Tuesday, December 11, 2012


James Sbardellati, 1983
Starring: Rick Hill, Barbi Benton, Richard Brooker, Lana Clarkson, Victor Bo

Produced by Roger Corman and Hector Olivera, Deathstalker was shot in Argentina, instead of Corman’s normal cheap filmmaking stomping grounds, the Philippines. This U.S.-Argentinian co-production is possibly the most excessive sword and sorcery film ever made, with constant nudity, frequent sex scenes, orgies of both sex and violence, monsters, gore, plot elements that make absolutely no sense and some truly bizarre effects. 

A warrior named Deathstalker is sent on a quest to find a sword, an amulet, and a chalice. A witch guides him to the sword, but the latter two items are in the possession of Munkar, an evil sorcerer trying to gain immortality and rule the world. Munkar has organized a tournament for the greatest warriors. The winner will take Munkar’s place and inherit his kingdom, though this is really a plot for Munkar to destroy all his competition. On his way to Munkar’s castle, Deathstalker meets a cocky warrior Oghris, and a female warrior, Kaira, who only wears a cloak, a g-string and straps around her breasts to presumably hold them in place while sword fighting. They participate in a party and an orgy at Munkar’s castle and Deathstalker attempts to rescue Princess Codille, an unwilling member of Munkar’s harem. The violent tournament carries on as Deathstalker searches for the chalice and the amulet, and Munkar is determined to kill Deathstalker before the week is out. 

Deathstalker was surprisingly successful at the box office, though I can’t fathom why. I really enjoyed this film, but there are many elements working against it. The plot is drawn out and complicated. The first half an hour, where Deathstalker accepts his quest and finds the sword, feels like an entire film. The acting is atrocious and most of the characters just suddenly appear in the middle of a scene with no back story or plot development. There are some breathtakingly awful moments of dialogue that will appall some viewers but likely delight many more. 

Rick Hill is decent as Deathstalker, a quiet, but charismatic hero that borrows some character traits from Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name. Hill is a TV actor who also appeared in Warrior Queen (1987, starring Sybil Danning and produced by Harry Alan Towers and Joe D’Amato), as well as a bunch of other ‘80s/early ‘90s trash like The Dune Warriors (1991) and Deathstalker IV (1991). He avoided the second and third entries in the series, but oddly returned for the final outing. Stuntman and fight choreographer Richard Brooker, known for his role as Jason in Friday the 13th Part 3-D (1983), is good, though obnoxious as Deathstalker’s arrogant, double-crossing warrior companion.

This is surely one of the most misogynistic films in the ‘80s sword and sorcery canon. There is a lot of implied rape, attempted rape, and unwanted sexual advances. The opening involves Deathstalker saving a woman from goblins who want to rape her, but when she is freed he starts having sex with her. There are lengthy, unexpected sex scenes peppered throughout the film and most of the women are topless. There is, however, a great “transgendered” sex scene, where one of Munkar’s henchmen is transformed to look like the Princess Codille and is sent to seduce and kill Deathstalker. During his seduction, he makes some very surprised, un-princess-like sounds that alert Deathstalker that something is amiss. Deathstalker abruptly stops pawing at Codille and deposits her on the other side of his bedroom door. 

Codille is played by former Playboy Playmate Barbi Benton, who has what is surely the dumbest role in the film, aside from her brilliant five minutes where she has to pretend to be a man trapped in a woman’s body. Lana Clarkson is great as Kaira, the bare-breasted warrior who lets Deathstalker have sex with her presumably just because he puts his hand on her thigh. Clarkson’s character is killed much too early, but she was given a spin off film, Barbarian Queen (1985). She also acted in Fast Time at Ridgemont High (1982) and a number of other films and TV series, but she is sadly most famous for her 2003 death, when she was shot by music producer Phil Spector. He is currently serving a life sentence. 

Surprisingly, Deathstalker ignores many typical sword and sorcery plot devices. Deathstalker’s entire family/village/country wasn’t killed when he was a child and he is not seeking revenge for anything. He is simply on a quest to find a series of magical objects and to prevent an evil wizard from gaining immortality. He seems pretty bored by the proceedings. The violence is over the top, with a number of battles to the death and an epic bar brawl that features a pig-faced character who rips one man’s arm off and beats another man with it. The set pieces are so cheap as to be distracting, there are some lousy, if interesting effects, silly puppetry and inane fight choreography. The effects were created by John Buechler, who did effects for the wonderful From Beyond (1988), and directed the much less wonderful Friday the 13th 7: The New Blood (1988) and the mind-melting Troll (1986). 

The Argentinian locations are refreshing, though the film looks so bad it’s sometimes hard to notice. The direction is what you would expect from the genre: weird angles, a love of the zoom lens and some totally bizarre cuts. Director Sbardellati’s other notable work includes assistant directing and second unit directing Humanoids from the Deep (1980), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), and The Beastmaster (1982). In general, there is a lot of crossover between the cast and crew of Deathstalker and other sword and sorcery films from the period. Produced by Roger Corman and Hector Olivera, Olivera also produced the Deathstalker sequel and The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984), and directed Barbarian Queen (1985) and The Wizards of the Lost Kingdom (1985). Another co-producer, Alejandro Sessa, directed the Corman-produced Amazons (1986). 

If I’m going to recommend any film from this series, Deathstalker is the most memorable, particularly for fans of nonsensical Conan rip offs and trashy sword and sorcery films. Deathstalker II, though very different from the first film and a sequel in name only, is also thoroughly entertaining and benefits from taking itself far less seriously than the first Deathstalker

Deathstalker II: Duel of the Titans 
Jim Wynorski, 1987
Starring: John Terlesky, Monique Gabrielle, Toni Naples

“Deathstalker? Is that your first name or your last name?” 

While I am a fan of the first Deathstalker, I have a secret love for Deathstalker II. It doesn’t actually involve any dueling titans, but is fun, charming, and moves at a brisk pace. Anyone who loves the first film in the series would do well to consider this totally separate. Rick Hill does not return for the titular role, but is replaced by the younger, hammier John Terlesky. Terlesky is funnier, more sarcastic, and more of a bastard than Hill’s portrayal of the character. His Deathstalker is also less like The Man With No Name and more like a smarmy Robin Hood. 

All continuity is gone and we follow the warrior on a new adventure where he reluctantly agrees to save a princess in peril. Yet another evil wizard is trying to take over a kingdom, this time by creating an evil, vampiric double of the princess, one who must feed on nubile man-flesh to prevent herself from disappearing. Deathstalker also has to face up against a horde of angry Amazons, a pack of zombies, and an enraged swordswoman, Sultana. She is so disgusted by the proceedings that she refuses to have a final battle with Deathstalker and angrily marches out of the film. 

There is plenty of nudity and sex, sets even worse than the first film, and far more comedy. The comedy is emphasized during the credits, which feature a reel of bloopers. There is some stock footage from the first film and from Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), which it also steals a plot device from. This was done to save money and is a common characteristic of ‘80s B movies. There are a lot of fun battles, including a bar room brawl, a few scenes stolen from Star Wars, and many plot devices lifted directly from Ator the Fighting Eagle

The acting is absolutely terrible, but it works with the tone of Deathstalker II. The princess and her evil double are both played by Monique Gabrielle, whose complete lack of acting ability is sort of charming. Her pouting, whining, and running after Deathstalker are less interesting. This is another film where the cast and crew can be seen in other sword and sorcery or horror films from the period. Toni Naples (Sultana) appeared in the Wynorski directed Sorority House Massacre II (1990) and Sorceress (1995). Monique Gabrielle was in Walerian Borowczyk’s Emanuelle V (1987) and one of the Amazon women was in The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984). Director Jim Wynorski also made a number of other trashy but really fun B films throughout the ‘80s - some of which include actors from Deathstalker II -- such as Chopping Mall (1986), Not of this Earth (1988), Transylvania Twist (1989), and Vampirella (1996).  

While Deathstalker II comes highly recommended, the less said about the next two, the better. 

Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell aka Deathstalker III
Alfonso Corona, 1998
Starring: John Allen Nelson, Carla Herd, Thom Christopher

The absurd plot entails three magical stones, that if brought together, will reveal the magical city of Arandor. A princess has one of the stones and she teams up with Deathstalker and his wizard friend Nicias to seek out the second stone, owned by the evil wizard Troxartes. The princess is killed by Troxartes’ men and gives the stone to Deathstalker, who soon runs into her twin sister, destined to marry Troxartes against her will. After taking the second stone from Deathstalker, Troxartes kidnaps everyone he can think of in order to find the third stone. Deathstalker is forced to team up with undead warriors to lay siege to the castle and find the third stone before it is too late. 

This tired third film has yet another new Deathstalker, John Allen Nelson, and involves many plot elements from the first two -- nudity, warrior women, the undead, princesses, an evil wizard and magical artifacts. Unlike the second Deathstalker, this doesn’t use stock footage from the previous films, but uses some from Roger Corman’s The Raven (1963)

I can’t recommend this truly awful film. It has the most boring Deathstalker and lacks the fun or sheer over-the-top elements of the first two films. The humor is painful and the action feels dull. It is notable for being used in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which points out many of its flaws, including John Allen Nelson’s changing accent, and makes it far more entertaining than is on its own.

Deathstalker IV: Match of Titans
Howard R. Cohen, 1991
Starring: Rick Hill, Maria Ford, Brett Baxter Clark

For some inexplicable reason, Rick Hill is back in the fourth and final Deathstalker film, basically a re-imagining of the first Deathstalker. An evil queen is holding a competition for warriors, but when the warriors begin to disappear, Deathstalker must take up the challenge and confront the diabolical queen. And -- surprise -- there’s a blonde romantic interest that he has to rescue throughout the course of the film. 

Amazingly, this is a return to form from the first film in the sense that is more serious and Rick Hill is back, though I would probably rank it third best after Deathstalker and Deathstalker II. The plot is predictable, there is the same old nudity and softcore sex, though there is fortunately more humor. Director Howard R. Cohen was a prolific screenwriter and penned all of the Deathstalker films except the second (explains a lot), as well as Death Force (1978), Saturday the 14th (1981), The Barbarian Queen (1985) and its sequel, and Emmanuelle V (1987). He also wrote one of my favorite movies as a kid, Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer (1985), along with episodes of Rainbow Brite and The Care Bears. Interesting as he may be, no one needs to watch Deathstalker IV. No one.

Deathstalker and Deathstalker II have been released on a wonderful DVD collection from Shout! Factory, Roger Corman’s Cult Classics: Sword and Sorcery Collection. This also includes The Warrior and the Sorceress and Barbarian Queen, bringing together common cast and crew members throughout all four films. This excellent package provides nice commentary tracks for both Deathstalker films, the first with director John Sbardellati, effects artist John Carl Buechler, and actor Richard Brooker, the second with director Jim Wynorski, star John Terlesky and actress Toni Naples. Extras also include some trailers. Deathstalker and Deathstalker II are on the first disc, while The Warrior and the Sorceress and Barbarian Queen are on the second. The prints of each films looks decent and is good as anyone is going to get for the time being. The original New Concorde DVDs of both Deathstalker films are out of print (they were released independently and as a double feature) and Deathstalker III and IV are on very basic, sometimes hard to find DVDs. The Corman collection comes highly recommended. 

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