the peroxided frizz that Singer sported in part 2. Also on hand is the ever loyal Seth (now played by Tony Todd), who seemingly has given up all that righteous fervor and settled into the role of the king’s revenue agent. So Dar, Tal and Seth meet up again and because of this sentimental moment, Tal gives Dar half of the amulet he is wearing, The Eye of Braxus. Half an amulet. Uhhhh… thanks? Proving that living with humans makes you a little quicker in the mental faculties than say, living in a forest with animals, King Tal figures out Lord Argon’s plan immediately... well, immediately after it is pieced together by the peasant standing in front of him without a tribute. He’s going to summon the dark god Braxus and he needs the amulet! I suppose you have to know these things when you are king, you know.

After his hawk Shirak spies the King’s camp in flames, Dar heads back in one of the funniest moments in the film. While picking through the bodies of the dead he finds one woman half conscious and grabs her and shouts “where is my brother?!” while she looks at him as if to say “who the fuck are you?” Dar then finds Seth and they have this exchange:
Dar: “It’s been a long time Seth.”
Seth: “Too long.”
What?! You guys just saw each other earlier that same day! Dar grabs the nearest camel (!?) and sets off to rescue his bro who is being held in a strange organic torture chamber called The Shroud of Agony, that will extract all of his secrets and project them on a screen. Obviously some sort of recording device is present too, since Lord Argon sees no need to actually watch the secrets play out. He simply waves his hand and his assistant wearily says it takes forever. At least we assume he is referring to the machine, it could very well be the movie.

Seems that Lord Argon’s sorcery has aged him greatly and in order to stay youthful he must sacrifice villagers in a device that zaps them with lightning bolts and causes them to disappear into a puff of light. This fiendish plot of Fu Manchu has the upshot of turning Argon’s hair from an Einstein fro’ to something that looks like it would be right at home on Andrew Dice Clay if he decided to go without a haircut for the total time that his career has been dead.

Along the way to Argon’s castle, Dar and Seth team up with a girl (Sandra Hess) whose motives are unclear and whose speech seems to indicate that she may have found that portal to “el aye” at some point. During their trek they run into “savages” who appear to be only slightly less authentic than the ones from CANNIBAL FEROX (1981) and Dar fights them off by simply running at a group of spear-wielding warriors and yelling “Yaaaaaaarrrrr!!” and scattering them like pigeons. Hmmmmm… I don’t know which is worse, the stagey, video under-cranked “action” scenes, or these “let’s not even bother having an action scene” scenes.

Another character that joins the cause include Seth’s ex, a witch named Morgana (Lesley-Anne Down displaying a surprising lack of cleavage) who temporarily turns Dar’s animal friends into cute fuzzy pets, much to his chagrin. Seth is very put out at having Morgana along and accuses her “you turned me into a… rabbit!” To which Morgana coyly replies “only for a little while.” Oh make it stop!! Finally there is Morgana’s persistent, shirtless acrobat boy (Keith Coulouris) who really, really likes Dar and really, really wants to “ride” with him. Uhhhhh… yeah. Is Dar as creeped out by this guy as I am? Dude, get the freakin' hint already. Dar’s not that way… he likes animals! Of course this outing has no bare breasted maidens to be saved, but a rather a bare-chested waifish boy who must be rescued… ummmm… err… not that there is anything wrong with that.

The upshot of their trek through foam caves is that they finally find out what the hell The Eye of Braxus actually is. It is literally, the eye of Braxus, the dark god whose physical manifestation is something that looks like a reject from the Dinosaurs TV show.
Dar: “we’re going to have to use our wits to beat him.”
Bey: “that just happens to be my specialty.”
Are you implying that it is not Dar’s? Compared to Braxus, Dar is a freakin’ brain surgeon as all it takes is bonking him on the head with a stone chandelier (yes, you read that right), Dar ripping the eye off of Braxus’ head and kicking him into the pit to finish off our Dark God of Doomyness. Seriously, that's it. Apparently there was one person who thought that the feeble ending of CONAN THE DESTROYER was ripe for the plucking.

As if that wasn’t enough suffering, they spend the next 15 minutes embraced in a soppy ending that actually attempts to set up the pair of Dar and Seth with the really, extrememly persistant Bey, for further adventures. They must not have watched the rushes. Veteran TV director Gabrielle Beaumont has made a solid career out of directing one or two episodes of every damn TV show you've ever heard of in the past 30 years, and that is exactly the kind of workmanship on display here. Every shot is over-lit, medium to close up, no pans, no cranes, no helicopter shots, nothing but flat and static direction that is perfect for lulling you to sleep. Hell, as much as I am not now, nor have I ever been, a fan of Xena, it sported more style than this uninspired outing. It would take another three years to get the pilot for the TV series off the ground, just in case you were yearning for something even less action packed and a little more sentimental. Oh christ, kill me now.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Clonin' the Barbarian: BEASTMASTER 2: THROUGH THE PORTAL OF TIME (1991)

After a so-so performance at the box office, the original THE
BEASTMASTER garnered a strong following thanks to cable and home video. Producer Sylvio Tabet could smell the sweet scent of sequels, but decided to make some changes. Original director Don Coscarelli, an integral part of the first film’s success, is let go.  “Ah, that is okay,” the Lebanese producer thinks, “I know the perfect director - me!”  Big mistake #1.  Even worse, the BEASTMASTER team opted to use the age old A CONNETICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT “fish out of water” routine by having Dar and his animals transplanted to modern day Los Angeles.  Big mistake #2. So, almost 9 years to the day of the original film’s release, BEASTMASTER 2: THROUGH THE PORTAL OF TIME was unleashed upon audiences in August 1991.

The sequel opens with a crawl explaining that “in the days following the death of King Zed, a darkness has fallen over the land of Arok.  The evil warlord Arklon, using unholy magic, has enslaved the people.” What?  Zed died in the final battle of the first film, so the kingdom saw no freedom at all and that final battle was for nothing?  And what happened to royal heir Tal?  Hmmm, I bet that leather clad John Amos character had something to do with that.  Anyway, Dar the Beastmaster (the returning Singer, now with bleach blonde hair) is in custody and brought before Arklon (VJ fave Wings Hauser) for execution.  Of course Dar escapes thanks to his beasts with Sharak getting a few nice claw scratches in Arklon’s face.  Oh, also Ruh the tiger is no longer black.  Dar lives to see another day as master of the beasts.

We immediately cut to Arklon, now sporting a Phantom of the Opera half-mask, and his men assaulting some rebels in the desert (we’re never told how much time has passed).  Lyranna (Sarah Douglas), a hip-talking witch (“Chill out”) traveling with the felled group, offers her services to Arklon and says she can provide something that will solidify his rule over the masses.  What on earth could it be?  I totally bet it is a TV pilot for AROKIAN IDOL.  Meanwhile, Dar is still running from the film’s opening encounter (I think).  He outsmarts some of Arklon’s men in a swamp but then runs afoul of a big ol’ swamp creature that – in a moment that truly shows Tabet didn’t give a damn – stops attacking when it sees the symbol burned on Dar’s hand.  In the mother of all laughable exposition bits, the monster stops to chat with Dar, revealing that she is King Zed’s accursed sister (yes, that makes her Dar’s aunt) and that Dar has an older half-brother who is…wait for it…Arklon, who he must kill.   Even funnier, the first film goes out of its way to show you Dar’s left hand was branded, whereas here the scar is on this right hand in this film:

Lyranna finally reveals her big secret – a time portal to the parallel universe of L.A. (“El aye?”), a place where she learned this hip language that also houses a neutron detonator.  “With the threat of such a weapon, I could rule unopposed,” Arklon drools.  Cut to modern day L.A. as Senator’s daughter Jackie Trent (Kari Wuhrer) finds herself being chased by cops.  Oh, those adorable teens. Somehow, Jackie ends up in the alley way that serves as the portal between two worlds and passes through, along with the two cop cars. Now think about this for a minute – in “our” world the portal looks like a brick wall.  So Jackie’s was literally driving head first into a brick wall.  Yes, this is the film’s heroine.  I guess that would explain why she sees nothing strange about going from the inner city to the desert in half-a-second and just keeps driving until she runs out of gas.

Anyway, let’s speed things up here. Jackie meets Dar, Arklon kidnaps Jackie, Dar fights to save her, and we finally get the entire crew in modern day L.A. around the 50 minute mark. Things will surely pick up now, right?  Oh…crap…Tabet just snuck in a “bad guys go shopping” routine and 80s music montage.  Wait a sec, did Dar really just drive past a theater showing BEASTMASTER II: THROUGH THE PORTAL OF TIME? You bastard.  Good lord, put me out of my misery.  Okay, Arklon get the device, threatens to take it back to his world, Dar learns about rock ‘n roll and the phrase “asshole” (gee, I wonder if he will use it at the perfect time), Dar and Arklon fight, Dar wins, Arklon falls into a fiery pit, Dar leaves the ferrets in L.A. with Jackie, they don’t kiss, some pilgrims (including Michael Berryman) in Dar’s world worship Jackie’s abandoned Porsche, the end.

*Long sigh* Man, it didn’t have to be like this.  It really didn’t.  Just think of every imaginable misstep one can take with a sequel to a popular film and double it with this series’ sophomore effort.  First off, you have this ridiculous premise. The “stranger in a stange land” gimmick is something that a film series usually relies on when they are on their last legs, not the second film.  Amazingly, it took five credited screenwriters to piece together the screenplay.  This unfolds like it was made by folks who had never seen the original film, which I find hard to believe as Tabet freakin’ made it. Amusingly, even Tabet now admits transplanting Dar from his native land was a bad idea in this interview with at our friend Don at SCHLOCKMANIA.  I also love the fact that they introduce a plotline (Dar being second born) that completely undermines everything from the first film and makes King Zed look like a dumbass for having lost not one, not two, but three sons.

Next you have to marvel at the film’s complete lack of, well, brains.  Like the aforementioned opening crawl and hand gaffe, the film is chock full of brainless moments.  For example, Arklon makes it to the portal and is about to go through when Dar stops him.  The whole freakin’ military arrives at this alley and Arklon’s decision is to run toward them instead of back into the portal three feet from him. Tabet just makes so many nonsensical choices that you have to wonder if the man is all there.  Then again, this is a guy who decided to cut away to a shot of chimp clapping during the final sword fight.  Amazingly, BEASTMASTER 2 is not the worst sequel to come out in 1991. *shoots Paul Smith stink-eye in HIGHLANDER 2’s direction*

Even more puzzling to me is Marc Singer’s performance, which has him playing Dar like simpleton Lennie from Of Mice and Men.  Now I can understand if he is like that once he reaches modern times and is confused by what he sees, but he is like this even in his own time period.  Perhaps chewing on too many roots in the sun all day finally cooked his brains? And what’s with the hair? Thankfully, we have Wings Hauser and Sarah Douglas on backup duty.  Hauser gives his all as the ruthless ruler, realizing he ain’t doing Shakespeare but still maintaining that royal tone. And you have to love his laugh. Douglas provides a surprising amount of cleavage (sorry, this one is nudity free kids) so it is shame her character just disappears.

Believe it or not, this actually opened at a theater near me that summer of 1991 and I didn’t go see it.  I guess I had a more refined taste at the time, taking in classics like BODY PARTS and DOUBLE IMPACT.  I’m really kicking myself that I didn’t go see this in the theater as it would definitely be a badge of courage to awe my fellow Video Junkies. And, honestly, when would I have ever had a chance to see Marc Singer, Wings Hauser and Robert Z’Dar on the big screen?  Wilson, you dumbass!  If I ever find that time portal, I’m going back to 1991 and forcing my 16-year-old self to go see BEASTMASTER 2: THROUGH THE PORTAL OF TIME.  Oh, and I’m also totally going to become Charlie Sheen’s coke dealer.

Sadly, while the film bombed in theaters, it did well on home video and Tabet decided to keep digging in that BEASTMASTER goldmine. Thankfully, my commitment ends here and I'll let Tom fill you all in on the further adventures of the Beastmaster.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Clonin' the Barbarian: THE BEASTMASTER (1982)

It almost seems unfair to list THE BEASTMASTER in an overview of Conan clones.  After all, the film hit theaters in August 1982, just a few months after CONAN THE BARBARIAN’s release.  But Hollywood works in mysterious ways and there is no doubt in my mind that when BEASTMASTER producer Sylvio Tabet heard about an epic $20 million sword & sorcery flick going into production under the guidance of director John Milius that he decided to jump on that wagon.  And, truthfully, THE BEASTMASTER retains very little of Andre (Alice) Norton’s sci-fi source novel outside of a dude who can communicate with animals.  Instead, the production fully embraced the hot commodities of babes, blades and beasts.

The film opens with Maax (Rip Torn, complete with braided hair and, I assume, drunken glare) using some witches to try and usurp the power from King Zed (Rod Loomis) by sacrificing his unborn son.  Maax is caught and imprisoned, but one of his witches still manages to get into the King’s chambers and transfer the fetus into a cow, killing his Queen and blinding the King in the process.  Once in a secluded forest spot, the witch removes the baby from the animal’s belly, brands his right hand and prepares to sacrifice him.  But a wandering farmer (Ben Hammer) stumbles upon the scene and saves the child.  As movie rules dictate, if you find an abandoned baby, you must raise it as your own.  And you should name him Dar, as in, “Look over dar, a free baby!”

A few years later we see the adolescent Dar (Billy Jacoby) weapons training with his father in the woods when they are suddenly attacked by a bear.  Amazingly, the young Dar is able to stave off the beast with his thoughts (the random guy cutting trees ain’t as lucky) and his father declares “you have a gift and are here for a reason.” Damn…adopted baby…unusual powers…hey, this is SUPERMAN again!  We finally see the adult Dar (Marc Singer), who jokes with his dad and seems really at peace in his adopted village.  Oh crap, guess he didn’t see the running time is almost at 20 minutes.  Yup, someone’s gonna die.  The village is attacked by the Juns and literally EVERYONE except Dar is killed (thanks to a heroic effort by his dog, which also dies!).  Jeez, talk about your bad days.  After adhering to sword & sorcery cliché # 45 (funeral pyre), Dar heads to Jun city to get his revenge.

Along the way the Beastmaster earns his nickname by recruiting falcon Sharak (his eyes), ferrets Kodo and Podo (his cunning), black tiger Ruh (his strength) and the Tin Man (his heart). Okay, maybe not that last one.  Revenge isn’t solely on his mind though as Dar takes some time to be a Peeping Tom by spying on slave girl Kiri (Tanya Roberts), much to the delight of pre-teen boy audience members worldwide.  He even uses Ruh to try and get some action out of the girl (chicks dig being scared by black tigers), but it provides futile.  Following a surreal encounter with some bat people (who like Dar because he is, after all, the Beastmaster), Dar makes it to the city just in time for some child sacrificing by Maax.  When a second sacrifice is needed (must be “Twofers Tuesdays”), Maax grabs a random kid out of the audience.  Surely it is the parent's fault as who brings their kid to a sacrifice?  Dar uses Sharak to sweep the frightened child away into the sky.  Maax, however, proves his political worth by spinning that miscue into a “see, the Gods are really pissed” moment.  George W. Bush would be proud.

After returning the child to their family, Dar encounters warrior Seth (John Amos) and his young charge Tal (Josh Milrad). Hmmm, a big black man in a leather get up travelling alone with a kid would usually arouse my suspicion. Damn it, did I say arouse?  Ah, forget it.  Anyway, Seth reveals that Tal is the rightful heir to the throne and that Kiri is Tal’s cousin.  So, yes, this means Dar is Tal’s older brother and that he was putting the moves on his cousin Kari.  Ha, this boy has got some Luke Skywalker in him.  This trio decides to team up and rescue King Zed from his prison, which they do with relative ease.  But Zed turns out to be a total bummer and calls Dar “a freak.” Thanks, dad!  So Dar splits but – per sword & sorcery cliché # 291 – returns when the meek villagers need him to fight in the big battle.

Director Don Coscarelli, fresh off his surprise success with PHANTASM (1979), delivers a near perfect entry of the genre. You have tons of action, great monsters, and the required amount of pathos.  Sure, it is a bit derivative but you can also argue that it is the classic revenge set up.  The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad. And despite being rated PG, Coscarelli doesn’t hold back on the terror with a “think of the children” attitude.  I remember being absolutely terrified as a kid at the scene of a child being tossed into a huge fire.  It was the most horrifying thing I associated with Rip Torn until I saw his mugshot two decades later. The seeing eyeball ring also disturbed me, especially when it gets a fiery ember shoved into it.  In addition, the “death guards” are scary, the bat people are freaky, and the Jun leader (thankfully masked the entire time) is a really ominous Darth Vader like character.

On the technical side, the film boasts a super score, great cinematography and fine acting from the entire cast.  The climactic fight is well staged and actually thrilling (watch for a huge explosion that looks VERY dangerous).  Singer, in his first major role, definitely looks the part and has the acting ability to back it up (something Schwarzenegger lacked).  The film also benefitted from getting Tanya Roberts fresh off of her CHARLIE’S ANGELS replacement gig.  And, in perhaps their greatest coup, she had no qualms being nude onscreen (again, how did this get a PG rating?). You're welcome:

If you are a child of the 70s and 80s, chances are you crossed paths with THE BEASTMASTER.  It was kind of hard not to as the flick was a staple of early era HBO and TBS.  It was inescapable to the point that it felt completely natural, like going into an arcade and hearing the sounds of Pac Man.  While not a box office hit along the lines of CONAN THE BARBARIAN, THE BEASTMASTER has proven to have the same kind of staying power as the Schwarzenegger vehicle.  It was a shining example of the genre done right.  Unfortunately, producer Sylvio Tabet decided to make some sequels and a TV show without Coscarelli.  More on that later.  Come to think of it, why hasn’t Hollywood remade this?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Clonin' the Barbarian: QUEST FOR THE MIGHTY SWORD (1990)

Diving into the Italian ATOR series has given us Video Junkies a case of the heebie-jeebies as we feel like we have entered some kind of bizarre alternate universe. How else can you explain exploitation master Joe D’Amato delivering sleaze free films, while resident pasta-land hack Alfonso Brescia gives us an unofficial (and entertaining) Ator entry filled with blood, boobs and battles? D’Amato must have been furious (“Ator musta be bland”) and decided to “right” this “wrong” by returning to the series with the insipid final chapter QUEST FOR THE MIGHTY SWORD.  Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the blandest Ator of them all?

This is actually an attempt to remake, er, reboot the Ator legend.  The film opens with Nephele (Marisa Mell) telling the young Ator (Eric Allan Kramer, definitely not looking eighteen) the story of how he came to be the human slave of troll alchemist Grindel.  Seems his dad Prince Ator (Kramer again) brought justice to the land with the Sword of the Sacred Aquiles.  A villain named Thorn wants the sword and a goddess named DeJanira (Margaret Lenzey) tries to intervene.  Prince Ator is killed and his sword split by Thorn, a total bummer for his wife and baby son Ator sitting nearby.  For her meddling, DeJanira is encased for eternity in a ring of fire.  Meanwhile, the widowed wife of Ator decides the best course of action is to give Ator, Jr. and the broken sword to Grindel and have him concoct a suicide potion for herself. Uh, thanks mom. Grindel is a sneaky one though and gives her a potion to make her a slut so he can get some troll-on-chick action. Got all that?  Me neither.  

Somehow it is Ator’s destiny to free DeJanira, find the sword and become the rightful ruler of the land.  Of course, he has bigger fish to fry. Naturally, Ator is pissed to find out his mom did it with that troll and vows to kill him.  He sees Grindel bust out the sword and grabs it when the wizard isn’t looking.  Oh, you are so gonna pay now for making my mom bump super-uglies with you.  Ator swings the sword right at Grindel’s head and it shatters.  Haha, you sucker! It was a fake and now Grindel knows what Ator will do if he ever finds the real sword, which is what happens next.  Grindel leaves the sword lying about and Ator snags it and swings it right at Grindel’s head.  And it shatters…again.  OMFG!  Did Ator just really fall for that twice?  Damn, son, that peroxide in your hair must have seeped into your brain.

My sentiments exactly!
For being such a dumbass, Ator has a blind spell put on him by Grindel and is left locked inside the cave (yes, it has a gate; must be a rough neighborhood).  Stumbling around, Ator breaks the spell by getting water in his eyes and he notices the reflection on a shield pointing to a huge boulder by the wall.  He moves it and – lo and behold – there is the real sword he has been looking for.  So, yes, the quest for the mighty sword that the title promises lasts for two minutes and involves Ator searching a 5x8 cave set.  Yay!  Ator performs the world’s fastest sword re-forging and waits for Grindel to come back.  Third time is the charm as the lovable troll is cleaved in half by Ator’s real sword.  Jeez, finally! Ator is now free from slavery and ready to begin his mission to free his love DeJanira.

It's supposed to be a dragon
Of course, it isn’t going to be easy as Nephele informs Ator he must offer the Gods the “treasure of the king of the Wests.”  She informs him it can be found in a cave guarded by a Siamese Twin robot thingy before giving Ator the “my journey ends here” ditch line.  The conjoined robot is no match for Ator’s wits though as he hides in a small cave they can’t fit into and then slices them in half.  Ator heads for the treasure but then encounters a fire-breathing dragon. What the hell?  Nephele didn’t say nothin’ about no fire-breathing dragon.  A few well placed chops and Ator once again wins.  He finally finds the treasure and offers it to the Gods (by screaming “I offer this treasure to you”).  This allows him to go to into DeJanira’s tomb and release her from her spell.  No joke, Ator woos her by saying, “You no longer live forever like the Gods, you live and die like a mortal.”  Somehow that doesn’t seem right.  Releasing her causes a volcano to erupt in a spew of stock footage, but our heroes make it.

Dr. Butcher, Dermatologist
Freshly in love, Ator does his new woman right and takes her to the local bar; truly a barbarian in touch with his feminine side.  But, wouldn’t you know it, the honeymoon gets off to a rocky start when Ator spots his whore mom hanging around.  He saves her from a beating by a burly beau and she offers her “services” to Ator in return.  Ew, gross.  But he recognizes her (I’m not sure how) and this releases her from her curse, turning her into an old lady.  Our heroes do the obligatory fire funeral before heading off on their quest again, which I’m starting to forget what it is.  They team up with a boomerang wielding Skiold (Chris Murphy) before DeJanira is kidnapped by the men of Gunther (Donald O’Brien) and Grimilde (Laura Gemser), a brother-and-sister team who rule the kingdom. Boil-faced Gunther, who spends his time making human sculptures, desires DeJanira while Grimilde wants to get in Ator’s codpiece.  So now it is a rescue movie.

Ow, my head.  That was my exact reaction after watching this final entry into the ATOR series.  I should have known something was totally amiss when they couldn’t get Miles O’Keeffe, who was still doing b-flicks like LIBERTY & BASH (1989) and CARTEL (1990). Not only that but they cast a guy who is the polar opposite of Miles O’Keeffe in every way.  Eric Allan Kramer, just shy of 30 when filming, is tough to swallow at an 18-year-old thanks to his frizzy, thinning hair.  It is funny how you can freeze the film at any minute to guess which rock star he looks like.  Meat Loaf and CC Deville popped into my head the most. Backing him up in the acting department is Margaret Lenzey, who is quite attractive but a terrible actress.  It seems like D’Amato couldn’t be bothered as he even left a bit of her flubbing a line.  Check it out:

On the plus side, you do get to see Italian film genre vets like O’Brien (sadly, post-stroke, although it fits his character) and Gemser in a reasonably well made film.  There are some decent cave and castle sets.  Also, the cinematography (also by D’Amato) is nice and the production had enough of a budget to do a few good costumes. Amusingly, the Grindel character is a recycled get up from the earlier Filmirage production of TROLL 2. They do continue the series staple of having a weak ass monster costume though (here displayed by the dragon that looks like it belongs in a Godzilla fanfest contest).

Still, this is a horrible way to end our love affair with the mighty Ator.  This is, sadly, one of the last few of “legit” films D’Amato made before diving into the porn world full time until his death.  QUEST is pretty much a microcosm of the Italian film industry at this time period. On a whole it was dying a slow death and – like a zombie hungry for one last meal – they were cannibalizing anything that made them a buck back in the day.  Too little, too late though as this is one of the last – if not the last – attempts to capitalize on a genre that was pretty much destroyed by CONAN THE DESTROYER (apt title, eh) in the United States back in 1984.

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

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Clonin' the Barbarian: ATOR THE INVINCIBLE 2 (1984)

No doubt Tom’s review of ATOR left you on the edge of your seat regarding his further adventures (Ator’s, not Tom’s), but before I tackle the sequel I’ll give you a quick “Never Got Made” moment.  Indeed the Italians got the CONAN-lite into their theaters a mere 6 months after CONAN THE BARBARIAN, but did you know they promised to deliver a sequel to distributors in November 1982?  Behold the artwork for ATOR THE INVINCIBLE: THE RETURN.  This was probably intended to be shot back-to-back with the first film and offers most of the sequel’s cast with one exception.  Head villain Dakar (who played the Spider King) is listed as returning.  I know Tom is weeping at not getting to see a second battle with The Spider King.  Oh, and pterodactyls.  They promised pterodactyls.

Alas, it did take a little bit longer to get the further adventures of Ator off the ground, but they did manage it with ATOR THE INVINCIBLE 2 (released as THE BLADE MASTER in the United States).  The sequel opens with a narrator talking about the legend of Ator “which inspires the brave, comforts the weak, and strikes fear in the craven and wicked."  Damn, I don’t know how to feel – inspired, comforted, or scared.  We then cut to some shots of some cannibalistic cavemen for some reason (I guess QUEST FOR FIRE just opened in Italy?).  Keep them in the back of your mind.

The proper plot gets into motion with the men of evil Zor (David Brandon) coming to retrieve the “geometric nucleus” mechanism from scientist/alchemist Akronas (Charles Borromel).  Knowing what destruction this device can wreak in the wrong hands, Akronas sends his daughter Mila (Lisa Foster) on a quest to find Ator (the returning O’Keeffe), his former pupil and the only man who can help.  Naturally, this requires him filling her in on all the events of the first film in a 5 minute flashback.  Times have been tough on the ol’ gladi-ATOR (hey, that is how they got his name!) since he killed the Spider King.  His beloved Sunya is now dead and he has shacked up with some mute Chinese guy named Thong (Kiro Wehara) and spends all day walking around topless and lifting weights.  Hmmmmm.

Mila sets off just in the nick of time as Zor’s men storm the castle and give pursuit.  She is shot with an arrow in the shoulder, which inexplicably causes her to limp all the way to Ator’s cave.  Once there, she is saved by Ator (in surgery that requires big leaves being placed on her face) and conveys her father’s plea for help. Ator responds by locking her in a cell and stating that Akronas’ true daughter would know how to get out. She passes the challenge by making some natural gunpowder and blowing the gate off the wall. So your test is having her destroy your pad?  Gotcha.  Zor has his own plans and brings in warlock Sandor to stop our trio.  His main trick appears to be trapping them in a foggy forest and that doesn’t go over too well.  His next attack?  Invisible warriors who attack Ator and Thong in a cave.  They are quickly foiled when our heroes throw their capes over them.  Really.  Major fail Sandor and that gets you a flogging.  In the caves our trio also runs into the aforementioned cavemen and Mila almost has her heart torn out.

Now rumor has it that this film was made without any real script and the next bit substantially builds that case.  Heading to save Mila’s father, Ator decides to take a side trek to his parent’s village after Thong captures two sneaking around girls who complain of the Cungs and their ritual human sacrifices to the snake god. Ator gets there, tells his people to take a stand and is quickly captured in this obvious trap (Thong is smart enough to not get caught).  The topper to this is Mila saying to Ator as they are tied up, “I wonder if it just would have been easier if we kept going to the aid of my father?” Ya think? Captured by the Cungs, Ator and Mila watch as five local girls are sacrificed to the snake god in its cozy little snake pit.  Thong arrives just in time and frees Ator, who saves Mila down in the snake pit by battling the funniest damn huge snake you’ve ever seen.  Remember those rubber snakes you’d get as kid?  Well, imagine one of those a thousand times bigger and you’ll get how cheap this thing looks.  Our heroic trio FINALLY gets to the castle to battle Zor and Ator has a plan.  He disappears into the woods and – I’m not kidding you – pops out with a hang-glider to storm the castle via the air!  Oh, it is on now!

The sequel follows the age old tradition of doing everything twice as much as the first film.  How do we know this? Because D’Amato has Ator fighting with two swords this time! He truly is the blade master.  Unfortunately, a zero budget doubled is still zero.  Oh, I take that back as Tom has informed me they did plunk down enough cash for a one-hour hang-glider rental.  Other than that, this is as starved as the original with more of the action focused on individual sword fights rather than huge battles. Even worse, D’Amato opts to do double the amount of non-nudity and bloodletting.  Yup, once again the exploitation master chooses to make his film as bare as the bones the cavemen munch on.  I think he missed the point on why everyone was so jazzed with CONAN THE BARBARIAN in the first place.  And this film’s big snake would give the first film’s giant spider a run for its money in the “most useless monster prop” contest. Seriously, the pic above is the best look we get at it.

O’Keeffe retains his trademark stoicism and his hair is decidedly puffier this time. Lisa Foster, while no stunning Sabrina Siani, is attractive and a decent actress. David Brandon, later memorable as the angry director in Soavi’s STAGE FRIGHT (1987), is good in the role of the lead villain. He has some funny lines (“You do amuse me and provoke me”) and sports a wig and mustache that make him look like Freddie Mercury crossed with Fu Manchu.  Luckily for him, the sequel does carry over Ator’s ineptness as a barbarian.  Again, our hero gets easily fooled and trapped.  But the absolute blockheaded gem has Ator deciding to fight with only one sword in the final duel after Zor chastises him by saying, “So the might Ator needs two swords to fight, does he?”  I know Zor was probably saying to himself, “I can’t believe he actually fell for that.”  Of course, Zor ain’t too bright himself as he only starts roughing up Akronas and demanding to know where the device is seconds before Ator arrives.  Anyway, despite his dimwittedness, Ator wins in the end and decides the geometric nucleus is too dangerous for man and detonates in the barren wasteland (cut to atomic bomb stock footage).  Again, not too bright and I’m wondering how our bonehead barbarian managed to survive that one.