After the global success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, to say nothing of the Harry Potter books and movies I hear were mildly popular for a brief period, most everyone assumed the world was ready for a glut of big-budget fantasy films full of heroic posing and dodgy CGI effects. While there were attempts — The Golden Compass, a few Chronicles of Narnia films, that lavish epic In the Name of the King from Dr. Uwe Boll and featuring King Burt Reynolds — most of those attempts fell flat on their face, and the cash-in trend died before it took off.
The Greatest Movie Ever! podcast invited me on as part of the Mysterious Order of the Skeleton Suit’s “Big Muscle Tussle” theme month to discuss Lou Ferrigno’s pecs, the death of Cannon Films, greasy man-on-man action, and tales of high adventure in Sinbad of the Seven Seas.
We here at Teleport City are no strangers to sword and sorcery films, and chances are, if you are here reading this, neither are you. In the 1980s, when I was going through my formative years and had a friend with satellite TV (back when that meant you had a huge NASA sized satellite in your back yard), I don’t think there was any genre we loved more. That’s because the sword and sorcery movies of the 1980s are perhaps the purest distillation of a ten-year-old boy’s mind that a ten-year-old boy could ever hope for. Yes, yes, I know. Ten year old boys were too young to watch such filth. We were also too young to read Heavy Metal magazine, know who Sylvia Kristel was, and have opinions about the best Playmates. Get with the times, ya squares. Sword and sorcery movies were great because not only could you stay up late and watch the R-rated ones, but even the PG ones were full of everything we wanted: monsters, gore, and big-boobed chicks wearing tiny fur bikinis, if they were wearing anything at all. And if that represents the purest distillation of a ten-year-old boy’s mind, then the movie Sorceress represents a sort of cask strength version of that particular spirit. Because Sorceress asks the question, “Sure, what if you had all that, but also the heroes are hot, naked twins?”
Granted, Barbarians asked that same question, but it answered with twin bodybuilders Peter and David Paul. They aren’t really my type. My taste in lads runs to leaner and more athletic rather than big ‘n’ beefy. But Sorceress… now Sorceress answered the question in the curvaceous forms of Leigh and Lynette Harris, twin sisters from Milwaukee, Wisconsin who appeared together in Playboy magazine and then continued to appear together in the imaginations of lascivious young lads for years to come. You should all regret that I was only ten or eleven when I first discovered their existence, because had I had my way, I would have made a pretty good movie starring them with Mary and Madeleine Collinson, the equally large-breasted, equally nude twin sisters from Hammer Films’ Twins of Evil. I think the title would have been something like Getting Naked…Lots! Also We Fight Robots. I reckon I can go ahead and throw Peter and David Paul in there as well. I’m nothing if not fair minded, after all, and Peter and David had breasts at least as big as the Collinsons and Harrises.
Honestly, I don’t think I ever saw Sorceress during its initial run on cable. I’m not sure what happened, really. It must have been on HBO at some point, sandwiched between Beastmaster, which was followed by Conan the Barbarian, then followed by Beastmaster. My friend Robby and I rarely let something this important slip through the cracks, but I guess no one is perfect. We did, however, know who Lynette and Leigh Harris were, thanks to the stack of Playboy magazine his dad kept hidden… IN THE TOY ROOM! God bless that man. Sure, he kept the harder stuff, your Oui, your Hustler, hidden in his bedroom closet, but he was understanding enough to store the Playboys right there on the metal utility shelves next to Robby’s piles of Battlestar Galactica guys and tauntauns. Good issues, running from the late 60s, through the 70s, and into the early 80s. March, 1981. They appeared in other issues, but March 1981 was the one we had. And that one I remember vividly. The “twins” issue, though for some strange reason, the centerfold was just one woman. But it was in that magazine that we discovered the buxom Harris twins. And dare I say we discovered a little something… about ourselves. I guess not knowing that the twins had also made a sword and sorcery movie was for the better. Had I seen something that awesome at that age, I might have exploded or coughed up my own skeleton.
Of course, there’s a long, sordid, and often laughable history of Playboy Playmates trying their hand at acting, which is why Playboy was happier to shell out lots of money to get established movie stars to pose nude instead. But it seems like every nude model, like every musician, really wants to be an actor (the same way every actor seems to want to record an album). And it says a lot about the acting chops of most Playboy Playmates that the most successful of them was Julie Strain. Oh wait. She was Penthouse, wasn’t she? Well, I bet she showed up in Playboy at some point. So I guess the most successful Playmate turned actress is… I don’t know. Jenny McCarthy, maybe? I suppose Anna Nicole Smith was a success in a certain way, for a little while anyway. Was Pam Anderson in Playboy? I guess so. Wow. There’s just too many of them littering the landscape to keep count. Look, to be honest, pretty much after we worked our way through the stack of from the 60s and 70s, I lost track. Playboy always had a thing for blondes, and I’ve always had a thing for brunettes and red heads. And frankly, once the era of silicone breast implants took hold, I just couldn’t relate. Pretty much all of the other Playmate-actresses crashed and burned, though Andy Sidaris did what he could to support them for a time.
But even aside from Lynette and Leigh, for the moment, Sorceress is a weirdly “important” cult movie. It was the first film for Jim Wynorski (working here as a writer), who would basically become a one-man exploitation film factory shortly thereafter. It was the last film for Jack Hill, who’s storied career as a director and writer of exploitation films included Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Spider Baby. And Roger Corman was the producer, but it was like his eight millionth movie, and there would be like another fifteen million yet to come, so that’s not as much of a milestone. I think it might have been his first producer credit for a sword and sorcery (80s style) movie, which I guess is something. But it’s not like it was for Wynorski on his way in and Hill on his way out. I wouldn’t exactly call it a passing of the torch, though.
Traigon (Mexican television actor Roberto Ballesteros) is your standard-issue sword and sorcery bad guy. He has it on good prophecy that, in order to maintain his black magic powers and control of the realm, he must sacrifice his first-born child. Unfortunately for Traigon, his wife isn’t as keen on the deal as he is, and so she flees. But even once he catches up with the wily wench, Traigon’s woes aren’t over, because his wife has given birth to twins. Traigon needs to know which one was born first, lest he knife the wrong baby, but his wife remains steadfastly stubborn in her unwillingness to make the task of infanticide easy. And since a murderous wizard warlordly type guy can’t catch a break, not only does he not know which baby was born first, but then the guy from the cover of Aqualung appears to slaughter Traigon’s minions, then slaughter Traigon himself! So, movie over, I guess? Oh no, wait. Traigon has three lives and will reincarnate again in twenty years, at which time he will presumably pick up where he left off. In order to protect the twins, the victorious old hero, Krona (Martin LaSalle, who appeared in a number of superb horror films by Mexican director Juan Lopez Moctezuma), takes them from their dying mother, so that he may see that they are raised properly and schooled in the ways of war and wisdom. “But…” the mother says, “they are girl children!”
GIRLS??!!? But… girls can’t be doctors!
Naming them Mira and Mara, Krona leaves the twins with a local couple, instructing them to not only see that the kids learn how to fight, but also that they are raised as boys. If anyone finds out their true identities, the reborn Traigon will surely come to hunt them down. Twenty years pass, and in that time chaos reigns. Actually, no it doesn’t. Even though the forces of Traigon are still in control, well frankly, it looks like they’re running a decent enough kingdom. The cities are thriving, there is law and order, the strip clubs employ exceptionally attractive women. All seems well. Mira and Mara have grown in to buxom young lasses who think they are boys, and while they are whiling away the hours doing what all twenty year old boys do together (skinny dipping), they notice that they are being watched from the bushes by the single most horrific creature ever committed to screen: Pando the Goat Boy.
Pando (David Millbern, who despite this disturbing turn, has a perfectly healthy career, provided you accept that Ice Spiders and Chupacabra Terror are healthy) is an unholy union of Eddie Munster’s hair, Lee Van Cleef’s head, Robin Williams’ chest, and the legs of a guy I once saw at a nude beach. His legs were so hairy that they looked like a couple gorilla legs had been grafted to his body, and he let them remain natural and hirsute — but had shaved his ass completely smooth, so that it looked like he was strutting around in a pair of hair chaps. Mira and Mara don’t know what to make of this curious beast, nor of the mysterious third “horn” dangling between his legs, so they do what anyone would do when they catch a horny man-goat watching them swim naked: they kick his ass and send him scurrying back to the bushes.
Soon after, we find out that Traigon is back, and it’s time to look for those twins once more. This way, we can get to the sword and sorcery movie’s requisite scene of a village full of grass huts getting pillaged and put to the torch. Traigon has done pretty good at tracking down Mira and Mara quickly, which doesn’t say much for Krona’s skills as a hider of prophesied children. Luckily, a Viking (!) named Valdar (Bruno Rey, Santo vs. the She-Wolves) strolls by and rescues Mira and Mara from the marauders. Krona soon reappears as well, now charging Valdar with guarding the twins. You know, Krona, maybe you should watch the stinkin’ twins instead of always pawning them off on the first person you meet. What is Krona doing most of the time anyway? Entering Gandalf lookalike contests? Valdar has nothing better to do, so Mira and Mara tag along with him, clad in their “we’re just a couple of strapping young lads with big boobs, curvy hips, feminine faces, and sexy legs” disguises. It also turns out that Valdar is friends with Pando, so everyone makes up and marches off to a town crowded with the very soldiers they’re supposed to be avoiding. While there, we will get several more standard issue sword and sorcery moments — including the nude dancer scene, the bar room brawl scene, and the “wandering around the bazaar” scene — before Mira and Mara are captured. Valdar also picks up yet another new member for the gang, a young prince masquerading as a gambling barbarian.
So begins the game of escape and recapture, until finally the group is ambushed by a gang of monkey monsters throwing fruit grenades.
So let’s stop right there. You have sexy naked twins. You have a viking. You have Pando the bleating goat boy with an erection (you’d think someone would make him put on some pants). And now you have monkey monsters lobbing fruit grenades. Jack Hill… you, sir, know how to deliver.
Mara is captured, along with the prince guy, Erlick (Bob Nelson), and taken to Traigon and Traigon’s scheming mistress. When they discover Erlick is actually a prince — interrupting Traigon’s plan to cram a metal spike up the wayward barbarian’s butt — they devise some crazy scheme to get Mara and Erlick together, produce an heir, then have Traigon kill the kid. Or something. When Traigon explains to Mara that he is her father, she drops the desire to kill him for murdering her mother and the inhabitants of the village in which she and her sister grew up. Anyway, it doesn’t take much to get Mara and Erlick together. Ever since the girls discovered that they were girls, Mara has been struggling with the mysterious tingling she feels every time she looks at Erlick. Valdar is momentarily distressed when Mira starts writhing around in ecstasy while Mara is getting it one, but he soon figures out that it’s just that psychic sex bond all twins have. Pando, one assumes, was off in the bushes furiously polishing his third horn.
Mira uses the psychic link to lead them to Traigon’s castle, where Traigon unleashes his amazing green animation finger rays on them. Mara and Erlick, under Traigon’s dastardly hypnotic spell, seem undisturbed by the apparently death of their friends and sibling, and one of the monkey monsters is pissed that Traigon killed the other girl, upon who the monkey monster had designs. Hey, with Pando the goat boy lurching about, a hot and bothered monkey monster is the least of the weird things in this movie. Anyway, it turns out that Valdar and Mira aren’t dead; they just sunk down into the catacombs below Traigon’s castle. Does this mean, on top of everything he’s already done for us, Jack Hill is going to give us zombie sword fights, too? Indeed it does. Unfortunately, zombie sword fights always sound cooler than they actually end up being. What with one side being zombies and all.
Of course, everything culminates in the ritual Traigon is throwing to sacrifice Mara and get some sort of undoubtedly disappointing ultimate power. This battle is realized by a super-imposed…what is that thing? I might know if I had my Monster Manual with me. A lion-dragon-horse thing, that battles a superimposed lady’s head. f you ever saw the finale to Wizards of the Lost Kingdom — and Pando the Goat Boy help you if you have — then you’ll recognize the finale of this movie as well. Man, when a movie is so cut-rate that it steals special effects finales from Sorceress, you know you’ve strayed too far from the good and righteous path. The two gods or whatever they are supposed to be float on opposite ends of the screen and shoot beams at each other while a sword fight rages below and Traigon shrieks and capers about like all proper effeminate evil wizard-emperors should.
Hey, you know what? Sorceress is pretty awesome. Cheap and ridiculous, yes, but also packed with badly choreographed action, gratuitous nudity, goat men, monkey monsters, zombies, animated magic death beams, and cackling wizards. Jack Hill is a steady hand behind the camera, which means that this movie, unlike many others that would come from Roger Corman’s 1980s sword and sorcery factory, is actually well paced and pretty exciting. There’s always a lot happening, and most of it is pretty enjoyable. And despite the nudity and the violence, there’s something almost…wholesome about it. Sword and sorcery movies usually work in gratuitous nudity by throwing in rape scenes, lending them an unsavory and mean-spirited edge that takes the fun out of what should be a stupid and hilarious genre, and this movie has at least one such scene. But while Sorceress probably has more gratuitous nudity than many sword and sorcery films, most of it comes in relatively harmless scenes of clothes changing, skinny dipping, and sex between consenting adults.
The acting is also surprisingly better than you might think. Much of the cast is Mexican. I assume it was shot down south of the border somewhere, as many of Corman’s barbarian movies were. But the Mexicans are all old hands, and they perform with an admirable level of professionalism you can detect even through the dubbing (which, for the most part, is actually decent as well). Roberto Ballesteros, in particular, seems to be having a grand old time with all the hissing, eye bulging, and mincing about that defines evil wizard warlords.
As for the twins, they do radiate a certain charm. I know, I know. What set of naked twins wouldn’t radiate “a certain charm”? Leigh and Lynette are two in a long line of Playmates who would show up in a sword and sorcery film. Barbi Benton was in Deathstalker. Monique Gabrielle was in Deathstalker II. Rebecca Ferratti was in Gor and Outlaw of Gor. None of them come across as likable as the twins, though. I think that has a lot more to do with the director than it does with Leigh and Lynette, though. Jack Hill was an exceptional exploitation film maker, one who always made sure that he delivered everything fans of a certain genre expected, but was also capable of making a movie that was a little smarter than the others from the same genre. Only Jack Hill could have made a sexy cheerleader movie and somehow also make it a credibly feminist (well, for a 70s exploitation film) movie, with characters who not only got naked, but also had actual depth to them. Under Hill’s guidance, Lynnette and Leigh come across as likable, if not entirely skilled, performers.
The movie also handles the action well enough, certainly better than you get in a lot of other cut-rate barbarian movies. Everyone throws themselves into the fist fights and sword swinging with gusto. Even Leigh and Lynette take on the physical stuff OK, and by that I mean the fight scenes. Not exactly believable or graceful, but better than one usually sees in such productions. In general, Jack Hill helps the Harris twins be, in every way they need to for this movie, better than they need to be (since all they really need to do is take off their shirts). And the Harris twins, for their part, seem to really be trying to do their best.
After this movie, the twins disappeared almost entirely from movies, though not from public life. They appeared once more on screen, together and naked again, in an adaptation of Micky Spillane’s I, The Jury. That was it for Lynette. Leigh made one or two other small appearances before disappearing. Lynette went on to carry on the tradition of former Playboy Playmates marrying rich old men and inheriting their money. She got into some legal trouble when she failed to claim the money in her income tax, something she argued she didn’t realize one had to do.
This is one of those movies you might go into expecting to laugh at, and sure, Pando is easy to laugh at if he doesn’t make you run into another room and weep in the corner. But it’s also a really easy movie, at least for me, to enjoy the heck out of. It’s not polished. It sure isn’t Conan the Barbarian, but it’s also got some effort into put into despite being “just another dumb barbarian movie.” Even disregarding the naked twins — which few viewers will want to disregard — Jack Hill keeps the movie moving briskly, crams it with action, and really delivers one of the more entertaining entries in the genre.
Jack Hill grew up in the film business. Born in Los Angeles, with a father who worked as a designer for both Disney and Warner Brothers, Hill was more or less destined to go to the University of California film school that served as the incubator for the cinematic revolution that occurred in the 1970s. He was part of the group of young up and coming film students that included, among others, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola, in particular, was close to Hill. The two worked on student films together then later both became apprentices to Roger Corman. In 1963, Roger Corman wrapped shooting of his supernatural comedy The Raven a couple days early. Realizing that he still had horror icon Boris Karloff under contract for like another day or so, Corman figured he might as well throw together another movie and get the most out of having Karloff around. The movie was The Terror, starring Jack Nicholson (who was hanging around because he was a nobody who had also just finished working on The Raven). Making a feature film in under a couple days, from concept to the end of shooting, is a mighty task even for one as famously efficient as Roger Corman, so he tapped his two apprentices, Hill and Coppola, to help direct.
Roughly ten years later, Coppola was collecting an Oscar for The Godfather. Hill, on the other hand, stuck around in the B-movie market. His 1968 film Spider Baby is considered by many to be a classic of off-kilter… not exactly horror. Just unsettling weirdness. While Coppola was busy making The Godfather, Jack Hill was in the Philippines shooting two movies that would spark a whole exploitation genre and make a star out of struggling young actress Pam Grier. 1971′s The Big Doll House and 1972′s follow-up The Big Bird Cage helped define the “women in prison” movies that would flood grindhouse theaters during the rest of the 1970s, while the two movies also served s examples of the genre at its most darkly humorous sand satirical. It was, as I said, largely because Jack Hill was making exploitation movies, but he didn’t seem to be holding exploitation film making in contempt or regarding the source material as a reason to crank out a lazy, sloppy production. No matter how silly the movie was, Jack handled it with professional seriousness.
After doing their tour of duty in the Philippines for Roger Corman, Hill and Grier returned to the states and once again made a duo of genre-defining hits. Coffy and Foxy Brown are a little rough around the edges, a little more independent feeling than low-budget but big studio productions like Shaft and Superfly, but they’re also fantastic fun and set the template for the “chick on a rampage” style of revenge flick that gave so many struggling black actresses a chance to kick some cinematic ass. Shortly after that, Hill was back with Corman, who was producing his batch of cheap cheerleader sexploitation films like The Cheerleaders and Revenge of the Cheerleaders. Jack Hill contributed The Swinging Cheerleaders, and once again, there was a lot more to his movie than the genre demanded, though he didn’t forsake fulfilling genre expectations in favor of thinking what was doing was “important.” No, he just figured that if he was going to take the time to make a movie, even a silly cheerleader sex film, he might as well put some effort into it.
After The Swinging Cheerleaders, Hill made Switchblade Sisters, then seemed to retire. His wife wanted to immerse herself entirely in the study of meditation, and Jack wanted to write. Neither passion was well suited by a side career making quick grindhouse movies with Roger Corman. From 1975 until 1982, Hill wrote a couple screenplays but basically played it cool. Then, in 1982, for whatever reason, he came back to work one last time with Roger Corman, showing Jim Wynorski the ropes as Hill directed and co-wrote Sorceress. His years in the wilderness did little to diminish his desire to handle all his movies with professionalism, which is probably why Sorceress is a whole lot better than most other sword and sorcery films, and why its script, if a bit daft, is otherwise logically put together. Well, logically by the standards of the sword and sorcery genre. And as long as you don’t think about things like, “what the hell was Traigon’s cult doing while he was dead” or “so now that they killed Traigon, who was running a peaceful kingdom other than hunting down the twins, who’s in charge?”
It’s probably not the swan song a director would dream of, but as far as exploitation film swan songs go, Hill could have done a lot worse. Much of what’s wrong with the movie happened once it was turned over to Roger Corman. Although famously able to turn a profit on any old crap for much of his career, Corman was taking a beating in the early 1980s. Production of Sorceress had been a string of calamities that saw location shooting scheduled for Portugal, Italy, and The Philippines (with Cirio Santiago) before they ended up in Mexico. It took forever for the deal to get finalized, and once it was, the shooting schedule was cut short when Dino De Laurentiis showed up with his crew for Dune and seized the backlot. When Sorceress went into post-production, Corman was simply too tired and too broke to deliver on any of the special effects that the movie needed, and in fact, didn’t even bother to finish some of the most basic work. In several spots, dialogue and sound effects were never looped in. Animation was left out where people were supposed to be shooting beams and whatnot. Shots that were composed for matte paintings never got their mattes, meaning you could see equipment and the tops of sets. Jacki Hill was so exasperated by the experience that he took his name off as director and screenwriter, and he hasn’t directed since.
All that said, I still think the movie is fun despite the shoddy construction. Even when defeated by every setback imaginable, Hill never once throws int he towel or treats the film like the sinking ship that had everyone else lounging around and not giving a crap. Released in 1982, Sorceress was a pretty early entry into the sword and sorcery boom. Most of the movies that came after Conan the Barbarian didn’t attempt to mimic that movie’s profound sense of seriousness. They were more than happy to follow the lead of The Sword and the Sorcerer, which saw no need to handle the material with any sense of gravity.
Sorceress is somewhere in the middle. It has its comedic bits (the way the final battle between the heroes and Traigon’s zombie army pans out is pure goofball Wynorski), but it also plays things straight. Light-hearted, I guess you would say. That it isn’t filled with anachronistic one-liners and jokes is something of a small miracle. Writer Jim Wynorski would go on to become a prolific director of goofball genre movies, and almost everything he does is infused with a juvenile sense of humor. When he got to direct his own sword and sorcery film, Deathstalker II, he turned the entire thing into a comedy. That may have been for the best, mind you, but he’s maintained that tendency to yuk it up in most of his movies, which is why it’s no surprise that he eventually fell in with Fred Olen Ray, the two of them together accounting for 99% of the world’s movies about half-naked girls fighting space aliens and dinosaurs. Wynorski rarely seems to have much respect for his own material; Hill always seems to have respect for his material, no matter how dumb. The two of them together actually strike a pretty solid balance.
Wynorski found himself working for Roger Corman in 1980, after moving to LA from New York with dreams of getting into the movie business. Corman put the anxious young man to work making trailers. Considering that Corman’s mode of operation was, as it had been when he himself was a hungry young film maker at American International Pictures, to come up with a movie title and artwork before the movie had even been written, and sell the movie on the merits of its outrageous title and ad art alone, putting together coming attractions previews for Corman productions was a pretty important task. Eventually, Corman let Wynorski start writing screenplays, and it’s likely that he paired the man with Jack Hill because there was no finer director at Corman’s disposal for teaching a kid the ropes of making a solid exploitation film.
After working in that capacity for a couple years, Corman approached Wynorski with another offer. Kids loved hanging out in shopping malls, so a distributor wanted a movie about a killer in a shopping mall. Corman told Wynorski to write it, and if the script was OK, Wynorski would also get to direct. Taking the concept of “a killer in a shopping mall” in a somewhat unexpected direction, Wynorski turned in the script for, and soon got to direct, Chopping Mall, in which high tech security robots at a shopping mall go berserk and start butchering teenagers. Wynorski would stay in the director’s chair for something like 150 movies more — and counting.
Although Wynorski learned how to make a professional looking product during his apprenticeship with Hill and Corman, he doesn’t have the same sense of… seriousness isn’t exactly what I’m thinking. He likes to goof off and cram his movies with silly jokes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. His unwillingness to handle Deathstalker II with even an ounce of seriousness is what probably saved the movie from being as dreary and boring as the original Deathstalker – and if you can find it on DVD, Wynorski’s commentary is hilarious. These days, Wynorski seems to while away the hours making breast-themed spoofs of major motion pictures, including such direct to DVD hits as The Bare Wench Project, The Breastford Wives, and House on Hooter Hill. He’s also a dependable hand for silly Sci-Fi Channel movies like Komodo vs. Cobra and Bone Eater, among many others I’ve wasted a perfectly good Saturday afternoon watching for like the third time. All things considered, Sorceress is one of the best films in his filmography.
But wait, you might say to yourself — where the hell was the sorceress? Shouldn’t a movie called Sorceress contain at least one sorceress? Well, umm… hey look! Naked twins! Zombie sword fight! Pando the goat boy! Wait, Pando, what are you… no! Bad Pando! Bad!
Release Year: 1982 | Country: United States, Mexico | Starring: Leigh Harris, Lynette Harris, Bob Nelson, David Millbern, Bruno Rey, Ana De Sade, Roberto Ballesteros, Douglas Sanders, Tony Stevens, Martin LaSalle, Silvia Masters, William Arnold, Teresa Conway | Screenlay: Jim Wynorski, Jack Hill | Director: Jack Hill | Cinematography: Alex Phillips Jr. | Producer: Roger Corman, Jack Hill | Alternate Titles: Devil’s Advocate
In 1975, exploitation film master Roger Corman produced one of his very best films. Combining a wicked sense of campy humor, a healthy dose of violence, and an angry satirical edge, Death Race 2000, directed by Paul Bartel, was the best things to bear Corman’s name (as producer) since Corman himself was directing cool horror films based on Edgar Allan Poe stories for AIP. Always keen to make a buck, Corman immediately set about creating another vehicle-based futuristic fling, albeit one with a lot less of a budget — even for a Corman flick — and a much less talented writer and director. Corman would do his best to make people think it was related in some way to Death Race 2000 by calling the new film Deathsport and casting David Carradine in the lead. But the similarities end there, and while Death Race 2000 is a genuinely good, enjoyable, and even smart film, Deathsport is an incompetent piece of junk with almost nothing to offer humanity. Predictably, I do not own Death Race 2000 and have only seen it once. I do, however, own Deathsport in two different formats now and have watched it at least half a dozen times.
We find ourselves in “the future,” something like a thousand years from now, after the wars have turned the world into a vast tract of scrubland and desert. The remnants of the human race live in fortress style city-states and are called statesmen, leaving the majority of the blighted world to be the domain of mutant cannibals and a race of mystic wanderers known as range guides. Machines are rare, used only by the “statesmen” — people who live in the cities. So, wait. Didn’t you just tell us that pretty much everyone lives in the city and is a statesman? Now I haven’t been good at math or logic since sixth grade, but I’m pretty sure that if almost everyone is a statesmen, and only statesmen use machines, then almost everyone uses machines. So I don’t see what’s so special about it.
The mad leader of Helix City, Lord Zirpola (David McClean), wants to attack a neighboring city for no real reason we can understand other than he is mad and evil. To accomplish this act of war, he has invented the future’s ultimate weapon: a motorcycle with some aluminum attached to the front end, and two lasers on the side that are of the same power as lasers people carry and fire by hand, only the lasers on the so-called “death machines” are more awesome because they are a hell of a lot harder to aim. Zirpola wants to prove to his people that the death machines are super bad-ass, so he decides to capture some range guides and showcase their obliteration by death machine in the city’s gladiatorial “deathsport.” This will convince the population that an unjustified war with the other city will be fun and easy, so long as everyone is riding a death machine.
The future as projected by the cheap sci-fi films of the 70s and 80s is jam packed with incredibly lame ultimate weapons. The death machines are pretty high up on the list, though they will pale in comparison to some of the other ultimate weapons we’ll be seeing later in this series of reviews. The death machines may be stupid and unwieldy as weapons, but at least they are still motorcycles. At the very least, you can ride them around and have fun up until Barry Bostwick shows up on his own futuristic motorcycle with crap attached to the front end and brags about how his can also fly. But still, when we first see the death machines in action, a couple female range guides, one of whom is the late Gator Bait herself, Claudia Jennings, take them out with no real problem. Range guide Kaz Oshay (Carradine) will also take a few out all by himself — and range guides are armed with nothing but clear plastic swords that whistle when you swing them around. I’m pretty sure I had a toy that did the same thing. That’s all it takes to make a death machine explode? At no point, though, does the army of Helix City think that the death machines are a stupid idea, let alone an especially stupid idea in a world with lots of tall, steep rock formations people have no problem scurrying up to escape the death machines. Oh if only Lord Zirpola has listened to Barry Bostwick and put rocket wings on the motorcycles!
Eventually Carradine’s Kaz and Jenning’s Deneer are captured, though that has less to do with the death machines than it does sheer force of numbers. They come face to face with the leader of Helix City’s army, the black-clad Richard Lynch. Yes, his character has a name (Ankar Moor), but anyone who knows Richard Lynch knows that he plays the same evil guy character in every movie, so we might as well just call him Richard Lynch. I guess the same could be said of David Carradine as well. Lynch has the sinister air of a young Rutger Hauer crossbred with the condescending sneer of William Atherton and the hair of Gladiator Malibu from the 80s version of American Gladiators. Can even David Carradine stand up to such a foe?
It turns out that not only is Richard Lynch evil, but he’s also a former range guide who betrayed The Code and killed the most powerful of all range guides, who just happens to be Kaz Oshay’s mom. Deneer and Kaz don’t take too kindly to being caged like animals. While Kaz kicks the wall a lot and yells “I am my only master,” Deneer is made to wander around nude in a room full of neon tubes that shake around, howl, and electrocute people. Don’t ask me, man. I didn’t write it. Eventually, the two guides are forced to compete against the death machines in deathsport, an event that takes up about ten minutes of the film’s running time and has almost no real bearing on the plot, but is never the less the source of the title. Earlier in the film, Zirpola was angry that Ankor Moor lost a couple death machines whilst pursuing Claudia Jennings, yet here he seems unphased by the fact that the two captive rangers take out like a dozen of the infernal contraptions. Maybe if he’d put trained soldiers on the machines instead of chumps he just picked out of jail, his little dog and pony show would have gone better. The two rangers escape along with a couple hangers on, thus ending the deathsport portion of Deathsport. All that’s left now is for the bad guys to chase the good guys across the barren wasteland until we get a final showdown between Kaz Oshay and Ankor Moor. All in all, Zirpola’s death machine coming out party went over about as well as one of those corporate seminars where the presenter has all his stuff stored online and then can’t get an internet connection (possibly because the internet has become sentient and is too preoccupied with cataloging its vast store of Naruto slashfic).
To enumerate the various points at which the plot doesn’t make any sense would be to wandering into a Minotaur’s labyrinth from which there is no real hope of emerging alive. The death machines having already been covered as being idiotic, we could turn to how much is made of Carradine’s ability to sense the coming of dangerous weather, which leads to him predicting the coming of dangerous weather, which leads to a scene of people going “The dangerous weather is coming,” which then leads immediately to a scene of people coming out of a cave and going, “Whew, I sure am glad that dangerous weather is over.” Cannibal mutants kidnap a little girl, and one assumes that the reason cannibal mutants would kidnap a little girl is to eat her. But weeks later, when Kaz and Deneer finally show up to rescue her, she’s still there. I guess they wanted to soften up the meat. The cannibal mutants had her in a little cage, after all, so I reckon that the world may have collapsed but our love of veal has not. There are also multiple scenes were someone who is supposed to get killed stands right in front of a death machine, but instead of shooting the person with the lasers, the guy on the death machine just does a little wheelie or jumps over a convenient dirt pile next to the person. And then usually the death machine explodes. You may not have realized that hitting a motorcycle with a clear plastic sword would make it explode, but that’s why you’re not a range guide.
And then there’s the matter of Lord Zirpola’s neon tube torture forest. Seriously, just what the hell? I mean, I can understand having a chamber where people dance naked for you. And I can understand that in the future, poledancer poles will need to be more futuristic, and thus making them transparent tubes filled with flashing neon lights is inevitable. But what kind of torture is it to then make them shake all around and howl? That’s not torture; that’s just ugly windchimes, and you can get those all over the place down South. Still, at least the movie does right by us and has not one but two gratuitous scenes of nude dancing in the neon tube forest, one of which goes on for a while and features a woman (Valerie Rae Clark, star of…ummm…Breast Orgy and Breast Orgy 2) we’ve never seen before and will never see again but, for some reason, apart from dancing nude, also gets to kill Lord Zirpola by…umm…offering her hand to him while he’s busy making the tubes shock her or whatever it is they do. Zirpola also has a torture tunnel where he straps you down and flashes lights at you, causing you to scream. This requires Claudia Jennings to be nude for the torture to work. Luckily, it does not require the same of David Carradine.
So let me address this right here. David Carradine in his youth — not really a bad looking guy. In pretty good shape. But the loincloth simply does not become him. It becomes very few men, especially when they are shot from such awkward angles, like leaping spread legged through the air or rolling around on their back with their legs stuck up. It’s just not a good angle. That’s why you don’t see male strippers constantly jumping all spread eagle off the backs of chairs and stuff. They know that it looks goofy. They’ll straddle a chair, but they’ll never jump awkwardly off it. And when it comes to rolling around on their backs in a crouching position, they’re going to skip that and fill the time with a little trick I like to call “around the world.” So while we get to see plenty of David Carradine flesh, most of it is unwelcome because it just ends up looking so goofy. Still, I suppose we should be happy he wasn’t forced to do full frontal nude dancing in the forest of shaking, howling neon tubes.
Probably my favorite part of the movie is when Kaz Oshay leads Ankor and his minions on a motorcycle race through a fuel depot which has no reason to exist out in the middle of the desert. The depot is full of gasoline barrels stacked apparently at random throughout the facility, sometimes in front of ramps so that people can jump their motorcycles through flames once the barrels have inevitably exploded. In classic Corman fashion, scenes of jumping motorcycles are recycled a few times to increase the number of times we get to watch a guy jump a motorcycle over some candy cane colored barrels. This fuel depot was apparently built by the same people who were doing the construction on the building where Jackie Chan has his final fight scene in Mr. Nice Guy. If you don’t recall or never saw the film, that building features a framed-up but not entirely drywalled floor that was apparently comprised of nothing but hundreds of 5×5 rooms with doors in every wall. It was fun for a fight scene, but really, what the hell were they building?
Watching Deathsport is mind-bending enough on its own right, but where the film really shines is in the backstage drama. The movie was written by Nicholas Niciphor. Though he had no experience as a director, Niciphor was also hired to direct — presumably because the vision for Deathsport was so grand and amazing that only the film’s writer could hope to fully realize it, or something. Now, who you believe about what has a lot to do with sorting out what happened, but I’m going mostly with David Carradine’s version. According to Carradine, Niciphor was not only inexperienced, he was also unstable. He was so clueless about directing that he didn’t even now what it meant to set up a camera. He was prone to freak out, especially at Claudia Jennings or whenever anyone had trouble maneuvering the awkward death machines. According to Niciphor, this was often because the cast was drunk, stoned, and unruly, especially Jennings. I don’t really doubt it. Carradine himself admits that there was a bit of partying going on. Former Playboy Playmate Claudia Jennings was well known as a wild child anyway. But then, you’re making Deathsport. What the hell is there to be so serious about? Niciphor, however, was deadly serious about his film, and if the cast was clowning around, it only served to push him further over the edge. If things didn’t go right on the first take, he would throw a fit and throw out the entire scene and brood about it.
Things came to a head when he tore into Jennings over her inability to effectively handle the clunky death machines. Everyone was having problems with the front-heavy contraptions, but Jennings in particular irked him. It got so heated that Niciphor allegedly struck Jennings, though David Carradine says he can’t verify this since he was down at the other end of a gully waiting to do a take. Jennings was ready to quit the movie, and it was only after speaking with the producer who then spoke to Roger Corman that she was convinced to stay on. Niciphor was eventually phased out, spending most of his time skulking in the background, and Alan Arkush was brought in to complete the film — but not before Niciphor got his nose broken by David Carradine when he walked too close to a fight scene rehearsal in progress. Niciphor claims it might not have been an accident. But that’s nothing, since apparently the temperamental (or perhaps just mental) writer-director also berated Jennings and Carradine to the point where David actually just hauled off and kicked the guy’s ass.
Niciphor refutes many of the claims without actually refuting them. According to his side of things, the altercation between he and Claudia Jennings happened because Jennings was coked out while trying to operate the death machine, and that’s why she was having a hard time. I don’t think that’s outside the realm of possibility. Jenning’s cocaine addiction was well known. Niciphor further claims that Carradine was smoking hashish the whole time. Again, I don’t think this is outside the realm of believability — especially when you witness how stoned Carradine looks for most of the movie. But none of this really counters any of what Carradine said, either. The entire thing sounds like a snobs versus slobs teen sex comedy, with Carradine and Jennings cast and the lovable freewheelin’ slobs and Niciphor as the stuffy dean who hates fun. Assuming that the truth is to be found in some mix of all sides of the story, the final verdict is that the the making of Deathsport would probably be a much better film than Deathsport itself.
Things like that are why I like movies like this so much — apart from the fact that this movie is just plain weird. It’s handled with such seriousness, with such earnestness. You can feel that poor Nicholas Niciphor really believed in every line, really wanted this film to have meaning and depth. Does a film this lousy really deserve that much behind the scenes drama? I would love for the DVD to have had some commentary attached to it, either by Carradine or Niciphor — or hell, put ‘em both in the room and let them duke it out. This was the first and last time poor Nick directed a film, though he did go on to work as a writer for a few more films, including Alejandro Jodorowski’s Tusk. Beyond that, he’s been relegated to the realm of writing irate letters to Psychotronic magazine, complaining about David Carradine’s doobie habits in 1978.
Carradine, of course, needs no real introduction here. A dancer who sprung into the American consciousness courtesy of the show Kung-Fu, Carradine went on to become one of the mainstays of exploitation cinema, especially when it was produced by Roger Corman. Carradine could be quite good in a role, and when he was bad, he mostly seemed harmlessly sleepy and stoned. That’s how he plays it here, meandering through Niciphor’s ponderous faux-mystic dialogue with the laid back style of a dude who was eating a lot of pot brownies. His fight scenes are awkward, but that’s more the fault of the movie itself. What can you do when you’re forced to swing around a huge plastic sword? His nemesis in Richard Lynch is…well, Lynch is actually understated compared to some of his other performances, but it’s still the exact same performance you expect and always want from Lynch. I can’t say much more than that.
Claudia Jennings is another well known, albeit far more tragic, figure in B-Movie history. Jennings became one of the most recognizable faces in exploitation cinema when she appeared in the film Gator Bait, which is well known not so much because the movie is worth being well known, but more because every single video store in the universe seemed to have a sun bleached copy of the VHS tape sitting on the shelf. Jennings isn’t a great actress, and she has a sort of sleepy eyed beauty that makes her seem like she was stoned the entire time — which she apparently was. Between her and Carradine, the munchies-related catering bill must have eaten up half the film’s budget. She had her moments of glory in film, though. Unholy Rollers, for example, and Moonshine County Express. Deathsport really isn’t one of those moments, though she does get to wander naked through that neon tube room. This film comes at the end of her career, when she was heavy into drug and alcohol abuse and had a tumultuous relationship with some real estate guy (though rumors have her connected to Deathsport co-star Jesse Vint, and someone — Niciphor I think — also claimed she was attached to David Carradine, a claim that Carradine laughs off as preposterous). She cleaned up her act shortly thereafter, but amid a breakup with the realtor, fell asleep at the wheel of her car and was killed in the ensuing wreck.
But even if Jennings and Carradine were whooping it up, smoking pot, drinking whiskey, and arranging huge Deathsport orgies, nothing in their performance can come close to being as awkward or awful as that of young Will Walker, who plays one of the guys who breaks out of the deathsport competition with the range guides. This is one of those performances that is so weird and horrible that it deserves far more attention than it receives. He looks kind of like Miles O’Keefe in Sword of the Valiant, with the blond page boy haircut and the same dazed thousand yard stare. But Miles is a much better actor than Walker, believe it or not. Walker’s character of Marcus spends most of his time yelling “Kaz! Help me!” in a bland monotone. If the film has an humor at all, it’s to be found in Kaz’s flashes of annoyance at having to carry this load around on his awesome adventure with Claudia Jennings. She was totally willing to go all the way, but then Marcus kept showing up and ruining the mood.
Post apocalyptic cinema from the 1970s was often slow and ponderous, not to mention incredibly self-important and pretentious. Sometimes the results are pretty great, sometimes they were ridiculous, and often they were just dull. Deathsport is sort of a missing link between the post apocalyptic films of the 70s and those that would come in the wake of Mad Max and, more importantly, its sequel, The Road Warrior. Those films featured much less cornball philosophizing and much more high octane action. Or at least attempts at high octane action. Deathsport has plenty of the corny mysticism and dime store attempts at Zen koans that one expects from 1970s sci-fi, but it also has lots of exploding motorcycles and…well…it has lots of exploding motorcycles. And it is one of the first post-apocalypse films to save itself some cash by predicting that, in the future, the world would mostly look like scrubland dotted with matte paintings of distant cities. It’s pretty fair to draw the line from this movie directly to Mad Max, Road Warrior, and from there you quickly find yourself in the domain of Warriors of the Lost World and Warlords of the 21st Century — movies that, many years after Deathsport, manage to be just as cheap and goofy as it was, but not nearly as much fun. I mean, those later movies have practically no David Carradine crotch at all!
Deathsport presents us with a loopy sort of myticism not unlike The Force as presented in Star Wars and before George Lucas turned it into some sort of genetic disease, but more accurately, it reflects the same sort of New Age filtered half understanding of Buddhism and spirituality that you find in a movie like Circle of Iron (also featuring David Carradine in a loin cloth) or in pretty much any pow wow held by some white dude claiming to be enlightened. Our range guides speak in monotone a lot about consciousness and spiritual union, and we know they are wise because they do not use contractions, but it all sounds pretty much like what a high schooler might come up with. Circle of Iron covers much of the same ground but in a more effective way and with a greater grounding in actual Zen philosophy rather than Zen as filtered through some hippie who read a couple pamphlets and then set himself up with an American ashram. But we’ll come to that movie in good time, and if nothing else, it’s probably safe to say that as many hashish brownies went into its making as went into the making of Deathsport. Star Wars must also have had some effect on this film, though, because the foley artist thought enough of it to take the TIE fighter sound effect and use them whenever David Carradine drives his motorcycle through a tunnel.
Deathsport is a pretty clumsy film, full of bad writing, plot points that make no sense, ominous talk about things that end up never happening, and a titular event that ends up being, at best, a footnote in the film’s action. The acting is lazy, the writing is ridiculous, and the props are laughable. And it’s all worth seeing, just for the sheer spectacle of it. Ill advised motorcycles as ultimate weapons movies wouldn’t have it this good again until Megaforce rolled off the assembly line. The fact that a movie this bad generated so much behind the scenes drama fills me with a sick sense of giddiness, as does the thought that Carradine and Jennings were toking up while an uptight German guy yelled at them to take his film more seriously. I don’t even know if Nick was German. I just like imagining him that way, possibly dressed in the monocle and jodhpurs get up all good directors wear. It may not be a shining example of 70s scifi, or even a shining example of a middling Roger Corman production, but it is pretty entertaining. Plus, neon disco windchime nude dancing, and so many David Carradine buffalo shots per minute that to merely gaze upon them is enough to drive sane men mad.
Perhaps that’s what happened to poor old Lord Zirpola.
Release Year: 1978 | Country: United States | Starring: David Carradine, Claudia Jennings, Richard Lynch, William Smithers, Will Walker, David McLean, Jesse Vint | Writer: Nicholas Niciphor, Donald Stewart | Director: Nicholas Niciphor | Cinematographer: Gary Graver | Music: Andy Stein | Producer: Roger Corman
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.
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.
Doing a quick survey of Yahoo, Google, and the external reviews linked to from the Internet Movie Database will turn up a body of reviews almost unanimous in their disdain for this movie. Yor, The Hunter from the Future certainly isn’t an unknown movie, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a single person out there, even among aficionados of bad movies, who doesn’t feel that it probably should be an unknown movie. Sometimes it seems like the lone voice in post-apocalyptic wilderness is the guy who writes for www.antoniomargheriti.com, though even the film’s own director has publicly stated that the film is awful. Given that I am apparently one of the two members of the Yor fanclub, it behooves me to write a decent defense and review of this maligned slice of early eighties Italian exploitation.
The words “favorite” and “Yor” have, to my knowledge, never been uttered together before, not even on the internet where all things perverse and profane flourish. In a medium where you can probably find a website with pictures of people masturbating with donkey hoofs while a Nazi shoves live eels up their butt, you can’t find many people who will say anything positive about Yor, The Hunter from the Future. But unlike almost every other critic and film fan in the world, I come not to bury Yor, but to praise him — at least mildly. My initiation into the strange and exclusive cult of Yor came in the eighties, when a film like this would actually get released to theaters with a considerable degree of fanfare. Conan the Barbarian had just stormed on to screens, and the Italians apparently possess a magical ability to forecast which movies will ignite remarkable trends, then rush out scores of imitations mere days after the original inspiration is released. I suppose it has a little something to do with business acumen, and a lot to do with the fact that most of these movies had production schedules that closely resembled the gestation period of a fruit fly.
These were heady days for young men with very little sense of decency in their cinematic taste. In a drunken run that began more or less with the release of The Black Hole and TRON, youngsters of the era were subjected to a seemingly endless parade of generally delightful genre films that was only made all the more intoxicating the day a friend got cable television. Whenever people bemoan the sad state of modern movies and complain about how much junk is getting dumped on the market, I feel I should recommend they take a step back and re-examine previous years. The problem with movie hindsight is that it is terribly myopic. Decades removed from any given year, we tend to only remember the exceptionally good (and in a few rare instances, exceptionally atrocious) films, thus giving that year an inflated position. Living in a year, however, we’re exposed to every piece of crap that rolls out of the factory, and so the poor quality of our current time is much fresher and more evident than that of years past. It’s the same phenomenon that makes it look like foreign countries make better movies than we do. Since we’re only exposed to a select few foreign films every year, we tend to get the cream of the crop. But as anyone who lives in one of these countries can tell you, they manage to make just as many wretched offerings as we do. We just get filtered content.
The big difference between now and then is the budget. It used to be that rotten films were confined to the ghetto of low-budget quickie productions, while films with a larger budget invested in them had shown some degree of merit. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, and just because a studio and critics thought a big-budget film might be good doesn’t mean it actually was. Things reversed sometime in the nineties though, and most of the good films had smaller budgets while the big-budget movies reeked of bloat, excess, and slapdash craftsmanship. Now we live in an era where people dump millions into films that previously would have been made on a shoestring. To tie this all together into a poorly wrapped package, the grandfather of providing A-list financing for B-list concepts was Dino De Laurentiis. It started for him in the sixties, working as a producer for cheap “sword and sandal” peplum films. Although Dino’s films probably weren’t budgeted any higher than their contemporaries, most of the ones that bear his name look and play much better than the rest of the pack. In 1968, he lavished French director Roger Vadim with a sizeable budget for the piece of psychedelic cheesecake sci-fi pop art known as Barbarella, and thus began the producer’s long love affair with throwing tons of money at silly concepts.
Now, what ties this in with Yor, The Hunter from the Future is the fact that De Laurentiis produced Conan the Barbarian. So yes, Italian moviemakers have a knack for latching onto a big trend and draining it mercilessly of its precious lifeblood. At the same time, most of the trends upon which they hop — Westerns, peplum, zombies — also have significant ties to Italy in the first place. A Fistful of Dollars may have starred Clint Eastwood, but it was an Italian film. Ditto Steve Reeves and Hercules. George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead sparked the glut of Italian zombie films that shambled through the eighties, but it was made possible by the financial graces of Italian director/producer Dario Argento. And Conan was the fevered brainchild of Oliver Stone, John Milius, and a whole bunch of pot (one assumes), but an Italian made it happen. So in some twisted way, the Italians deserve to be able to rip these films off. Or, you know, something like that.
Anyway, none of us kids got to see Conan in the theaters, though there were few who didn’t catch it on cable in between showings of Beastmaster. But we did get to see various, more family-friendly knock-offs, back in a time when family-friendly films didn’t have to include spunky children but could include cannibalistic mummies and loincloth-clad women. Among those was Yor, The Hunter from the Future. Undoubtedly still reeling from the time she took us to the drive-in to see Treasure of the Four Crowns, my mom wasn’t up for the challenge of taking a carload of kids to see Yor. I don’t remember whose mom got suckered into Yor duty, but I’m sure she curses us to this day, assuming she hasn’t completely blocked the memory. You know what, though? We loved it. We loved it more than modern kids love Harry Potter and Catch that Kid. You may have those movies, but we got to watch shit like Yor and Treasure of the Four Crowns, where people flew around on giant bats and had melting faces. Of course, we also had to endure our parents taking us to more acceptable kid-friendly movies, like that one where the kid from E.T. uses his BMX bike to evade trained KBG agents while soliciting cloak and dagger advice from Dabny Coleman. What was that movie called? Oh yeah, Cloak and Dagger. Actually, that was pretty good, I think.
Yor, the Hunter from the Future is by far the most ambitious, and thus goofy, of all the Conan knock-offs. It’s the only one with the audacity to rip off its shock revelation from Planet of the Apes while also ripping off the inferior Apes sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes, with just as dash of Conquerors of Atlantis and Star Wars thrown in for good measure. You got a hero in a loin cloth, some technologically advanced mutant humans hiding away from the primitives, and a surprise ending (well, midway point anyway) in which we learn that the ancient land of cavemen and dinosaurs we’re seeing is not the ancient past or another planet, but is in fact a post-nuke Earth. Not surprisingly, star Reb Brown is no Charlton Heston and Yor, The Hunter from the Future is no Planet of the Apes. It’s barely even Goin’ Ape.
Yor begins as every movie should begin: with a peroxide blonde caveman bounding across a rocky terrain while synth-heavy prog rock screams madly in the background. Imagine how much better every movie would be with this opening. Kate and Leopold? Why not start it with a barbarian and thunderous prog rock, then move into the thing about the guy from Napoleonic times romancing Meg Ryan on the eve of her officially becoming a has-been? All those quirky indy romance movies films? Sure they’re cute, but who can argue the fact that these shoegazing coming-of-age soap operas would be more palatable to everyone if they included a couple shots of a oily barbarian with Flash Gordon hair fighting dinosaurs while unintelligible prog-rock anthems roared on gloriously in the background? The whole movie doesn’t have to be about that, because we already have that movie and it’s called Yor, the Hunter from the Future. But maybe they could do something where, say, Amy Adams is sitting in a malt shop (kids still go to malt shops, right?) or a quaint upper west side coffee shop talking about relationships, and then she goes, “Well, will you look at that?” And then we cut to a few minutes of a caveman using a giant bat as a hang glider or something, and then we can go back to the plot about finding romance and meaning in today’s hurried modern world.
I think it would fit thematically, because it illustrates how in earlier, more barbarous times, life had so much more significance because times were so tough. We had to live full and hearty lives filled with adventure and passion and synth-rock orchestration, because we never knew when a monkey-man mummy was going to leap down from a perch in the woods and hit us in the face with a rough-hewn stone axe. Removed from that sort of immediacy, Amy Adams’ life is less vital, less passionate, and thus she has a hard time forging a meaningful relationship with modern men who are too wrapped up in banking or computer programming to ever take time out of their busy schedule to love a woman or shoot arrows into a rampaging dinosaur’s eye. But as the cavewoman Ka-Laa notices as she watches Yor bound mightily from boulder to boulder one fine, sunny day, Yor is not like other men.
Yor lives in “Barbarian Times,” and comes from “the high mountains.” I have a feeling Antonio Margheriti was pretty high in the mountains himself when he co-wrote this script. Yor spends his days scrambling over rocks and saving some cockeyed Jack Elam looking guy named Pag (Luciano Pigozii) and sexy cavewoman Ka-Laa from screaming, roaring, huffing, house-size dinosaurs that somehow manage to sneak up behind people in the woods. Most people can’t sneak up behind other people in the woods without at least stepping on a twig, but what do I know? I’ve never been stalked by a dinosaur. Thankful for blond, loincloth-clad Yor’s randomly showing up and saving them from a dinosaur (shades of Fire Monster Against the Son of Hercules), Pag and Ka-Laa invite Yor back to their village to eat “the choice meats” and watch women drape themselves in cargo nets and spin around. The difference between Yor and the rest of the inhabitants of this primal world is immediately evident. He has mastered hair bleaching and body-waxing; they possess tangled brown hair. He is clean-shaven while the rest of the men sport scraggly Mujahadeen beards. Only Ka-Laa’s grooming prowess and hair teasing ability rivals Yor’s. It is obvious he is “not like the others.”
Unfortunately for Yor’s new friends, everyone is a musical theater critic, and a neighboring, even more primitive tribe of hairy blue cavemen pillage the village and put an end to the twilrling rope dress dance, fulfilling the basic requirement of any sword and sorcery film that someone’s village get pillaged, preferably fairly early in the film. It’s likely that Pag’s tribe was slaughtered on account of their phenomenally stupid “twirling rope dress” dance, but even if not, there’s no arguing with the notion that the world was better off minus a tribe full of people who were continuously sneaked up on by snorting, stomping, bellowing dinosaurs.
Only Yor, Pag, and Ka-Laa survive the slaughter. Yor decides he wants to find out the origin of the strange metal medallion he wears, and thus discover the mystery of his own past. Pag and his big-haired daughter join Yor on his quest. What else are they going to do? Their village was just destroyed. Along the way, they’ll fight more dinosaurs, some monkey men, and Yor will grab a giant hairy bat-monster and use it to hang glide through a cave while the prog rock music screams out in joyous ovation to his heroics. Whenever Yor does something especially heroic, like hang onto a giant bat, we’re treated to a thunderous explosion of prog rock glory that would be very much at home on Rick Wakeman’s Myths and Legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the ice ballet for which was considerably less corny than Yor.
Yor eventually discovers a blonde woman living amongst the diseased primitives of the wasteland, and he is shocked to see that she possesses the same funky medallion as him. In her cave are other people, frozen in ice, and more clues to Yor’s origins. As they quest about the prehistoric future, they slowly unravel the mystery of the disco medallion Yor wears, and they discover a group of advanced humans living in a space-age facility on an island. What mystery is this? As Yor draws closer to the truth, your mouth will be agape at the final, shocking revelation. These aren’t prehistoric times at all! This is…the future! But who are these strange men in Ming the Merciless cloaks, and what manner of magic weapon do they possess that can issue forth a slow-moving neon pink dollop of light that can kill a man? Gods, such sorcery! It turns out these are the last remaining survivors of a once-proud and technologically advanced civilization that was destroyed by nuclear war. All the pieces fall into place when Yor’s medallion is revealed to be a recording of his family history. Why is Yor not like the other men? Because he is the child of one of the advanced survivors, a group of rebels who sought to overthrow the “Overlord” and were victims of a spaceship crash that left young Yor and that other blonde woman stranded in the post-apocalyptic wasteland. But Yor survived yet, and grew strong and heroic, and where his father failed, Yor shall lead another band of advanced survivor rebels in another bid to overthrow the Darth Vaderish Overlord, who seeks to obliterate all life and replace it with a new race — half-android, half-Yor.
If you think a mad scheme like that is going to cause Yor to have to do all sorts of crazy shit that demands prog-rock synth ovations, then you’ve been paying closer attention to this movie than most people. Amid it all, various people get on the space-age facilitiy’s loudspeaker and wax philosophic at great lengths on assorted points pertaining to topics such as the folly of man, the worth of man, the future of man, and overloading the atomic reactor. Yor’s “message” is, needless to say, half-baked and completely ludicrous, but heck. How many other sword and sorcery movies from the time even made an attempt at having a message, however cliche it may have been? You know, I was all for nuclear proliferation, brinksmanship, and the whole arms race until Yor, The Hunter from the Future opened my eyes and really made me think about how man harbors a tendency to abuse power he doesn’t fully comprehend.
Athough Yor isn’t a time-traveling barbarian movie in the strictest sense of how the intellectuals and academics of the world define “time-traveling barbarian,” it’s close enough to lump it in with the little sub-genre that erupted in its wake. Hard to believe that Yor could start a trend within a trend, but as one of the early entries in the sword and sorcery genre, it gets the dubious credit of having inspired the other time-warp barbarians like Beastmaster II and the dreary Time Barbarians. Ancient warriors traversing the fold of the space-time continuum in much the same way Conan trod the sands of the earth beneath his sandaled feet may be historically questionable (it’s more historically viable to have barbarians traveling into space, like in the Gor movies or the second Lou Ferrigno Hercules movie. Or was it the first one? Whichever one where he goes to the moon), but it made good financial sense. Most of the cheap barbarian movies that came out in the 1980s required little more than some fake swords, fake armor, and only a couple locations: usually, a forest, a rocky desert, and at least one castle chamber that could probably be rented cheap from Roger Corman. But you could save even more money by sending your barbarian forward in time, almost exclusively to modern-day Los Angeles. Then you only needed a few barbarian outfits and probably only one or two forest shots before you could throw a goofy “time portal” effect up on screen and spend the remainder of the film simply following your muscleman around the parking garages of LA.
And there in lies the truly admirable — and I use that term loosely — thing about Yor. It isn’t happy living within its means. Time Barbarians was cheap, and they knew better than to do much other than have some barbarians in the woods and then stage a fight in a rented warehouse. Yor, on the other hand, has dinosaurs, monkey monsters, bat hang-gliding, a city of tomorrow, mutants, messages about the folly of man, the twirling rope dress dance, laser battles, a robot army — basically, enough stuff for the entire Star Wars series, all crammed into one cut-rate Italian fantasy/sci-fi action film. Almost none of these things are realized well. The dinosaurs are OK so long as they don’t have to do much beyond swing their head back and forth. The fight choreography is sluggish and seems designed to maximize the number of times Reb Brown is shot from a low angle, jumping through the air to allow his loincloth to flap up and give the world a cheeky show. The city of the future (actually the past, I suppose) is about on par with the cut-rate “future city of the past” from the cheapskate Battle for the Planet of the Apes, which means there’s some matte paintings, and then the whole thing was filmed in a pump factory somewhere, with some red and blue blinking lights attached to the pipes and metal railing. And don’t even mention the laser effects, which result in an animated beam that moves about as fast as someone walking across a room.
But that doesn’t stop Yor, which was based on a comic strip I assume looked a lot like a comic out of Heavy Metal magazine, from pulling out all stops and attempting to serve up a visual extravaganza that is far beyond its hope of ever successfully achieving. It’s a naive movie on many levels. Though Margheriti obviously knew he was making something bad (the original version of Yor is a four-part mini-series that rarely, if ever, aired), the film itself doesn’t seem aware of this, and it never seems to think it’s doing anything other than telling one of the most important stories of all time. The lack of wink-and-nudge self-awareness is refreshing from today’s standpoint, seeing as how we’re buried under an avalanche of self-referential “ironic” movies that think they’re the first ones to ever be so clever. But Yor plods along with a blissful earnestness that makes it charming in a weird way. It’s also naive in that it really is fairly kid-friendly. There is no nudity, unless you count the disturbingly frequent Reb Brown buffalo shots (I am not a man who is afraid of male nudity, but that angle just isn’t appealing no matter how buff you are). There’s a lot of killing but very little bloodshed. And Yor is a decidedly classical hero — well, respective to the standards set by this film. Let’s just say he’s a nice guy who does the right thing, as opposed to the grittier, lustier anti-heroes that populated saltier barbarian fare.
The acting is pretty bad, and there’s a reason that Reb Brown never became a household name like Sam Jones. Still, it’s not as if Reb is a total unknown, at least among the sorts of people who who would refer to Sam Jones as a household name. I mean, Reb Brown may not be Sam Jones, but at least he’s not Dack Rambo. Reb starred in such direct-to-the-bargain-bin favorites as Strike Commando (yes, I own it), Roboforce (yes, I own it), and Space Mutiny (yes, I…oh, never mind). He appeared in another perennial sword and sorcery hit, Sword and the Sorcerer, though not in the lead. His brush with respectability came with an appearance in the film Uncommon Valor. He’s probably “best known” for his turns in a couple abysmal made-for-TV Captain America movies and the film Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf, which, oddly enough, I don’t own even though it’s one of my favorite awful movies. His first film was, I believe, Sssss (give or take an “s”), and to tie this all in with Conan once again, he was in Conan director John Milius’ 1970s surfing movie, Big Wednesday. What’s really scary is that I am writing all this from memory, with no help from the imdb or any other source. So yes, with that amount of information, I believe I qualify as a Reb Brown biographer.
Reb has the sort of good looks you expect from a guy who isn’t too bright (whether or not he’s actually bright, I don’t know, but he has managed to sustain a career). He’s the good-hearted football player who falls for the cute, brainy girl with glasses and tries to impress her by making an earnest attempt to understand poetry (also an apt description of Yor the movie). He might never understand Longfellow, but he’ll valiantly defend the brainy girl’s honor against her nemesis, the mean football player with the catty cheerleader girlfriend. Since I mentioned the movie in passing earlier, allow me to once again make a connection only I would make: he’s a lot like fellow bleach-blond superior caveman Reg Lewis, star of the sixties caveman/Hercules peplum adventure Fire Monster Against the Son of Hercules. There’s a good-natured, everyman goofiness about him that takes the edge off the muscles.
He’s not an especially good actor, but he’s not required to do much more here than look muscular (but not bodybuilder muscular) and hang-glide on a giant bat, so that’s fine. His main squeeze Ka-Laa is played by one-time Bond girl Corrine Clery, who has a massive list of Italian film and television credits to her name (those, unlike Reb’s, I had to look up) but is best-known for her turn in Moonraker as “that woman who flies James Bond around in a helicopter then gets killed.” “Artful erotica” fans might remember seeing her naked in the title role of The Story of O, and less artful erotica fans might remember her from Lucio Fulci’s Devil’s Honey. It’s hard to judge her acting here since she’s dubbed, but she goes through most of the movie with a slightly dazed look, for which you can’t really blame her.
Completing the core cast is Luciano Pigozzi as Pag. For years, I thought this role was played by Jack Elam. Looking back, I realize that Pigozzi is more like Jack Elam crossed with Lucio Fulci. Whatever, he has more Italian genre credits than a sane man can count, including countless appearances in many of Margheriti’s other films, often under his Americanized name Alan Collins. Margheriti himself was rechristened Anthony Dawson whenever his films came to America. As if anyone cared whether or not the director of Yor was Italian. Pigozzi has his “stooped old man” bit down pretty good, but like everyone else, he’s dubbed and has pretty inane lines anyway, so judging acting is moot. At least he has more facial expressions than Reb and Corinne. Everyone else in the movie is either a caveman or a future man, and they’re primarily there to die, be menaced by dinosaurs, get shot by slow lasers, or make monotone speeches about the aforementioned folly of man.
The movie was made on location in Turkey, so there are quite a few Turkish performers sprinkled into the mix, including recognizable names like Aytekin Akkaya, who appeared in the beloved Turkish sci-fi kungfu extravaganza The Man Who Saved the World (aka “The Turkish Star Wars”) alongside Turkish matinee superstar Cuynet Arkin, as well as playing Captain America (just like Reb Brown!) in the curious 3 Dev Adam, in which Captain America and Santo the masked Mexican wrestler team up to defeat the murderous, chain-smoking Spider-Man, who likes to shove women’s faces into outboard boat motors (which is much better than what happened in Reb Brown’s own Captain America movies). Akkaya also worked with Margheriti again on the decent Indiana Jones cash-in Ark of the Sun God, starring David Warbeck. So really, when you think about it, Yor is an amazing multi-national nexus point of exploitation movie talent.
Margheriti was one of the most prolific directors working in the Italian exploitation genres, and amid all the movies made so he could pay his bills, there are actually quite a few gems. Some are simply delightfully bad, while others are genuinely good. And his moody, atmospheric Gothic film Castle of Terror is a bona fide horror classic. His specialty eventually ended up being action, though like any Italian exploitation director, he’s worked in pretty much every genre and scored a memorable (if not always good) film in each one, including science fiction (Wild Wild Planet), peplum (Hercules, Prisoner of Evil), Eurospy (Lightning Bolt), western (And God Said to Cain), and giallo ( Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye), but his specialty became cheap action films in the 1980s, often working with David Warbeck to knock off Vietnam war movies or Indiana Jones adventures. Even in his worst films, Margheriti infuses the proceedings with energy, and while his statements betray the fact that he really has no love for Yor (I think No Love for Yor might be the title of his autobiography), the movie still benefits from his touch. Special effects are bad, acting is bad, and the script is daft, but Margheriti is still professional enough to make sure he turns in a technically competent directorial job (decent lighting, no boom mics in the shot, etc).
As for that theme song — I loved it when I was young, and I think it’s still thoroughly rousing and utterly absurd, boasting all the theatrical bombast of Queen’s work for Sam Jones’ Flash Gordon movie (a Dino De Laurentiis production!), but relying less on guitars and more on synthesizers. Years later and farther down the road of no return, I’m a little more familiar with the stable of guys who wrote music for Italian genre films. My first guess, given the vocals and the over-the-top synths, was that this was probably the work of Guido and Maurizio DeAngelis, one of the most prolific score writing teams in the Italian film industry. They always relied pretty heavily on synths. A quick check of the credits revealed that, yes indeed, the DeAngelis duo was responsible. This correct guess coupled with my disturbingly exhaustive knowledge of Reb Brown’s filmography should really make me worry. Anyway, beyond the theme song, the rest of the score is pretty standard “future synth” stuff. They didn’t have the money to try and mimic Conan’s even more bombastic “barbarian brass” orchestration. Guido and Maurizio DeAngelis have written some spectacular scores for some spectacular films. This isn’t one of them, but man! That theme song!
Most people list Yor among the worst movies of all time. It may have even won some awards to that effect. All I can say is that if this is the worst movie you’ve ever seen, then you haven’t seen enough movies. I admit I have a soft spot for the hunk of junk, the same “saw it in the theaters” soft spot that makes me crack a warm smile even for a film like Treasure of the Four Crowns, and I still find myself enjoying Yor far more than I should. The revelation about the past being the future is not exactly as stunning as that first time you see Chuck Heston stumble upon the Statue of Liberty, but I don’t figure anyone goes into Yor expecting stunning revelations. You go in because you want to watch cavemen do somersaults and have laser battles with robots.
Release Year: 1983 | Country: Italy | Starring: Reb Brown, Corinne Clery, John Steiner, Carole Andre, Luciano Pigozzi, Ayshe Gul, Aytekin Akkaya, Marina Rocchi, Sergio Nicolai | Writer: Robert Bailey and Antonio Magheriti | Director: Antonio Magheriti | Cinematographer: Marcello Masciocchi
Music: Guido and Maurizio De Angelis | Producer: Michele Marsala | Original Title: Il Mondo di Yor
So this is what a Playboy-produced film used to look like. You know, back before they modeled themselves after their brainless FHM style spawns and were still at the very least attempting to inject some cutting edge material in between the shots of naked women with badly feathered 1970s hair. I know the joke is old and tired, but you know there used to even be something worth reading in that magazine. Not so much these days, from what I can tell. I have many vices, but Playboy ceased to be one of them round about the time it forsook that dapper jet-set lifestyle and became just another frat boy publication. And Playboy films? Don’t even get me started. Yeah, I’ve seen one or two. They’re awful erotic thrillers, which I know seems like a silly criticism to level at Playboy films until you consider for a moment that there, for a brief spell in the 1970s, Hugh Hefner decided to throw the Playboy name and money at Roman Polanski’s stylish, intelligent, and grim adaptation of one of Shakespeare bloodiest plays.