Monday, January 29, 2018
ZORRO'S BLACK WHIP (1944), THE MAN WITH THE STEEL WHIP (1954)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
To re-iterate the same point made in practically every other reference to the film, there is no "Zorro" in the house. Republic had no rights to use the character, so they just stuck the name onto the title of their serial and presumably hoped no one would bother to sue.
There's not much to say about this bare-bones adventure, except that it's one of the rare serials in which a heroine is presented as a formidable adventure-character. This was actress Linda Stirling's second serial, following THE TIGER WOMAN the same year. TIGER WOMAN is far from one of the best of the chapterplays, but it shows far more care in its stuntwork and writing than BLACK WHIP, which I suspect was rushed into production.
Possibly the initial script was produced with the idea that the heroine would inherit the Zorro role from a male perceptor. The first chapter, taking place in Idaho in its pre-statehood era, posits that there are lawless elements seeking to foil any attempts to bring the territory under U.S. aegis, so that it can remain a haven for lawlessness. A masked, whip-wielding hero, the Black Whip, has arisen to oppose the owlhoots. But he's fatally shot, and Barbara Meredith (Stirling) comes across the wounded hero, just in time to learn that it's her own brother who has assumed the role of masked avenger. Barbara, who for a girl of the 1880s is unusually adept at fighting and shooting, takes up the role. As in TIGER WOMAN and related serials, the heroine's male companion has to handle the majority of the fight-scenes, and here it's George J. Lewis, playing Vic Gordon, a local cowhand on the side of justice. However, there are still a fair number of scenes in which the main heroine mixes things up with male outlaws, none of whom notice that she's not quite as broad-shouldered as the old Whip. The serial-makers at least have Stirling doubled by a female substitute during the action-scenes, so that the viewers still know that she's female. Why the outlaws don't notice is anyone's guess.
Despite the repetitive nature of the perils and the colorless villains, once in a while the script does convey some of the characters' uncertainty over the fate of their home state, which gives the serial a little sociological heft. But the gimmick of Barbara posing as a man wears a little thin, even if her buddy Vic Gordon takes her place toward the end to protect her dual identity. In the end, even if the outlaws never know what Barbara did, WHIP does strike a blow for gender equity.
Today the name "Richard Simmons" connotes an exercise-guru with a swishy gay persona, but in the 1950s, it was just the name of one more serial-actor. The 1950s Simmons' essays a dual role for THE MAN WITH THE STEEL WHIP, playing both tough rancher Jerry Randall and his masked I.D. "El Latigo." And both the rancher and the masked hero are very manly men, except when El Latigo turns into a woman.
STEEL WHIP came out during the fading years of the serial film, and it's one of many such films that simply recycled footage from earlier chapterplays. In this case, El Latigo's costume was modeled after that of 1944's Black Whip, so that the studio could rework footage from THE BLACK WHIP into STEEL WHIP and so save money. This results in one amusing aspect of this dead-serious oater: that in some episodes El Latigo suddenly changes into a much smaller and more feminine version of himself, since he's being played by Linda Stirling's female stunt double. Still, when Simmons himself is on the screen, he plays his scenes with a fair amount of brio.
That non-diegetic aspect aside, the most interesting sociological aspect of STEEL WHIP is that it's yet another story in which evil white outlaws are seeking to force Native Americans off their reservation-lands. Even in 1954 this was a pretty hoary plot, having perhaps been done best in 1935's MIRACLE RIDER, though that serial took place in the 20th-century West. STEEL WHIP takes place back in the 1800s, and thus the villains-- another colorless lot-- are using the old "fake Indians" strategy to rile up the white ranchers, so that the Indians will be driven away and the criminals can claim their lands.
A handful of serials, such as 1940's MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR SATAN, assert that the contemporary avenger follows in the footsteps of some earlier crimefighter. Jerry Randall pursues this trope as well, choosing to model himself on an earlier hero who was a friend to the local Indian tribe. The Native American characters aren't subject to any denigration here, since they're meant to garner sympathy. However, there are some sections of the well-meaning serial that might reflect the trope of The Great White Father. In one episode, the question is raised as to whether the tribal Indians should sell some of their lands to new settlers. El Latigo, friend of the red men, advises the Indians to take the offer, arguing that the Indians don't need all their land because they hunt, rather than farm, for their sustenance. To modern ears, this almost puts the hero on the same side as the villains. He may not share the bad guys' precise motives. But these days, any white guy who tells an Indian that he ought to yield a little lebensraum doesn't sound too terribly heroic.
Saturday, January 27, 2018
SECRET SERVICE IN DARKEST AFRICA (1943)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
SECRET SERVICE IN DARKEST AFRICA was the second and last adventure for heroic G-Man Rex Bennett (Rod Cameron), last seen in G-MEN VS. THE BLACK DRAGON, which appeared in theaters the same year six months earlier. The earlier serial was directed by long-time veterans William Witney and Spencer Bennet, while SERVICE is credited to Bennet alone.
Athletic Rod Cameron is every bit as good here as in G-MEN, though his acts of derring-do are more predictable: Bennet has him do almost nothing but fistfights, often as many as three separate battles each episode. He has strong support from female lead Joan Marsh, who, despite playing a reporter, gets to shoot bad guys fairly frequently. I didn't care much for the lead villain in G-MEN, but he was a little more interesting than German villain Baron Von Rommler (Lionel Royce). (I like how the casting assigns the German officer aristocratic status, though the film does nothing with this trope.) Rommler's last name clearly invokes that of the real-life German scourge of North Africa, General Erwin Rommel, but Rommler has none of the charisma of Rommel. Rommler starts out the film by having his fellow Nazis abduct and imprison a prominent Arab chieftain, one friendly to the Allied cause, but not someone Rex Bennett has met before. Rommler then assumes the Arab's identity and
uses this position to spy on Bennett's counter-intelleigence plans to stem the Nazi tide in North Africa. (Since the action never strays out of that area, "Darkest Africa," whether it's a reference to jungle-heavy environments or to their inhabitants, seems little more than a buzz-word.)
Rommler may have lifted his identity-stealing trope from any number of earlier serials--1941's JUNGLE GIRL, for example-- and his next move is to get hold of a celebrated dagger, with which he can turn all the Muslim tribes in North Africa against the Allies. This was probably loosely borrowed from Sax Rohmer's 1929 novel THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, which in turn influenced at least two other Fu Manchu flicks, particularly DRUMS OF FU MANCHU. However, after the first few episodes the serial writers forget about this plot-thread and simply have Rommler pursuing assorted unrelated plots against Bennett.
One plot moves the serial's phenomenality into the realm of the marvelous: the Nazis capture an American device that is essentially a death-ray, able to blow up munitions from a mile away. (This is tossed off as if it's a common part of the American army's arsenal). For those more partial to uncanny devices, though, some hostile Arabs, thinking that Bennett has killed their chief, sentence him to a colorful death. He's tied to what looks like a mill-wheel-- at any rate, it's turned by the use of flowing waters-- while a metallic knife-pendulum swings down to gut him when he comes into range. These two perils add some variety in contrast to the expertly-done but sometimes repetitive fisticuffs.
ERIK THE VIKING (1989)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, sociological*
Wikipedia informs me that this Terry Jones-directed film was based on a children's book with a similar title, written by Jones, though the article asserts that the film bears no resemblance to the book. I would assume that the main purpose in making the film was not to keep fidelity to the source-novel, but to give the Monty Python troupe another shot at making another irony-laden costume epic, like 1975's HOLY GRAIL and 1979's LIFE OF BRIAN. I liked LIFE OF BRIAN but was not a great fan of HOLY GRAIL. For me ERIK falls in between, though it's nowhere near as quote-worthy as GRAIL.
Erik (Tim Robbins) is a young Viking who has just never warmed to his people's penchant for rape and pillage. He joins his comrades in raiding a village, but when he meets a woman who fully expects to be raped-- and to some extent, even encourages it-- Erik just can't work up the, uh, enthusiasm. The woman's killed shortly after, without being raped, but this just depresses Erik even more. He tries to get help from his grandfather (Mickey Rooney), who doesn't understand the youth's disenchantment with the Viking way. But Erik finds purpose when he talks to a seeress (Eartha Kitt), who tells him that mankind is doomed to eternal war since the fall of Ragnarok. The fact that clouds perpetually obscure the sun in Erik's world testifies to the fact that doomsday has already taken place, with the great wolf Fenris having swallowed the sun. Erik is then galvanized to gather a group of fellow Vikings and take them on a quest (he persuades them by the simple persuasion of knocking their heads together). Eventually, Erik and company leave their home in search of a great magical horn. With the aid of the horn, they can transport themselves to fabled Asgard, and petition the gods to save the Earth.
The first thirty minutes of ERIK are the best part of the film. It's an intriguing setup, and suggests that Jones did some homework on Nordic mythology, even though he chose to see the myths through an ironic lens. The Vikings' first obstacle affords the film a strong, if ludicrous, battle, when the sailors meet a sea-dragon, which creature for some reason sports a light-globe on its head, like that of the real-life angler fish. However, after the strong start, the film starts bogging down in typical Python-esque routines set in archaic times. The film particularly bogs down when the heroes visit the island Hy-Brasil to get the magic horn. Jones's script throws in assorted complications, but the film never recovers from this boring sequence. (Reportedly Jones cut the theatrical version of ERIK considerably for VHS release.)
The climax recovers itself somewhat in the conclusion, and this time the plot successfully invokes Viking lore to make its satiricial points. Erik's Vikings reach the gods in Asgard, but they find that the deities don't care anything about what happens to "Midgard." There's a little visual surprise in that the Asgardian immortals don't look like any conventional representations, for they take the form of richly-robed children. However, Jones doesn't really do anything of note with this change-up. Worse, it's not clear what, if any, effect the Vikings' visit has. One minute, Child-Odin is claiming they won't do anything to undo Ragnarok-- and a little later, the Lord of Asgard announces that Ragnarok has ended and the Wolf Fenris has returned the sun to normal. It seems as if Jones was rushing past this point to deliver his ironic coup de grace: that the gods, being sticklers for protocol, won't recognize the mortals' courage in reaching Asgard, and prepare to hurl the Vikings down to Hel. Only dumb luck saves the heroes and returns them to their home on Midgard.
Based on the fact that these ironic protagonists do accomplish some heroic feats, despite their kvetching and ambivalence, I consider this a "combative irony." And though there's not a major fight-scene at the end, the film does conclude with Erik's quest indirectly causing the downfall of a mortal adversary.
Monday, January 22, 2018
METALSTORM: THE DESTRUCTION OF JARED-SYN (1983)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, sociological*
There have been a number of complaints about the movie's subtitle, which promises the destruction of a villain who, in the end, gets away (perhaps to fight another day), but I'm a little more annoyed by the name "Metalstorm," which doesn't really connote much of anything. Yes, like many other flicks that ape the "Mad Max" look, people fight with metal guns (though the ones in METALSTORM seem to be ray-blasters) and they have various metal vehicles (though really only the hero's armored battle-van stands out in the story). But since the core story is about the titular villain going around stealing souls, something like "SOULSTORM" might have been more appropriate.
Alan Adler, who had previously worked with director Charles Band on PARASITE, spends little time with setup. Though the action supposedly takes place on an alien world with the dubious name of Lemuria, one never knows if it's a world colonized entirely by humans, some of whom have mutated into monsters like the one-eyed "Cyclopeans," or whether some of the beings are native to the world and have been obliged to mix with humans. There's also nearly no backstory for the hero. Dogen (Jeffrey Byron) is simply some sort of intergalactic ranger who's come to Lemuria looking for Jared-Syn (Mike Preston), a criminal who can suck souls from human beings and store said energies in crystals. I suppose Adler might have been trying to emulate the space-opera feel of Lucas's STAR WARS, where such concerns are also immaterial, but Adler also makes the characters flat and bereft of humor.
Given that the location footage is mostly in Bronson Canyon, director Band isn't working with wide open spaces like George Miller and countless "Mad Max" imitators. That said, Band does manage to make the predictable quest-story visually interesting at many turns. Jared-Syn possesses some vague mental-wizard skills and sometimes sends Dogen weird visions, and the main object of Dogen's quest is a magical mask with which he can counter the arch-criminal's powers. During the quest Dogen, who's a sturdy fighter despite being a dull character, makes a few allies, including frequent Band players Tim Thomerson and Richard Moll. In contrast to many of the "Max"-imitators, Band sometimes relies more of a slow build of tension than on kinetic violence, as seen in the approach of Dogen and ally Rhodes (Thomerson) to the forbidden land of the Cyclopeans.
I should note that I've never seen the film in the 3-D format, which marketing tool may have caused Band to give his film a little more visual oomph than some of his other eighties work. And even though the credits raise the expectation that it will bite the style of the SUPERMAN films, Charles Band's brother Richard contributes a lively score with no overt John Williams quotes.
Monday, January 8, 2018
THE PURPLE MONSTER STRIKES (1945)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
PURPLE MONSTER-- which is what the Martian villain pictured above (Roy Barcroft) calls himself, sans any explanation-- is credited with being the first postwar serial based in science fiction tropes. He's just as much of a one-dimension "foreign invader" as many of these seen prior to and during WWII, but it's interesting that Republic Studios does a nice job of blending sci-fi "gadget-philia" with the thrills and spills of action-cinema-- something one doesn't see in the last two FLASH GORDON serials from Universal. I can imagine PURPLE MONSTER being very influential on Sam Katzman's Columbia serials, some of which share the heavy emphasis on gadgets but aren't nearly as good devising adventure[-scenarios.
In a twist on the familiar theme of world conquerors trying to latch onto new devices created by peace-loving American scientists, the Purple Monster, a native of Mars, arrives on Earth in a spaceship, and he's come looking for Doctor Layton. Layton has plans for devising a new type of jet-plane for peaceful interstellar exploration, but the Monster wants to create the vehicle so that he can take it back to Mars so that his people can create an invasion fleet.
The Monster then introduces his most prominent gadget: a vial of "Martian gas." He exposes Layton to the gas, which is immediately fatal to the Earthman. However, when the Monster exposes himself to the gas, it has a very different effect, which the script never attempts to explain. The gas causes the Martian to become invisible and insubstantial-- making him akin to a spirit. In this form he possesses and revives Layton's body, now entirely inhabited by the Martian's intelligence. For the remainder of the series, the false Layton-- much like the "false father" seen in 1941's JUNGLE GIRL-- orders various thugs to work his will. Neither of the two heroes-- Layton's niece Shelia and his two-fisted attorney Craig Foster-- realize until the serial's end how they've been manipulated and endangered by the phony scientist.
Many chapters are fairly repetitive "chase-down-the-next-part-we-need" schticks, though the fight-scenes are top of the line for Republic Studios. Late in the serial the one-man invasion force appeals to get an aide, a Martian female with the un-ironic name "Marcia." Marcia kills off an Earthwoman to assume her identity and has a tussle with Shelia (Linda Stirling) in one chapter, but this time heroine Stirling doesn't even get as much action as she did in the same year's earlier MANHUNT ON MYSTERY ISLAND. Craig (Dennis Moore) gets to have all the fun, including dealing the death-blow to the evil invader.
Saturday, January 6, 2018
DAUGHTER OF DARKNESS (1990)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical*
This stylishly photographed (in Hungary) vampire thriller was produced as a TV-movie, so it's not surprising that it was pretty low on gore and grue.
Schoolteacher Katherine (Mia Sara) mourns the passing of her father, but sees an odd spectre at the gravesite. The viewer never precisely learns what the vision was, though almost immediately Katherine decides to fly to Romania and do some research into the background of her father, whom she never knew growing up.
Wandering around Romania, Katherine encounters a helpful diplomatic aide, a baleful police officer, and a cab-driver who claims to be a slayer of vampires. Eventually Katherine finds her father Anton (Anthony Perkins), but she also finds out that he had a good reason for remaining apart from her: he's a real vampire, albeit of some strange variety that feeds on mortal blood with a sort of ALIEN-style tongue. Katherine is one of the few children to be born from the union of vampire and human, and for that reason, the local clutch of vampires, over whom Anton has some authority, is very curious about the newcomer.
It's a good thing the camera likes Sara so much, since she's in most of the scenes. I felt as if the script missed a beat in that Katherine never wants to guilt Anton for not being there for her, but the brisk plot-turns probably mitigated against that. Perkins is no better than adequate, a far cry from his stellar re-creation of Norman Bates four years previous in PSYCHO III. Katherine and Anton alone get a degree of character development, marking DARKNESS as something of a "daughter-rescues-father" fantasy, but the psychological possibilities are neglected in favor of quickly moving incidents and a bravura finish. A good time-waster, nothing more.
TO ALL A GOODNIGHT (1980)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
I've seen a few online defenses of this quickie FRIDAY THE 13TH clone, but I'm on the side of those who think it's among the worst slashers out there. I don't expect slasher-flicks to be all that original, or even coherent, but above all they ought to be viscerally gruesome.
Somewhere or other I remember actor David Hess-- best remembered for his nasty role in 1972's LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT-- grousing about his career being hurt by typecasting from that movie. That's probably true, but TO ALL A GOODNIGHT-- Hess's only directorial credit for a feature film-- seems like Hess getting a delayed revenge on horror-fans, by giving them a poorly lit and poorly staged clone of the popular FRIDAY film. On the other hand, writer Alex Rebar-- best known for playing THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN-- probably just wanted to grind something out as quickly as possible. Oddly, though, he's credited, in the same year no less, for scripting a far superior work. Arthur Jeffrey's DEMENTED. Though DEMENTED was essentially a take on 1978's controversial I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE, its script was competent and occasionally affecting, the exact opposite of GOODNIGHT.
As in FRIDAY, we're presented with a bunch of horny teenagers who want to do nothing but screw their brains out. The site is an elite girls' finishing school, where only a small handful of ladies had remained in residence during Xmas break. Two older women, a cook and a den mother, are stil hanging around, but the girls are confident that they can lull their suspicions long enough for a bunch of guys to infiltrate the school and then go to town. All of the teens are even more one-note than those of the worst FRIDAY, though top-billed Jennifer Runyon plays a "good girl" who, in approved "Final Girl" tradition, survives the general carnage.
It's not exactly original, but in addition to the Santa-suited killer who commits most of the murders, Saint Prick has an accomplice on the inside. There's never any halfway plausible reason for the killer to assume the Santa disguise, and his murders don't follow any ironic Christmassy patterns, like 1984's far superior SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT. I did raise my eyebrow once when the Santa-slayer slammed an axe into a guy's head, but that was about it. The psychology of the killers is an outright steal from the first FRIDAY flick, without even lively performances to redeem it.
I can only think of one good use for GOODNIGHT. Any time some elitist critic disses the original FRIDAY, he should be obliged to watch this film, to see what real cinematic badness is like.
Thursday, January 4, 2018
DINOSAUR ISLAND (1994)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
Though I naturally enjoyed this 1994 Roger Corman salute to D-cups on the visceral level, my main reason for re-watching it was to see whether or not it qualified as a combative adventure. The short answer is "not."
In 1994 co-directors Fred Olen Ray and Jim Wynorski had already established themselves as practiced makers of softcore tit-flicks, and DINOSAUR ISLAND fills that niche adequately if unexceptionally. The 1976 KILMA, QUEEN OF THE AMAZONS has a similar plot-- modern-day men find their way onto an island inhabited by sexy amazons-- but the Spanish flick gives the amazons a little more agency than one sees in this B-flick. Four army guys-- a captain escorting three goofball deserters to their "just desserts"-- crash-land on the island and find a bevy of amazons. The girls have seen outsiders before, and somehow this resulted in a prophecy of great warriors who would save the spear-wielding ladies from "the Great One," a really big (and really badly animated) tyrannosaurus.
The girls don't get to do much, aside from a catfight between Michelle Bauer and Toni Naples over whether or not to kill the intruders. The guys live to challenge the Great One and manage to kill the dino with their advanced weaponry. It's such a straightforward destruction that I didn't think the violence qualified for combative status.
Bad dinos, good boobs. Nothing more to say.
Tuesday, January 2, 2018
CONAN THE DESTROYER (1984), KULL THE CONQUEROR (1997)
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, metaphysical*
Whenever I've viewed CONAN THE BARBARIAN, I've noted that the film was for the most part well-written for a barbarian adventure, though one of its standout dialogue-passages—the famed “Conan, what is best in life” passage—has come in for endless mockery. CONAN THE DESTROYER is far more deserving of mockery. However, because the film has no standout lines of dialogue, good or bad, it doesn’t generally get the “bad movies we love” treatment given to cinematic oddballs like TROLL 2 and the whole Ed Wood oeuvre.
Given that the same producers approved both BARBARIAN and DESTROYER, it’s tempting to suppose that they fundamentally had no understanding of the Conan franchise, not unlike the relationship of the Salkinds to the Superman franchise. In the third Superman film the Salkinds seemingly did everything they could to reject all the elements that director Richard Donner brought to the table. Similarly, in CONAN THE DESTROYER, producers Pressman and de Laurentis seem to willfully reject John Milius’s Nietzchean warrior in favor of the blandest possible excuse for sword-and-sorcery thrills.
The film’s utter failure even to deliver decent thrills is even more amazing when one knows that the core ideas for this lumbering bore came from two comics-writers, both at least familiar with the property. One of them, Gerry Conway, didn't set his hand to the sword-and-sorcery genre often—though he did pen a few issues of Marvel's KULL THE CONQUEROR title—but the other story-contributor was Roy Thomas, who was primarily responsible for bringing the whole Robert E. Howard corpus of works into the Marvel Comics domain. Thomas wrote the CONAN comic book for almost ten straight years, so one would think that he and Conway—with whom Thomas occasionally partnered on comics-scripts—would have cobbled together a really good story, whether a direct Howard adaptation or a reshuffling of Howardian motifs, like Milius’s BARBARIAN script. True, the final screenplay is credited to one Stanley Mann, but if he improved in any way on the original story, it was probably in the nature of polishing a turd.
While movie-Conan need not be in any every way a fairhful adaptation of the character from either the prose stories or the comic books, DESTROYER starts off with a pointless mischaracterization, wherein the dour Cimmerian, usually skittish about sorcery in any form, is persuaded to make a Faustian bargain with a sorceress. The film apparently takes place not long after the events of BARBARIAN, for the stoic hero is still mourning for his great love Valeria, killed by Thulsa Doom. Conan has also, for reasons undisclosed, teamed up with a shrimpy guy, one Malak, whose only talent is to provide unfunny comedy relief. The sorceress Taramis (Sarah Douglas) has a bunch of soldiers try to capture Conan and Malak, and Conan fights them off. Taramis then appears, not even bothering with the usual “I had to test your mettle” excuse, and offers her bargain: in exchange for Conan’s services, she’ll bring back Valeria from the dead. This thin motivation doesn’t even really match up to the characterization of the Milius film, and seems designed to do no more than set the hero on his path as quickly as possible.
Hardly any background is devoted to Taramis or her plans, but she wants Conan to escort her niece, the princess Jehana (Olivia d;Abo), on a quest to steal a fabled magical jewel from a sorcerer. In what seems a loose borrowing from medieval myths of virgins and unicorns, Jehana is the only one who can handle the jewel without ill effects and bring it back to her native city for a special ritual. Little does Jehana know that the ritual calls for the sacrifice of the virgin princess. The jewel will also bring to life the evil dragon-god Dagoth, who presumably will enrich the mortals who revived him with some other Faustian deal. Conan, his dopey buddy, and Jehana are accompanied in their mission by Taramis’s soldier Bombatta (a sullen Wilt Chamberlain), but on the way Conan manages to pick up two more helpers. One is Akiro, a shaman seen in the first movie, and again played by Mako, while the other, female warrior Zula, is represented via the dubious thesping of Grace Jones Even for a sword-and-sorcery film, it’s a pretty motley crew, and the script doesn’t make any effort toward forging any “esprit de corps.”
The real reason Jehana has to go along, of course, is that she has to fall for the allegedly “handsome” warrior, and he, to some small extent, with her. The raffish group finds its way to the sanctum of the wizard who holds the sacred jewel. The wizard proves to be a minor threat even for a secondary villain, for even when the heroes choose to camp out for the night, the wizard doesn’t choose to attack them in their sleep. He makes things easy for them by simply spiriting away Jehana, for some wizardly purpose of his own—after which the heroes penetrate his sanctum with ridiculous ease. The sorcerer’s only defense is a super-strong demon who manifests out of a hall of mirrors. The demon gives Conan a rough time until the barbarian lucks onto the creature’s weakness: smash his mirrors, and he dies. After that, Conan takes out the sorcerer himself. About the only good about this tedious sequence is the fact that when Thomas and Conway gave their catchpenny conjurer the name “Toth-Amon,” I think they were admitting that he couldn’t be compared with “Thoth-Amon,” the genuinely compelling villain of various Conan stories.
Even after the jewel has been obtained, the script then takes a page from various ‘sword-and-sandal” films by having the heroes get sidetracked several times. In the process Conan finds out that Jehana’s supposed to be sacrificed, so Bombatta betrays his princess by abducting her and taking her back to the city for the ritual. Conan and his loyal followers give chase, infiltrate the city, and invade the throne-room just as the dragon-god is brought to life. Their advent prevents Jehana from being sacrificed. However, evil Taramis—probably not a virgin—is suffers the somewhat phallic fate she intended for her niece, that of being gored on the horn of the dragon-god—for, just like the aforementioned unicorn, Dagoth has a single horn in his skull. Conan, though he hasn’t attempted to steal Jehana’s virginity during the whole film, earns his “destroyer” status by ripping off the god’s symbol of virility, thus vanquishing it. After the god has been banished and the villains defeated, Jehana tries to keep the barbarian with her, but he’s off to his next adventure—which never took place, at least as an actual Conan movie.
The best thing I can say about the film is that in 1984 Arnold Schwarzenegger was still in his prime, so he looks great, particularly in his heroic battle against the dragon-god. Everything else, though, is largely a misfire, and, given the production budget involved, it seems a more egregious failure than even direct-to-video fodder like THESCORPION KING 3. Even the most intriguing psychological angle of the original script is botched. It’s a given that, whenever you have an older queen seeking to get rid of a young princess-type, it’s an “age vs. youth” conflict. But this aspect might have been enhanced if the standard release had included an early scene in which Taramis seduced Conan before sending him on his way. Of course, the rest of the film would not have devoted any attention to a competition between aunt and niece over Conan’s prodigious pectorals, but even the sight of the barbarian being tempted by both comely age and burgeoning youth would have added a little spice to the overall tedium.
Reportedly a script for a third Conan film was prepared, but was reworked for the 1997 KULL THE CONQUEROR, produced by Raffaela de Laurentis, daughter of Dino, who produced the first two Conans. This switch-over seems more than appropriate, since the first Conan film used as its villain a character given the name “Thulsa Doom.” In Howard’s prose stories, Doom was the foremost foe of King Kull, who lived ages before Conan and who may have been Conan’s distant ancestor, depending on who you ask. Further, the repurposed script is somewhat improved by shifting its attention from a roving barbarian who may someday become a king, to a somewhat settled-down barbarian who has already become a king and has to deal with all the resultant hassles.
KULL’s script also uses some elements from Howard’s only Conan novel, THE HOUR OF THE DRAGON. In this narrative, Conan has already become a king, and is forced to oppose a conspiracy that will unleash a long-dead sorcerer, and his long-vanished city Acheron, upon the barbarian’s contemporary world. KULL revises this scenario with some metaphysical tweaks: now Acheron, a city of sin, has been banished into limbo by the good god Valka, who allows an eternal flame to burn and to remind mortals of “godless times.” Movie-Kull (Kevin Sorbo), like prose-Kull, battles Borna, the current king of Valursia—the modern realm built upon the ashes of Acheron—and, after killing Borna, assumes Borna’s kingship. As in the novel, conspirators attempt to revive Acheron to its old evil glory, but instead of bringing an evil sorcerer to life first, the villains revive a sorceress, Akivasha (Tia Carrere), whose name is taken from a minor vampire-character in HOUR OF THE DRAGON.
In the Howard stories, Kull is a grim, brooding barbarian, and various conspirators in Valusia maneuver him into fighting King Borna, hoping that they will reap the reward after Kull does their dirty work. Instead, Kull seizes the throne, though his barbarian nature never sits well with the heavy responsibilities of kingship. However, the movie changes this scenario, not so much to be in line with HOUR OF THE DRAGON, but to make the hero more likable, in line with Sorbo’s heroic persona on the then-current HERCULES THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS teleseries.
These compromises in the film’s first third show the most interesting psychological motifs. Kull is first seen being inducted into the Valusian army by General Taligaro, who duels Kull while lecturing him on the superiority of nobility to the barbarian ethos. Then all of the soldiers are drawn to the Valusian palace by the news that King Borna has gone mad, killing all or most of his heirs. Kull fights Borna not for personal gain, but to preserve life. The dying Borna, who apparently has a quasi-paternal feeling toward Kull, bequeathes the crown to the barbarian. A lot of Valusians aren’t happy about having an outsider for a king, though this Kull, being a Hercules-type “good guy,” gains some traction by advocating religious freedom and the end of slavery.
Though Borna apparently had heirs before he killed them, nothing is said about Kull inheriting a queen or a consort of any kind. However, Kull’s court adviser introduces the hero to a harem full of slave-girls, informing Kull that they’re all his now. Being too nice a guy to take advantage of women, Kull only has eyes for one slave-girl, the prophetess Zareta. A vague backstory is cited, in which Kull apparently made advances on Zareta. It’s never clear if the late King Borna took advantage of Zareta’s charms—though she does mention, much later and in another context, that she’s not a virgin. However, it’s briefly mentioned that Borna “had a fit” when Kull tampered with Zareta, which almost sounds much like an irate father getting mad at his daughter’s ill-mannered suitor. By ceding the kingship to Kull, though, Borna also ceded the sexual right to Zareta or any other slave-girl. Again, Sorbo-Kull is too good-hearted a guy to take advantage of a woman, though he does try to follow up on his earlier advances. Zareta, though she reciprocates Kull’s feelings, shuts him out by affecting to be no more than an unenthusiastic slave.
Kull won't have sex with an unwilling woman, but he’s apparently still rather horny, for the next day he’s looking for his next queen among the available noblewomen. However, certain conspirators have revived the 3,000-year old corpse of the evil sorceress Akivasha, who then passes herself as one of the noblewoman. She ensorceres Kull into choosing and marrying her, and, on their wedding night, gives Kull a kiss that makes him seem to be dead. Later, after Akivasha has been acknowledged as Valusia’s new queen, she wakes Kull up and tells him she’s decided to honor him with her attentions after all. But Kull manages to get free and, allying himself with Zareta and her priest-brother, seeks to procure “the breath of Valka,” a magical power able to banish the ageless sorceress.
After this promising setup, the rest of KULL is just the usual sword-and-sorcery, adequately handled but never surprising, except for two elements. One is the highly unusual casting of comedian Harvey Feinstein as one of Kull’s old rogue-friends. The other is the climax, where, in order to utilize the “breath of Valka,” Sorbo-Kull has to kiss Akivasha in her form of a big ugly demon. Neither of these elements is anything brilliant, but they were at least eyebrow-raising. There’s also a subplot in that General Taligaro, Kull's former commander, is one of the conspirators, with whom Kull has a couple of lively fights, but as a character Taligaro is pretty routine.
In short, KULL THE CONQUEROR doesn’t set the barbarian bar any higher. But its medium-level thrills are a good deal better than most films in this genre.
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