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!

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 Óscar 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.

Monday, March 14, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Clonin' the Barbarian: THE BEASTMASTER (1982)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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