Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Sword & Sorcery Month Quick Picks and Pans

Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924) This is the first of two films by director/co-writer Fritz Lang (with a script co-written by Thea von Harbou), based on an epic 11th century German poem. The story follows our protagonist Siegfried (Paul Richter), as he fights a dragon, secures a sword and magic helmet, and conquers a dozen kingdoms. He makes a pact with King Gunther (Theodor Loos) to defeat the unbeatable Brunhild (Hanna Ralph), in exchange for Gunther’s sister, Kriemhild’s (Margarete Schön) hand in marriage. Treachery and deceit intervene, however, to thwart Siegfried’s happiness. Lang hits all the right buttons, with a sweeping tale that balances high adventure with tragedy. The film is a delight for the eyes, with inventive visuals, expansive sets and impressive effects (including a full-sized, fire-breathing dragon). It’s easy to see how it influenced so many sword and sorcery movies in the decades that followed. Die Nibelungen: Siegfried is required viewing for anyone who enjoys fantasy cinema.

Rating: ****½. Available on Blu-ray (Region B), DVD (Region 2), Amazon Prime and Kanopy

The Devil’s Sword (1984) Barry Prima stars as the hero Mandala in this imaginative flick, steeped in Indonesian lore. When the residents of a village are massacred, Mandala must square off against the nefarious, lusty crocodile queen and her crocodile men. He joins forces with a female warrior from the village, embarking on a quest to find a magical sword, forged from a meteorite. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, director Ratno Timoer proves he has more tricks up his sleeve, with a pit of hungry cannibals, a sword-wielding bad guy on a flying boulder, a cyclopean beast, and so much more. The Devil’s Sword is tough to beat, with non-stop action, martial arts, magic and monsters.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Jack the Giant Killer (1962) This excellent fantasy film shares some DNA with The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1957), including the director, Nathan Juran, and stars Kerwin Matthews and Torin Thatcher, but has an identity of its own. Jack (Matthew), a simple farmer, is knighted by the king after he saves his daughter, Princess Elaine (Judi Meredith) from a fearsome giant. Thatcher is at his sneering best, as the scheming wizard Pendragon, who has eyes on the throne. Jack the Giant Killer is colorful and briskly paced, and filled with cool stop-motion animated beasts. The effects are a notch below Harryhausen’s Dynamation process (the creatures don’t quite have the same level of detail or expression), but they do the trick. The only downside is an annoying leprechaun in a bottle (Don Beddoe), who speaks in rhyme. It’s the perfect movie for a rainy Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Ilya Muromets (1956) If you’ve only seen the Mystery Science Theater version (under the American title, The Sword and the Dragon), you owe the original version a watch. Director Alexandr Ptushko’s epic fantasy, based on Slavic folk tales, provides ample excitement and spectacle. Boris Andreyev stars as the title character (he unconvincingly plays a young man in the beginning), who sees his village besieged by a horde of barbarian invaders. When Vasilisa (Ninel Myshkova), the love of his life, is kidnapped, he embarks on a quest to save her and his homeland. There’s action aplenty, with imaginative sets and strange creatures, including an imp with powerful breath and a three-headed, fire-breathing dragon (8 years before Ghidorah made its debut). Give it a try.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Red Sonja (1985) Brigitte Nielsen stars as the titular crimson-haired protagonist in her first and last adventure, directed by Richard Fleischer (who directed the previous year’s underrated Conan the Destroyer). There are some interesting sets (which seemed to have been inspired by another Dino De Laurentiis production, Flash Gordon), but the rest of the movie is strictly by the numbers. Arnold Schwarzenegger appears in a supporting role (but paradoxically gets top billing) as Kalidor (not to be confused with Conan, wink, wink), a lone warrior. Sonja and Kalidor are accompanied by Prince Tarn (Ernie Reyes Jr) an annoying little twerp, and his obsequious assistant Falkon (Paul L. Smith). Sandhal Bergman (who coincidentally starred with Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian) appears as the evil Queen Gedren (is there any other kind of queen in these types of flicks?), who killed Sonja’s parents. Gedren takes possession of a glowing green whatsit that could help her rule the world. Can Sonja and her companions thwart the queen? Will anyone care? Red Sonja isn’t as terrible as its reputation suggests, but the generic story provides no compelling reason to recommend it. If nothing else, it will likely remind you of better genre films.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray (Region 2) and DVD 

Conquest (1983) Lucio Fulci’s foray into sword & sorcery is a misstep, compared to some of his better giallo and horror films. Ilias (Andrea Occhipinti) and his magical bow matches wits (well, sort of) against an evil sorceress with a permanent wardrobe malfunction. He’s joined by Mace (Jorge Rivero), a lone warrior who has a vague affinity for animals. The film borrows from numerous, superior sources, including The Beastmaster and Quest for Fire, depicting a vague society where pre-bronze age humans rub elbows with an army of wolfmen. Conquest boasts copious amounts of gore and gratuitous nudity, which taken in the right light, are all well and good, but the film’s biggest offenses are a weak story and dull leads. The only surprising element is the climax, involving Ilias. It’s too bad the rest of the film is so rote and predictable.

Rating: **. Available on DVD

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