Saturday, August 27, 2011

I'll Have My Revenge And Deathstalker II

Shout Factory's latest in its Roger Corman's Cult Classic series is a pretty damn good deal: four movies for the price of one. The SWORD AND SORCERY COLLECTION gives you DEATHSTALKER, DEATHSTALKER II: DUEL OF THE TITANS, THE WARRIOR AND THE SORCERESS, and BARBARIAN QUEEN.

The latter two were previously released on their own Shout Factory disc, so to find out more about them, read my review from last fall.

Both DEATHSTALKER and its sequel saw DVD release on New Concorde discs, but in fuzzy full-frame prints that didn't do them much justice. For the first time since their initial theatrical releases in the 1980s, both films can be seen in their original aspect ratios--well, approximately, as the 1.85:1 ratios have been transferred at 1.78:1 for widescreen TVs, but this is pretty standard in the industry and, honestly, doesn't hurt these films any.

If you’re curious as to how many different monsters, swordfights, and nude women Roger Corman can stuff into an 80-minute movie, DEATHSTALKER is a great place to start keeping tally. Shot in Argentina to capitalize on the success of CONAN THE BARBARIAN, 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 (Bernard Erhard), who has kidnapped the king’s nubile daughter Codille (famous PLAYBOY Playmate 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, who wore the hockey mask in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3) and Kaira (the late Lana Clarkson), who enjoys swordfighting while topless, 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 James Sbardellati (who took his name off the film) 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, but Jim Wynorski realized how silly DEATHSTALKER was. 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 (super-sexy 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 aka Ronnie "Z-Man" Barzell!) 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.

Meanwhile, 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. Chuck Cirino’s score may have been composed and performed in haste (he didn’t see the film; he just wrote cues that were spliced in later by editor Steve Barnett), but it’s energetically cheesy with a catchy theme that sticks in your head.

Both DEATHSTALKERs are fun viewing for different reasons. Both are presented in their original theatrical cuts. For DEATHSTALKER, that means it's three minutes longer than the New Concorde DVD (I don't know what has been added). DEATHSTALKER II is more than ten minutes shorter than the original DVD. That's because Shout Factory has assembled Wynorski's preferred Director's Cut which eliminates redundant scenes and stock footage added to DEATHSTALKER II for TV airings.

A trailer for each film is included as an extra, as is a DEATHSTALKER photo gallery. The informative and often hilarious DEATHSTALKER II commentary track featuring Wynorski, Naples, and Terlesky is ported over from the New Concorde DVD and is well worth viewing.

As for DEATHSTALKER, Shout Factory once again put the inept Bill Olsen on a commentary track, this time with DEATHSTALKER director Sbardelletti, makeup FX man John Buechler, and actor Brooker. If you have fifty questions about the production and distribution of this movie, you'll still have 49 of them after listening to the commentary. It's not the filmmakers' fault--they're enthusiastic--but Olsen is just miserable. He neglects even the most obvious questions, such as "why did Sbardelletti take his name off the picture?", "why doesn't Barbi Benton have more than a couple of lines of dialogue?", "why did Roger Corman shoot in Argentina?" Writer Howard Cohen is ignored. The film's marketing and distribution is ignored. It's implied that Sbardelletti quit or was fired during production or post-production, but no one follows up on this. Olsen finds time to ask three times, "Did (star) Richard Hill enjoy doing this?", which inevitably leads to a sarcastic "No, he hated it" reply. I honestly don't know why Shout Factory, which clearly knows how to produce a quality DVD and wants to do a good job, continues using the Olsen brothers on their commentaries.

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