Sunday, August 08, 2010

No More Super Bowl

DEATHSPORT is a pseudo-sequel to New World’s very successful DEATH RACE 2000 that definitely falls beneath the heading of “Guilty Pleasure” (if you believe in that sort of thing). It contains a confusing plot, numerous lapses in logic and storytelling, cheap sets and props, and an absolute lack of (intentional) humor.

On the other hand, former Playboy Playmate Claudia Jennings (THE UNHOLY ROLLERS) has several nude scenes, lots of stuff blows up real good, heavy Richard Lynch (GOD TOLD ME TO) delivers a strong performance, and star David Carradine (also in DEATH RACE 2000) is almost always entertaining to watch. In fact, Carradine is often just as much fun in films he knows are terrible than in his truly good ones.

DEATHSPORT’s troubled production history starts with debuting writer/director Nicholas Niciphor, who was simply miscast as a Roger Corman filmmaker. The German graduate of USC’s film school not only had never seen a Corman movie before, but he had never even seen an exploitation movie! Based on a student film Niciphor made at USC, Corman hired the young man to rewrite and direct DEATHSPORT, but gave him only two weeks of preparation time before location shooting began in Southern California. Niciphor also didn’t get along with Carradine and Jennings (Carradine punched him and broke his nose, as longtime readers of Psychotronic Video will remember from the back-and-forth between actor and director in letter columns) either, and returned to Corman after principal photography with an unreleaseable mess.

Corman then hired Allan Arkush, the co-director (with Joe Dante) of HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, to go back on location with the temperamental stars (and even more temperamental motorcycles!) and film more inserts and action sequences in hopes of completing a somewhat comprehensible film. DEATHSPORT really isn’t that, but it does move along fairly quickly and dishes out enough nudity and violence to keep the audience from nodding off, at least.

In the post-apocalyptic future of the 30th century, Range Guide Kaz Oshay (Carradine) wanders the desert mumbling platitudes like “must keep moving like sand in the wind” and battling Death Machine-riding soldiers—called Statesmen—led by black-clad Ankar Moor (Lynch). Death Machines are laser-firing motorcycles with silver-painted cardboard instrument panels that don’t look the least bit futuristic.

Oshay and another Guide, bikini-wearing Deneer (Jennings), are captured by the Statemen and sentenced to play Deathsport, a gladiator-style match in which they must battle an army of Death Machines while armed only with crystal-bladed swords. Escaping with a disgraced doctor (TATE star David McLean) and his whiny wimp son (Will Walker), Oshay and Deneer head for the domed paradisiacal city of Triton with Ankar Moor and his minions in hot pursuit.

The rough goings-on behind the scenes are evident on the screen—the introduction of plot threads (like an impending storm that threatens our heroes’ journey) that are quickly forgotten or ignored, a cycle chase through an “abandoned” fuel dump that features mysterious ramps and empty striped barrels that blow up for no reason, an inexplicable torture chamber involving dangling Christmas-tree lights, hastily-produced matte paintings (by Jack Rabin) that don’t look remotely believable. Carradine, although he doesn’t have a particularly muscular build, is a serviceable action hero, and pulls off the faux-Shakespearean no-contraction-using dialogue the best he can. Jennings was a better actress than most former models, and Lynch again uses his scarred countenance to good effect.

Jennings had a major cult following in exploitation films during the 1970s. Her career was sadly cut short by a fatal car accident along Pacific Coast Highway at age 29. Niciphor, who used “Henry Suso” as his screen credit, never directed another picture. Also with William Smithers, Jesse Vint (FORBIDDEN WORLD), H.B. Haggerty, and teenage Linnea Quigley as an extra. The maddening synth score by Andy Stein features not-very-impressive guitarwork by Jerry Garcia.

DEATHSPORT appeared letterboxed for the first time on home video on Shout Factory’s satisfactory DVD, which partnered it with BATTLETRUCK, a New Zealand ripoff off THE ROAD WARRIOR that Corman picked up and released theatrically in the U.S. as WARLORDS OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY. In addition to an entertaining and candid commentary track by Arkush and editor Larry Bock, the disc includes radio spots, trailers, and still galleries that make it an attractive package for Corman fans.

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