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, 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.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Clonin' the Barbarian: ATOR THE INVINCIBLE (1982)

We got some serious love for a man named Joe D’Amato here at VJ, he was a one of a kind in a country that spawned some seriously amazing genre auteurs. While making rip-offs of STAR WARS (1977) and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) required sets, locations, and special effects, ripping off CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982) could be done for nothing more than some rented animal furs, a few cheap swords and patch of woodland. Throw in some toplessness of both genders and damned if you ain't got an income! This point was proven with authority as a  mere seven months after the premiere of CONAN THE BARBARIAN, ATOR was unleashed upon the world. D'Amato's films tended to be pretty threadbare on the whole, but none so much as what is probably his best known, ATOR. So successfull was this film that it spawned no less than three sequels and actually inspired impoverished filmmakers to make their own Ator wannabes.

As the opening narration tells us, there was an evil High Priest of the Spider who oppressed the land for 1000 years. A great and mighty warrior named Torin rose up to meet the challenge! And failed. Even though he was dead, he bore a son because he “cast his seed upon the wind” (eewww!). We know it’s his son because he has the mark of Torin, or a temporary tattoo that if you squint your eyes really tight kinda looks like it might be a blue eagleish looking thing. The Spider King, who’s hip to all this prophecy stuff, gets word from one of his soldiers that “the earth trembles like a virgin being draw to the nuptial bed” and realizes that this can mean only one thing! He must gather his legions (ok, his couple of dudes), and send them out to kill the child. Hmmmmm… I think I’ve heard this story somewhere before. Is there a manger involved?

A schlub who is clearly a white guy trying to pass as a mongol, named Griba (Emond Purdom, in a wig too cheap for even Amir Shervan), decides he’s going to save the child and takes him to a remote village and gives him to some surrogate parents to bring up as their own in exchange for food, herbs and whatever they want. Years later Ator has grown up, at least physically, and has discovered the proud, masculine tradition of barbarian hairstyling. After being admonished by what appears to be a seriously clingy girlfriend (Ritza Brown) for leaving her alone (to which Ator’s response is the old “I was in the forest” line), they bat their lashes at each other and have this, the film’s most infamous exchange:
Ator: “I love you.”
Sunya: “And I love you. “
Ator: “Why can't we marry?”
Sunya: “Ator, we are brother and sister. “
Ator: “I'll talk with our father.”

Dad tells Ator that he was adopted, which in this case is actually good news! Ator’s enjoyment of his wedding’s interpretive dance troupe is cut short when the Spider Priest decides that his long-time enemy Griba is hanging out there and needs to be killed, pronto. While slaughtering the innocents in their search for Griba, the Spider Priest and his men decide that they might as well kidnap Ator's bride! Big mistake. Now Ator is set forth on the path of revenge. Finally! Oh wait, no... No, now Ator has to learn to fight, or as Griba says “you have learned to fight like a tiger! That is not sufficient. Now it is time to use your heads and fight like a man!” What the hell does that mean?! For one, all those Shaw Brother’s flicks told me that fighting like a tiger was second only to fighting like a dragon, or even a monkey was pretty freakin' badass, for two... oh, never mind. After finally being trained up by Griba in the tiniest cave-dojo ever, Ator sets out to rescue his sist — err, I mean, wife. Finally!

In the first of a series of Herculean quests Ator is captured by a group of hot female warriors who decide to hold a battle to find which one of them gets the opportunity to grapple with his manhood. Hmmm… ya know these "quest" things ain't so bad, come to think of it. The winner, Roon (Sabrina Siani, who went on to star in Fulci’s CONQUEST, or at least her naked torso did), gets all fired up for her hot date and to her dismay is treated to nothing but Ator’s sob story about his love being kidnapped by the evil Spider dude. Annoyed but not about to give up on the only swingin' hammer in the forest, Roon figures at some point he’ll breakdown and use her for more than a shoulder to cry on. She decides to set herself up for disappointment and help him on his quest to stumble bravely in the face of danger.

No sooner than they have set out, they run across a witch (Laura Gemser) who seems to want the same thing (“you will be mine until you have no strength left to gratify me” – gotta love older women) and scarf down a plate of beans so large that you’d expect Slim Pikens to show up at any moment. Did I mention that Ator really isn’t much of a hero? He gets knocked unconscious when his village is being slaughtered, he gets captured by girls and when Roon gravely intones that “now we must pass through the land of the walking dead,” Ator responds “Well… if we gotta go…” Those muscles must be the only thing holding Ator upright, because it sure as hell ain't a backbone!

After fleeing the “walking dead” (a few guys in white face-paint shrouded in mist) by backing into a cave, Ator and Roon must go into the caverns under the volcano where the mystical Shield of Mordor is kept. Roon tells Ator that these are the caverns of the blind warriors who have a highly developed sense of smell, but apparently are also stone deaf as Ator stomps around like a herd of elephants and swings his sword around for no reason whatsoever. In an incredibly inexpensive, but amusingly creative moment, Ator is attacked by a shadow warrior. No, not a ninja. That would have been cool. No, here D’Amato decides that an actual shadow should attack Ator leading to some amusing choreography, or lack thereof with some clashes missing by a country mile even though loud clangs can be heard on the soundtrack. Better still, the shadow is actually winning the battle until it is defeated suddenly when Roon simply obscures the light source, leaving Ator standing there with his sword in his hand looking rather silly. As if that wasn't excitement enough (uhhhh, yeah) the climactic battle has Ator taking on a giant immobile tarantula puppet, that is so cheesy looking that Bill Rebane would look sideways at it.

It’s a much debated topic, but for a director like D’Amato to leave out the sleaze quotient seems a little odd. Sure there’s that distant shot of Siani bathing in a stream, but the film is definitely lacking in the exploitation elements of CONAN as well as it’s plethora of imitators. There are at least two scenes of violence that appear to be cut but other than that the action is completely bloodless. The only really damning evidence is the final death of the spider in which the wound gushing red water is clearly censored as it is cropped off the edge of the screen. This is a fairly common form of video censorship, particularly for films transfered to video in the early '80s. Most prints appear to be from the same source, so perhaps the original elements have been lost, but it’s interesting that as popular and well distributed on video this film has become, nobody has set out to release an uncut, widescreen print of the film on DVD. I guess that part of the prophecy was never written.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Clonin' The Barbarian: Cinematic Copies of the Cimmerian

Mongol General: Conan! What is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, 
and to hear the lamentation of their women.

- CONAN THE BARBARIAN dialogue or Video Junkie mantra?

No, your eyes are not deceiving you. We are actually diving into another one of our patented Video Junkie theme week extravaganzas (and by “week” we mean a minimum of 14 days).  We’ve officially done blind guys (Blind Vengeance), a horror author (H.P. Lovecraft), eye-popping cinema (Revenge of 3-D) and a nearly soul crushing, face melting Spielbergian journey (Dr. Jones I presume?).  We think we’ve fully recovered enough from that last outing to once again dip our toes back into the cinematic wading pool of rip-offs.  And, like Indiana Jones, we’ve settled on another early 1980s cinema icon that is known worldwide – Conan the Barbarian!

Conan, the dark-haired warrior who worships the God Crom, was the creation of writer Robert E. Howard in the 1930s.  The first published work featuring Conan was “The Phoenix on the Sword,” which appeared in an issue of Weird Tales in December 1932.  The short story focuses on Conan the Cimmerian – master of war – being ill at ease with the political duties of being King of Aquilonia (he strangled the previous chair holder) and some assassins attempt to dethrone him.  The character proved to be popular with Howard serializing sixteen more adventures over the next four years before his untimely suicide in 1936 at the age of 30. Howard left behind four completed stories (published posthumously, bringing the tally to twenty-one) and four uncompleted drafts.

Of course, we should focus on how this character journey from the pages of a pulp magazine to the big screen. Howard’s works were collected in the 1950s and published in seven hardback volumes by Gnome Press.  The first five volumes had Howard’s stories (including the debuts of previously unpublished ones) while the last two featured new and/or rewritten Conan stories by other writers.  No doubt these volumes fell into the hands of future filmmakers and spurred their imaginations. Now if I had to lay my money down on what was truly the impetus of Conan getting to the silver screen, it would be the paperback issuing of Howard’s work beginning in 1966 by Lancer Books (and later Ace when Lancer went out of business) and lasting over a decade.  Not only did these put Conan’s adventures in chronological order (with, again, other writers providing new stories), but the releases featured cover art by Frank Frazetta that would become synonymous with the invincible barbarian.

In addition to the Howard stories receiving mass publication, the Conan character got more exposure via the world of comic books.  They are like books on steroids! Marvel Comics unveiled the Conan the Barbarian series in October 1970 and then parlayed that success into The Savage Sword of Conan, a more adult-oriented magazine, in August 1974.  No doubt this popularity amongst the kids (and the rise of popular sword and sorcery role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons) convinced Hollywood producer Edward Pressman that this was a viable commodity and he bought the rights to the Conan the Barbarian character and stories in the mid-1970s.

Pressman officially began work on the Conan film project in 1976 as he recruited Conan comic writer Roy Thomas and Ed Summer to write a screenplay adapting some of Howard’s stories into a big screen adventure. The duo was unsuccessful so the duties fell to Oliver Stone.  Stone’s work retained a lot of the Howard universe, but was deemed far too expensive to make.  Soon newly-attached director John Milius was on to collaborate and the duo did not get along.  Gee, a gun nut with a military fetish (Milius) not getting along with a guy who actually fought in a war (Stone)?  Shocker!  Anyway, Milius did a massive rewrite on the film, which was now a project for some scrawny geek who won Mr. Universe named Arnold Schwarzenegger. The rest, as they say, is cinematic history.

CONAN THE BARBARIAN arrived in theaters in May 1982 and made just under $40 million dollars in the United States.  Not bad for an R-rated flick with an unknown in the lead.  The film has easily stood the test of time and is now considered an absolute classic.  It also effectively launched not only Schwarzenegger’s career (sorry California!), but the sword and sorcery genre, the modern day equivalent of the Steve Reeves HERCULES flicks where brawny men had no problem taking their broad swords to a variety of men and beasts.  And you know if something is popular with the public that the imitations are going to come fast and furious.  Like the earlier sword and sandal or spaghetti western genres, it appealed to greedy producers because it was cheap and easy to replicate.  All you really needed were some swords, a natural location (forest or rock quarry, preferably) and a big muscle-bound guy in a loin cloth.  CONAN THE BARBARIAN rip-offs began appearing in the very same year and ran the gauntlet from great to WTFville.  So join us as we attempt to swim in the carbon copy cinema of everyone’s favorite Cimmerian.  Hopefully we don’t drown in “lakes of blood.”

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Cinemasochism: SHE (1983)

“This isn’t about sense.” – She (Sandahl Bergman)

You can say that again, sister!  We’ve previously covered the various film adaptations of H. Rider Haggard’s seminal adventure novel King Solomon’s Mines.  But the man also provided another work for cinematic fodder in She: A History of Adventure, the story of explorers who locate a lost kingdom that worships female goddess She in the deepest of African jungles.  The story initially debuted in serialized fashion and has been adapted for film no less than eight times, with the 1965 Hammer production starring Ursula Andress and Peter Cushing as the most well known.  Of course, if I had my way, you all would be worshipping at the altar of 1983’s SHE, a mind-melting “adaptation” of the source novel. In short, SHE rocks!

SHE takes place in a post-apocalyptic world (we assume) twenty-three years “after the cancellation.”  Wanderers Tom (David Goss, later of HOLLYWOOD COP infamy), Dick (Harrison Muller, Jr.) and Hari (Elena Wiedermann) – yes, those are really their names – arrive at what looks like a Renaissance Fair flea market where folks sell such in demand items as Corn Flakes and Mountain Dew.  The awe at such amazing products doesn’t last long as the vicious Norks, led by Hector (Gordon Mitchell), pillage the village and kidnap Hari in the process.  Rule #1 in post-cancellation world – don’t trust guys in football pads that have a Nazi swastika painted on them. And be wary of Gordon Mitchell with highlights.

Tom, looking to save his wounded friend Dick, steals a horse from fair maiden She (Bergman) by knocking her off it and rides into the local town looking for help.  Of course, they don’t realize they just rolled into She’s kingdom and both men are quickly drugged by a lady and made into slaves.  She the Goddess seems to enjoy torturing men and makes Tom walk blindfolded through a series of spikes. She leaves him for dead, but doesn’t know they are somehow linked together through some mystical story that some old lady in a cave tells She after she kills some warriors who pop out of boxes. Anyway, Tom is saved by an old hermit with lots of dogs (isn’t that always the case), who tells him the only She knows the way to the Nork headquarters.  Looks like we’re gonna have a good ol’ royal kidnapping.  I wonder if they will hate each other, but then learn to work together.

So Tom returns to the city of She, frees his friend Dick from a pigsty, and the duo then abducts She.  Damn it, Mircosoft Word, I want She capitalized.  Stop bugging me.  The trio immediately encounters trouble as they are captured by some chainsaw wielding mutant lepers who put them in a big trash compactor. Shandra (Quin Kessler), She’s right hand woman, saves them at the last minute and Tom and Dick are slaves again.  But She feels a tinge of sympathy for their plight and lets them go.  Then, inexplicably, She and Shandra decide to join them on their quest to save Hari. Why?  Because She said so!  So their journey begins with increasingly odder encounters with every step that include werewolf cannibal yuppies, psychic cult leader Godan, a big oaf in a pink tutu, a self cloning robot named Xenon, and, finally, the Norks who like to spray paint their compound with threatening (and grammatically incorrect) graffiti about themselves.

Is the director trying to tell me something?
If you want a good laugh, head on over to Wikipedia and read the synopsis of Haggard’s source novel to compare it to the previous three paragraphs.  Uh, lets see, we have She, a regenerative fountain (a hot tub in the film) and, damn, that’s it!  I haven’t read the novel, but I assume there is no Frankenstein monster that’s head explodes when you pull a bolt from its neck.  This “adaptation” is so loose with the source material that Stephen King watched it and said, “Damn, Haggard got royally screwed.”

But what director Avi Nesher lacks in faithfulness, he more than makes up for with WTFness.  This is a film of such utter bizarreness that you have to wonder how this isn’t a cult classic getting ROCKY HORROR-esque screenings every weekend.  The opening flea market scene lets you know right away that something is totally “off” with this flick.  I mean, a guy attacks our heroes with an umbrella!  Look, I know nuclear radiation is bad, but will it really make you dress like a kabuki performer on acid?  There is just so much strange stuff going on here, like Nesher caught a screening of FLASH GORDON and thought, “I can out-weird them with 1/20th the budget!”  The entire quest is bizarre and I love that Hari doesn’t even seem to be happy when her brother finally rescues her.  My personal viewing highlight has to be Xenon, the ever duplicating bridge guardian who does all those impersonations. He is so annoying that I found myself wishing for the subtlety of some like Robin Williams.

Of course, there is a simple reason why such a bastardized (bitchized?) version of SHE exists.  Well, two reasons actually. See if you can spot them in the chart below:

Yup, CONAN THE BARBARIAN and THE ROAD WARRIOR were tearing up the box office in May 1982.  Hell, anything with a sword near it was making cash (see Albert Pyun’s THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER posting a strong $14 million in 5 weeks, a feat he has never topped).  I can clearly see Nesher’s pitch to the money men now – “What if we take a CONAN-style flick and set it in a post-apocalyptic world?”  Hell, the producers even went out of their way to sell SHE as a CONAN rip-off (see the above poster).  But it gets even better as Nesher says, “And we’ll even hire the chick from CONAN!” Yes, Sandahl Bergman was wooing many a pre-teen boys’ heart with her turn as Valeria in the Schwarzenegger classic and they made sure to exploit that fact by casting her.  And, of course, by giving her skimpy clothes, a nude scene and getting whipped.  How many young S&M freaks did this flick mold?  You can’t get much better than that…

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The "Never Got Made" File #54: TWO IN THE STARS

Since we have inadvertently found ourselves in a sci-fi spaghetti nightmare, it seems only fitting that the next NGM entry focus on an unrealized Italian STAR WARS rip-off.  In October 1979, Filmitalia ran an impressive ad in Variety for TWO IN THE STARS:

With a declaration of a start of "spectacular special effects filming," the impressive ad featured a kid standing next to a badass looking robot on desolate planet (that was without a doubt going to be real with a rock quarry in Italy).  Even more impressive are the cast and crew attached to the project.  Now this is where we get your inner EuroCult geek to tear up as the leads listed were Fred Williamson and Bo Svenson, who had just been in THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (1978).  In addition, there is Jackie Basehart (also from INGLORIOUS), Sven Valsecchi (who most likely was going to play the kid), Antonella Interlenghi, and super slumming Arthur Kennedy (who had just gotten his sci-fi freak on in THE HUMANOID).

The director listed is Anthony Ascot, the pseudonym for Giuliano Carnimeo.  He did a bunch of spaghetti westerns in the 1960s, but the only film of his I've seen is the amusing THE DIAMOND PEDDLERS (1976) starring Paul Smith.  Also notable in the announced credits is a score by ace composer Stelvio Cipriani, who had previously scored two of Carnimeo's westerns starring George Hilton.

Eight months later, Filmitalia ran a bigger, two-page ad that offered even more visual information to run sci-fi ravaged brains wild.  Interestingly, this promo piece declares the "completion of spectacular special effects filming."  Williamson and Svenson are no longer attached and the empty "with an important international cast" offers nothing (don't forget who the Italians considered "important").  The artwork does promise a white guy and black guy teaming up in space though, meaning someone in Italy heard about Billy Dee Williams being cast in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980).

And here is something really exciting - two FX shots that ran in Starlog that were sent in by the effects man. These shots in the September 1980 issue might be the only publicly released images from the film's special effects shooting. And I'm convinced that is Raimund Harmstorf's beard in that second shot. :-)