Thursday, April 25, 2019

Conan the Destroyer

(1984) Directed by Richard Fleischer; Written by Stanley Mann; Story by Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway; Based on the character created by Robert E. Howard; Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Grace Jones, Olivia d'Abo, Wilt Chamberlain, Mako, Tracey Walter and Sarah Douglas;
Available on: Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming

Rating: ***½

“It’s like being a little kid again, in many ways, and doing the things that maybe you were not allowed to do as a kid, you know, stabbing people with a sword and killing them with an axe, and stuff like that. And in the same time, acting-wise, it is kind of challenging… so there’s these two opposites.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger (from 1984 interview, unknown TV program)

I’m sure some of us can relate to having an older sibling that gets all the attention and glory, while we’re relegated to linger under his or her shadow. There are different ways we can choose to handle this: wallow in resentment and a crushing sense of inferiority, or opt for the higher road. Conan the Destroyer is that kind of younger sibling. After Conan the Barbarian debuted, it set the standard for big- and small-budgeted sword and sorcery productions. Expectations were high (perhaps unreasonably so) for the sequel. When the titular character, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, returned in a PG-rated, (mostly) family-friendly adventure, reception was lukewarm. Was this a kinder, gentler barbarian for a new era? Not quite, thanks to a high body count (including a decapitation and geysers of blood), but the general perception was that this was little more than a toned-down imitation of a Conan movie. Is the film’s reputation as the underachieving younger sibling deserved? Read on…

The story more or less picks up where the first movie left off, with Conan wandering the wastelands, searching for riches. He’s no closer to acquiring his own kingdom, as hinted by the first film’s conclusion. Instead, he’s taken companionship with Malak, a thief (Tracey Walter). Their backstory is never elaborated upon (How he met Conan, or why Conan would allow him to tag along remains a mystery). After they have a run-in with Queen Taramis (Sarah Douglas)* and her soldiers, Conan is presented with a proposition. Taramis promises him he will be reunited with his true love, Valeria (who met her untimely demise in the first film),** if he’ll help her obtain the coveted Horn of Dagoth.  He’s accompanied on his quest by Malak, the wizard Akiro (Mako, resuming his role from the original film), the young Princess Jehnna (Olivia D’Abo), and her towering guard Bombaata (played by basketball star Wilt Chamberlain).    

* Fun Fact #1: As originally filmed, Douglas’ character was more overtly sexual in her efforts to persuade Conan. In her description of the deleted footage: “It was the movie’s hottest scene…I kept my crown on and he kept his sword on, and I made all these jokes about hilts. Then, near the film’s end, I seduce the stone statue, Dagoth. I stroked it into life. Very hot little scene, that was.” (from “Sarah Douglas – No Rest for the Wicked,” by Brian Lowry, Starlog, October 1986)

** If your BS detector is going off around now, then congratulations.

 Schwarzenegger is appropriately charismatic and imposing in his sophomore outing as Conan. Without question, however, the film’s highlight is model/singer/maverick Grace Jones, in an early film role, as the laconic warrior Zula. On several occasions, she steals the show from Schwarzenegger, with little more than a well-timed facial expression. Zula’s unbridled, feral* energy screams “don’t screw with me.” Anyone who dares to tangle with her are sorry they did. Another relatively new face is former pro-basketball player Wilt Chamberlain. At 7’1”, he’s an impressive figure as Bombaata, towering over Schwarzenegger.** Conan the Destroyer also marked the first feature film role for D’Abo, who was only 14 at the time. The script doesn’t give her much to do, except act the damsel in distress, and serve as a pawn for Queen Taramis’ evil schemes. There’s a hint of bigger and better things, in a scene where Zula and Conan teach her to fight, but we never see a payoff.

* Fun Fact #2: In Jones’ words, “I really wanted to be an animal in this. I wanted a lot of animalism to come out of it…” (from 1984 Interview magazine article, “New Again: Grace Jones,” by Andy Warhol and André Leon Talley)

** Fun Fact #3: If you thought he looked small next to Chamberlain, Schwarzenegger is further dwarfed by wrestler Andre the Giant, who appears, in an uncredited performance, as the powerful beast Dagoth. 

Conan the Destroyer features some interesting set pieces, including an underground crypt, and a circular, mirror-filled room, where Conan matches wits with a crafty sorcerer (although how this fits into the rest of the plot isn’t entirely clear). Once again, Basil Poledouris provides the rousing score, which borrows heavily from his compositions in Conan the Barbarian. One of the most memorable segments is a virtual copy of the music that accompanied the infamous orgy scene in the first film. This time, the music provides a backdrop for a deadly ritual, minus the orgy. 

The word “underrated” gets thrown around quite liberally these days, to describe anything that was poorly received, but in this case it seems warranted. Conan the Destroyer deserves re-evaluation, not for what it lacks, but what it has. Veteran director Richard Fleischer, who made superior genre contributions including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Fantastic Voyage (1966), and Soylent Green (1973) knows his way around films with extraordinary settings. While Conan the Destroyer can’t quite measure up to these titles or its esteemed predecessor, it’s well worth a look. Enjoyed on its own merits (especially Jones’ off-the-rails performance), its lighthearted tone and emphasis on adventure, it’s a fun way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Short Take: Hawk the Slayer

(1980) Directed by Terry Marcel; Written by Terry Marcel and Harry Robertson; Starring: Jack Palance, John Terry, Patricia Quinn, Bernard Bresslaw, Peter O'Farrell, Ray Charleson, William Morgan Sheppard and Cheryl Campbell; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***

“I like a man with spirit. But remember this and remember it well… Voltan owns everything: the table, the chairs, the very food you eat. I own everything, including your useless life. Remember it well!” – Voltan (Jack Palance)

When we think of sword and sorcery films, our minds conjure visions of magical lands populated by wizards and elves, nubile damsels in distress, and swordfights aplenty. Okay, take your expectations and lower them a notch. And while you’re at it, take them down another notch. Now you’re ready to experience the wonder that is Hawk the Slayer. Director/co-writer Terry Marcel borrowed from a deep well for inspiration, including Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series of novels, and the Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories. Along with writing partner Harry Robertson, Marcel fleshed out a script in a few weeks. After failing to garner much interest for his fantasy adventure, Marcel struck paydirt with Chips Productions, the low-budget subsidiary of ITC.* The film enjoyed a strong run in England, but hopes of theatrical distribution in the U.S. were crushed when the distribution company folded.

* Fun Fact: According to Marcel, ITC head Lew Grade offered to make Hawk the Slayer a big budget production if he agreed to step down as director, and take executive producer credit (Source: “Hawk the Hunter Interview with Terry Marcel,” Rebellion).

Hawk vows vengeance against his older brother Voltan (Jack Palance) for murdering his wife, as well as his father. Wielding the powerful “mindsword,” he sets off on a quest to assemble a band of warriors to fight Voltan and his oppressive reign. He’s accompanied by Crow, the elf (played by Ray Charleson, who speaks in a clipped, high voice), the giant Gort (Bernard Bresslaw, who later appeared as the cyclopean giant in 1983’s Krull), Baldin the dwarf (Peter O'Farrell), and Ranulf (William Morgan Sheppard) a one-handed fighter.

As the titular protagonist, Terry is a tad stiff, although he deserves a pass for his earnest performance. Palance’s performance as Hawk’s evil brother Voltan* almost borders on self-parody, as he delivers each line with a reptilian hiss. He doesn’t quite chew scenery, so much as devour it. Some of the supporting performances seem subtle, compared to Palance’s maniacal, over-the-top portrayal. The good-natured interplay between Gort and Baldin seems natural and unforced. Patricia Quinn (best known as Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show) is good as a blind witch, who helps Hawk with his mission. The small roles by veteran character actors Roy Kinnear as an innkeeper and Patrick Magee as a cult leader are also a welcome presence.

* Another Fun Fact: It’s easy to accept the magical mayhem in the film as de rigueur. It’s a bit hard to swallow that Hawk and Voltan are brothers (John Terry and Jack Palance were 31 years apart), or that Ferdy Mayne, who was only three years older than Palance at the time, played their father.

Part of Hawk the Slayer’s* considerable low-fi charms was its attempt to tell an epic story (Accompanied by a disco-tinged score by co-writer Harry Robertson) on an impossibly tight budget. The cut-rate production featured such “special” effects as glowing ping pong balls, rotating hula hoops (in a scene reminiscent of 1978’s Superman), and a witch’s freeze spell, in which one of Voltan’s guards is enveloped in silly string. And in one scene (if my eyes didn’t deceive me), the elf is sporting a pair of penny loafers. If you’re expecting something in the neighborhood of Excalibur or The Lord of the Rings trilogy, you’re setting yourself up for a massive disappointment. Taken in the right light, and the proper perspective, however, it’s easy to appreciate how Marcel and Robertson achieved so much with so little. Sure, Hawk the Slayer is easy to laugh at, but it’s more fun to laugh with it.

* Not-So-Fun Fact: After the relative success of the film, Marcel wrote a screenplay for a sequel. Unfortunately, subsequent attempts to bring it to the big screen (or small screen with a proposed TV series), including a 2015 Kickstarter campaign, have failed.

Thursday, April 11, 2019


(1981) Directed by Matthew Robbins; Written by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins; Starring: Peter MacNicol, Caitlin Clarke, Ralph Richardson, John Hallam, Peter Eyre and Ian McDiarmid; Available on DVD

Rating: ***½

“Oh, I know this creature of yours – Vermithrax Pejorative. Look at these scales, these ridges. When a dragon gets this old, it knows nothing but pain, constant pain. It grows decrepit, crippled, pitiful, spiteful.” – Ulrich (Ralph Richardson)

Sword & Sorcery Month begins with a favorite from my formative years, the Paramount/Disney co-production, Dragonslayer. Don’t let the Disney connection fool you, though. This early ‘80s PG-rated film contains surprising amounts of gore and a brief flash of nudity, so if you’re looking for that sort of thing, I’ve got you covered. The main attractions, however, are the spectacular effects (more on this in a moment).  Dragonslayer was directed and co-written by Matthew Robbins, whose previous film was Corvette Summer (1978), and decades later would go on to collaborate with Guillermo del Toro.

Dragonslayer introduces some fresh faces (circa 1981), including Galen (Peter MacNicol), a sorcerer’s apprentice, and Valerian (Caitlin Clarke)* a young woman pretending to be a teenage boy. Valerian appeals to Galen’s master, Ulrich (Ralph Richardson) to help their village, besieged by a malevolent beast. When Ulrich suddenly perishes, the apprentice must pick up where the sorcerer left off. His early demise serves as a reminder that it’s Galen’s story. Richardson portrays Ulrich not as an all-powerful wizard but a flawed, world-weary man who’s seen a few too many seasons. His humor and grace contrasts Galen’s awkward, ersatz cockiness.

* Fun Fact #1: This film marks the first feature roles for MacNicol and Clarke.

The story’s true villain is mendacious, unprincipled King Casiodorus Rex (Peter Eyre), who has negotiated an uneasy peace with a murderous dragon, at the expense of the villagers’ virgin daughters (How anyone negotiated with a dragon in the first place is anyone’s guess). The kingdom maintains a lottery, created by Casiodorus, in which said virgins are offered for sacrifice. And while we’re on the subject of sacrifice, why virgins? If the villagers offered a non-virgin, would it give the dragon indigestion? We’re reminded that wealth has its privileges, as Casiodorus keeps his daughter out of the lottery. His fear of the dragon overwhelms his hatred, and he bristles at the prospect of anyone tampering with the balance of power. In one scene, the king tells Galen about an incident, long ago, when his brother set out to do battle with the dragon, only to vanish without a trace. The only lesson he seems to have learned is that being noble and brave doesn’t get you very far in life.

Our hero is plucky and exuberant enough, albeit a bit on the scrawny side, compared to his contemporaries. As my youngest kid pointed out, “he looks like he’d be stuffed in a locker.” Of course, Galen’s depiction follows one of the familiar fantasy tropes, in which our protagonist typically goes one of two ways: either a hulking hero (e.g., Conan) or a diminutive protagonist, who favors his wits above brawn. There’s no middle ground. Setting up Galen as the nominal hero, however, is a missed opportunity to let Valerian shine. It’s disappointing that once her secret’s out, she takes a back seat to Galen. No offense intended to MacNicol or his character, but Galen is kind of vanilla in comparison. Valerian’s subterfuge adds another dimension to her character, which leaves more questions. Her father successfully avoided the lottery for years by passing his daughter as a son. When Valerian’s identity is revealed, you would think there would be some resentment from his fellow villagers that she was spared, but it’s only addressed briefly in an exchange with a fellow villager, who seems to shrug it off. It’s doubtful that other parents who lost daughters, or women who survived the lottery felt the same way. Our only indication is through Valerian, who appears conflicted about the choices she had to make, and the consequences. I also wonder, what would happen if she continued to assume a leadership role in her male-dominated community? Instead (Spoiler Alert), the writers take the easy route in the end, as she and Galen set off for greener pastures.

Few would argue that Dragonslayer’s biggest raison d'être is the eponymous, fire-breathing beast (aka: Vermithrax Pejorative*). The dragon is appropriately big and scary, but also full of expression. In a post-modern spin on the evil dragon trope, the film elicits pathos for a creature that’s past its prime, and lost everything it’s held dear. The filmmakers deliver the goods, employing every visual trick at their disposal and creating some new ones for good measure, thanks to Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) effects team, led by Dennis Muren. Despite many subsequent advances in effects technology, particularly in CGI, most of the effects have held up very well. In addition to a full-scale animatronic creature (built by Brian Johnson at Walt Disney Studios), the filmmakers utilized 15 other dragon models for various poses. Muren’s team developed an evolution of stop-motion animation, called Go-Motion, supervised by Phil Tippett, which relied on a dragon puppet with computer-controlled rods. The Go-Motion process resulted in an image that contained intentional blurring to create a more fluid, lifelike action, rather than the jerky movement inherent in stop-motion animation. (Source: Industrial Light & Magic – The Art of Special Effects, by Thomas G. Smith)

* Fun Fact #2: According to one source, the dragon’s name means, roughly translated from Latin, “The Worm of Thrace Who Makes Things Worse." (source: “The Vermithrax Pejorative Story: Behind the Scenes at the Making of Dragonslayer,” by M. Ronan, Weird Worlds, 1981)

** Fun Fact #3: 1981 was a competitive year for the Academy Award in special effects, with Dragonslayer losing out to another ILM effects project, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Dragonslayer is a pastiche of familiar elements with a flair for spectacle. While the story might not hold up under intense scrutiny, the film is a good introduction to the genre, and a solid entry in the glut of early ‘80s sword and sorcery flicks. Paramount isn’t known for including heaps of DVD extras, but a trailer, “making of” featurette or commentary track would have been nice. We can only hope that a decent Blu-ray edition is in the works before too long. At the end of the day, Dragonslayer might be lauded more for its technical achievements than its originality, but it sure is fun to regress back to a simpler age, when mythical beasts terrorized the land.