Thursday, September 11, 2008

Deathstalker (1983): or, Bush League Barbarians

It's no news to anyone by this point that cinematic nostalgia is a risky proposition. So many things go into the formation of a fond memory--not just the thing or event itself, but the person you were at the time, the things that were going on in your life, your experiences up to that point, the way you perceived the world around you. Those are all things that change over time, so when you go back to something that was dear to you years ago--now older, wiser, with more experiences to draw on and possibly even different ways of viewing the world--you're really kind of a different person. Therefore your experience of that previously beloved thing, informed by all these new factors, is bound to change as well.

Case in point, the 1983 Roger Corman-produced sword-and-sorcery adventure Deathstalker. When I first saw this flick on cable in the mid-80s, Ronald Reagan was president, George Michael was still with WHAM!, and Socs and Greasers everywhere were still arguing about whether Ali Sheedy's transformation at the end of The Breakfast Club was sweet and fitting or inexcusably character-betraying and EVIL. As for me, I was chubby, socially awkward, and at the mercy of the waves of mind-corrupting hormones coursing through my pubescent body, with only Savage Sword of Conan magazines and scrambled late-night Cinemax for release.

At that time, Deathstalker was JUST what I needed.

Do you feel a draft?

After Conan the Barbarian hit the box office like a giant womanizing politically-motivated Austrian bombshell in 1982, the market was flooded with cheap knock-offs and imitators almost immediately. Deathstalker is one of them. Eschewing the lengthy origin story of that prototypical flick (the childhood trauma, the Wheel of Anguish, the boulder-based weight-lifting regimen), our hero Deathstalker leaps into action fully formed, saving a hapless damsel from a horde of goblins who want to rape her, and her sheepskin-wearing escort who...well, who also wants to rape her. He's about to take his reward as stipulated in the "It's Not Rape If I Just Saved You From Goblins" Accord of 456 B.C., when suddenly he's interrupted by an old man who's come to summon him to the court of the deposed king. The girl gathers her tattered robes and buggers off, leaving our hero feeling underappreciated and horny.

Deathstalker is played by Rick Hill, who after this went on to wield a sword in Warrior Queen, Dune Warriors, and Deathstalker IV: Match of the Titans. He's buff and handsome in a plastic "Ken Doll meets George W. Bush on Steroids" kinda way, and delivers all his lines as if he were responding absently to questions on a phone survey while filing his nails. He does rock the Prince Valiant hairdo and proto-Sorbo leather wardrobe, though, it has to be said.

Deathstalker Endorses Gold Bond Powder

The King's court is a frankly pathetic bunch of guys in tents in the forest, since the evil wizard Munkar has taken over and kidnapped the Princess in the bargain. The King offers Deathstalker half his kingdom if he will fight Munkar and return the land to its rightful ruler. Stalker is not interested. "You need a fool," he tells the king. "Not a fool," the old man retorts, "A HERO!" Deathstalker looks at him blankly from atop his steed. "Heroes and fools...are the same thing." Yeah, just like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, this Rick sticks his neck out for NO ONE!

So, with our reluctant hero and his dramatic situation economically established, we next get a montage of evil-doin's in Munkar's castle. We get an all-girl hot tub orgy, mead-hall brawls, MORE rape and pillagement, and copious displays of female flesh. Munkar--a bald, goateed baddie with a wicked dragon tattoo on the side of his skull--watches it all with bemused evilness. Aaaand...that's our set-up. Stalker good, Munkar bad! GO! Economical storytelling, but in the way a 25-cent microwave burrito is an economical meal compared to a chimichanga from El Chico.

"Be honest now, which do you like better: this..."

...or this?"

Cut to an unknown innocent getting dragged behind horses for no reason we viewers will ever know. (I guess it's just shorthand for "the guys on the horses are NOT NICE.) That business done, the leader of the bad guys, Kang, approaches the straw hut of an old witch and has words with her, something about a Sword of Justice and how Munkar wants it. The witch transforms her walking stick into a serpent with some powerful magic words--"Transform Stick into Serpent!"--while Deathstalker rides up and commences to slaying, again for no reason we can discern. (He does get a nice "head lopped off and flying through the air" kill, though, which is always fun.) Kang uses his magical amulet to change his form and slip the witch's grasp (Magic words: "I change my form and slip your grasp!") leaving Deathstalker confused in a sheen of oily sweat.

Turns out Deathstalker knows the witch and trusts her, since once she explains that Munkar has The Amulet of Life and The Chalice of Power, needing only the Sword of Justice to become all-powerful and immortal, the Barbarian of Blond Buffness immediately takes off to foil the wicked wizard's scheme. I guess 50% of a kingdom doesn't appeal, but a sweet new sword and the Witch's say-so carry more weight.

Soon he's found the Cave of the Sword of Justice, where Salmaron the Keeper of the Sword lives. Salmaron is set up here as a kind of Yoda figure, living in a cave in the swamp, possessing the knowledge the hero needs for his quest--but better than that, he's a freakin' hilariously awful hand puppet! Seriously, he's a slap in the face to everything Jim Henson ever stood for. Salmaron refuses to help Deathstalker find the sword--he's been trapped in the cave for 40 years, cursed into this form by a witch, and only a young boy can break the spell and free him, yada yada yada. At that moment a Cave Troll that looks like one of the original members of GWAR attacks, and without another thought Salmaron hands over the sword so Stalker can slay 'im.

NOT a prototype.

Using the sword's magic, Deathstalker transforms himself into a little boy so that he can fulfill the prophecy, to such strains of overbearing dramatic score you'd think this was the climax of the film rather than the end of a plot thread that just started three minutes ago. (Seriously, the score here has more orchestral stings than a hornet's nest under the Philharmonic.) Free of his bondage, Salmaron transforms into a little Italian man and accompanies Stalker on the rest of his journey, though for all the action he has he might just as well have stayed in the cave.

(Note--when he's a goat-man Salmaron has a hilarious gruff Bronx accent that lends another level of surrealness to his puppety goodness; but once transformed, the actor portraying him has a thick Italian accent that is not funny in the least. Why they didn't get the same actor to do both bits is beyond me.)

On the road again, we find another barbarian by the name of Oghris (who looks like the lab-born love-child of Scott Baio and Mark Hamill), rockin' his midriff scale-mail armor and saving yet another damsel from the rape squad. Deathstalker comes in to add the assist (ANOTHER excellent lop, chop, and roll) and learns from Oghris that Munkar is holding a tournament of warriors to determine who will be his heir. Now with THREE possible motivations for going to Munkar's castle, Deathstalker joins Oghris for the remainder of the trip.


And now we come to the part of the movie that cemented it in my adolescent brain forever. Hearing some noise by their camp in the middle of the night, Oghris and Stalker investigate and are attacked by a mysterious cloaked warrior. The stranger bests Oghris but can't take Stalker, who soon steps back and realizes that he's fighting a woman--a woman pretty much completely naked but for her cloak and sword! Yes, it's Kaira, the Braless Barbarian, played by future Barbarian Queen Lana Clarkson. With steely eyes, frosted 80s hair, a mighty sword, and fully liberated funbags, Clarkson is a Heavy Metal cover painting come to life. Before long she and Stalker are gettin' it AWN by firelight, in a gloriously extended sex scene that at age 14 I could never outlast.*

*TMI Alert

Be back in 5 minutes...

So we finally get to Munkar's castle, where the joint is really jumping. Princess Codille (played by fresh-faced Playmate Barbi Benton) struggles for survival in Munkar's harem, Munkar feeds his monster-puppet pet a slave boy's eyeball, women are taken off the street by jackbooted thugs to provide entertainment in the visiting warriors' Rape and Rumpus Room, and in what may be the surest and most awesome sign we're watching an exploitation flick from the 80s, in the main hall two girls are thrown into a specially built pit for a no-holds barred bout of MUD WRESTLING! (Betcha Thulsa Doom never thought of THAT!) We get pig-man warriors, the possible reappearance as an extra of a character who died earlier, sweaty men grappling with girls in diaphonous gowns, and a pair of elderly dwarfs in jester outfits. Really, it makes you want to be an evil wizard when you grow up.

Munkar offers Princess Codille as a prize for a preliminary bout, which Stalker wins pretty much by default when everyone else starts brawling (in a bit of slapstick, the sore-knuckled Pig Man rips off a passing server's arm in order to continue beating his victim). Promising to send the princess to his room later that evening, Munkar goes to his chambers and calls in one of his goons. Reasoning that no one can beat Deathstalker and recognizing the Sword of Justice when he sees it, the wizard plans to take advantage of Stalker's weakness for women by transforming his goon into the spitting image of Barbi Benton! After feeling himself up a little--like you do--the assassin goes to Deathstalker's room.

"Seriously...does my butt show in this thing?"

Benton actually does some of the best acting in the film here, pretending to be a man in a hot woman's body trying to assasinate a man who wants to get into her/his pantaloons. The nervousness and discomfort, the clumsiness walking on heels--it's actually rather well done. Of course the assassination attempt is an EPIC FAIL, and Stalker throws the wench on the bed and proceeds to get amorous. Never let attempted murder get you out of the mood--that's the Barbarian Code. The mood IS broken, however, when the gender-confused goon gets a taste of Stalker's love and cries out "YES!" in her full-throated man-voice. Stalker quickly ejects his sexually awakened transgendered lover--which is really just rude, when you come down to it.

But the show goes on--Kaira is killed in a TOTALLY LAME duel with the manhood-restored assassin; the tournament begins and we get to see all kinds of barbarian fighting styles, from "wiry hyper horn-hatted dude stabbing the shit out of dudes" to "pro wrestling dropkicks" to "Gallagher Sledge-O-Matic Style"; a traitorous Mark Baio wrestles Deathstalker all over his bedroom, body oil and pheromones flying, and gets his neck snapped like a chicken for his trouble; another head-roll kill followed by a magical recapitation; and a final battle between Munkar and Deathstalker that ends with the wizard quartered by a rebellious populace and Deathstalker destroying the artifacts of power for no good reason. The end.

"By the Power of Greyskull...I--what? Oh, shit."

So revisiting this slice of nostalgia in the clear light of adulthood, I find myself a bit more critical of its faults than I was more than twenty (eep!) years ago. The acting is terrible throughout--apparently a barbarian maintains the same expression whether he's eating roast dog or skewering a pig-man. There's no characterization to speak of--everyone wanders onto the set like they have an appointment to get to, sleepwalks through the scene, and wanders off again, without a hint as to their motivation or inner lives. (Benton's transgender performance excepted.) The puppets are laughable, the battle choreography is terrible, and the sets--oh my god, the sets! The castle walls look like nothing so much as those of the Fun Castle at the state fair, all airbrushed fiberglass and cardboard. Writing, direction, musical score, basic scene blocking--nearly everything in the movie is decidedly half-assed.

Notice I say nearly everything. The one area where Deathstalker ISN'T half-assed is in the arena of...well, ASSES. Make no mistake--this movie is ALL ABOUT the gratuitous butt-shot! Bare asses, thong-wearing asses, diaphanous gown-covered asses, wet asses, muddy asses--there's almost always some female flesh on display, and it's almost always EXCELLENT.

Yes, but...

Yes, but...


And that's just the extras--Barbi Benton as the princess (and the ill-fated assassin--a word I just realized has TWO "asses" in it) is frequently naked and always gorgeous. And enough cannot be said about Lana Clarkson as the Double-D Destroyer, who actually fights in the nude, has a sex scene, seems extremely interested in Benton's Princess IYKWIM, and even when she's clothed seems pretty much naked anyway. Sure, she's not given much to do (none of the sidekicks are), but when she's onscreen--well, let's just say I can totally see why the 14-year-old me would count Deathstalker among the greatest cinematic achievements of all time.

However, I'm older now, and the Internet has asploded into everyday life, so gorgeous barbarian asses and tremendous tremulous ta-tas are not the rarities for me they once were. While I can laugh at the puppety atrocities, snicker at the sets, and smirk knowingly at the wooden acting and stilted choreography, I just don't get the joy out of Deathstalker that I once did. There are better, more exciting, funnier, and madder Sword-and-Sorcery pics out there, in comparison to which my beloved Deathstalker looks quaint and a little sick. Therefore what would have been a 3 thumb movie in my youth has fallen to half that stature, with a quarter point added for helping me make it through a turbulent time in my formative years. 1.75 Thumbs. And thanks for the mammer--uh, memories.

Note: as nearly everyone knows, Barbarian Queen Lana Clarkson suffered a tragic end to her career and life when she was found shot to death in Phil Spector's apartment in 2003. Spector's trial for his alleged role in her death is still ongoing. It's a testament to her screen presence or perhaps my own soullessness that this knowledge did not interfere with my enjoyment of her sexy strong scenes in this movie. Thank you, Lana, wherever you are--with greatest respect and gratitude, The Vicar.

Blinders to Go Blind For.


Tenebrous Kate said...

I laughed, I cried, I got to see TEN totally bodacious booties. *rrowwwwr* APPROVED!

I'll confess--I got totally hung up on nude swordfighting. That is right up there with "death by cats" in the Things Movies Need More Of list. I share because I care--here's another one for your nude swordfighting file. You're welcome :)

kindertrauma said...

I love the Deathstalker movies. Part 2 is even better!-UNK

Karswell said...

Never saw it... or maybe I just don't remember. But I totally remember the box art from the video stores.

I know I've seen Beastmaster about 91 times though.

The Duke of DVD said...

Another superb review, dearest Vicar! The attention you give to that most awesome of human body parts, the ass, is particularly worthy of mention. I have, of course, watched this at some point, but my memory is rather muddled.

Perhaps I'll decant a bottle of my finest Merlot and bask in the naked-assed glory that is Deathstalker once again...

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