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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Deathstalker (1983) review


Richard Hill (Deathstalker), Barbi Benton (Codille), Richard Brooker (Oghris), Lana Clarkson (Kaira), Bernard Erhard (Munkar), Lillian Ker (Toralva)

Directed by John Watson (James Sbardellati); Stunt Coordinator: Richard Brooker; Makeup Special Effects/Unit Insert Director: John Buechler


Munkar, an evil magician, rules the land and covets the Three Powers of Creation-- The Amulet of Life, The Chalice of Magic and The Sword of Justice. Munkar already possesses two of them. A brutish rogue named Deathstalker is coerced by a wise old witch to kill Munkar and free the land of evil. First, he must locate the Sword of Justice; with it, he cannot be harmed. Bring the three powers together and a man will become a God. Along the way, Deathstalker recovers the sword and meets friend and foe alike. Holding a tournament to name an heir for his kingdom, the aging Munkar attempts to have Deathstalker eradicated to keep him from winning. Might and magic clash during the finale with the Three Powers of Creation as the ultimate prize.

John Watson directs this low rent, but gloriously gritty and gruesome barbarian picture. A huge video hit, DEATHSTALKER (1983) provides more entertainment value than both Conan films combined. What was surely a painfully low budget, the filmmakers make the most of the modest materials at hand. Shooting in South America adds some extra value, but even still, the film looks very cheap. Nonetheless, exploitation fans and gorehounds would be hard pressed to find a better boobs and blood sword fest.

A great 'Beer & Pizza' movie, DEATHSTALKER (1983) provides an unprecedented amount of female nudity. Possibly the single most mysogynistic movie ever made. If the camera isn't lingering on bare breast or butts, there are countless scenes of women being slapped around or assaulted against their will. During the big orgy sequence, the camera cuts from various shots to reveal drunken and aroused gladiators grabbing girls at random. Some of them seem receptive but most of them kick, punch and scream to get loose from the grip of the savages. Another startling aspect is that often when there is an action scene taking place, if a naked woman is in the vicinity, the camera is conveniently placed in close proximity before panning over the other action on screen.

Richard (Rick) Hill excels as the likable brigand, Deathstalker, an unusual type of hero, or anti-hero. During the opening scene, it becomes quickly apparent just what kind of hero Deathstalker is. A group of leprous thugs attack a robber who has kidnapped a woman. Deathstalker emerges and kills all the bad guys. The robber offers him what he has stolen telling him to take it, "I intend to". Stalker responds after killing the robber with his dagger-- "This just isn't your day, is it?" He then goes over to the captured woman. He frees her then attempts to have his way with the woman. She seems willing at first till Stalker is interrupted and she sneaks away-- "This isn't my day, either."

Stalker is taken to meet with a dethroned king who begs him to return his kidnapped daughter, the gorgeous princess Codille. However, he turns down the king's request stating, "I kill and steal to stay alive, not for the luxury or glory." Riding away, he saves his friend, the witch, Toralva from Munkar's minions. Hearing the story, he happily accepts the task of relieving Munkar of two of the Powers of Creations in addition to obtaining the Sword of Justice which is hidden elsewhere inside a cave guarded by a man turned into a monster by Munkar.

Hill was a regular face on various television programs throughout the 80's including CHEERS and THE DUKES OF HAZZARD. In addition to this film, Hill did some other movies for Corman including DUNE WARRIORS (1990; also starring David Carradine) and BLOODFIST 2 (1990). Strangely, Hill did not return for the sequel, DEATHSTALKER 2: DUEL OF TITANS (1987), which was played more for laughs than anything else. The abundant nudity and sex was the only holdover from the original. Footage from the first film is implemented as well as some of the music cues. Hill also did not play the role in DEATHSTALKER 3: THE WARRIORS FROM HELL (1988). The third entry is played more like a swashbuckler than a barbarian flick. Also, the score for BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (1980) is recycled yet again. Rick Hill did return to play Stalker in the awful DEATHSTALKER 4: MATCH OF TITANS (1990). Regardless of how cheap the first was, it provided scenes to pad out the other films in this series.

Hill is surprisingly good and charismatic as the unscrupulous vulgarian. He's actually not too far removed from the bad guys populating the picture. He also has a good time spouting some choice lines of dialog. One in particular comes during the orgy sequence. After rescuing princess Codille from her shackles, he hastily picks her up and whisks her away for some carnal pleasure. Munkar stops him claiming ownership, "Were you planning to take her with you?" Stalker responds with, "For the night, anyway".

Sporting a blonde wig, blue eyes and chiseled features, Hill is ideal in the role just as Schwarzenegger possessed a similar look for his role in CONAN (1982), the obvious inspiration for this film. Stalker even swings his sword in a fashion similar to the cinematic version of Robert E. Howard's Hyborean Age barbarian. Also, Stalker has a penchant for cleaning his bloodied blade by somewhat stylishly (in a warped sort of way) wiping away the plasma on the back of his pants leg. Hill also appears to do all his own fight scenes. The production probably couldn't afford doubles.

Not long after the film has begun, the viewer is introduced to a most unique swordswoman named Kaira. Played by gorgeous blonde, Lana Clarkson, she is the one strong female role in the film. She represents a confident and assured woman warrior who is just as skilled as any of the main characters. What's most unique about her persona is her outfit, or lack thereof. She fights much like the men do, with her chest bare. Even though she wears a cloak, her bosom doesn't stay concealed for long. Clarkson was so popular from her role here, that she got her own spin off series, BARBARIAN QUEEN (1985). This production even used the sets from DEATHSTALKER (1983) as well as footage from the film.

Clarkson was also present in numerous television shows such as KNIGHT RIDER and THE A-TEAM. She was preparing to make a comeback in Hollywood when tragedy struck in early February of 2003. Clarkson was found dead at the home of record producer, Phil Spector who had shot her in the mouth with a handgun mere hours after meeting him in a nightclub.

Former liason of Hugh Hefner, Barbi Benton was a regular on tv shows throughout the 70's and 80's. DEATHSTALKER (1983) was her "big break" in show business. Benton was also seen on the popular show, HEE HAW among many other beautiful women. Her role in DEATHSTALKER doesn't allow for much acting range save for being in distress or being UNdressed. Benton is the latter on a couple of occasions. When she isn't stripped naked, she is usually seen wearing some provocative outfits amidst a harem of likewise scantily dressed females.

Richard Brooker, who plays the wily swordsman, Oghris, also did the stunt work and action choreography. Some of the fights are really good while some others are rather repetitive and appear to be the same scene just shot from a different angle. One particularly choice bit has Deathstalker arriving to help Oghris. He takes on a number of thugs at once. Stalker likes removing victims of their noggins. One man loses his head followed by our hero kicking his headless corpse to the ground. Brooker will probably be best known for a role in which viewers don't see his face. He play Jason Voorhees in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3-D (1983), a role he isn't particularly fond of.

Bernard Erhard as the sadistic sorcerer, Munkar, handles the role extremely well. Displaying a mean looking tattoo on the side of his bald head, his pallid looks and costume create an imposing presence. Incidentally, there is one scene in the movie where the tattoo is on the right side of his head as opposed to the left. In Munkar's chamber, he has a small pet monster in a chest named 'Little Howard'. This toothy critter enjoys eating fingers and eyeballs from hapless victims captured by Munkar's men. The ending features a great scene in which Munkar is thrown to the angry villagers. The incensed mob proceed to tie Munkar to two horses and rip him apart lengthwise.

In keeping with the sadistic, yet darkly comical moments throughout, the big orgy scene has various gladiators getting into a huge scuffle once princess Codille is brought out for the men to fight over. There's a huge fighter that has a pig's head but a man's body. One scene has this monstrosity ogling a table of sustenance which has a real pig's head adorning the plates of food. The pig-man picks up the head and gives it a look before addressing the camera. He then proceeds to eat the pig head. Also, during the big brawl, the pig-man is pummeling one of the fighters. Injuring his hand, he reaches out and rips the arm off a passerby and continues to beat the man only this time with the freshly dismembered limb.

One of the most memorable scenes from DEATHSTALKER (1983) is the bit where Munkar gives one of his soldiers a sex change(!) turning him into princess Codille. He then gives him a knife and orders him to kill Deathstalker. Famed film critic, Joe Bob Briggs called this the best 'special effect of 1983'.

The score by Argentinian composer, Óscar Cardozo Ocampo is suitably barbaric and quite good. The cues perfectly match the on screen action and atmosphere sounding very progressive. Very reminiscent of European prog rock, the score is often rousing and a variation of the main theme can be heard in the orgy sequence. Also, of note, a brief cue from BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (1980) is heard during the final minutes. In addition to all the exploitation value the film offers to undemanding fans, the film itself is often sloppy in places and appears choppy in the editing. This is due to around 15 minutes being removed. Much of this cut footage is present on cable television broadcasts of the film.

These sequences include numerous extended scenes and extra shots of existing scenes such as an extra shot of a decapitated head landing on the ground after being launched into the air by Deathstalker's blade. There are also longer sword fighting scenes. These extra bits of fight footage are poorly choreographed and appear for all the world like rehearsal footage. I would assume the movie, at a very short 74 minutes (76 with credits) needed these extra pieces for its television airings considering the wealth of footage that would have to be trimmed for violence and nudity.

There are also inconsistencies in the screenplay. Toralva tells Stalker that by bringing the three Powers of Creation together, the possessor "will BE the power." But at the end, when Stalker puts the three items together, an explosion of fire and light encompasses him just as the credits roll. Did he become a God, or was he destroyed by the three magical pieces? It's not really made clear. Also, it's not made clear why Munkar sometimes takes the form of Kang, the leader of Munkar's army. Nor is it explained why the Amulet of Life is hanging from the ceiling in one of the gloomy castle hallways instead of being locked away in the evil wizards chambers. During the scene where Deathstalker "kills" Kang, he leaps down to decapitate him. When he removes the head, a huge amount of blood splashes onto Stalkers right arm. When the camera cuts, the blood is gone.

There are several scenes where the film jumps around from one sequence to the next without any explanation or purpose; things just happen. The sets are passable despite there inherent fakiness. None of the sets look like they could be real castle walls. Everything looks fabricated for a movie. However, the torture chamber is suitably disgusting. There's also a riff on THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980). Deathstalker loses his sword at one point. It's out of reach so he outstretches his arm and the sword magically returns to him just in time to deal with one of the villains. During the scene where Stalker is given the sword, the blade lights up similar to the light saber seen in the STAR WARS films. And speaking of the swords, they don't look very realistic and sometimes you can see them bending during the fight scenes.

The makeup effects were created by rubber creature specialist, John Carl Buechler. His claim to fame would probably be directing FRIDAY THE 13TH 7: THE NEW BLOOD (1987), possibly the most bloodless of all the Friday films. It also probably features Buechler's best work and the best Jason makeup. Even so, Buechler usually could be counted on for delivering good work on creature features. His creations resembling more detailed hand puppets than an actual special effect but then this could simply be down to budgetary shortcomings. Many of his creature masks look the same from film to film.

Even still, he is one of the few make up artists to make a successful transition to directing. Buechler toiled on a large number of Charles Band's shortlived Empire Pictures productions, a company that specialized in low budget fantasy adventures. Two of the most popular movies he did the effects for are FROM BEYOND (1986) and DOLLS (1987). In addition to directing the seventh FRIDAY THE 13 film, Buechler directed the hit film, TROLL (1986) and CELLAR DWELLER (1988) among some others.

DEATHSTALKER (1983) might be cheesy low budget drivel, but for fans of exploitation cinema, the movie has an enormous amount of entertainment value. Equal parts cheesecake and beefcake, this barbarian buffet comes complete with generous helpings of breasts and blood for sleazo-files. However, more demanding fans would do better to watch CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982) again. Whereas the first Conan film was instrumental in a slew of copycats, DEATHSTALKER (1983) was responsible for its own cycle of direct-to-video barbarian movies and this sword, sex & sorcery romp is one of the "best" of its kind.

DVD availability: New Concorde (Out of Print)


Sean M said...

It's just as well i'm single again as i agree it's very mysogynistic but in a fun and amusing way.But it's infinitely preferable to the dull Conan series despite it's low budget,and i find the sets,locations,costumes,special effects pretty good for a 1980's fantasy film.

Apart from the mountain of eye candy totty this is very well cast and there are plenty of memorable scenes including the hilarious sex change and the eyeball eating monster in a box.

I have the Film 2000 dvd which has the same running time of 7 minutes but i'd like to check out the loger tv version some day.

venoms5 said...

The movie was popular enough to warrant three sequels and even a spin off series starring the late Lana Clarkson called BARBARIAN QUEEN which got two sequels of its own.

The DEATHSTALKER sequels, IMO, got worse and worse although there's a good number of folks that like the second movie the best.

The second film is more of a comedy, the third film introduces a bit of a swashbuckler, but the budget was lacking and the fourth was the worst.

The extra footage amounted to mostly dialog and extended scenes. Lana Clarkson's exit from the film was longer, but the extended fight bits were pretty terrible and I see why they were trimmed. Curiously, one brief extra shot was of a head hitting the ground after Stalker sends a mounted guards noggin flying through the air.

I remember when my dad rented this back in 1985 along with THE BEING (1982) and NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIES (1980; the Bruno Mattei movie) and thinking DEATHSTALKER was a horror picture.

Pat Powers said...

I agree that Deathstalker was a remarkable movie for its time. I think what happened was that the director/writer read a few Gor novels and thought, "You know, dump the antifeminist rantings and the overt sexual bondage themes but keep the lusty warrior who really like to fight battling it out, with women as sexual snack foods, and I might just have something here. Maybe throw in a woman warrior or two to keep the feminists quiet, but give her big jugs to keep male viewers interested."

And he did. And it was.

My take on the movie: (warning, totally NSFW)

venoms5 said...

Hi, Pat. Nice breakdown in your review. The scene where you discuss stalker being asked to meet with the king by the priest is a funny one. On the television version, when stalker is having his way with the woman, it isn't just the priest who is there, there's a flank of warriors that are in the background watching. The shot showing them was removed from the release version.

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