Posts Tagged ‘Roger Corman’s Cult Classics’

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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 BeastmasterThe Sword And The SorcererKrull, 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 SorceressBarbarian QueenBarbarian 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.

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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.

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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.

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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 .

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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?

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There are certain actors that do the same thing so consistently — and so well — that you figure that’s just gotta be what they’re like in real life, right? I mean, guys like Clint Eastwood and Robert Mitchum must be tough as nails because you really can’t picture them as being otherwise. And Linnea Quigley absolutely, positively screams at the top of her lungs at, say, her own shadow, or a mouse running across her kitchen floor, right?

Anyway, the list of Hollywood stars and starlets who have pretty much made a career out of essentially playing the same part over and over again to the point where you figure said repeating character’s mindset and mannerisms have become woven into their very DNA as people is flat-out endless, is it not? My point here being — to the extent that I have one — that Ben Murphy, best known for his starring turn on TV’s Alias Smith And Jones, has always struck me as being  more than a bit of a dickhead.

That’s probably tremendously unfair to Mr. Murphy, who for all I know could be the nicest guy in the world. Maybe he volunteers down at the local soup kitchen and is kind to animals. But somehow I kinda doubt it. He just radiates a little too much smugness and self-satisfaction. He seems like one of those guys who’s convinced he’s just that much cooler and more together than everybody else. If I needed help, he’s not somebody that I’d call. Not that I have his phone number, anyway (you can rest easy, Mr. Murphy, on the very off-chance that you’re reading this).

And nowhere is Murphy’s casual arrogance more magnificently displayed than in 1982’s Time Walker, where he plays a professor at something called the California Institute Of The Sciences — which is, as we’re assured by the school president’s right-hand lackey, an accredited academic institution — named Doug McCadden who is, well — more than a bit of a dickhead.

Seriously. You wanna punch this schmuck in the jaw right outta the gate. Or right outta the tomb, as the case may be, since the flick begins in Egypt, in the tomb of King Tut himself, where McCadden has made the archaeological find of a lifetime — a burial sarcophagus containing a mummy that he promptly flies to southern California.

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The problems start right away, as you’d expect. One of Professor Doug’s over-eager students accidentally X-Rays the mummy with 10,000 times the normal level of radiation. There’s a weird green fungus covering the mummy’s bandages that turns out to still be alive — and deadly. The mummy’s buried with some weird unknown gemstones that have a habit of glowing every now and again. And then the mummy itself disappears right when McCadden is about to unveil it to an assembled throng of fourth-estaters.

Yeah, of course all these things are connected — the mummy shambled out of his casket on his own after all that radiation woke him up, he’s really a visitor from outer space, the fungus is from his home planet, and the gemstones all fit into some kinda magic homing beacon that he intends to use to get back to Alpha Centauri or wherever.

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Look, I won’t kid you — as far as mummy flicks go, this one’s pretty much a snoozer. Big, slow, and bandaged runs around semi-terrorizing the college kids for a bit, and there are some effectively atmospheric shots (the one with the mummy staring up at a full moon that I reproduce below is pretty solid, for instance), but on the whole it’s just way too fucking obvious how all this is gonna play out, even though director Tom Kennedy thinks he’s laying out quite a multi-layered, mysterious little new age-y puzzle  for our edification. Like Murphy’s pompous and aloof professor (oh yeah — yawn — he’ sleeping with one of his students/research assistants, played by Nina Axelrod, as well), there’s an overall sense here that this movie thinks it’s somehow above what it really is — just another “monster  on campus” flick. Roger Corman picked this one up for distribution via one of his many short-lived outlets, and you’d think he’d have had the sense to market it in the traditional exploitation manner that he was undoubtedly as master of, but instead the film’s promo posters and trailer emphasized the faux-intellectual/even-more-faux “mystery from beyond time and space” bits, and on the whole it really doesn’t work. If Corman had chosen to  hustle this off in a more direct, “mummy-chases-co-eds” manner, not only would it have have felt more genuine, who knows?  I might have even have enjoyed the whole thing more.

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The key word there, of course, being might have — the story’s still as slow and plodding as its titular “time walker” , and even an appealingly lurid promo campaign probably couldn’t have saved this flick from itself. The acting’s pretty risible, on the whole, as well, with the only notable exceptions being Kevin Brophy as a “frat rat” kid who’s something of a con-artist/two-bit huckster and Shari Belafonte-Harper (this is actually  her first film) as the campus radio station DJ/school newspaper photographer — and I’m probably giving her a bit of a break because of her looks.

In all honesty, though, a lot of it, at least from my perspective, really does come back to Murphy — a “hero” character that you actively want to see get killed, slowly and painfully, by the mummy just isn’t a great guy to choose to revolve your monster movie around. This is something you’d think you’d pick up on right away in basic filmmaking 101 — but evidently that’s not a course they offer at the California Institute Of The Sciences.

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Time Walker is available on DVD from Shout! Factory on a two-disc set called “Vampires, Mummies, & Monsters,” part of their “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” series. It’s presented in a pretty good-looking widescreen transfer, the soundtrack is a solid-enough 2.0 stereo remaster, and extras for the film include the original theatrical trailer and on-camera interviews with the aforementioned Kevin Brophy and producer Dimitri Villard. While none of the four films — the others being Lady FrankensteinThe Velvet Vampire, and Grotesque — are exactly “classics,” even by Corman standards, it’s pretty fair to say that this is the lousiest of the bunch. Which is a bit of a shame, really, as there’s some — I repeat, some — slight potential buried under all those dusty old bandage-wrappings.

But not a lot. Let’s be honest — monsters running around at colleges and/or high schools were pretty well played out by 1982, and trying to lay some 2001-style, “head trip” bullshit on top of a worn-thin premise isn’t likely to fool anybody. I’d have enjoyed Time Walker a lot more if Kennedy, Villard, and Corman had chosen to play up what it was rather than spending all their time and energy trying to dupe us into thinking it was something it wasn’t.