I think that one of the most forbidding things about Bollywood cinema for those Westerners who might dare to sample it is its apparent hostility to Western notions of genre. For armchair adventurers through world popular cinema like ourselves, such notions normally provide a reliable safe harbor, even when we’re struggling through the most alien of terrains. While a given country’s cinematic repertoire might present us with some disorienting cultural peculiarities, we generally feel secure in the knowledge that we can find within it such universals as horror movies featuring ghosts and monsters, thrillers pitting detectives against masked killers, and adventure films showcasing the exploits of costumed superheroes — any of which we can use as a familiar jumping off point from which to explore those aspects of the landscape with which we are less acquainted.
That some of Bollywood’s worst sins have been committed in the name of nepotism is a fact which anyone who has borne witness to Karisma Kapoor‘s early career can sadly attest to. For the Hindi film industry’s directors, stars and producers, dynasty building seems to be a top order of business, right alongside the practice of their chosen craft. For a fearsome reminder of this, one need look no further than director Raj Kumar Kohli’s 2002 film Jaani Dushman: Ek Anokhi Kahani, as terrible a monument to a father’s love for his son as has ever been erected.
If memory serves, the thing that first brought me to Teleport City was a Google search I did for the Hong Kong director Chor Yuen. At the time I was in the early stages of a now full-blown obsession with Chor, specifically with the adaptations of Ku Long’s wuxia novels that he filmed for Shaw Brothers during the late seventies and early eighties. Given that obsession, you might think — now that I’m living the dream and actually writing for Teleport City — I would have gotten around to covering one of those films. But, the truth is that I’ve been a little intimidated by the prospect. You see, I enjoy those films on such a pre-verbal level that I fear words will fail me in communicating just what it is that I love about them so much. Fortunately, Keith has already done a lot of the heavy lifting for me by covering some of Chor’s better known, more revered films like Clans of Intrigue and The Magic Blade, which affords me the opportunity to turn my attention to one of the lesser-known, perhaps not quite as accomplished, but none-the-less thoroughly enjoyable films from this chapter in his career. You see? Baby steps.
Once you’re done with the knowledge-based cherry picking, there are a wide variety of factors that come into play in deciding which are the potential gems among the selection of five dollar Bollywood dvds at your local Indian grocer or favorite online vendor. Familiar names or faces in the cast or crew of a film are always helpful, but there are also certain thematic or conceptual lures that might serve to tip the scales. In the case of Dharam-Veer, for instance, it certainly didn’t hurt that the cast included the stunning Zeenat Aman–and while its male lead, Dharmendra, isn’t one of my favorite actors, I do harbor a lot of good will toward him thanks to his co-starring role–with Amitabh Bachchan–in the classic Sholay, as well as his appearance in other highly enjoyable films such as Ankhen and Alibaba aur 40 Chor.
At my age, and with my experience, I shouldn’t fall for it. And yet, on occasion, I’m still taken in by cool posters and cover art. At these times, I actually leave my body and hover above myself, screaming warnings but powerless to prevent my corporeal self from plunking down a wad of cash on a movie that has a cool looking cover. “You fool! You know the movie isn’t going to be anything like the cover!” my spirit cries, but alas his words are unable to prevent the transaction. And so it is I end up owning movies like Throne of Fire, a dreary, slow-moving, largely uninteresting Italian sword and sorcery film with a cover that featured an illustration of a big-breasted nude chick swinging around a sword and wearing a little metal thong. “This looks pretty good,” I said to myself, even as my other disembodied self was shouting, “Dude, seriously! That chick probably never even shows up in the movie! Didn’t you learn anything from the cover of Hot Potato???”
Well, I didn’t, and true enough, Throne of Fire never features a sexy, naked Valkyrie type chick swinging around a sword. In fact, it’s the rare sword and sorcery film that doesn’t feature any toplessness at all. The whole thing plays out more like a really bad throwback to 1960s peplum than it does a 1980s sword and sorcery film. Once again, the jazzy, saucy poster art lured me in and let me down. And once again, I learned nothing from the transaction. I’d do it again, I tell ya! I’d do it again! Ha ha ha!
What Throne of Fire lacks in sexy, naked Valkyrie type chicks swinging around a sword it makes up for with plentiful scenes of people sitting around in poorly lit throne rooms discussing events that would be more interesting if they were actually happening on screen instead of just being described to us by bored Italians. Keep in mind that my capacity for liking even the absolute worst of 1980s sword and sorcery films is legendary. I like Barbarians. I like Conquest. For crying out loud, I like Hawk the Slayer and Archer: Fugitive from the Empire! Right now, I’m sitting here and thinking about how I want to watch one of the Ator movies — and possibly all of them!!! And that seems like a good idea to me, and it’s not something I haven’t done before. This past weekend, Krull was on TV, and not only did I watch it, but I also watched it when they did the late-night replay — and I already own that shit on DVD, man! So for a sword and sorcery movie not to get my easy-going seal of approval really has to mean something, I think. Throne of Fire is a bad movie. Not Yor, the Hunter from the Future bad, which is awesome, but regular old boring “is this asshole still explaining the plot to us?” bad.
Taken at face value, the description of Throne of Fire’s plot is as deceptively enticing as the lurid artwork. Satan wants a son so he can plunge the world into darkness, but instead of siring the kid on his own, he sends his messenger. When he becomes a man, the son of…well, the son of Satan’s messenger will sit upon the throne of fire, thereby giving him power to — honestly, I’m not sure, but it probably has something to do with more plunging the world into darkness type of business. Only a hero pure of heart and clad in naught but a loincloth and leather bicep tassels can stop the evil one’s dastardly plan. Also, only the rightful heir can sit in the throne of fire without being set ablaze (something you’d think wouldn’t bother the son of Satan, but since this is the son of Satan’s errand boy, I guess it’s important), so Satan’s ward must also kill the proper king and marry that king’s daughter. In time, you will learn that setting people on fire when they sit on it without permission is the sole power of the throne.
But really, I mean that doesn’t sound so bad, right? Aside from the fact that Satan is too lazy to sire his own son. But then, I guess technically God didn’t do the deed with Mary, so he didn’t sire his own son, either. Seriously, you Christian gods and demons need to take a page out of Zeus’ pick-up artist manual. Now there was a god who knew how to sow his seed. That cat could hardly find time to hurl his mighty thunderbolts, so busy was he getting busy and seducing fair maidens by appearing to them as a shimmering mist of impregnation or a horny silver-furred pygmy marmoset waving its hands wildly and yelling, “I’m king of the gods, baby!” I guess Satan was too busy tempting the souls of good men and pressing Slayer CDs to find time to bang some disinterested lady in a crappy Italian sword and sorcery film.
Anyway, with a plot like the one possessed by Throne of Fire, you figure you’re going to get some random scenes of villages being pillaged, and an old man or woman will probably talk rapturously about how the hero has come to fulfill the prophecy, and then since this is the devil’s adopted son we’re talking about, there will probably be scenes of sweating people being tortured, and there will be an orgy. Hell, that could be the entire plot, with the finale consisting of a plodding sword fight and probably some crudely animated magical ray beam effects. And you know what? I’d be pretty satisfied. But even in the admittedly modest realm of being “at least as good as Iron Warrior,” Throne of Fire fails miserably. And while it does have the prophecy, the torture chamber, and random scenes of pillaging, there is no orgy (Seriously? The son of Satan isn’t going to have an orgy? He isn’t even going to litter his throne room with scantily clad maidens? Lame, son of Satan, lame!), and even the stuff that is present is so unimaginatively staged and so lacking in energy that it hardly even registered. I mean, dudes are pillaging a village and setting huts on fire, and I didn’t even notice.
So where were we? OK, yeah. Satan sends his messenger to impregnate a woman, so that this child may sit on the titular throne of fire, a feat which seems to have absolutely no effect, positive or negative, on the powers of the people who sit upon it. Morak, the son of the messenger of Satan, grows up to be Harrison Muller, who spends his day sending gangs of killers out to perform the most boring acts of pillaging you’re ever going to see. On the plus side, some of them have pretty cool eagle wing helmets. It seems like, given the free reign Morak has with sending around death squads, that he has already succeeded in conquering pretty much the entire crappy kingdom, but people are still talking about the good king on his throne of fire. It apparently never occurs to Good King Fire Ass to send out an army to stop Morak’s band of brigands. Seriously, Morak’s army has like ten guys in it. How can they possibly not be defeated? Maybe if the king spent more time attend to the affairs of his kingdom and less time worrying about his fire throne, he wouldn’t be in this situation. The last time we had a fire king around these parts, he had armies of scantily clad barbarian dudes and was able to fend off attacks from a guy who could hurl icebergs at him. By comparison, Morak doesn’t seem to have any powers at all beyond the powers of prolonged exposition, and still this fire king gets his ass handed to him.
The king eventually falls to Morak, but the princess Valkari escapes. Hey! She does look like the sword swinging chick from the cover, though she keeps what little top she has on through the entire film. Sabrina Siani plays Valkari, and she at least is a welcome sight for eyes that are fast becoming difficult to keep open. She was a staple of the Italian sword and sorcery industry during the 1980s, having appeared shortly before this film as the largely naked evil Ocran in Lucio Fulci’s completely bizarre barbarian fantasy film Conquest, which would be a much more entertaining film to watch than this one. She also appeared in The Invincible Barbarian, Sword of the Barbarians, White Cannibal Queen, and Ator the Fighting Eagle — all of which would be more enjoyable to watch. Yes, even Ator. I never thought I’d find a movie that would make me think, “Man, I sure wish I was watching Ator right now — no, I really wish I was watching Ator III!” but I guess that’s the thrilling part of this job: you always learn new things.
Only one man stands in the way of Morak, the little gang he has, and his mad scheme to do whatever it is he’ll be able to do by sitting on the throne of fire. That man is Siegfried, played by Invincible Barbarian star Pietro Torrisi. Pietro is a huge guy who gives off a sort of “Brad Harris with a perm” vibe, and his career in Italian exploitation was extremely long if unremarkable. He mostly filled uncredited roles, starting out as far back as 1963 with an appearance in The Ten Gladiators. In 1965, after a few more gladiator movies, he made the jump to Eurospy films, appearing in a couple pretty movies starring George Ardisson. Still, his roles were restricted to things like “Bodyguard.” He continued this steady but minor work throughout the spaghetti western trend, the violent cop film trend, and the sexploitation trend.
In 1982, after nearly twenty years in the business, someone finally decided that the post-Conan sword and sorcery boom was the right time and place for Pietro to step up to the plate and take on a starring role. And so he became Zukhan, king of the barbarians, in Franco Prosperi’s Invincible Barbarian. He had another starring role shortly thereafter in Sword of the Barbarians, then was back to an uncredited role in The Iron Master, one of the few Italian sword and sorcery films that has eluded my prying eyes up to this date. And then it was on to the role of heroic Siegfried. At age forty-something, he still looks good, and if nothing else, he handles the action scenes with gusto. It’s just too bad there are so few of them. He spends most of the movie getting captured, escaping, getting captured again, being taunted by Morak, escaping, then getting captured. And to make matters worse, Morak isn’t even a very good taunter.
The movie threatens to pick up when Morak has Siegfried cast down into the Well of Madness, where he will be assaulted by all manner of ghoulish monsters and hallucinations. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t really deliver on the Well of Madness, and Siegfried is menaced by one guy with blobs of make-up on his face and some spooky underlighting before he is allowed to go about his business. While down there, he happens to find his own father, who has been imprisoned lo these many years by Morak. It turns out that Morak can’t kill the old man because the guy knows the secret of the prophecy that prescribes by when and in exactly what manner Morak must sit upon the throne of fire. He imparts this knowledge to Siegfried, and then just for the hell of it also gives him a spell of invisibility and the gift of invulnerability to anything but fire — which is kind of a lame gift when you are fighting a guy who is about to take over the fire throne. Anyway, there’s a long bit where Siegfried and Valkari keep rescuing each other and then getting captured again, and the whole things finally boils down to the inevitable showdown between Siegfried and Morak. By the time this admittedly competent — especially within the realm of Italian barbarian movies, where the sword fight choreography was often legendarily awful — sword fight occurs, you will have stopped caring, fallen asleep, or coughed up your own skeleton in an attempt to relieve the mind-numbing tedium.
So let me put this in perspective: there is a movie directed by Jess Franco called Diamonds of Kilimandjaro. Even among fans of Jess Franco, it is considered to be terrible and tedious. I am going to give that movie a tepidly positive review and claim that it’s not as boring as, well, as Throne of Fire. Other than the fact that some of the sword fights are OK and the leads look good, I have almost nothing positive to say about Throne of Fire except to mention that Siegfried is a master of gymkata. I go into movies like this expecting to be entertained no matter how awful they are. And I almost always am. And when you put this movie in, and it’s got that topless barbarian woman cover and the first thing you are greeted with is the Cannon films logo and a remarkably crappy synth score, well things seem to be headed in the right direction, at least to me. But it doesn’t take long for you to realize that you’d be much better off watching one of Cannon’s other cheap-ass barbarian films, possibly Adventures of Hercules. Anything would be better than Throne of Fire.
Although you can’t fault Torrisi and Siani for their one-note but largely competent performances (relative to the performances one usually sees in these types of movies), there is plenty of blame to be spread around among the writers and director. By this point in his lengthy career, Franco Prosperi should have known better. Way back when, he helped write the script for Mario Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World, one of the very best peplum adventures and arguably one of the best fantasy films of all time. He was originally slated to be the director before Bava took over. He must have died inside the day Bava took on directorial duties for Hercules in the Haunted World, because shortly thereafter Prosperi settled into a career of churning out scripts and doing directorial duties on a slew of sleazy mondo exploitation films. By the time he was tapped to direct a couple sword and sorcery films in the 1980s, he must not have given a damn about anything. His direction in Throne of Blood is as listless and boring as the script, and while me manages to keep everyone in frame and in focus, he doesn’t put much effort beyond that into things. Frankly, though, I guess it’s hard to blame him. After Throne of Fire, he decided to direct and a write a couple Cannibal Holocaust rip-offs. Cannibal Holocaust rip-offs…think that one over for a few minutes.
Complicit in the crime of boring me to tears are writers Giuseppe Buricchi and Nino Marino. Between the two of them, they had almost zero experience writing scripts, and their lack of ability shines through in every scene. There is no sense of pacing, not a single moment that generates even a spark of excitement. The dialog is dull and pointless and abundant. The entire thing is lazy. Why is the son of Satan’s messenger doing all this instead of the actual son of Satan? Why does the son of Satan’s messenger need a Christian friar to perform his wedding ceremony? Shouldn’t he have his own devil-y friar? Why is the good king so easy to beat? Why do all the peasants killed in one scene show up again, alive and well, a few minutes later in another scene? OK, OK — that one we have to blame on Prosperi. The only bright spot in the entire dismal affair is a single gag where Morak agrees to let Valkari’s people free. He then proceeds to shoot them in the back with arrows as they try to leave. But hey, at least they were free. Still, a ten second gag in ninety minutes of undiluted dullness hardly makes for a film worth recommending.
You know the worst thing about Throne of Fire? It’s that I just finished watching the movie and writing a review about how boring it is and how much I hated it. And then I look over at the table and see the bad-ass cover and think to myself, “Hey, Throne of Fire. That movie looks kind of cool. Maybe I’ll watch it…”
I can anticipate a lot of things that would potentially show up as the first shot in a Sinbad the Sailor movie (as opposed to Sinbad the Comedian movie, though I can also imagine the first shot in that movie as well, and it’s Sinbad making an exaggerated screaming face and running away in fast motion from a poopy baby diaper), but one thing I never expected was a still shot of Edgar Allen Poe. It’s that same one everyone uses when they need a photo of Edgar Allen Poe. Maybe that’s the only one. I don’t know. I also didn’t know why Poe would be associated with the opening of a Sinbad the Sailor movie, though I could understand it in a Sinbad the Comedian movie, what with the macabre and all.
1983 was an exceptionally big year for Hong Kong cinema. Ching Siu-tung’s Duel to the Death, Tsui Hark’s Zu, and Project A featuring the first major on-screen teaming of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao, all hit the screens during that year. So did Aces Go Places II, a sequel to the wildly popular Sam Hui-Karl Maka action comedy of the previous year. It was a good time to be the Hong Kong film industry. Things were up in the air to be sure, as they often are during a rebirth, but there was no getting around that this was a year of incredible, ground-breaking films.
This is one of those movies that, upon completion, I can’t wait to sit down and write a review of. And then, when I do sit down, all I can do is stare at the blinking cursor on a blank screen as I wrack my brain mercilessly for some way to encompass in words the absolutely bonkers display of sheer lunacy I’ve just watched. This often happens to me when attempting to write about especially weird kungfu films, because as fans of kungfu films know, nothing — and that includes Alexandro Jodorowski movies — is quite as weird as a really weird kungfu film. With Jodorowski, one can at least ask oneself “what the hell was this director thinking?” then engage in all sorts of research and philosophical debate pertaining to the meaning of his films. Yes, they are excessively weird, but they are not undecipherable. With enough thought, you can attain some degree of understanding as to his purpose and message.
OK, let’s talk some Dungeons & Dragons before we dig into the film review proper. It’ll help you understand the background which makes it possible for me to so love a film like Fire and Ice as much as I do. It’s also one of those inevitable subjects, and it’s best we get it out of the way now. Geeks and nerds will always bring it up. For us, D&D is sort of like heroin is to skinny rock stars. You go through a period of brief flirtation, end up heavily addicted to the point where it destroys your social life, and you sit around, all high on your drug, saying things that seem deep and philosophical to you but are really just idiotic, like, “Man, what if you put a Portable Hole inside a Bag of Holding?” or, “Man, wouldn’t it be cool if Gary Gygax was here right now?”
Then you go through a period of recovery, followed by a relapse, then finally get clean and spend the next thirty years talking about how you “used to do heroin” or “used to play D&D” to whoever has the misfortune of being in a position to have to listen to you. Possibly the only thing worse than people telling you stories about when they were stoned and stared at a wall for seven hours, or people reading you their erotic vampire fanfic, is crusty old farts telling you about how they used to roll the twenty-sided die — and yeah, try sidling up to someone in a bar one night and asking them if they’d “like to roll the twenty-sided die.” You’ll be lucky if your potential mate-date doesn’t yell, “Blee yark!” in your face and take you back to their keep on the borderlands to show you their collection of smoky crystalline dice that they store in a leather pouch they bought at last year’s medieval festival.
Speaking of which, when did it become acceptable to show up to medieval fairs dressed as an elf? Since when did that become an acceptable historic recreation of the times? I mean, a sprite or a kobold I could understand, but an elf? For that matter, when did camouflage pants and combat boots become acceptable attire? For God’s sake, man, where’re your jerkins??? I think if you’re going to dress up for a medieval fair, you should have to meet some minimum standard of historical accuracy. At the very least, you shouldn’t be able to wear a long Fruit of the Loom t-shirt with a belt cinched around it. It should be like dining at a fancy restaurant. You don’t have proper attire? Well, sir, please don this complimentary King Henry VIII robe. OK, hoi polloi I can excuse, but the people who actively take part in the festival events? It just doesn’t seem fair to me that some guy went out and forged his own full suit of plate mail armor, and then the guy next to him bought two rolls of Reynolds Wrap and a sheet of poster board.
But this is just one of those things, like how Paganism makes me mad because it’s all fruity sweetness and light hippies flitting about and saying “Blessed be!” and “Goddess bless you,” instead of doing what it was Pagans were busy doing before the sixties ruined it all, which was hitting people in the chest with giant battle axes then drinking blood from the cleaved skulls of their enemies. We didn’t “drum circle” the Romans out of Scotland, people.
I’m just saying that if you are dressing up for the Renaissance Festival, at the very least you should have to invest in a pair of those tan rawhide Robin Hood boots that were popular with the pickup-driving guys when I was a kid.
Still, I suppose it could be worse. Anime fandom seems to have been overrun by fat guys dressed as cats, where all they do is draw whiskers on their face and throw on some cardboard ears and a pipe cleaner tail. You know what that outfit is, buddy? That’s what the loser kid throws together for Halloween. Some people spend hours and hours crafted outrageously complex and detailed costumes to showcase their nerdiness. I think those people should be allowed to kick the ass of anyone who shows up dressed as a cat person, wearing normal clothes but with a cheap tail and ears taped to themselves. Likewise, the guy who makes his own authentic armor should be able to use his Morning Star of Clobberin’ +3 on anyone who show sup to a medieval fair wearing their normal clothes, but with a cape thrown on.
I mean, this is why Civil War reinactors don’t give you guys no respect, man.
So where was I? Sorry, I can get pretty worked up when a topic is this important. So yeah, like many other nerds, I dabbled in the black art of D&D. Funny, in retrospect, how hysterical people were over the evil of the game. If you remember, D&D was going to either turn us all into devil worshipers (also fond of just throwing cheap cloaks over their street clothes instead of going all the way and putting on red Danksin unitards) or it was going to cause the youth of America to become so lost in this amazing world of make-believe and fantasy that all concept of the real world would disintegrate, leaving us with a society full of people wearing fake elf ears and cheap cloaks. Hmm. I guess they were right, after all.
My flirtation with this world full of dungeons and dragons began at an early age thanks to the fact that an old boyfriend of my mother’s happened to be one of the early employees at TSR, so he funneled me a steady stream of the old basic and advanced box sets that came in the red and aquamarine boxes respectively. I guess I was in fourth grade when we put together our geeky little campaign, though back then D&D was considered less dorky and more dangerous, sort of like how video games were dangerous, then became dorky, and now are back to the point where thug kids host video-game related public access cable shows about them. For the most part, we’d gather at a friend’s house, cheat on our character sheets for a while, consult various charts, then play the game for half an hour (usually Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, because we liked to equip our characters with lasers and such) or so before retiring to play outside or watch a movie.
Four times out of five, the movie would be a barbarian movie not entirely dissimilar to the game of D&D we’d just abandoned in mid-campaign. Actually, there was a 97% chance that the movie would be Beastmaster. But we’ve covered that territory before, so if you need to hear jokes about Beastmaster and watching barbarian movies, go back and read one of our previous sword and sorcery movie reviews.
Somehow, the animated Ralph Bakshi feature Fire and Ice managed to slip through the cracks, though I can’t imagine it didn’t make the early 1980s cable TV rounds. It’s perfect late-night HBO fare. If I’d seen it back then, I would have embraced it whole-heartedly and probably proclaimed it the best thing I’d ever seen. Or something to that effect. Alas, it was never to be, and although Heavy Metal was inescapable at the time, Fire and Ice remained unseen by me until the recent DVD release allowed me to go back and see how Bakshi’s sword and sorcery cartoon had aged over the years.
In brief, Fire and Ice is the animated feature film equivalent of trying to buy saucy fantasy comic magazine Heavy Metal at age thirteen, praying that the B. Dalton check-out clerk doesn’t realize that the magazine is a veritable horn o’ plenty of naked chicks riding dragons around acid-trip landscapes that look like something the guy down the street would have airbrushed onto the side of his custom van. And then, if you do manage to score, you have to forever hide the torrid tome amongst your copies of Dragon magazine for fear that the big-breasted zebra-striped woman on the cover might otherwise arouse parental suspicion, resulting in them just happening to randomly open the magazine to one of the naughtier Guido Crepax stories.
Ralph Bakshi is a director and artist who was at the forefront of a lot of innovative new ideas, but he was always at the forefront in a way that would only facilitate his ambitions crashing and burning, only to have someone else basically hatch the same idea a few years later with great success. Bakshi first made headlines by directing a raunchy cartoon for adults named Fritz the Cat, forever destined to be picked up by accident by aging vaudeville fans who mistake it for Felix the Cat. At the time of the film’s release, the concept of cartoon movies for adults, packed full of cursing, drug use, and sex, was pretty alien, and it’s likely that more than a few ill-informed parents took their screaming, crying broods out for a fun day at the cartoon movie only to discover after the lights went down that they were in a grindhouse theater full of guys in raincoats jerking off to anthropomorphic cat women (if you’ve been to an anime convention lately, you’ve seen that some things never change).
Soon thereafter, Bakshi decided that what he wanted to do with his time was make an animated adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. To realize his vision, Bakshi would rely on a technique called rotoscoping — that is, filming live actors, then tracing the artwork over them. Bakshi’s ambition was admirable, but it was a fair leap across the chasm from ambition to realization, and The Lord of the Rings failed to make the jump. The film is an uncomfortable mish-mash of questionable character design (ugly gap-toothed hobbits, Boromir the Viking, Aragorn the Navajo), impressive animation, and shocking lapses in the quality of rotoscoping that results in frequent shifts from animation to live-action actors who look nothing like their animated counterparts horsing around against heavily tinted backgrounds. It also didn’t help that funding was a major stumbling block, and Bakshi ran out of time and money two books into the three-book adventure.
Undeterred, Bakshi forged boldly forward, sticking to the fantasy formula for Fire and Ice, which was released in the immediate wake of Conan the Barbarian’s success and the launching of the sword and sorcery trend that delighted us for so many hours when we’d grown tired of using our imaginations to slay trolls and other beasts lurking in the pages of the Monster Manual and beloved Fiend Folio. Where Lord of the Rings held the promise of Bakshi merging his adult-oriented artwork with the world of Tolkien, the hook for Fire and Ice was that it was an artistic collaboration between Bakshi and one of the most famous pulp artists of all time, Frank Frazetta.
Frazetta rose to prominence as one of the most in-demand artists of the heyday of pulp fiction, gaining particular notoriety for his illustration of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, and while you can’t exactly claim that he invented fantasy artwork, he certainly defined it for quite some time, up until the point when Haji Sorayama started drawing hot, naked robot chicks and Boris Vallejo picked up the fantasy art gauntlet. But Frazetta was The Man for decades, creating a style that showcased beefy, axe-wielding barbarians in furry loincloths and big-breasted, big-booty women in tiny, tiny magical bikinis. It would seem, at least in the early 1980s, that his artwork would be a good match for Ralph Bakshi’s animation style. Something more adult-oriented, full of gibbering goblins, bare-chested barbarians, and buxom babes. Working from Frazetta character designs and the basic template of a fantasy tale as defined by decades of pulp fiction, and plagued as always by budget short-comings and a general lack of interest from audiences, Bakshi gave us Fire and Ice.
Fire and Ice involves a clash of two cultures. First, there is the evil, skinny blue guy Nekron, who would be played by David Bowie if this was a big-budget, live-action film. Nekron lives in a land of ice and glaciers and dreams of making the rest of the world as dismal and bleak as his North Dakota-esque ice kingdom. Standing in his way is the king of Fire Keep, who has harnessed the power of the volcanoes that surround his kingdom. Nekron’s scheming mother devises a plan to kidnap Teegra, the hot big-booty daughter of the king of Fire Keep, and thus force him to negotiate a surrender. But being evil, Nekron’s minions are mostly sub-human goblins who don’t seem to be very good at much of anything other than riding atop advancing glaciers while hooting and waving clubs. Teegra escapes (using the ever-effective “look at my nipples while I writhe about in the water” method of escape), gets captured, escapes, get captured, so on and so forth.
Meanwhile, a hunky barbarian named Larn survives Nekron’s attack on his village and takes to wandering the land, killing goblins whenever he happens to come across them. He and Teegra eventually hook up, and then a dude named Darkwolf, in a big wolfhead hood, shows up to do some damage as well. The whole thing ends with a wild assault-by-dragon on Nekron’s icy fortress.
It is by no accounts a perfect film. Bakshi relies once again on the technique of rotoscoping, realized here in infinitely better fashion than in the awkward Lord of the Rings. Although this is once again a film made by first filming live-action actors on a soundstage, then animating over the top of them, there are no points at which we just get tinted footage of the live-action actors. The actual animated look is consistent, and the rotoscoping provides for very fluid and realistic movement of the characters. Unfortunately, Frazetta relies heavily on moody shading and lighting, and in that sense, Bakshi’s animation falls flat — literally. There’s no real attempt, save for one or two scenes, at creating a sense of depth or lighting. Bakshi just doesn’t have the time and resources to achieve such detail, and thus Frazetta’s characters look less like Frazetta creations and more like Bakshi’s character designs from Lord of the Rings, but better looking. There’s also a funny part in one of the DVD extras where Frazetta explains that he always assumed that somewhere out there were women who looked like the women he drew, at least up until the process of rotoscoping, and thus needing to find a real woman to serve as the actress base of his design for Teegra, the booty-shaking daughter of the good king of Fire Keep.
Although it fails to capture the nuance of Frazetta’s original artwork, Fire and Ice still boasts pretty good if standard artwork. It reminds me of how much I miss the look of hand-drawn animation. Computer-assisted artwork results in really smooth, really slick lines and shading. By comparison, something like Fire and Ice — which was really a stylistic throwback even upon its initial release — looks likes a series of animated sketches, with bolder outlines, rougher around the edges. But I really like that raw look, though I have nothing against the more refined lines of modern animation. The backgrounds are also highly stylized, almost impressionist, which means they look cool and were easier to draw. With more time and better technology, Bakshi might have been able to realize a more fully developed style of animation for this film, with more inventive lighting and shading, resulting in something that looks less like a bigger budget version of The Herculoids. But he didn’t have those things, and the end results are still enough fun for me to forgive him.
In fact, the entire film was completed by just a tiny handful of artists working from Frazetta’s character designs and Bakshi’s live-action stars, which makes the TV cartoon quality moments excusable and the more richly realized moments truly impressive. One of the artists was none other than Peter Chung, who animated the dragonhawk finale and would go on to create his own scantily-clad, impossibly-proportioned heroine some years later when he wrote and animated a little show called Aeon Flux.
The acting is, at best, workmanlike, but it suits the style of the film. None of the live-action actors were anyone especially accomplished, unless you count an appearance on Glen Larson’s Buck Rogers to be an accomplishment. Steve Sandor, who provides the voice of Darkwolf, is probably the most experienced actor of the bunch, having logged countless hours working on pretty much every television show that was made from Star Trek on. Luckily, the dialogue doesn’t demand much of anyone, so they all glide by pretty easily and without anything really sticking as a particularly bad acting job, though a few huffs and puffs during running scenes are looped in a little too loudly.
The script by Gerry Conway and Roy Thomas (the duo also worked on the script for Conan the Destroyer, and both together and separately, worked on a number of famous cartoon TV shows, including The Transformers and GI Joe) is pretty paint by numbers pulp fantasy. It doesn’t do anything you don’t expect it to do, and each of the characters depends on you recognizing a familiar pulp archetype. There is no back story for anyone. We have no idea who any of these people really are, or why they’re doing what they do. We don’t know who Nekron really is. We have no idea why Darkwolf shows up and joins forces with Larn. The extras tell us that an original draft of the movie explained that he was Nekron’s father, but that never shows up — nor is it even hinted at — in the finished product. The thing is, none of the characters really need a complicated (or even simple) back story, because the dependence on the target audience’s familiarity with stock pulp characters gets the job done. Nekron does the things he does because he’s bad. Larn is good. Darkwolf is cool and mysterious. Teegra is scantily clad (even for a fantasy film princess) in a thong and flimsy bikini top and has jiggling boobs and booty cheeks. If you need any more information than that, then you’ve missed the point of this type of throwback story, which is to show guys in loincloths beating up goblins, intercut with leering shots of Teegra’s ass as she crawls through the swamp.
I would imagine a movie like Fire and Ice appeals to a very select population of people. It was a failure upon its initial release, though like most Bakshi films it built up a cult following after the fact. Measured against modern fantasy films that take advantage of cutting edge computer animation (Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy being the benchmark), something as modest as Fire and Ice can’t really measure up, but you’re sort of making a mistake if you pit a small-budget pulp fantasy movie from 1983 against something of that stature. Older fantasy fans, however, will probably find a lot in Fire and Ice that appeals to them, especially if they favor old-style pulp storytelling and artwork. I thoroughly enjoy Fire and Ice, beginning to end, and find it consistently entertaining and fascinating, not to mention beautifully realized despite the typical Bakshi-project budget constraints. It’s a lot more enjoyable and successful as a piece of animated filmmaking than Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings, and the influence of Frazetta, while not completely realized, adds even further to the old-fashioned pulp novel feel of the movie.
It’s no secret that since the tail-end of the 1990s the Hong Kong film industry has had a rough time. After being gutted by gangsters for decades and plagued by the most rampant video piracy in the world resulting in films being available on bootleg VCD before they even opened in theaters, Hong Kong’s once illustrious cinematic juggernaut found itself on thin financial ice. Big stars were either getting to old to perform as they once had or were simply packing up and heading for the greener pastures of America. The new generation of stars, culled primarily from the ranks of teen models and pop idols, did little to spark interest in the new generation of films.