Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Sword and the Sorcerer

Any good sword-and-sorcery tale contains a strong element of horror. The first scene from The Sword and the Sorcerer has horror in spades as it sets the tone for what will follow for the next hour and forty minutes.

Ruthless warlord,Titus Cromwell (Richard Lynch) has conquered most of the civilized world but cannot seem to take Ehdan. Ehdan is a wealthy kingdom ruled by King Richard (Christopher Cary), and Titus has been defeated by Richard's formidable army four times already. Crowmell and his men land ashore of Tomb Island,bringing with them a witch who worships the demon,Xusia (Richard Moll) The witch summons Xusia and Cromwell makes the deal. There is some nice macabre imagery in this scene, but for me to describe it would somewhat lessen the experience for one who has not yet seen this film.

Xusia makes good on his promise to Cromwell by overcoming King Richard's army and Cromwell rewards the demon by stabbing him and throwing him off a cliff. Cromwell then puts King Richard to the sword. Richard's son, Talon (great name for a sword-and-sorcery hero) was given his father's triple-bladed projectile sword, and asked by Richard to avenge him and save his kingdom if he were to fall to Cromwell. Talon sees Cromwell put his father to death and tries to go to Cromwell and kill him, but  King Richard's advisor Mogullen ( Russ Marin) tells Talon to get to the river and  save his mother before Cromwell can get to her. Talon arrives at the river on horseback, too late to save his mother. Cromwell's men pursue Talon, but he manages to escape from the kingdom and vanish for years.

Next we see Talon (Lee Horsely) eleven years later. He is a seasoned warrior leading a small band of mercenaries. While on a campaign he happens to be passing by Ehdan and decides it is time to fulfill the promise to his father and settle the score with Cromwell. Yet again we see vengeance as the protagonist's motivation, as with John Milius's Conan the Barbarian, Red Sonja, and the Beastmaster.

Cromwell is now combing the city searching for Prince Mikah ( Simon McCorkindale ) who some say is the rightful heir to the throne. Prince Mikah is captured by Cromwell , and the tyrant demands as ransom Mikah's sister Alana's (Kathleen Beller ) hand in marriage. Talon saves Alana from being raped by Cromwell's men in an alley,easily defeating the villains. Alana offers herself to Talon for one night if  he will rescue her brother from Cromwell's dungeon. Cromwell has been looking over his shoulder for years, knowing good-and-well that he didn't kill Xusia as easily as stabbing him and throwing him off a cliff. The tyrant is sure the demon walks the kingdom in the guise of a man.

I will say this is a good sword-and-sorcery film with a little thicker plot than Conan the Barbarian, though not even in the same ballpark as John Milius's masterpiece. The Sword and the Sorcerer has all of the elements necessary for good sword-and sorcery storytelling: a sword-slinging anti-hero with a score to settle, an intriguing plot fairly full of treachery, the beautiful princess in a jam, a nasty tyrant, and a relentless demon . Since 1982 I have said this was the only sword-and-sorcery motion picture aside from Conan the Barbarian that was worth a damn. I have added Deathstalker and Fire and Ice to my list in recent years, making four films that I consider to have successfully embodied Howardian blood-and-thunder in the cinematic experience. I will always go to Milius's Conan the Barbarian as the measuring stick by which I gauge these kinds of films, but thirty-five years later I still consider The Sword and the Sorcerer the next best thing. Oh, and there is blood on those swords -- lots of blood!

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Beastmaster

The Beastmaster was written and directed by Don Coscarelli, also known for his 1979 horror masterpiece, Phantasm. The Beastmaster -- released in 1982 -- was originally an independent film that MGM picked up for distribution.

The movie opens with the vulturine sorcerer, Maax (Rip Torn) and his Witchwomen looking into their scrying device, watching the pregnant wife (Vanna Bonta) of  King Zed (Rod Loomis) sleeping. The Witchwomen prophesy that Maax will be slain by Zed's first born.

Maax sends one of the Witchwomen with a cow. She casts a spell that binds Zed and his wife motionless in bed while the Witchwoman uses dark magic to extract the baby from the Queen and place it in the cow's stomach. The baby is taken away to a remote location to be ritually branded and killed, but a warrior from another village sees the Witchwoman with her dagger raised above the infant and kills her before she can sacrifice the child.

Flash forward a few years and Zed's son is being taught the sword arts by his adoptive father. A bear comes upon the child and his father, but the boy is able to communicate telepathically with the bear and tell it to leave them alone.

Flash forward yet again about twenty years later and we see the unknown prince as a man. His name is Dar (played by Marc Singer). Shortly thereafter Dar's village is raided by a large marauding horde called the Jun. Dar's people are wiped out, but he is dragged to safety by a village dog and hidden away. When Dar regains consciousness he goes on a mission to seek revenge against the Jun, who conveniently happen to be in cahoots with Maax,the wizard.

On his quest Dar is joined by two ferrets,an eagle, a black tiger, and the beautiful slave girl, Kiri ( Tanya Roberts). We are treated to a good shot of Miss Roberts topless in a bathing scene that left me wondering how the hell this got a PG rating. The director said they managed to get the PG rating because ,despite all of the violence, they never showed any blood on the swords. Never look a gift-horse in the mouth, I say.

 Also joining Dar and Kiri are Seth (John Amos) and Tal (Josh Milrad). Seth is a mighty warrior with a giant Bo Staff who protects Tal, King Zed's young son. The band of allies set out to destroy Maax and free King Zed.

Coscarelli adds a nice weird touch to the movie with some nameless winged men who worship birds and devour their victims by enfolding them in their wings. This would have been right at home in a story from Weird Tales magazine back in the 1930s.

The movie was well received by cable viewers so much that someone on the Tonight Show once joked that HBO stood for, "Hey! Beastmaster's on," due to how frequently the film ran on cable. I missed the cinema release of this one but caught it as soon as the Movie Channel debuted it.

John Milius's Conan the Barbarian was released May of 1982, and The Beastmaster was released in August of the same year. Because of this, critics unfairly branded The Beastmaster a copy of Conan the Barbarian. Both movies are sword-and-sorcery films and the protagonists are both driven by revenge, but aside from the standard elements that make the sword-and-sorcery genre what it is, it is obvious to the viewer that The Beastmaster is not derivative. Coscarelli and co-writer and producer, Paul Pepperman, have both stated that they had not read any of Robert E, Howard's tales prior to making the film and I believe them. Apparently the movie was loosely based on Andre Norton's 1959 science fiction novel, The Beast Master,though her name is not mentioned in the credits. Coscarelli's movie has no science fiction elements as it is pure sword-and-sorcery. The Beastmaster is one of a small handful of sword-and-sorcery films that is worth owning for multiple viewings.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Red Sonja

Red Sonja of Rogatino first appeared in Robert E. Howard's The Shadow of the Vulture, published in The Magic Carpet Magazine, January 1934. The tale is set in 1529,during the Siege of Vienna. The story is historical fiction with no fantasy elements.

In 1973 Roy Thomas extracted Red Sonja from the time of the Ottoman wars in Europe and dropped her into the Hyborian Age (Conan's era) in a chain-mail bikini. Twelve years later Roy Thomas's comic book character appears in the film adaptation of Red Sonja brought to us by the same outfit that made Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer. Red Sonja is the third and final installment in a trilogy of sword-and-sorcery films produced by Dino De Laurentiis.

Shot in Celano, Italy on a 17,900,000 dollar budget that seemed to keep dropping slightly with each subsequent film. A number of the same actors from Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer appear again here and Richard Fleischer (Conan the Destroyer) directs Red Sonja as well.

The plot is more direct and simple than the previous two movies but nonetheless effective. Brigitte Nielson stars as Red Sonja, the sword-wielding heroine who is imbued by a goddess with the boon of supreme martial prowess after her parents are murdered by the evil Queen Gedren (Sandahl Bergman,who also played Valeria in Conan the Barbarian). Gedren wanted Sonja for herself, but when Sonja permanently disfigured Gedren, the decadent queen handed the girl over to her soldiers for them to rape. There isn't a lot of backstory here as to why Gedren came to kill Sonja's family or why the sadistic queen lusted after Sonja in particular. Gedren just shows up with her army and mayhem ensues. Next we see Sonja blessed by the goddess and she is off with sword in hand in pursuit of vengeance--which is fine with me-- cut to the chase, I say.

Red Sonja is joined by a mysterious barbarian warrior named Kalidor (Arnold Schwarzenegger). I am sure Laurentiis and company thought having Arnold along again was a good investment and I am guessing they were right. The two warriors are accompanied by young Prince Tarn ( Ernie Reyes Jr.) and Falkon (Paul Smith). Fleischer is back with  his poor attempts at humor here with the child, Prince Tarn, berating and insulting his bumbling loyal subject, Falkon ,throughout the movie.

The heroes are on a quest to retrieve a powerful magical orb from Queen Gedren and stop her from destroying the world. Of course, Sonja has Queen Gedren's death on her mind and that is what makes this a sword-and-sorcery movie to begin with -- vengeance!

There is some great  action here, notably the sword fight between Red Sonja and Brytag (Pat Roach). Roach also played Thoth-Amon in Conan the Destroyer.Though, I don't think it was derivative, this scene could have easily come from one of the Red Sonja paperback novels written by Richard L. Tierney and David C. Smith,published in the early 1980s.

There is something special in the cinematography that makes the interior sets have a grainy look like an oil painting. I am reminded of Frank Frazetta's work here. I am not very familiar with the process of shooting film, so I can't comment on this aspect of the movie that I found to be so pleasing to the eye. This made the look of the film much more appealing to me than Conan the Destroyer.

Like Conan the Destroyer, I had pretty much written this movie off as goofy and insincere when I was a  teenager in 1985.  This is another film that I have warmed up to with the passage of time,even to the point that I have enjoyed multiple viewings of Red Sonja.

Conan the Destroyer

John Milius was out and Richard Fleischer was in to direct the second installment in this sword-and-sorcery trilogy from the Dino De Laurentiis Company. Conan the Destroyer was shot in Mexico on an 18,000,000 dollar budget. While I was excited to see a sequel,this film lacks the seriousness and respect of its predecessor,Conan the Barbarian.

Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his goofy sidekick, Malak (Tracey Walter) are professional thieves who make a deal with an evil sorceress named Taramis (Sarah Douglas) to steal a magic crystal from the sorcerer, Thoth-Amon (Pat Roach) to resurrect Dagoth, the dreaming god of destruction. On his way Conan accumulates a collection of ragtag friends who contribute to a story that plays out more like a Dungeons & Dragons campaign than a Robert E. Howard tale. The story was penned by sword-and-sorcery comic book guru, Roy Thomas ( Conan the Barbarian, Red Sonja, Arak, Son of ThunderConan the Savage, and others).

Mako is back in his role as Akiro the Wizard,though, I don't think he had a name aside from"Wizard" in  Conan the Barbarian. After rescuing Akiro from a band of cannibals, Conan rescues Zula (Grace Jones) a black female warrior and thief from an angry mob of villagers who have her shackled and are planning to kill her.  Accompanying the group on their journey is Princess Jehnna (Olivia d'Abo) and her giant bodyguard Bombaata (played by basketball star, Wilt Chamberlain). The actors all do a great job,especially Grace Jones, who, I understand got into the fight scenes so much that she ended up hurting a number of people on the set with her Bo Staff.

Released in 1984, two years after the original Conan the Barbarian film, this movie doesn't pack nearly as much punch as John Milius's masterpiece. With Conan the Destroyer, Fleischer made an entertaining film that would have been more enjoyable had he shown more restraint with the goofy humor. I didn't like this movie when it first came out, but over the years I have warmed up to it somewhat. I think it would have been better received by myself, and maybe other fans of John Milius's film, if the protagonist of the story had a name other than Conan.