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 29, 2011

Clonin' the Barbarian: BARBARIAN QUEEN (1985)

One of the great things about Roger Corman is never really sought to exploit any successes his various studios brought him.  Haha, are you kidding me?  Dude loved himself some money so if anything made him more than $10 you know he was all over trying to figure out how to make some more.  When the CONAN rip-off DEATHSTALKER proved to be a surprise box office success, Corman made sure to get no less than 3 sequels out (we will be hitting those in a bit).  But even before that he sought to cash in on certain elements of that film’s charm (including but not limited to Lana Clarkson’s breasts) by getting BARBARIAN QUEEN rolling on the same sets down in Argentina (hey, these things ain’t gonna use themselves).

BARBARIAN QUEEN opens with a peaceful village preparing for the wedding of Amethea (Clarkson) to town studmuffin Prince Argan (Frank Zagarino, PROJECT: SHADOWCHASER deity).  Wouldn’t that make her Barbarian Princess?  Oh crap…peaceful village…wedding day…damn, this place is fixing to get attacked any second now.  Indeed, the henchmen of evil Lord Arrakur (Armando Capo) arrive on cue and start messing folks up.  The village is torched and Argan watches as Amethea is burned alive in a hut before he and all the village men are taken away as a slaves.  Honestly, he looks like he could care less and is probably angrier he is losing the catering deposit.

Hey, the flick only lasts 71 minutes so they gotta get moving.  Of course, we can’t go offing our heroine right away so she survives and bands together with Tiniara (Susana Traverso) and Estrild (Katt Shea) to quickly save her (shell-shocked after being raped) sister Taramis (Dawn Dunlap). These four women warriors head off to Arrakur’s city in order to free the men. Wait a sec, that Boris Vallejo poster has 5 women warriors on it.  I’ve been duped…let me speak to the manager!

Along the way the ladies encounter a young girl whose one-armed father is leading a rather resistant resistance (he is always saying stuff like, “Now is not the time.”).  She sneaks the female crew into the city where they find out that Arrakur is training the captured men to fight in some gladiator-type games.  Hey, that ain’t so bad.  Free room and board and all the exercise you can handle.  Oh, it’s to the death?  Okay, that sucks.  The women make their plan to help the men escape, but Taramis ruins it by getting all batty and everyone gets captured.  Estrild is forced into a brothel while Amethea is held by deranged scientist Zohar (Tony Middleton) for some kinky “experiments.”  These involve chaining her to a rack and tickling her nipple with suspended metal hand.  Hmmm, I think I saw that website online. Meanwhile, Taramis has become Arrakur’s top candidate for his Courtesan of the Month club. Of course, how can you refuse a girl who, when asked what she wants, replies, “Will you get me a dog to play with? No, a cat. I should love to have a cat.”  Uh, you really think she is worth saving, Amethea?

You can’t keep Amethea tied down though as she has a few tricks up her, uh, panties.  No joke, she escapes from Zohar when he rapes her and she squeezes his penis with her vagina with so much pressure that he is forced to release her.  Damn, I think I dated her. Anyway, the three ladies finally team back up and get their plan back in motion.  This time the resistance even offers to help (begrudgingly, no doubt).  Hiding in shrouds, the ladies get ready to strike the day of the gladiator fights.  Arrakur greets his people and tells them he planned this to-the-death event to help celebrate the town’s 20th anniversary.  Wait, what?  Dude commemorates anniversaries with multiple deaths?  Oh, that’s right – 50th anniversary is gold, 25th is silver and 20th is blood.  No wonder he is single.  Somehow I think this party isn’t going to go his way this year though.

Clocking in at a scant 71 minutes, BARBARIAN QUEEN is all business from the opening scene.  I’m sure Corman got the wheels rolling on this the second he heard RED SONJA was getting made. And I actually prefer BQ to SONJA.  I mean, this at least has nudity. Screenwriter Howard Cohen did nearly all of Corman’s b-movie barbarian flicks and they all seem to have pretty much the same plot (apparently lots of tournaments going on back in the day).  Director Hector Olivera was a producer on DEATHSTALKER and he does a decent enough job here.  The locations in Argentina definitely benefit the production as well.  No, the attacks aren’t going to be on CONAN’s level and you won’t get any expertly choreographed battles.  But it works for me as it is cheesy, sleazy and quick.  Word of warning – the recent Shout Factory DVD (coupled with THE WARRIOR AND THE SORCERESS) offers a version that is ten minutes shorter and excises a lot of the violence and nudity.  Uh, what’s the point?

The film’s biggest asset is obviously the alluring Clarkson.  Not only is she easy on the eyes, but she has the acting chops to carry the film.  Corman definitely knew what audiences liked from DEATHSTALKER and the Vestron VHS cover proudly declares “the blonde beauty of DEATHSTALKER is back!” (hey, how do audiences know they aren’t talking about Rick Hill?).  She gives it her all, best showcased by her sword swinging skills during the fight scenes.  Clarkson would return a few years later in the in-name-only sequel BARBARIAN QUEEN II (1992).  In a perfect world, these films would be her legacy but that is, sadly, not the case. Clarkson is now more famous for being the shooting victim of asshole record producer Phil Spector.  RIP Barbarian Queen.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Clonin' the Barbarian: deleted beheading from CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982)

Most film shoots usually end up with more footage than they need for the final product and you usually end up with stuff on the cutting room floor.  CONAN THE BARBARIAN is no exception as even Arnold said they had enough footage to make a 4 hour movie.

What is interesting in this tiny example of "chopping block" footage is that it is an example of the filmmaker's using a bit of self-censorship.  Legendary for its violence, CONAN actually lost a tiny bit during the pit fighting montage where Conan fights a woman.  Not only does he defeat her, but he cuts off her head and shows it to the bloodthirsty crowd. Interestingly, I hear this was also how Schwarzenegger hoped to campaign for Governor of California.  The filmmakers actually felt it was a bit too excessive and, while they didn't mind him being a barbarian, the thought of Conan the Lady Killer (literally) was a bit too much.  So they trimmed it down and slyly edited it so you never see he is actually fighting a woman.  If you want the scoop on even more excised CONAN THE BARBARIAN bits, check out this excellent rundown at this Conan fansite.

Promotional stills of the beheading:

Behind the scenes pic:

Fan edit video:

Friday, March 25, 2011

Clonin' the Barbarian: WIZARDS AND WARRIORS (1983)

As we mentioned in our Indiana Jones rip-offs coverage, the folks working on the boobtube also liked to get in on that carbon copy action.  CBS got Indiana-fever in the fall of 1982 with the adventure series BRING ‘EM BACK ALIVE.  It only lasted one season. Ironically, its mid-season replacement in February 1983 was the fantasy series WIZARDS AND WARRIORS, the Big Eye’s attempt to the cash in on the sword and sorcery crazy begat by the likes of CONAN THE BARBARIAN and Dungeons and Dragons.  Can you guess how that worked out?

WIZARDS AND WARRIORS focused on Prince Erik Greystone (Jeff Conaway, of GREASE and TAXI fame; really!) who has to deal with ditzy Princess Ariel (Julia Duffy) in the Kingdom of Camarand.  Naturally, villainy is afoot in the form of Prince Dirk Blackpool (Duncan Regehr), who is assisted wizard Vector (Clive Revell) in his attempts to thwart the neighboring kingdom.  Helping Erik along the way is his faithful servant Marko (Walter Olkewicz).

Originally developed under the title GREYSTONE’S ODYSSEY, WIZARDS was created by veteran TV writer-producer Don Reo. While it was developed in 1981 pre-CONAN release, there is no doubt that seeing the Cimmerian rack up over $100 million worldwide at the box office that got the series the green light. I’ve never actually had a chance to see this show, but all information indicates it maintained a much lighter, comedic tone than stuff like CONAN THE BARBARIAN.  As producer Reo told Starlog of the show:
“Actually, it’s nowhere near Monty Python’s broad humor, but then again, it’s nowhere near as somber and serious as CONAN.  It’s smack dab in the middle between the two, though we don’t have CONAN’s elaborate stunt action.”
CBS certainly seemed to be behind the project as it was – at the time – the most expensive TV series on television with the pilot being budgeted at $2.5 million and each subsequent episode costing roughly $1 million to produce.  To cut costs, they even used battle footage from Warner Bros. feature EXCALIBUR.

Unfortunately, the CBS execs maintained their programming ineptitude from the previous season.  Like the aforementioned ALIVE, WIZARDS didn’t stand much of a chance as the brains again programmed it against established popular shows on a Saturday night (ABC’s T.J. HOOKER and NBC’s DIFF’RENT STROKES and SILVER SPOONS). That is like spending tons of money to teach me to play basketball and then putting me in a game of one-on-one with LeBron James.  It is a shame too as the series garnered positive reviews (see below).  Even more ironic, this type of fantasy-comedy mix proved to be a rousing success just a few years later with Rob Reiner’s THE PRINCESS BRIDE (the source novel for that film being an inspiration for producer Reo here).  The show was yanked after only airing eight episodes, but has maintained a small cult following over the ensuing years.  If you look hard enough, you can find people selling the episodes online and, if it really entrances you, there is an in-depth fan site to check out.

Variety review, March 2, 1983:

Cinefantastique review (click for full size):

Starlog coverage (click for full size):

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Clonin' the Barbarian: Universal's THE ADVENTURES OF CONAN live show

Yes, sir, the 80s ruled! Universal Studios Hollywood cranked out this 20-minute stage show to cash in on the success of their box office hero with some gymnastics and pyrotechnics.  "And just wait until you see our dragon!"  This is ripe stuff, from the fire breathing dragon to the powerful smoke that turns you from a scrawny kid to a muscle bound hero (and makes your shirt disappear in the process).  Seriously, if I saw this when I was 9-years-old, I might have died.  The only thing missing from this awesomeness on display in the promotional video below are some rockin' tunes by Sorcery! It managed an impressive decade long run at the park from 1983-1993 and was eventually replaced Beetlejuice's Rock and Roll Graveyard Review.  Hey, isn't he a Warner Bros. character?  Bad move, Universal, bad move.

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.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Clonin' the Barbarian: CONQUEST (1983)

Earlier we were bemoaning the fact that legendary Italian exploitation director Joe D’Amato failed to deliver the juicy goods in his CONAN rip-offs ATOR THE INVINCIBLE, ATOR THE INVINCIBLE 2, and QUEST FOR THE MIGHTY SWORD.  I mean, this is a guy who previously has shown a fetus pulled from a pregnant woman’s stomach and eaten in ANTHROPOPHAGUS (1980).  If he couldn’t give us an Italian “gorified” version of CONAN, who would?  Well, thankfully veteran red sauce slinger Lucio Fulci arrived on the scene.  Fulci proved his gut munching worth previously with classics like ZOMBIE (1979), CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD (1980) and THE BEYOND (1981). And, thankfully, he brought those blood-spewing sensibilities along to CONQUEST to give us the proper sleazy Italian CONAN clone.

The film opens with a group of elders seeing Ilias (Andrea Occhipinti) off on some manhood quest that I’m not quite sure of.  Did I mention that everyone is translucent?  While he sets off on his journey with the powerful bow of Kronos, we also meet Ocron (Sabrina Siani), the evil Goddess of the Sun who rules over the primitive land where Ilias is heading. She sends her wolf-men soldiers to gather a sacrifice and they perform above expectations by braining an old man who offers a goat (“Ocron like young flesh” barks the wolf leader) and graphically tearing a cavegirl in half. Ocron uses the girl’s severed head in a ritual and the wolf-men shoot some blow up her nose. She writhes around seductively on a blanket of fog with a snake before seeing a prophetic vision of a faceless stranger who will shoot a glowing blue arrow into her heart. This all happens in the film’s first 12 minutes!

Ilias arrives into this violent land and quickly catches the fancy of a QUEST FOR FIRE reject before being attacked by the wolf-men.  He is saved by muscle-bound Mace (Jorge Rivero) and the duo immediately team up.  We’re not quite sure what to make of Mace as one scene has him saving a bird (stand up guy) and the next has him killing a wandering caveman to steal his dinner (uhhhh, so wrong).  Mace takes Ilias to meet his woman (at least in this part of town) and the attractive cavegirl is with them.  Following a wordless dinner flirt, Ilias looks like he is finally going to get some loving action.  But Fulci will have none of that.  Ilias closes his eyes when he cops his first feel, only to open them and see his cavegirl’s head split open. Oh, these wolf-men have the absolute worst timing.  Ilias is captured, but Mace frees him and again they just barely escape.

Ocron realizes she might be out of her league, so she summons Zora, who materializes out of a dog she keeps at her side.  Huh?  Anyway, Zora gets down to business and sticks Ilias with a poison dart in the “valley of evil” (of course bad stuff happens there).  The poison causes our hero to break out in boils, so Mace heads into the swamp to get a special plant that can work as a remedy to the poison.  Of course, this means only one thing – swamp creatures!  Yeah, we get some muck men who Mace easily defeats before he returns to camp, confronts Zora posing as his double, and saves Ilias with the antidote.

All this hero stuff proves too much for Ilias and he decides to split for home. Ha, some hero.  Of course, he has a change of heart halfway there and returns to save Mace from some Sleestak looking mofos.  Actually, he doesn’t.  Ilias seems so preoccupied with the power of his new TRON-glowing arrows that he doesn’t bother to jump into the ocean and save the drowning Mace.  Instead, he leaves him and only later is all excited to see Mace after he washes up on the beach (some dolphins did the hard work of untying his straps).  Like I said, some hero.  Regardless, Ilias and Mace still chill out in a cave before our hero is snagged by some bat-men and beheaded.  Yes, beheaded!  Ocron is pleased, but freaks out when Ilias’ severed head opens its eyes during her ritual. Seems the prophecy is true and our main man Mace is the one who will be her undoing, which he promptly does with Ilias’ magical weapon.  A quick glowing arrow to her golden mask reveals a face straight out of Nick Zed’s GEEK MAGGOT BINGO (1983).

Okay, who slipped something into my Coke Zero?  As if you couldn’t tell from the preceding summary, Fulci’s CONQUEST is out there.  Actually, I take that back.  You know where “out there” is?  Well, go beyond that and that is where you will find this film.  This is without a doubt one of the strangest flicks of the post-CONAN THE BARBARIAN sword & sorcery subgenre and that is why we love it.  I’m sure if he could have flung some YOR-esque spaceships about Fulci would have done that too.  Filmed with lots of fog and filters, the film takes on a trancelike state, which bolsters the plot that unfolds like a dream. You know, the kind of dream where you are about to get some action with a girl but suddenly her head is split open by a half-man, half-wolf.  It is in bits like this that Fulci’s film can also be seen as brave as no one is safe in this (best evidenced by the hero literally losing his head).

It is strange, but I see a lot of people bitching about this film online and saying it sucks. I’ve even seen someone call it “tame.”  WTF?  If you feel that way, then I can safely say you can delete our bookmark because you ain’t no friend of mine! Sure, the film is a bit budget starved (watch for the bit where a wolfman flips onto the ground and loses his mask), but that is also part of its charm.  You also have a rocking score from Claudio Simonetti.  Trust me, the oft-repeated drum theme will be stuck in your head by the time you finish this.  And it is packed to the gills with over-the-top elements. Fulci, who always said this was a work-for-hire situation, seemed to have a D.G.A.D. (Don’t Give A Damn) attitude while making this, almost cynically thinking, “You want blood and guts? You want nudity? Fine, take this.”  How any trash fan can watch the aforementioned first 12 minutes and not be hooked is beyond me.  And let’s not forget one of the single greatest directorial flourishes of the post-CONAN era by having the intoxicating Siani onscreen the entire time clad only in a gold mask and thorny g-string.  I’m sure the budget department loved that decision, as did the audience. Honestly, if you can’t appreciate the exploitation on display, then head on over to  It is one of those great flicks where you can see every variation of wild posters for it and say, “Goddamn, the poster didn’t lie!” Guy with nunchaku made of bones?  Check! Guy shooting neon blue arrows? Check! Topless chick in gold mask? Check! The only disappointing things about CONQUEST are that it is Fulci’s only addition to the genre and the only Italian CONAN rip-off to go above and beyond.  Oh, and that we never got to see CONQUEST II: THE RETURN OF MACE.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Clonin' the Barbarian: BEASTMASTER: THE LEGEND CONTINUES (1999)

So this is what we’ve come to is it? As much as I love cheesy barbarian flicks, their transitions to the small screen have been either poverty-stricken and braindead or essentially sit-coms with bad CGI monsters. Xena and Hercules (both 1995) are the best of the lot, but even so will never compete with even the lowest of the cinematic swordsmen. This was proved to be scientific fact when someone got the bright idea to transition Kevin Sorbo’s success in Hercules to the big screen with KULL THE CONQUEROR (1997). Granted trying to twist Robert E. Howard’s brutally dark, humorless character to fit Sorbo’s bubbly wisecracking was just a painfully stupid idea to begin with, but a disaster all the same.

The season opener Beastmaster: The Legend Continues sets the stage for the series which lasted an amazing three years before being cancelled. Big screen producer Sylvio Tabet, who has proven repeatedly that he doesn’t have the foggiest notion what made Don Coscarelli’s original film successful in the first place, here is credited as executive producer. I’m guessing this means his involvement was confined to an office and a few checks and documents sent to the studio via courier service. Here we are introduced to Dar (Daniel Goddard), a Tarzan-like character who now lives in a rainforest (what happened to the deserts?) and dives off of giant waterfalls because he can. Dar’s girlfriend Kyra (Natalie Jackson Mendoza) is quickly kidnapped by the evil Teron warriors to be thrown into their primitive Thunderdome in which people are mauled by tigers. Yeah, well, they don’t have any TV, so I guess that’s understandable. You know the Terons are evil, not because they sacrifice innocents, but because all of their furniture and outfits are decorated with human bones and skulls. Like I said, just in case you missed the whole point that feeding pretty girls to starving animals was a bad thing.

Dar, using a form of martial arts that appears to be capoeira, raids the encampment and rescues a guy named Tao (Jackson Raine) who is sort of an annoying cross between Rain Man and the asian guy from REVENGE OF THE NERDS (1984). Even before Dar rescues him, you really wish he wouldn’t. Tao talks some of the most idiotic pseudo-zen gibberish ever to be penned by someone who has just as much respect for eastern philosophy as the BEASTMASTER source material. To Dar: “My name is ‘Tao’, it means ‘The Way’, and I will show it to you.” That was one sentence and already I hate this guy. And yes, he pronounces “tao” with a “T” sound, not a “D” sound. Of course Tao knows everything about Dar, that he is the last of his kind; that his tribe was slaughtered by the evil Terons and that he and his girlfriend were the only survivors. Wait… how can Dar be the last of his kind if there were TWO freakin’ survivors? What was Kyra just there doing some shopping while visiting from another village? If you think I’m nit-picking on this point, it’s not just mentioned once, but THREE times during the pilot. All of that info is actually included in the opening narration as well! Any time anyone so much as claps eyes on Dar, they have to say that he is the last of his kind. Might as well start saying that he is an only child. Never mind that he has a brother. Well, at least in the films he does. Dar’s backstory has changed so much, that there is really not much point in calling him "Dar". His entire character has undergone an overhaul. Gone is the mark on his hand, gone are the ridiculous amount of family members, gone is the mental clumsiness. Yes, Dar is quite a bit sharper in physical and mental reflexes, looking less like a guppy at feeding time and more like a... well, feral warrior dude. In addition to using martial arts, he has ditched his sword in favor of a sectional spear that appears to have been carved out of bone or ivory. Not a very PC weapon for the animal-lovin’ hippy that is Dar.

I know it's hard to tell, but this guy is eeeevil!
While Dar searches for his kidnapped love, a sorceress watches him via a puddle of water in a cistern, like all good sorceresses do, and muses about how she has no understanding of “love” and that the Beastmaster must be the key. Reeeeeaaally… how fascinating. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz… As if we needed more filler, we also are treated to a new backstory for Kodo and Podo about how they were banished from their village for – hey wait! No, seriously, I am not making this up! Maybe it’s because they have so much time to fill (22 episodes per year), but TV shows love their back stories. Even so, they are fucking ferrets, they don't need a backstory! Anyway, another favorite TV show staple is the Talking Head Playhouse. Long scenes of overdramatic, soap-opera-esque dialogue sequences that tend to really be all about nothing. For instance, when King Zad (Steven Grives) is attempting to seduce Kyra in a brutish fashion we have a rather long exchange, of which these are excerpts:
King Zad: “What is it that makes a man’s heart want a woman?”
Kyra: “You have the power to take my body, my heart it has to be won.”
This is nothing short of grueling.

On the way to find Kyra’s comfy prison (a four-poster bed guarded by stone snakes that spit blinding black mist), Dar is attacked by what it probably the lamest CGI monster ever. This confrontation causes a marble mausoleum to burn to the ground (yes, marble burns), and sets him back on the path to finding Kyra, with whom he has a huge, massive, harp-plucking, tear-soaked sequence in which they go on and on about how much the love each other. At this point I was pretty much curled up in a fetal position on my sofa hoping that I might be lucky enough to choke to death on some chicharones rather than endure another second of this garbage. No such luck. Once Dar’s rescue attempt is foiled he meets the sorceress again and she brings back the Staypuft Smoke Man, and if that wasn't stupid enough, Dar defeats it by simply cutting it in half with his spear. A monster made of smoke and fire... killed with a spear. Uh huh. Of course Kyra is taken away by the fleeing King Zad, so that Dar could spend another sixty plus episodes trying to find her. Or at least that is what I am assuming because I'll be damned if I'm going to sit through another one of these. 

Best disguise - EVER!
Here we have the Beastmaster whittled down to something that all typical TV shows love to embrace. Simple characters, overly dramatic dialogue, cheap sets and costumes and a big, obvious socially-conscious message delivered with all of the subtlety of a gold brick wrapped in a slice of lemon.

Surprisingly in recent years, many shows have worked a story arc through all of the season’s episodes and have actually captured some solid depth and complexity. You could attribute this to the monumental success of Lost (2004), but there were many other shows that paved the way for Lost, including Nowhere Man (1995) and most importantly The Prisoner (1967). With the last season of Dr. Who (2010) delivering some of the best science fiction writing to grace the small screen in decades, perhaps there is hope for some decent fantasy programming in the future. Or maybe that is just a science fiction story in itself.

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.