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!

Friday, April 8, 2011

The "Never Got Made" File #56: KING CONAN: CROWN OF IRON

The old saying in Hollywood is you’re only as good as your last picture and Andy and Larry Wachowski were suddenly the best film makers everrrrrr according to Hollywood execs after the release of THE MATRIX (1999).  When asked what they wanted to do post-success, the brothers shocked Warner Bros. by saying they would like to produce a third Conan film.  Not only were they fans of Howard’s orginal writings, but they worshipped the first film and demanded John Milius be brought back as writer and director.  Damn, that move almost makes me want to fogive them for THE MATRIX.  Almost.

So it looks like business is definitely about to pick up.  Oh wait - did you forget where our story takes place?  This is Hollywood and you can damn well bet they will screw this up.  Milius delivered a 180-page beast of a screenplay in February 2001 entitled KING CONAN: CROWN OF IRON.  According to reviews that can be found online (type “King Conan” + “review” in Google), the basic plot has Conan ascending to the throne and then dealing with politics and power.  In addition, he ruminates about his lost love for battle and the estranged relationship with his warrior son Kon.  The script got rave reviews from Conan and Arnold fans for its dramatic take on the aging Conan and WB seemed to be fully behind the project.  Rumored to be up for the role of Kon were flavors of the month The Rock (fall of 2001) and Vin Diesel (spring 2002).

The Wachowski brothers, however, got wrapped up in the production of their MATRIX sequels and things slowed considerably.  Rumors started circulating that WB was trying to get rid of Milius on the project and, surprisingly, an online petition by gathered 10,000 signatures, enough to change execs minds for now.  In April 2003, Milius spoke with that site about his casting ideas.  He wanted old friend Sean Connery in the villainous role of Alba Metallus Fortunas and wrestlers Triple H and Chyna in the role of adversaries Felexio and Carnifexia, respectively.  Uh, wow at those characters names and wrestler casting choices.  Can I take my Milius praise back?

Warner Bros. decided to lay the fate of the KING CONAN project on the box office take of their upcoming summer Schwarzenegger release TERMINATOR 3 (2003).  Despite making $433 million worldwide, the film wasn’t considered a success and talk of KING CONAN cooled again.  The project took a major hit on August 6, 2003 when Schwarzengger announced on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno that he was running for Governor of California given the inevitable recall of Gray Davis.  Yes, the guy who made a career of flexing his muscles and delivering one liners was now running for the most important office in the state.  Even sadder?  He won in October 2003!  Around January 2004 the Wachowski brothers officially left the project as well.  No doubt they were no longer the hot commodities at WB after the MATRIX sequels “underperformed” artistically and financially (only in Hollywood can the $1 billion worldwide gross of the combined sequels be see as bad news).

Now rumor is Schwarzenegger called up Milius and gave him his blessing to continue the project without him.  Bad move as Milius had some sort of weird hard-on for WWE mainstay Triple H and decided to cast him as Conan (the duo also developed a biker flick called JOURNEY OF DEATH around the same time).  Sadly, this rumor was true as Triple H confirmed with news sources in 2004 that he was involved in the new Conan film as the lead.  In the fall of 2004 Milius said he had gained full funding in Turkey and that WB wouldn’t have to foot the bill.  They still weren’t biting.  Thank Crom this version never got before the cameras and, while I’m sure Milius’ script is good, seeing former WCW jobber Jean Paul Levesque in the Conan role would have been downright embarrassing.  Wrestlers aren’t particularly known for their thespian abilities, but Triple H was even stiffer than most, a nearly comatose personality that delivered his wrestling lines with all the range of a cheap motel's TV remote.  Damn, can things get any worse?  Yes, apparently they will.    

In April 2005, Milius was unceremoniously removed from the project (“Eh, what does he know about CONAN movies,” I can hear the execs saying), even though a new Conan film was being kept alive at Warner Bros. studios.  The following month WB announced that Robert Rodriguez was going to produce and direct the new Conan film.  However, Rodriquez’s propensity to do 5 billion projects at once and conflicts over him not being in the Directors Guild of America (DGA) led to him not doing it.  In June 2006, Warner Bros. announced that Rodriguez semi-associate Boaz Yakin would be taking over as writer and director.  What were Yakin’s contemporary projects around this time? Directing the comedy UPTOWN GIRLS (2003) and writing the sequel DIRTY DANCING: HAVANA NIGHTS (2004).  No joke.  Truly the kind of work that would make me jump up and scream, “This guy should do a Conan movie!”  Nothing much happened here and Warner Bros. lost the option to make a Conan film in June 2007. Yes, you read that right – WB spent 8 years developing this film without a finished product.  To put that in perspective, that is double the time it took for Pressman and De Laurentiis to get TWO Conan films made and released.  This is doubly hilarious as the studio’s own 300, released in March 2007, had suddenly made the muscle-bound warrior genre hot again.

Damn, can things get any worse again?  Yes, apparently they will…a lot worse.  Paradox Entertainment, the current owners of the Conan license, sold the film rights to Millenium/Nu Image films in August 2007.  Thus began a roundrobin of directors who were rumored being attached to the new Conan project (predicitibly called a “reimaginaning”) scripted by Josh Oppenheimer and Tom Donnelly.  Suspects included Rodriguez again (also attached to a RED SONJA remake), James McTeigue, and – lord help us – Rob Zombie.  No doubt Zombie left the project when he found out he couldn’t work cursing rednecks into the Conan landscape.  Millenium also spent the better part of 2008-9 negotiating with hackmeister Brett Ratner to make the film.  That ultimately (thankfully?) fell through and they settled on remake specialist Marcus Nispel to create the new CONAN THE BARBARIAN.  Yes, Hollywood ultimately decided to take the project from the hands of its film creator (Milius) to give to the guy who helmed the FRIDAY THE 13th remake.  As if fans of the original weren’t insulted enough, the braintrusts behind this project decided to cast Jason Momoa – previously a dreadlocked alien from STARGATE: ATLANTIS – as Conan.  Fan support was minimal as most couldn’t stop to collect themselves from laughing.  To put it more succinctly, fuck you Hollywood.  Yes, this is your new Conan:

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The "Never Got Made" File #55: CONAN III

As we wind down our coverage of cinematic Conan clones, we figured we’d have to get in at least one “Never Got Made” piece.  Conan may have fought many tough battles and wicked foes, but nothing could prepare him for the harshest realm of existence – Hollywood development hell.  Sure, it seems like sequelizing a huge breakout hit would be a no-brainer (emphasis on the “no brains” part), but this is Hollywood we’re talking about here.  So buckle your seatbelts for the up-and-down rollercoaster that is the attempts to get another Conan flick with star Arnold Schwarzengger made.

Early in the production process of the first film, producer Edward Pressman did a smart thing and signed Schwarzenegger for 5 Conan movies.  Makes sense given the plethora of material.  Discussing the upcoming sequel CONAN THE DESTROYER (at the time titled CONAN, KING OF THIEVES) to Starlog in 1983, Schwarzenegger seemed optimistic about the future films and said he loved playing the role.  As the world knows, always trust an Austrian.

Unfortunately, you could see the cracks beginning to surface.  He bemoaned the idea of Milius not being around and the concept of a PG Conan flick.  Most importantly, he started the interview by saying, “Every decision is based on money.” (You can also see that sentiment in the pic above.)  When CONAN THE DESTROYER came out in June 1984, it did fairly well at the box office.  However, it did less than the original which probably sent the suits into a tizzy because they “worked hard” to neuter the Barbarian for a PG rating to get the kids in the theater.  The film’s tameness, coupled with some really forced comedy, resulted in a film that lived up to its name with – as we like to joke here at VJ – it truly destroyed the series.

Regardless, producer Raffaella De Laurentiis saw enough gold that a third film was immediately planned for a 1987 release.  Around the time DESTROYER was coming out, William Stout dropped this tiny blurb to Cinefantastique that he was writing the CONAN III script.

This actually sounded like a step in the right direction as Stout worked on both the earlier films as a designer/artist and seemed well versed in the Conan universe.  In addition, he had previously co-written the Conan clone THE WARRIOR AND THE SORCERESS.  Little is known about Stout’s proposed screenplay except that it was titled CONAN AND THE EYE OF DEATH.  Sounds awesome!

Around the same time, producers signed on fantasy writer Karl Edward Wagner to do up a sequel script.  Again, this seemed like a great fit as Wagner was well known and respected for his work in the fantasy field.  He had edited several collections of Robert E. Howard’s Conan works in the late 70s and created the popular Conan-esque character Kane in a series of books from 1970-85. Most importantly, he had written the well received Conan sequel novel The Road of Kings in 1979. Here Wagner outlines his involvement in the CONAN III script process to Horror magazine. Interestingly, it seems producer Dino De Laurentiis was initially looking to shoot in China and wanted a direct sequel to DESTROYER as the characters played by Mako and Grace Jones were to come back.  But, as you can see below, the project just kept getting smaller and smaller. Definitely not a good sign.

Two directors considered for the project at the time were Bond vet Guy Hamilton and John Guillerman.  The public, however, seemed to be tiring of the genre as evidenced by the disasterous box office of RED SONJA (1985), which co-starred Schwarzenegger.  The action hero himself wasn’t suffering though as Schwarzenegger suddenly became an even bigger star with the release of the comedy TWINS (1988) – his first film to crack $100 million domestically – and, as the man said, “every decision is based on money” and poor ol’ Dino didn’t have much at the time thanks to expensive flops like DUNE (1984).

Um, thanks?
The new decade saw even more CONAN III developments as writer Charles Edward Pogue (THE FLY remake) pitched a third film to Raffaella.  Using Howard’s The Hour of the Dragon as a foundation, Pogue delivered the screenplay for CONAN THE CONQUERER in February 1992.  Here is what Pogue told Empire magazine of his script:
"What I loved was the idea of a man who had become king by his own wit and prowess, but once enthroned got lost in protocol and politics, and forgot those characteristics. Once dethroned, he had to go back and remember the person he'd lost. Victory always costs something. I felt that Arnold had grown enough as an actor to play that complexity."
Unfortunately, the theme of Schwarzenegger using his clout carried over into the 1990s as he just had the biggest film of his career come out (TERMINATOR 2) and was dragging his feet on the project.  Ironically, he passed on CONAN III to make THE LAST ACTION HERO (1993), the most expensive flop of his career.  The De Laurentiis family had a trick up their sleeve though as they reworked Pogue’s script to fit around Kull of Atlantis, another Howard creation, and gave the world KULL THE CONQUEROR (1997).  But they didn’t learn their lesson from DESTROYER as they again went for less violence and more comedy.  The film bombed upon release in August 1997.  I hear Kevin Sorbo still apologizes at conventions for it.

The CONAN III project seemed as good as dead by the late 90s.  Interestingly a rumor popped up in Starlog in 1998 that Schwarzenegger himself was interested in directing the third film.  Here is a tiny blurb about it from The Arnold Fans in April 1998.
“It may have been 14 years since a new Conan movie hit theaters, but a source claiming links to the Schwarzenegger camp assures us the movie franchise is not dead. Apparently the actor wants to return to his barbarian roots, hoping not only to star in but also direct a third and final Conan film. The story would be based on the tales of an elder Conan, who has ascended to the throne of Aquilonia facing trials that emphasize political intrigue alongside the usual swordplay and sorcery.”
However, having seen a successive string of expensive Schwarzenegger flops (JUNIOR, ERASER, JINGLE ALL THE WAY, BATMAN AND ROBIN), the studios were staying away from expensive Austrian cusine.  The CONAN III project literally needed a savior to resurrect it.  Amazingly, it got one in 1999 thanks to The One.  As Keanu Reeves would say, “Woah!” More on that next time…

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Clonin' the Barbarian: THE WARRIOR AND THE SORCERESS (1984)

Roger Corman can be accused of a lot of things. Mainly, that he was cheap. It’s a fair point, because it’s true, but it’s not really fair because unlike modern skin-flints, Roger made sure that he made up for the lack of production values in other very creative ways. If you are one of those hipster kids who thinks that Corman is dumb because his budgets were slim-to-none, there’s the door. Use it, don’t let it hit you in the ass, we’ll wait. Ok, are the skinny-jean-wearing slackers gone? Good.

Sure, Roger was cheap, he was running a business and didn’t have the capital of the major studios, so what money he did have had to be used to the best effect, but instead of simply slapping a cookie cutter script, amateur actors and CGI blood on to the non-existent production values, he sought out talented writers, actors and directors and pushed as much imagination into his projects as possible. Granted, this wouldn’t pan out 100% of the time, but Corman’s ratio of hits to misses is freakin’ legendary. Case in point: THE WARRIOR AND THE SORCERESS. The most expensive thing about this film is David Carradine, and if you know anything about David Carradine, you know he wasn’t exactly pulling in the big bucks.

Set almost entirely in a very small village on the desert planet of Vra, a wandering stranger (Carradine) dressed in black (whose beard stubble magically comes and goes), named Kain, err… wanders into town only to witness some guards brutally cut down a woman with a baby who simply wanted a drink from the village well. As it turns out the well is the only source of water in this parched wasteland and right now it is being held by the evil warlord Zeg the Tyrant (Luke Askew), one of two rival factions who use the town as a cold war battleground while vying for control of the well. The other faction is headed up by Bal Caz (William Marin), an obese coward who takes strategic advice from what appears to be a Komodo dragon and, like any sensible lord, fills his court is entirely with naked women and a couple of guards.

After getting the skinny on the situation from an old man who recognizes Kain as something more than a simple wanderer, Kain decides to slaughter all the well guards and let the, literally, unwashed masses rejoice. Which they do. By having topless girls in loincloth thongs dance around on the well. Seems perfectly reasonable to me!  This, of course, is merely a message being sent out that his sword is for hire and he knows how to use it. Zeg chomps right on the bait (via a pair of deformed, giggling idiot twins that look like Roberto Begnini after a Freddy Krueger makeover) and hires Kain to kill Zeg. After leaving the Bal Caz’s court Kain overhears the lizard giving Bal Caz some advice: have Kain kill Zeg, then kill Kain and take back the assassin’s fee! Naturally this doesn’t go over so well and Kain decides to help out Zeg.

Zeg, on the other hand spends his time trying to get the sorceress/priestess Naja (Maria Scoza, owner of the world’s smallest wardrobe trailer) to make him the fabled Sword of Urah. Apparently she is the only one with the power to create this mystic sword. What does it do, you ask? Well let me tell you… it doesn’t break! What do you mean “that’s it”? It’s fucking magic ok? Geeze. To accomplish this task Naja is kept chained to a wall and only allowed to wear a thong. Yep, that’s it. Through the entire movie. Sure there may be some hotter women in the Corman stables, but Scoza is still pretty damn attractive and you have to give her props for even doing a wall climbing stunt clad only in a thong. Seriously, the woman is a trooper.

A mutant slaver named Burgo (Arthur Clark), who drives into town on a giant cart that actually uses one of its wheels as a torture device with a slave lashed to it, adds some complications to the plot. Zeg decides he doesn’t like Burgo’s recent deal and he figures he can kill two birds with one water bottle by poisoning Burgo’s soldiers with a waterskin (that is clearly a red-rubber hot water bottle) that bears Bal Caz’s coat of arms. Kain also keeps things nicely acrimonious by kidnapping both Naja and Bal Caz’s lizard and forcing an exchange. You may have noticed that the plot here, Machiavellian lizards and naked sorceresses aside, bears a striking resemblance to a little movie called YOJIMBO (1961). Writer-director John C. Broderick must have known that in the future there would be wannabe movie hipsters, and to avoid being accused of ripping off FIST FULL OF DOLLARS (1964), he’d have to make some serious overtures to the source material. An early scene in the film is completely lifted from YOJIMBO, including the amusing face-off in which both sides do a lot of shouting, but are afraid to attack each other. The only thing keeping this from being a YOJIMBO remake is the fact that Kurosawa’s seminal film isn’t even alluded to in the credits! Who do they think they are? Quentin Tarantino?

Personally, I get a kick out of this movie and always have. I mean, you have to love the fact that it decides to capitalize on the success of CONAN to do a remake of YOJIMBO and then just drop acid and run screaming off into the horizon. Ok, so it’s not whacked like SHE (1982), granted, but it’s definitely touched in the head. When the mandatory celebration occurs before our hero gets the shit kicked out of him by Zed’s goons who have figured out that Kain is the kidnapper, Zed brings out a dancing girl who does an erotic dance… a dancing girl with four breasts! Why four bare breasts? Because a) it’s twice as good as two and b) because it will keep you from noticing that the stone sets are actually made of plaster and nobody even bothered to re-paint the cracks and chips! Incidentally the dancing girls breasts are the only things that are actually true on the poster. Everything else is a lie. She doesn't even wear that outfit. Still, that is, without question, the best part(s) of the poster! Corman knew how to get asses in seats. The other best part of the poster is the way Carradine is holding the sword… hmmmmm, I think I will avoid the pitfall of a tasteless joke concerning the way he died in real life. Yeah, I know, you are stunned by my restraint.

Also of strange interest is the scene where Zed decides to show Kain that he understands irony by dropping a fully naked slave girl into a glass watertank so that she can drown. See they are in a desert and she’s drowning. Funny guy this Zed. Also, Broderick feels that unlike other films, just having Kain free Naja in order to initiate the prisoner exchange is just not quite good enough on its own, so he decides to have her imprisoned in a cage, in a room that is guarded by a squishy, toothy tentacled monster! C’mon, that’s cool! In every other movie the hero just kills a guard and steals his keys! On the down side, the movie appears to have been run through the mid-'80s MPAA grinder as there is a lot of bits that look like they have been tampered with. The one bit of gore that is present is very quickly edited and is obviously censored. It seems a shame that in this enlightened age of relaxed censorship, we still have to pay for the crimes of the past.

Pasting in his famous shot of twin suns over an alien landscape for his opening credits, Broderick lets you know that the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree. It should be noted that this is technically not a Corman film per se, as it is made under his production banner, while he had no active involvement, but his hallmarks are there all the same. It’s cheap as hell and twice as fun. Loaded with enough female nudity, odd references to things that are never fully explained, weird people, strange situations and plenty of action, you’ll completely forget that the movie is made on about three sets, and really cheap ones at that.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Clonin' the Barbarian: DEATHSTALKER IV: MATCH OF TITANS (1991)

As mentioned in our earlier reviews, screenwriter Howard Cohen usually had a hand in every Roger Corman produced CONAN THE BARBARIAN rip-off. Cohen also directed several films for Concorde (including the SATURDAY THE 14th series and the amusing SPACE RAIDERS), so it seems fitting that Corman would bestow the honor of rehabilitating the DEATHSTALKER series to the man who created it. Ha, who am I kidding?  More than likely Corman called up Cohen and said something like this, “I’ve got a castle set in Bulgaria, Rick Hill’s phone number, a Boris painting and $50 bucks. Can you have a fourth DEATHSTALKER movie for me by Wednesday?” Yes, the series that had D.N.R. (Do Not Resuscitate) written all over it was given one last chance at life.

DEATHSTALKER IV opens with the most ominous of signs – narration and footage from the earlier films. When we finally get new footage, Deathstalker (Rick Hill, reprising the role from part one) is saving a young girl from some lionmen.  See those bad ass lionmen on the VHS cover over there? Well, let’s just say they don’t look like that in the film.  Take a look:

Anyway, he saves the girl and then offers to take her to her village.  In a real gutbuster, after riding through the woods the girl says “there is my village” and it is literally three guys in a tent hanging out by a stream.  Of course, these guys will bestow some knowledge on our boy DS. Seems Cohen actually watched part three and tries to weave some continuity between films as Deathstalker is on a quest to find his friend Aldilar from the village after they got separated during that big battle (scenes from part three’s opening attack are shown).  Why does he want to find him?  Well, because they accidentally switched swords during the mêlée.  Really! He learns his buddy was last seen at the castle of local ice queen Kana (Michelle Moffett) and decides to make his way there.

Deathstalker heads in that direction (they always seem to know which way to go) and meets Vaniat (Brett Baxter Clark), a muscle-bound fighter who is heading to the castle for – wait for it – a tournament! Ah, yes, the return of the tournament. They travel together while the Stalker of Death mocks Vaniat’s healthy lifestyle (sex “saps the vital juices”).  Along the way, the duo witnesses Dionara (Maria Ford) and her sister being attacked and save them. Well, Deathstalker tries and it results in the sister being dead and him and Dionara being trapped inside a cave. In another hilarious bit, they don’t even show how they escape from this cave after a pig-man yells, “Ha, you’ll never get out!”  Dionara explains that she was accompanying her sister to the castle for – you guessed it – the tournament!  And now she will take her sister’s place to honor her (or something).  For some odd reason this requires her to strip down and put on her sister’s skimpy outfit (does this tournament have a dress code?).

So everyone eventually makes it to this castle (the production actually uses a real castle) to enter this medieval BLOODSPORT.  But something seems off to Deathstalker and Dionara.  Guards are always patrolling the halls and Kana insists on everyone drinking lots and lots of her super wine. To make matters worse, Kana has her men interrupt Deathstalker while he is putting the muscle-bound moves on Dionara so she can have some alone time with him.  Doesn’t Deathstalker know the “no sex” rule before a fight?  Oh wait, I guess he does as he refuses Kana’s advances and she storms out in a huff, shouting at her main guard, “I need a man.  The bigger, the better.  And drunk!” The next day the tournament begins and, since Deathstalker wasn’t putting out, Kana pits him against his friend Vaniat.  But he shows her by winning while sparing his friend’s life.

Later that night, we learn our hero’s full name must be Deathstalker Marlowe as he and Dionara do some private investigation work. Seems a lot of these drunken warriors keep disappearing and Dionara knows where they might be held. “How do you know,” he asks and she drops the bomb on him that this used to be her house, er, castle before her royal family was ousted by Kana. She shows Deathstalker a secret room and he finds the missing warriors all stoned.  No, not high.  They have literally been turned into stone and Kana’s ulterior motive in having this tournament is to collect the best physical specimens to use for her concrete commandos army. Wait, so her plan is to take fast, able bodied men and transforms them into rocks that move at a sloth’s pace.  Gotcha.  Oh, Deathstalker also spots his magical sword (remember that?) hanging on the wall of a room.  You can figure out the rest.

Oh man, the DEATHSTALKER series should have gone out on a high note, but, sadly, our hero played victim to the mightiest foe of all – Roger Corman’s cheapness.  Opening with credits unfolding over the lamest castle sketch ever and a score more fit for a T&A flick, you quickly realize that this is going to be a Corman cheapie of epic proportions. When the end credits start around the 75 minute mark, you realize that 20 minutes of that runtime was footage from other Corman films.  You have to laugh when narrator Maria Ford comes onto the soundtrack and says something like, “Kana also had fights outside the castle walls to entertain the villagers” in an effort to cover up the fact that the footage they show doesn’t match and fits in as well as Sarah Palin at a Mensa meeting.  The cheapness is even worse when we get to the stone warriors.  The back of the box entices you with this great still of a stoner getting his head sliced in half:

But guess what?  That cool bit ain’t in the movie.  Basically, you have guys covered in grey make-up stumbling around.  I should say partially covered as most everyone seemed to have missed the armpits section.

Of course, this can also be part of the fun.  Like the previously reviewed DEATHSTALKER III, there is a lot of unintentional hilarity to be had here. You have lame fights and even lamer costumes.  You have nonsensical lines like a guard demanding to know the secret of Deathstalker’s sword and he says, “The secret is there is no secret.” My favorite bit involves the tough leader of a lesbian crew trying to show Dionara how ruthless she is by killing a servant girl.  She holds the girls head in a small bucket of water while the girl flails her arms in a helpless panic.  Uh, you know, you can use one of those arms to topple the bucket over and remedy your predicament, right?

But let’s not focus on the bad stuff. Cohen at least brings back the sleaze factor and has ample nudity, including a “this is solely here for the nudity” brawl/food fight in a brothel. All of the leads are good too.  It is cool to see Rick Hill return to the role and he delivers the intentional comedy lines well.  He also sounds a lot like modern day Dolph Lundgren.  Also this had Maria Ford pre-plastic surgery so she was looking pretty fine.  She gets into one or two catfights over the course of the film.  The film’s biggest surprise is Clark as the muscle-bound virgin.  Yeah, you read that right.  There is actually a really funny bit where our heroes are trying to teach him how to seduce Kana.  And there is a recurring gag with him always ditching the poisoned wine while Kana isn’t looking.  It is a shame that the series went out like on such a cheap effort, but I’ll gladly take this being the nail in the coffin over the bland part three. Gotta make it through life with the little pleasures, I tell ya.

Friday, April 1, 2011


Damn, we are riding our horses headstrong into April as we enter week 4 (!) of our examination of CONAN THE BARBARIAN rip-offs.  Since it is April 1st, I thought about doing an April Fool’s joke where I tell you DEATHSTALKER III is the best of the series, but a successful gag should always have a hint of believability in it.  Yes, as they say, all good things must come to an end. DEATHSTALKER delivered in the action. DEATHSTALKER II delivered in the comedy.  Sadly, DEATHSTALKER III only delivers in the “this ain’t nearly as good as the first two” category.

Screenwriter Howard Cohen – no doubt fuming that a DII got made without him – returns to the series to continue the adventures of our titular hero.  Deathstalker (John Allen Nelson) seems to be living the peaceful life now, hanging out at a Renaissance Fair, er, his village where everyone is happy.  And he hangs out with kids for some reason.  Oh crap, not again – this place is fixing to get wrecked. Sure enough, the baddies come riding out of the woods (these villagers never seem to hear them coming) and storm the village.  They are looking for Carissa (Carla Herd), a young woman who possesses ½ of a magical crystal.  She has come here because she believes wizard Nicias (Aaron Hernan) has the other half, but he vaguely tells her to go “to the South” to find it.  So a bunch of villagers are killed, Nicias disappears in a puff of smoke (thanks for helping, dude), and Carissa escapes with her savior Deathstalker.

Setting up camp for the night, Carissa shows Deathstalker the stone and mentions how it will produce “a city built of treasure” when combined with its other half.  She also mentions having a sister who died for it.  Oh, crap, dude is totally emotionally invested now.  This is good because Carissa is quickly killed by some men (that’ll teach her for refusing to sleep in Deathstalker’s tent) and she gives Deathstalker possession of the crystal. He escapes the men once again and runs into the traveling caravan of Princess Elizena (Herd again), Carissa’s stuck up twin sister.  She is on her way to the North (I thought we were going South) to marry Troxartas (Thom Christopher).  What she doesn’t know is ol’ Trox is an evil dude and is marrying her to get the other half of the crystal (which she doesn’t have).  Anyway, Deathstalker proves his charm by pretending to have sex with her when Troxie’s men come around and she calls him something like a ruffian.  Gee, I wonder if these two will work it out.

Troxartas or Joan Crawford?

Wait a sec…didn’t this film’s title mention something about Warriors from Hell? Where are those guys?  Oh, here we go, Troxartas decides to use some of his magic to resurrect some dead warriors to hunt down Deathstalker.  Okay, business is about to pick up as an Army of the Dead is gonna be awesome right? Trox conjures up his spell, the earth begins to tremble and – ouch – the “zombies” burst from some Styrofoam tombs looking no worse for the wear. Seriously, you go in thinking BLIND DEAD-esque rotting skeletons and you get rejects in community theater Knight outfits, bandages and a little greasepaint. Meanwhile, Deathstalker tries to steal a horse from a frizzy hair woman who has a hot daughter Marinda (Claudia Inchaurregui).  Can you see where this is headed?  After a filling meal of only potatoes, Deathstalker and the girl get it on in the barn.  She obviously wasn’t listening when mom said, “There’s only one thing a man like that wants. Careful!” The next day the villains come a knocking (seriously, they knock politely on the woman’s door) and Deathstalker escapes again with Marinda pointing the way toward Troxartas’ castle.  Anyway, Deathstalker hooks back up with Elizena, but she sees that he has the stone and thinks he killed her sister so she splits. Within minutes she is nearly raped by some hooligans and “saved” by her future husband Troxartas.  Deathstalker heads off to his castle to save her.  I’ll let you figure the rest out from here.

Man, did I get the short end of the stick or what?  I guess this is Tom’s payback for him having to do the third BEASTMASTER and TV pilot.  It is not like DEATHSTALKER III is some horrible, painful film to watch.  It isn’t and I never found myself bored with it during its 85 minute run time.  It is, however, just missing that pop, that sizzle, that anything that makes the best Corman productions stand out.  Like the DEATHSTALKER shooting locations (this one moved shooting to Mexico), this film is all over the map.  John Allen Nelson fills Deathstalker’s loincloth this go around, but he lacks Rick Hill’s muscles and John Terlesky’s natural charm.  Actually, he seems more like Robin Hood than Deathstalker.  Nelson is a decent actor and delivers the funny lines well enough, but he seems like he should be heading a 80s teen comedy and not a Deathstalker film.  I also had to shake my head at Thom Christopher as the bad guy.  He frequently dips into this New Yawk accent and looks exactly like Uncle Leo from SEINFELD.

The locations are nice but completely undermined by some really choppy editing and horrible sets.  Seriously, wait until you get a look at the castle as it looks like it should be a low-rent carnival spook house.  No joke, I fully expected the doors to pop open and a bumper car to shoot out at any moment. By far the biggest disappointment though is the confrontation with the “Warriors from Hell.”  I’m not kidding when I tell you this – the big “battle” promised on the back of the VHS box involves Deathstalker confronting the undead around a campfire and asking them not to fight him and instead turn on Troxartas.  They think for a second and agree they are being exploited, living dead and all.  So he never fights them! Classic.

The film does offer a few moments of amusement, but you’ve got to do all that digging on your own.  I chuckled when I heard the recycled theme from BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS.  I laughed at how Nicias disappears in the first ten minutes, only to zap into the castle in a ball of light right into the arms of guards in the finale. There is also some hilarious fight choreography that looks more like an abstract ballet piece than a fight.  My personal favorite bit though was the promise of a magical city with streets of gold when the stones are put together.  They do that and – BAM – the place looks exactly the same.  Maybe that is why Deathstalker splits so quickly? Because he realized he had been scammed and was seeing something that was a total misrepresentation of what he was told it would be.  Damn, I wish I had his intuition.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Clonin' the Barbarian: DEATHSTALKER II: DUEL OF THE TITANS (1987)

I’m not sure how it took Roger Corman, the king of the quickies, four whole years to crank out a sequel to his hugely successful original CONAN-inspired epic. Perhaps it was due to the fact that he was too busy cranking out his own knock-offs of his original knock-off, such as the rather inaccurately titled BARBARIAN QUEEN (1985)! Or maybe he just couldn’t get the right script. Yeah, that’s probably it.

I’ve got to come clean here; we at the VJHQ have a thing for Jim Wynorski. He kicked off his Corman career with the slice of mid-‘80s drive-in nostalgia CHOPPING MALL (1986) and gave us some damn fine sequels including the ultra-cheap, but highly entertaining satire of the SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE series, SORORITY HOUSE MASSACRE II (1990). So good was this, in fact, that Wynorski actually cannibalized the script, changing only the setting and dialogue, and turned it into HARD TO DIE in that very same year! I can see Roger delicately brushing away a tear from the corner of his eye. Sadly, around 1992 Wynorski found the path to cinematic entertainment a rocky and treacherous embankment and his crew bus slid out of control on an icy road and he plummeted to his death. According to the VJ Encyclopedia Erratica, something few people know is that his less talented brother, Bill Wynorski, actually took his name (and pseudonyms) and started trying to imitate his style. True! Watch THE THING BELOW (2004) and tell me with a straight face that was made by the same guy. Not a frickin' chance in hell.

DEATHSTALKER II is a great example of Jim Wynorski’s fine legacy. Cheap as hell, fast-paced, intentionally amusing dialogue and lots of skin wrapped up in a package that is far more entertaining than it has any right to be.

Deathstalker (John Terlesky) is now not so much an ATOR-esque warrior, but clown prince of thieves. After snatching a jewel from a temple altar in a nod to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) and fighting off some clumsy goons, the owner of said jewel, the evil sorceress Sultana (Toni Naples), swears she will “have her revenge… and Deathstalker too!” Yep, that pretty much sets the bar that we are aiming for. Cheap action, minor plagerism and rather goofy dialog.

Deathstalker heads to the local tavern to impress the wenches by quickly waving his hand over a candle (no really, don’t expect any G. Gordon Liddy stuff here), a young, blonde, “seer” Reena (Monique Gabrielle) dressed in rags pleads for his help. This is of course after he already saved her from the town guards, saying “ordinarily I don’t mind seeing a woman get a good beating if she deserves it,” proving that you can be dashing and sensitive at the same time. Deathstalker doesn’t want to hear her crap, but after a bar fight in which RAIDERS is referenced yet again, he decides to listen to her story. See she is actually the princess Evie and has escaped from the clutches of the evil sorcerer Jarek (John Lazar). Jarek has created an evil twin of her to put on the throne so that he can rule the empire along with his mistress Sultana. Jarek is, in addition to being a sorcerer, an expert swordsman who idles away his time killing his own guards. Showing that his management strategy is only rivaled by his love life, Jarek is promising his eternal lust to both Sultana and the princess clone. Phew! Got all that? For reasons I cannot begin to explain this budget-strapped quickie has more plot than a dozen ATORs. Not that I’m complaining mind you.

Reena has embellished her sad tale with a hook to get Deathstalker to help her, untold riches! A king’s, well, princess’, ransom! Hook firmly in mouth, Deathstalker rides to Camelot! Or whatever the name of the castle is. After giving some pursuers the slip, Deathstalker exclaims “you have to get up pretty early in the morning to catch the prince of thieves!” At which point a crossbow bolt thunks into the tree next to his head and Reena points out “it is pretty early in the morning!” Seeing as the guards aren’t cutting it (or Jarek is running out of them), he decides to assemble a rogues gallery of assassins, including a midget. Oh yes, the bar is set high my friends. Basically the bulk of the film is a series of sketches where Deathstalker defeats explosive arrow wielding assassins with a dagger and a ninja shuriken (don’t ask, I don’t know), escapes from an Indiana Jones-esque trap, fights off the living dead in a graveyard, is captured by Amazons, forced to fight a wrestling match with ‘80s icon Queen Kong (Dee Booher), and deliver anachronistic wisecracks out of the side of his mouth that would make Bruce Campbell green with envy.

Featuring more spit-takes than a Mel Brooks film, DEATHSTALKER II predates the overtly campy and anachronistic, but significantly more wholesome, television fantasy outings such as Jack of all Trades (2000). Matter of fact, you could easily make the case that Campbell didn’t really fall into his shtick until after DEATHSTALKER II arrived on the scene. Sure, he was always a wisecracking goombah, but it wasn’t until well after 1987 that he fully developed his mock-heroic gimmick that mirrors Terlesky’s turn as Deathstalker.

The climax of the film features lines filched from GOLDFINGER (1964), gags lifted from Looney Tunes, a duel inspired by Errol Flynn and a pitched battle between what is left of Jarek’s guards and the tribe of Amazon warriorettes, with intricate fight choreography that must have taken a staggering amount of minutes to prepare.  At the same time, I really can’t poke fun at the film for its liberties, since it does a pretty good job doing that itself. If made today, this would come off so self-obsessed and terminally hip that it would drown in the mire of its own self-infatuation. Here Wynorski deftly avoids those pitfalls and turns in a film that has plenty of oddly clever moments thrown into the cauldron of comedy. When Jarek’s one-eyed henchman decides he needs to “call him right now”, he pulls some coins out of his pocket, contemplates them for a moment and tosses them into a mist-covered pool conjuring up Jarek’s visage. It’s sort of a magical medieval payphone gag that is a total throw-away, but it’s kinda funny in a cartoon sort of way.

Unfortunately, the huge success of this film on video didn’t exactly translate to Terlesky’s career, but it did wonders for Wynorski who went on to make SCREAM QUEEN HOT TUB PARTY (1991) and 976-EVIL II (1992). Uhhhmmmm… yeah… bus crash, evil twin, I’m tellin’ ya, it all makes sense.