If you’re curious to know how many different monsters, swordfights and nude women Roger Corman can stuff into an 80-minute movie, 1983's barbarian classic DEATHSTALKER is a great place to start keeping tally.
Shot in Argentina to capitalize on the success of CONAN THE BARBARIAN (and maybe, to a lesser degree, THE BEASTMASTER), DEATHSTALKER stars TV actor Richard Hill (TODAY’S F.B.I.) as, er, Deathstalker, an arrogant warrior who urged by an ousted king to overthrow evil wizard Munkar, who has kidnapped the king’s nubile daughter Codille (PLAYBOY’s Barbi Benton, also in HOSPITAL MASSACRE). Munkar terrorizes the land with a magic amulet and chalice and needs only Deathstalker’s mystical sword to become completely unstoppable. With traveling companions Oghris (Richard Brooker) and Kaira (the late Lana Clarkson, who moved up to her own BARBARIAN QUEEN movies for Corman), who enjoys swordfighting while topless from time to time, Deathstalker invades Munkar’s celebration and volunteers to fight in the ruler’s competition to become the land’s greatest warrior. Munkar’s plan is actually pretty clever; after all but one competitor have died in the arena, he’ll kill the winner, ensuring that no badasses are left alive to threaten his reign.
Director Jim Sbardellati and writer Howard Cohen surprisingly play it all straight, which just makes the movie funnier. I don’t know how they expected us not to giggle at the rubber hand puppet that subsists on human fingers, the giant pig man that battles Deathstalker, or the lengths to which they go to show another gratuitously nude woman. With Corman as executive producer, DEATHSTALKER is never boring and is one of New World’s most entertaining trash classics of the ‘80s. Counting Benton’s lines is great fun; I think her ratio of boob shots to spoken words is close to even.
Corman may not have realized how silly DEATHSTALKER was, but Jim Wynorski did. When he was hired to direct the sequel (also in Argentina), he camped it up, casting the non-buff John Terlesky as the hero and piling anachronisms, jokes and puns on top of the action and nudity. Deathstalker rescues cute seer Reena (Monique Gabrielle) from perverts and becomes convinced by her that treasure lies at the castle of Princess Evie. What she fails to let on is that she actually is Evie, who was deposed by ruthless sorcerer Jurak (John LaZar--Ronnie "Z-Man" Barzell himself!) and replaced by a sexy evil clone (also Gabrielle).
The road to the castle is a dangerous one, filled with assassins, exploding midgets, zombies, boobytrapped crypts, 300-pound female wrestlers, an army of scantily-clad Amazons and plenty of anachronistic gags ripped from Bugs Bunny, Abbott & Costello and even HAWAII FIVE-0.
LaZar (BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS) and Toni Naples as his sultry sidekick are appropriately over-the-top antagonists, while Terlesky and Gabrielle, while decidedly lightweight as performers, milk the spoofy material for all it's worth. The action and swordfighting (and bevy of beautiful damsels) are handled quite well by Wynorski, including a climatic battle choreographed by Terlesky himself, and Gabrielle provides a much-needed nude scene.
Don't bother with DEATHSTALKER III or IV, though Richard Hill returned to the role he created in the final film. Both are cheap bores. The first two DEATHSTALKERs are also on the cheap side (very much so), but are never dull, despite their disparate approaches to the corny material.