Sinbad of the Seven Seas

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.

Luckily, this film begins with a text crawl that explains to me that Edgar Allen Poe wrote a story called ” The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade,” and it is upon that tale this movie is based. Within the first few minutes, I found the claim that this movie was based on a story by Edgar Allen Poe to be somewhat, for the sake of tact, let’s say “dubious.” Luckily, we live in the future, and while the future has let us down in so many ways — no jet packs, no flying cars — it has made one important concession to mankind, and that is the ability to go to the internet and instantly look up information on whether or not Edgar Allen Poe wrote a story called “The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade,” and if so, if that story featured Sinbad the Sailor in a heart-to-heart gab session with a misunderstood rubber cobra.

Poe did, in fact, write a story called “The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade.” And thanks to the future, I was even able to read it without having to go down to the library and verify that it exists, then find the book, then deal with either all the crazy hobos at the public library or all the hobo-esque sleeping students at the local academic library. I am by no means a Poe scholar, and of his works, the only ones I have actually read are the ones that were eventually made into movies starring Vincent Price. So perhaps I am not one to judge the particular merits of “The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade.” I hear Poe himself was rather fond of the story. I thought it was pretty dreadful, and it seems many critics agreed.

The basic idea of the story is that the narrator has found a book wherein he discovers the final few pages detailing the life of Scheherazade, the woman who spun the 1001 Arabian Tales to stave off execution at the hands of her sultan husband. Poe’s story is set on the night after the sultan has canceled his decree that Scheherazade be put to death. She then explains that there is more to the story of Sinbad, and proceeds to relay a rather uninspired story that has Sinbad and his crew basically traveling from one crudely sketched fantastic location to the next, with no particular point to things. This story is punctuated from time to time by grunts of disbelief from the sultan, who eventually pronounces the whole story so preposterously awful that he reinstates the execution of Scheherazade. The end. I was hard pressed to disagree with him.

If, perhaps, Cannon films were to come along some hundred or so years later and wreak havoc with the contents of Poe’s Sinbad story while, at the same time, claiming to be an adaptation of it — well, let’s just say that I don’t feel any great crime against art has been committed in this instance. Sinbad of the Seven Seas will commit many crimes against many things, but playing fast and loose with “The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade” is a misdemeanor, at worst, and given the quality of the source material, it’s more like the sort of offense where a good natured 1930s cop just musses an impish kid’s hair and says in his lilting Irish brogue, “Go on, lad, get a move on. Ahh, lovable scamp! I was that way when I was his age.” And then, of course, he would belt out “Galway Bay,” because that’s what cops do, right?

Anyway, if ever there was a perfect storm of awful, it’s this movie. First of all, it comes to us courtesy of the illustrious Cannon Film Group, brainchild of Israeli producers Golan and Globus. This is the studio that brought us everything from Sho Kosugi ninja films to Chuck Norris drivin’ airboats for freedom. Second, it was written by Lewis Coates — also known to many as Luigi Cozzi, the Italian exploitation writer-director who gave us the classic Star Crash and the less classic Alien Contamination. Third, it was directed by Enzo G. Castellari, the man who brought us a number of classic gritty 1970s crime films and less classic 1980s post-apocalypse sci-fi films. And mixing these ingredients into a deadly stew is star Lou Ferrigno, former star of The Incredible Hulk and, more recent and related to this film, two mind boggling Hercules films — also courtesy of Cannon — in which Hercules did things like fight giant robots sent down by sexy female inventor Daedalus from the home of the Greek Gods up on the Moon. Turning this lot loose on the Arabian Nights seems like a can’t win must-lose situation. Sinbad with a laser gun or a curved lightsaber scimitar? Bring it on!

Unfortunately, Sinbad of the Seven Seas fails to live up to the high standards set by the two Hercules films, and if you’ve seen either of those, then you know what that means. This is likely due to the fact that, while the Hercules films were released in 1983, when The Cannon Group was at the apex of its Chuck Norris-fueled power, Sinbad of the Seven Seas limped into production in 1989, at a time when personal conflict, lawsuits, and massive dollops of corruption had ripped apart the empire Golan and Globus built on the backs of ninjas, forbidden dances, and cut-rate Indiana Jones knock-offs.

The halcyon days of crap cinema the likes of which Cannon excelled at were over, and while a few more Cannon productions found their way to the theaters (most notably, Albert Pyun’s Cyborg starring Jean-Claude Van Damme — more or less the last breath for Cannon), movies like Sinbad of the Seven Seas ended up going direct to video when previously they would have been shown on the big screen much to the delight and/or confusion of children standing hand-in-hand across America and demanding more Lou Ferrigno action. With no prospect for theatrical distribution, and with the studio itself in tatters, Sinbad of the Seven Seas ends up feeling like a cheap, hackneyed bit of half-assery. Oh wait, that describes pretty much all Cannon films, doesn’t it? Well then imagine that instead of watching a movie that is a cheap, hackneyed bit of half-assery, you are watching a movie that is telling you about a movie that is a cheap, hackneyed bit of half-assery.

Because that’s what Sinbad of the Seven Seas does. It tells you what is happening and how thrilling it all is, in order to not have to show you. The film, inspired no doubt by the success of The Princess Bride, is contained within a framing narrative in which a bored mother (Dario Argento’s muse, Daria Nicolodi) reads a bedtime story to her equally bored daughter. Usually, when a film uses this framing device, the narration fades out and the movie of the story being told kicks in pretty quickly. But not here. Even though we expect it to end when it triumphantly announces, “And so our story begins,” it doesn’t. The narration — which, mind you, is dubbed throughout by a voice actor even more bored than Daria Nicolodi — continues for the entire movie, and it tends to be in the flavor of, “And then some things happened and Sinbad had wondrous adventures,” without the movie actually showing most of those adventures. Even dialog scenes are voiced over by the narrator telling us what Sinbad and his pals are talking about, probably as both a money saver and as a way to cover for the fact that the cast probably spoke half a dozen different languages. Not that the movie is totally without action. In fact, if you get over the annoying and persistent narration, this movie, while certainly not attaining that rarefied air that is the domain of Cannon’s Hercules films, is a clumsy but fair adventure and fond farewell to the days of Cannon.

Sinbad’s crew is one for the ages, consisting of Sinbad himself in glorious purple pantaloons or a loin cloth, depending on how the mood strikes him on any given day, and his trusted friends the Viking named Viking (Ennio Girolami, an old Enzo Castellari hand), Prince Ali, a bald guy named The Bald Cook, Poochy the Dwarf, and the Chinese Soldier of Fortune, who is played by a Japanese guy and dressed like a Thai ladyboy on his way home from a particularly colorful Siamese gay rights parade and martial arts demonstration. Sinbad and the boys have returned to lush, beautiful Basra after many adventures we did not get to see, so Sinbad’s buddy Ali can settle down with his sexy bride to be, Alina (Alessandra Martines). Unfortunately, Basra and its wise and kindly king have fallen under the spell of the king’s cruel adviser and wizard, Jaffar (John Steiner). You know, you’d think that if these kings were really so wise, they’d stop picking the black-clad, giggling fiend with a penchant for maliciously twisting the ends of his dastardly handlebar mustaches to be their advisers. No sooner does Sinbad arrive at the palace than Jaffar shows up to roll his eyes, point, and trap everyone.

If there is a highlight in this movie, besides the threadbare synth score and the inevitable island of sexy Amazons, it is John Steiner’s performance as Jaffar. Think of the most ridiculously over the top, cartoonish, hammiest performance you have ever seen. Now times it by infinity. That’s getting close to comprehending the deliriously over-the-top histrionics of Steiner. It’s like the man mainlined pure essence of William Shatner, Jack Palance, Vincent Price, that black guy who was always scared in 1940s movies, Doctor Morpheus, and Bruce Vilanch. Every single sentence is shouted, and not a second goes by that Steiner isn’t pointing, clutching at the sky, bugging out his eyes, and traipsing about in the most insanely delicious style imaginable. He is absolutely off the charts here, and as lackluster and bereft of energy as the rest of the film may be, Jaffar alone is worth the price of the movie.

Anyway, while Jaffar is busy being diabolical, Sinbad rallies his men to fight back. This involves, among other things, a long scene in which Lou Ferrigno chats up a cobra in true “girl talk” fashion, only to tie all the cobras together so that he might use them as a rope to escape the dungeon and rescue his friends, who are being menaced by out-of-shape S&M dudes and sock puppet piranhas. Oh man, I’ve been to that club before. It’s OK, but it’s not as good as it was in the 70s. During this and most subsequent fight scenes, Lou Ferrigno will showcase Sinbad’s sophisticated fighting style, which is to draw his scimitar, look at his opponents, look at his sword, then toss the sword away so he can charge the bad guys headlong and throw them across the set. Why does he even bother to carry a sword? The one time he uses it is when he’s fighting a rock man — the one opponent most likely not to be harmed by a sword. Incidentally, Sinbad defeats the rock man by throwing a rock at him.

While Sinbad is doing that, we pay another visit to Jaffar, who is…OH MY GOD IT’S JON MIKL-THOR! It’s Jon Mikl-Thor hanging out in Jaffar’s rooftop laboratory! Oh wait, no it isn’t. It’s a teased-blond bodybuilder woman who looks and dresses exactly Jon Mikl-Thor in Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare. I have no idea who she is supposed to be or where she came from. She shows up out of nowhere, and then hangs out in the lab for the rest of movie making doubting comments about Jaffar’s plan, which Jaffar responds to with lots of eye bugging, pointing at the air, and rolling of his R’s. Jaffar’s nefarious scheme, we discover via ample shouting and hissing and pointing, is to scatter a sacred gem to the far corners of the world, then hook the princess up to his H.G. Wells machine to…honestly, I have no idea.

All it means is that Sinbad and his crew have to travel the world to collect all the pieces of the gem so that Sinbad can then…actually, I have no idea why Sinbad needs to reassemble the gem. It’ll bring happiness to Basra or something. We’ve all seen how well that worked out. But what I do know is that this means Sinbad and his crew will set sail, fight some zombies, some rock men, undead medieval knights, and other monsters as they strive to free Arabia from Jaffar’s wicked spell. I assumed at the end Sinbad will fight Jaffar and his bodybuilder girlfriend, but it turns out she just sort of wanders off in search of a protein shake or something, leaving Sinbad to face off against — huh, what do you know? His doppleganger. Any film that features Lou Ferrigno fighting Lou Ferrigno has got to be pretty good, right?

As cool as all that stuff above may sound, the sad fact is that much of it is pretty clumsy. Enzo Castellari was a pretty good action director, great from time to time, but with this material, he just seems to meander and have no idea what to do other than show it in slow motion from time to time (his signature). Maybe if Sinbad had been a tough as nails police inspector from Napoli, this would have worked out better for everyone. Instead, the movie lacks any real energy, and the constant bored narration saps the moments of action of the spirit they need to succeed. The final result is a movie that has the cheap look of a community theater read-through of a Sinbad movie written by one of the members. I blame…well, everyone but Lou Ferrigno and John Steiner. And that woman who plays the Amazon queen. Holy cow! Arabia is lucky I wasn’t Sinbad, because given the choice between saving crappy old Basra from Jaffar and his bodybuilder girlfriend or spending a lifetime with a hot, scantily clad jungle woman prone to doing wiggly dances — well, take a wild guess.

Castellari was at the end of a long career full of cool movies like Shark Hunter, Heroin Busters, and High Crime. After Sinbad of the Seven Seas, he was relegated to the backwaters of Italian television movies, though some of them must have been popular because he made like nine hundred TV movies in the “Extralarge” series. Similarly, Luigi Cozzi’s days of writing and directing awesome films like Star Crash and less than awesome films like Alien Contamination were behind him as well. He cranked out a couple more films, but by 1990, he was pretty much done. In a way, it makes Sinbad of the Seven Seas a bittersweet picture for fans of exploitation in general and Italian exploitation in particular. I mean, here in a single film you have the sort of weak, exhausted last hurrah of Golan and Globus’ Cannon Group. You have the same for writers and directors Luigi Cozzi and Enzo Castellari. They may not mean much but bad news to most people, but man alive — I love these guys. The total number of entertaining hours given to me by these three sources is too scary to tally.

And this is it. This is the swan song. Like battered survivors in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, this is where they limp off into the sunset to be forgotten. It’s a shame that there wasn’t a way to make Sinbad of the Seven Seas into the completely bonkers, inept swashbuckling masterpiece these guys deserved. Everything is almost there, but the end product is less a celebration and more a world-weary sigh. This is the end of an era, boys. Sinbad of the Seven Seas is the group of battle-weary veterans realizing that their day has passed. Heck, it gets me a little misty-eyed, and that’s probably why I like the thing and think it’s worth checking out. I mean, there is still plenty of weird stuff. It may not be as good as the Lou Ferrigno Hercules films, but it has rubber snakes, zombie attacks, Jaffar’s eye-bulging madness, that sexy Amazon, a fight with a slime man, and that random bodybuilder lady.

Judging most of the acting at all is pointless, as everyone was redubbed for the final product. Ferrigno, former bodybuilder and permanent fixture at any convention that waxes poetic over The Incredible Hulk, is no master thespian, but he plays Sinbad with a laid-back affability that makes him impossible to dislike and impervious to meaningful criticism. John Steiner, of course, acts at a level that can’t be contained by mere speaking, so you can judge his performance despite the dubbing (and the judgment is that he’s awesome). The rest of Sinbad’s crew is playing to character, so the Chinese guy who is Japanese and dresses Thai is stoic; the Viking is hearty; Ali is noble in a boring way; and the cook and Poochy the Dwarf are frequently terrified and confused. Princess Alina doesn’t have much to do but lay back, let her bosoms heave, and look gorgeous, but she does that with admirable skill. A couple other people show up, including a pointless comic relief guy and his daughter (played by Castellari’s real life daughter), but there’s not much reason to discuss them. This show belongs to Ferrigno and Steiner.

Sometimes the fights are OK, like the one with the zombies and the one where Sinbad storms the gay bondage club where his buddies are chained up and being dangled over sock puppets. The zombie one even has Sinbad punching through a zombie’s chest and pulling out its heart — which is a tiny Madball version of the zombie’s face! This causes Sinbad to crush the head/heart, point directly into the camera (a taste of your own medicine there, Jaffar!) and exclaim, “Jaffar!!! You’re next.” When Jaffar views this event on his magic voodoo television, Sinbad is looking directly at him. This is the second or third time this happens in the movie. One expects that Sinbad would know Jaffar is watching him on a magic TV pond. That’s what evil wizards do. But Sinbad’s ability to know exactly where Jaffar has positioned his magical cameras is pretty impressive. Unless, I suppose, Sinbad goes through the entire movie with a giant movie camera floating above him, in which case I guess it’d be pretty easy to figure which way to look when wishing to address Jaffar personally.

As for other aspects of the film…well, there aren’t as many special effects as I’d like, but the ones that are there are about as horrible as I would want them to be. The rubber snakes and piranha sock puppets are a real highlight. And seriously — those piranhas! Did the guy who made those never see a piranha before in his life? I find that hard to believe, given that this is the world of Italian exploitation filmmaking we’re talking about, meaning that at least one special effects guy must have worked on at least one Italian cannibal film, and you know they love piranhas. Sinbad also fights a rock man and a slime guy, but neither of those are especially epic effects.

Then there’s the rockin’ synth soundtrack! Nothing says epic old world adventure quite like a keytar! The soundtrack may be anachronistic, but given that this is a movie where the prince of Basra looks like that guy from Wham (you know, the other one), it seems strangely appropriate. Most of it sounds like something written for Lucio Fulci’s Conquest but ultimately rejected for being too goofy.

And of course, there’s all the fun to be had with the homoerotic subtext… err, well… when a big, sweaty, muscular dude in leather chaps wraps a chain around a big muscular dude in purple tights, and then they proceed to rub against each other and grunt, and it’s all filmed in slow motion — that’s, ummm… that’s not subtext is it? Seriously though, as a guy who doesn’t mind a little homoeroticism in his films, this is how I want all my gay films to be: manly men striking heroic poses, then wrestling with each other. When I heard Brokeback Mountain was going to be a gay cowboy film, I was overjoyed. I hoped it would be like The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, only with dudes kissing each other. Instead, it was two hours of shepherds talking about their feelings and alienation. Forget that! When I watch a gay movie, I want to be tough guys blowing shit up, wrestling, leading revolts against Rome, throwing each other at sock puppets — I want gay action movies. I think the time is right. Gay cinema will have made a tremendous leap forward when it starts producing films that aren’t about being gay, but instead are about guys punching each other in the face, jumping muscle cars through the open boxcar doors of moving freight trains and throwing swords across the room, then they plant big wet ones on each other. Is it wrong for me to dream of this utopia?

Folks, when they say they don’t make ’em like they used to, they mean movies like High Sierra, and movies like Sinbad of the Seven Seas. Just as it marks the end of one era — for exploitation film, for Cannon, for Castellari, for sword and sorcery movies — it marks the dawn of a new one, for this is the point at which the “direct to video” production really came into its own and would be dominated by another studio not entirely unlike Cannon: Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment and it’s many subsidiaries. Golan and Globus themselves would try to make the transition to the 1990s with separate and sundry production companies, but continued incompetence, personal conflicts, and uncontrollable corruption sunk pretty much all of their respective projects before anything substantial was ever achieved. Sinbad of the Seven Seas marks the point at which cheap, shoddy rip-offs could no longer be hustled onto actual movie screens, complete with a marketing campaign, television commercials, and actual interest.

It marks the point at which those films were aimed instead at the home video market, which really came into its own during the 1980s. It marks the point where the only crap films being released to theaters costs hundreds of millions of dollars instead of hundreds of thousands (or maybe just thousands) of dollars. Fare thee well, Sinbad. Fare thee well, Stryker. And so long Arabian Adventure, which I recall liking as a child but remember almost nothing about as a grown man. Was Mickey Rooney driving a giant clockwork robot around in the desert or something? Wasn’t Christopher Lee named Alakazam? How is that movie not out on DVD? I have a feeling it would make an excellent double feature with Sinbad of the Seven Seas, and by excellent, I mean it would be one of those things I would make people watch, and they would vaguely resent me for it for years.

Given my druthers, I would watch Hercules and The Adventures of Hercules. That’s Cannon fantasy from a time when the studio was flush with cash and drunk amid the Golden Age. Sinbad of the Seven Seas is the final gasp of a once mighty people, now decadent and wasted shells of their former selves. But you should still see it, because Jaffar is incredible and Lou Ferrigno fights Lou Ferrigno. The movie actually gets a little battier and more enjoyable every time I watch it. Perhaps some day, I will feel that it deserves to take it’s rightful place alongside the Hercules films and Seven Magnificent Gladiators, thus forming a nigh invulnerable wall of Cannon-produced Lou Ferrigno sword and sorcery wonder. Plus, this movie would make an amazing stage musical. So all you people who thought Legally Blonde was worth a stage production — your destiny is Enzo G. Castellari Presents Edgar Allen Poe’s Sinbad of the Seven Seas: The Musical. Get crackin’!