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Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Barbarians (1987) review


Peter Paul (Kutchek), David Paul (Gore), Richard Lynch (Kadar), Eva La Rue (Ismene/Kara), Virginia Bryant (Canary), Sheeba Alahani (China), Raffaella Baracchi (Allura), Franco Pistoni (Ibar), Michael Berryman (Dirtmaster), George Eastman (Jacko)

Directed by Ruggero Deodato

The Short Version: Birthed by the success of CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982), a few dozen fantasy flicks featuring muscle-bound heroes battled for both big and (mostly) low-budget supremacy during the 1980s; the decade where the sub-genre of men, monsters, magic, and maidens thrived. Italian Cannibal king Ruggero Deodato (THE LAST CANNIBAL WORLD; CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST) tones down the gore and directs bodybuilding twins David and Peter Paul in the US-Italian co-production, THE BARBARIANS, an entertainingly goofy, brawny adventure high on comical protein and low on narrative carbs.

After raiding the caravan of the Radnik's, a nomadic band of entertainers, the evil Kadar kidnaps Canary, their queen. After she refuses to divulge the location of the Radnik's coveted magic Ruby, Kadar begins killing them till one of two orphaned twins bite off two of his fingers. In a moment of desperation, Canary pledges to be his woman if he will spare their lives. Kadar promises the twins will never die by his hand or that of his subjects so long as she upholds her end of the bargain. Years later the enslaved twins grow to hate their captives and are destined to fight one another in a treacherous loophole in Kadar's agreement. They ultimately escape and end up battling men and monsters to both rescue Canary, retrieve the Ruby, and slay Kadar.

With the long-in-the-making release of CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982), a slew of sword-swinging savages and evil sorcerers hellbent on world domination briefly conquered theater screens for roughly a three year period between 1982-1985. The sub-genre reached its adventurous zenith with Richard Fleisher's CONAN THE DESTROYER in 1984; a less barbaric sequel, but more entertaining and fun compared to its brutish predecessor. Ruggero Deodato's THE BARBARIANS (1987) follows the same comedic path as DESTROYER; but is more explicitly humorous, slightly gorier, and with some brief nudity and an R rating. It's also twice the brawn in its casting of the bodybuilding twins, David and Peter Paul.

By 1987, though, Sword and Sorcery had lost its magic. This type of fantasy with Iron Age warriors battling evil magicians, sorceresses, and rescuing barely-dressed and distressed damsels was banished to the realm of video store shelves; where renters would often make their choice based on how well the cover art mirrored a Vallejo or Frazetta painting. THE BARBARIANS (1987), Cannon's $4 million co-pro with Italy, was more expensive than all the 13 Italian CONAN clones combined; and one of the last big screen releases this type of picture received--limited as it was. Cannon had distributed one of the better Italian copies in 1983, THE SWORD OF THE BARBARIANS (1982); but this was the first time they funded one of them.

Ruggero Deodato, known for his extreme horror pictures like THE LAST CANNIBAL WORLD (1977) and CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980), had dabbled in Herculean cinema early in his career as an AD on THE SON OF SPARTACUS (1962) starring Steve Reeves; and ANTHAR, THE INVINCIBLE (1964) starring Kirk Morris. Also in 1964, Deodato ghost directed half of Antonio Margheriti's HERCULES, PRISONER OF EVIL (aka URSUS, TERROR OF THE KIRGHIZ); a high on ideas but poor in execution muscleman movie starring Reg Park battling an evil sorceress who turns men into werewolves. Deodato was admittedly not a fan of the genre, but found himself returning to one of its offspring twenty years later.

Reportedly, THE BARBARIANS was supposed to be a serious tale with all the blood and guts of Milius's 1982 classic. Deodato cemented international notoriety for directing the most sadistic examples of primitive cinema; so a gross-out mythical movie in the CONAN mold would've been a natural fit for him. The twins, however, had other ideas--bringing their off-camera antics to the front of it. Deodato in turn altered the script to suit the film's newfound comedic nature. Golan and Globus warmed to the changes and found it hilarious and were pleased with the different direction the film had taken.

James R. Silke's script is somewhat bland, but fun and, despite some gory scenes, suitable for children and the kid in you. It mimics the twin barbarian motif of Piero Regnoli's script in an earlier Italian CONAN copy called THE INVINCIBLE BARBARIAN (1982); a terrible, if hilarious tale starring Pietro Torrisi and Giovanni Cianfriglia; the latter of which was a regular face in Italian mythological movies in the 1960s as well as the double for Steve Reeves. Cianfriglia plays two roles in Deodato's movie--one as the Ragnik strongman with the white-painted face (see pic below); and as one of Jacko's men in the barbarian barroom brawl sequence.

Unfortunately, Silke's script fumbles the quest formula these movies either live or die by; failing to do much with it till they reach the swamp-laden Forbidden Lands (created inside the De Paolis studios in Rome). Largely inconsequential scenes are dragged out while others that need expansion have far too much crammed into them. The swamp sequence falls into the latter category--where, in the span of approximately ten minutes, they must find the Tomb of the Ancient King, obtain the monster-slaying Sacred Weapons, find the Ruby, and defeat a giant, hydraulically-controlled dragon created by Italian special effects twins, Gaetano and Francesco Paolocci.

With twins in front of the camera and twins behind it, the Paolocci brothers special effects careers began in America working for Dino De Laurentiis at his North Carolina studio in 1983. Creating werewolves for SILVER BULLET (1985) and standard wolves for LADYHAWKE (1985), they eventually made their way back to Italy where a mostly unremarkable string of horror and fantasy productions awaited them like ROBOWAR (1988) and AFTER DEATH (1989). In recent years, they designed the Special Effects Creatures Studios, an exhibit of assorted monsters, dinosaurs, historical eras, and other fantastic creations for Cinecitta Word, an Italian amusement park modeled on cinema and television.

For THE BARBARIANS, the two Paolocci's created a werewolf, swamp creatures that surfaced again in the laughable bore-fest SHOCKING DARK (1989), and a huge dragon that recalls the early work of Carlo Rambaldi in movies like PERSEUS THE INVINCIBLE (1962). It's an impressive monster even if it looks like an articulate, mechanized parade float. It works best in closeup where an animatronic head is utilized; only then it looks less like a dragon and more like a skin-peeled dog.

As for the other twins, the two Paul's (nicknamed The Barbarian Brothers) are basically playing themselves; as if they've been transported from Gold's Gym to ancient times. Their northern accents are out of place, but fit perfectly with the film's comical tone. Deodato's movie is something of a precursor to the later HERCULES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS (1995-1999) and XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS (1995-2001) television series' that also adopted a modern approach to their format.

Having previously co-starred in D.C. CAB (1983) starring Mr. T and Gary Busey, THE BARBARIANS made the Paul brothers international stars for several years; going on to headline a few more movies before exiting the motion picture limelight. These other pictures, THINK BIG (1990), DOUBLE TROUBLE (1992) and TWIN SITTERS (1994), were once more the brothers playing their real-life shtick as truck drivers, detectives, and babysitters respectively.

On a sad note, David Paul (see above insert at right and below image at left) passed away from undisclosed causes on March 6th, 2020, two days shy of his birthday. He was 62.

Eva La Rue is the twins' sidekick, Ismene. She figures into the plot in a bigger way later on. Till then, she's mostly sidelined, reacting to the twins bickering to wring another laugh or two out of the scene. This was her first motion picture before performing mostly in television where she achieved her greatest fame starring in daytime soap operas and prime time crime programs. Some of her other film work included CRASH AND BURN and GHOULIES GO TO COLLEGE (both 1990).

Rent-A-Villain Richard Lynch does his usual admirable job of being one of the screens greatest antagonists. His character is a bit more complex than the average plundering tyrant of all your finer barbarian epics. Writer James R. Silke gives Kadar a modicum of substance that, while it isn't much, affords him a sliver of humanity where his attraction to Canary is concerned.

Lynch had previously played the Jim Jones-styled bad guy in Deodato's non-cannibal, gross-out jungle adventure CUT AND RUN (1985). Earlier in the decade, Lynch had played Cromwell, another warlord in the surprise box office barbarian hit THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER (1982). Playing an assortment of bad guys his entire career, one of his unique portrayals was as the unhinged Rostov in INVASION USA (1985), a Soviet terrorist tormented by an old enemy, Matt Hunter, played by Chuck Norris. 

Michael Berryman, well known as Pluto in Wes Craven's original THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977), and one of horror's most beloved actors, plays the Dirtmaster. He gets less screen time than he was afforded in Deodato's CUT AND RUN (1985), and is far less ferocious; but his presence makes for a better viewing experience just the same. 

Another casting choice that sweetens the deal for fans of this genre as well as Italian cinema in general is a cameo by giant George Eastman (Luigi Montefiori) as Jacko. One of Italy's biggest names in their exploitation industry (even writing many of the films), the 6'9" Eastman held nothing short of contempt for the action and horror movies he appeared in; although he comes off slightly more sympathetic towards the pictures he wrote and or starred in for Joe D'Amato like ANTHROPOPHAGUS (1980) and its pseudo-sequel ABSURD (1981). This wasn't Eastman's first rodeo in prehistoric cinema, though. He was the show-stealer playing the lion-head wearing antagonist in Umberto Lenzi's IRONMASTER (1983). He's only in THE BARBARIANS for five minutes and it probably seemed longer to him since he disliked working on the film.

Sword and Sorcery movies occasionally have soundtracks that are as memorable as the movies themselves. Whether it be Basil Poledouris with CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982); Lee Holdridge with THE BEASTMASTER (1982); David Whitaker with THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER (1982); or Ennio Moriconne with HUNDRA (1983), the power of rage and romanticism produced some fantastic musical compositions in this sub-genre. Pino Donaggio's score never reaches the heights of the above-mentioned soundtracks. It does have a few energetic cues; particularly the main theme that sounds like what you'd expect the Paul's to be working out to in the gym.

Overall, it's a surprisingly lavish production with a sheen the Sword and Sorcery movies hadn't seen since the terrible, but bigger budgeted genre killer RED SONJA (1985). Like the peplum and westerns before them, once comedy creeps in, the end is near. Regardless of some flaws, had there been additional heroic quest movies as strong as this one, THE BARBARIANS could've been a new beginning. Ruggero Deodato, his cast and crew, gave the mythical movies one last worthwhile entry before the television medium made them popular again. A lovably bone-headed, spectacularly silly movie, THE BARBARIANS (1987) never seeks to be anything more than that; and that's where its charm lies.

This review is representative of the All Region Spanish blu-ray (LS BARBAROS); Specs and extras: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; English, Spanish, German language tracks; running time: 01:27:19


CostumeArchive said...

Fitting you mention Red Sonja, as I'm sure most of the costumes in this film were reused from that! I think some were also reused from even older peplums too, but I'd have to watch again (both this and the films Im thinking of) to name them...

Cultura pop com Marco Freitas said...

Saw this the day it debuted at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, in the 80s.
Loads of fun with mostly above-par production design.
Silly yet cool.

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