It’s easy enough to forget about now, but the runaway success of Conan The Barbarian actually did something beneficial for the American public as a whole — and no, by that I don’t mean launching the movie career of Ah-nuld that he would eventually parlay into getting himself ensconced in California’s governor’s mansion once he “repented” from his well-documented racist, sexist, sexually-harassing past. Of course, nobody knew about the love child at the time —
No, the altruistic act Conan unwittingly performed that I’m referring to here is, of course, the fact that it gave (admittedly brief) rise to a bunch of low-budget, generally poorly-executed, often flat-out incomprehensible imitators — most of which were, in the scheme of things, pretty stupid fun. Yes, folks, swords and sandals were back in a big way on the silver screen for a minute or two there, as quick cash-in efforts like The Beastmaster, The Sword And The Sorcerer, Krull, and Yor:The Hunter From The Future all competed for the attention, and dollars, of the less-than-discerning box office customer.
Needless to say, nobody was more determined to wring a few bucks out of this trend than the ever-enterprising Roger Corman, who inundated cinemas (and later video store shelves) with such titles as The Warrior And The Sorceress, Barbarian Queen, Barbarian Queen II, and the four installments of his most successful S n’ S franchise, the venerable Deathstalker series.
In retrospect, it’s fair to say that flicks of this nature are probably well-nigh impossible for a guy like Corman to resist — they could be filmed in foreign locales cheaply, or even in his former-lumber-yard studio; they certainly didn’t require high-priced talent either in front of or behind the camera; the scripts pretty much wrote themselves; and they’re tailor-made for the short-attention-span crowd he always catered to : make sure you’ve got a different set of naked boobs to look at every, say, four or five minutes, a fight scene every two or three minutes, and maybe some kinda monster (or vaguely monster-ish) thing maybe every 15 or 20 minutes, and everybody leaves happy.
In the first Deathstalker film, shot in Argentina by director James Sbardellati in 1983 and released theatrically in February of 1984, Rick Hill (or, as he billed himself at the time, Richard Hill) is the guy at the center of most of the fight scenes, being that he’s been tasked by some blind old witch-lady to reunite the so-called “three powers of creation” — an amulet, a chalice, and a sword that he’s already got, which I guess is why she chose him for the job in the first place. That, and with a name like “Deathstalker” (he’s never referred to by any other handle) she probably figures he can hold his own in any sort of scrape. Time’s running short, though, because if the evil Lord Munkar (Bernard Erhard) gets his hands on all three relics, the whole kingdom’s pretty well fucked. Munkar’s got himself a solid head start on things given that he’s already taken over the castle and imprisoned the realm’s rightful princess, Cordille (former Playboy playmate Barbi Benton) in its dungeon, but he’s also planted the seeds of his own undoing (of course) by hosting a “contest of champions”-type thing for all the warriors in the kingdom, the winner of which will be declared heir to the throne he’s stolen, being that he doesn’t have any kids himself (just a weird giant-worm-with-teeth thing he keeps in a box as a pet).
As for the naked boobs, they’re provided by Benton (as you’d expect), the late Lana Clarkson, and a bevy of extras willing to bare their assets on camera for a few seconds for probably less than US minimum wage. Clarkson (and, okay, her tits) gets the most screen time as a female warrioress named Kaira who, along with a few other standard-sidekick-types (the cowardly one, the traitor/Judas, etc.) has joined Deathstalker on his quest. She (and, again, they) makes a pretty good impression in this film no doubt, and Corman’s decision to cast her as his tit(pun definitely intended)ular Barbarian Queen a year or so later was an absolute no-brainer, it’s just a crying shame that her acting career sorta stalled out after that, because if she’d been able to find more steady work in her chosen field she’d never have needed to take a bartending gig , never would have met a guy named Phil Spector, and would still be with us today.
Things more or less follow the standard pattern of events we’re all used to once Deathstalker and his cohorts arrive at the castle — hell, they were following the standard pattern of events we’re all used to before they even got there — but what the hell, we’re not in this for any surprises, are we? There’s swordfights, nudity aplenty, some half-assed “magical” mutant creatures here and there — like all of these flicks, the actual product is never as cool as the Boris Vallejo poster art, but Deathstalker generally gets the job done provided your expectations are realistically in line with the type of picture you’re seeing in the first place.
On the downside, though, there’s really nothing particularly memorable on offer here, either. It’s probably a better, more coherent movie than, say, The Warrior And The Sorceress, but that had David Carradine at his most stand-offish and unsympathetic and it also had that four-breasted dancing girl. Deathstalker, by contrast, gives us Rick Hill, who’s about as un-charismatic a leading man as you can possibly imagine, and, nice as Lana Clarkson’s breasts are, she’s still only got two of ’em.
What the hell, though, right? There must have been something about this movie that compelled Corman to go ahead and make three sequels to it (each with a different Deathstalker until Hill came back and reclaimed the role in 1991’s fourth — and to date final — installment). The budgets got lower each time, and the last two went straight to video, but the Deathstalker series, like its title character (if not the actors portraying him), was a true survivor for awhile there. In an odd way, the series’ trajectory mirrors that of the average non-unionized (just as these productions were) American worker — maybe never the greatest at its job, but good enough to keep plugging along; nonchalantly accepting of various management and personnel changes; even willing to put up with pay cuts and demotions just to stay employed — until the CEO shuts down the factory for good once it’s not profitable enough .
Deathstalker is available on DVD from Shout! Factory in the two-disc “Sword And Sorcery” set, part of their “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” series. It’s bundled up alongside its immediate successor, Deathstalker II, as well as Barbarian Queen and The Warrior And The Sorceress. The widescreen transfer has been remastered really nicely and the 2.0 stereo sound is unspectacular but certainly sufficient.Extras include the theatrical trailer, a poster and still gallery, and a pretty interesting commentary track featuring producer/director Sbardellati, supporting player Richard Brooker, and special makeup effects legend John Carl Buechler, who cut his teeth on this one before his name became almost as well-known as that of Tom Savini or Rick Baker. Like a lot of the discs in this series, it’s a pretty impressive package for, let’s be honest, a fairly mediocre film. It’s at least the fun kind of mediocre, though, and let’s be honest — sometimes that’s all any of us are asking for. Or is that just me?