Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Clonin' the Barbarian: DEATHSTALKER II: DUEL OF THE TITANS (1987)

I’m not sure how it took Roger Corman, the king of the quickies, four whole years to crank out a sequel to his hugely successful original CONAN-inspired epic. Perhaps it was due to the fact that he was too busy cranking out his own knock-offs of his original knock-off, such as the rather inaccurately titled BARBARIAN QUEEN (1985)! Or maybe he just couldn’t get the right script. Yeah, that’s probably it.

I’ve got to come clean here; we at the VJHQ have a thing for Jim Wynorski. He kicked off his Corman career with the slice of mid-‘80s drive-in nostalgia CHOPPING MALL (1986) and gave us some damn fine sequels including the ultra-cheap, but highly entertaining satire of the SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE series, SORORITY HOUSE MASSACRE II (1990). So good was this, in fact, that Wynorski actually cannibalized the script, changing only the setting and dialogue, and turned it into HARD TO DIE in that very same year! I can see Roger delicately brushing away a tear from the corner of his eye. Sadly, around 1992 Wynorski found the path to cinematic entertainment a rocky and treacherous embankment and his crew bus slid out of control on an icy road and he plummeted to his death. According to the VJ Encyclopedia Erratica, something few people know is that his less talented brother, Bill Wynorski, actually took his name (and pseudonyms) and started trying to imitate his style. True! Watch THE THING BELOW (2004) and tell me with a straight face that was made by the same guy. Not a frickin' chance in hell.

DEATHSTALKER II is a great example of Jim Wynorski’s fine legacy. Cheap as hell, fast-paced, intentionally amusing dialogue and lots of skin wrapped up in a package that is far more entertaining than it has any right to be.

Deathstalker (John Terlesky) is now not so much an ATOR-esque warrior, but clown prince of thieves. After snatching a jewel from a temple altar in a nod to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) and fighting off some clumsy goons, the owner of said jewel, the evil sorceress Sultana (Toni Naples), swears she will “have her revenge… and Deathstalker too!” Yep, that pretty much sets the bar that we are aiming for. Cheap action, minor plagerism and rather goofy dialog.

Deathstalker heads to the local tavern to impress the wenches by quickly waving his hand over a candle (no really, don’t expect any G. Gordon Liddy stuff here), a young, blonde, “seer” Reena (Monique Gabrielle) dressed in rags pleads for his help. This is of course after he already saved her from the town guards, saying “ordinarily I don’t mind seeing a woman get a good beating if she deserves it,” proving that you can be dashing and sensitive at the same time. Deathstalker doesn’t want to hear her crap, but after a bar fight in which RAIDERS is referenced yet again, he decides to listen to her story. See she is actually the princess Evie and has escaped from the clutches of the evil sorcerer Jarek (John Lazar). Jarek has created an evil twin of her to put on the throne so that he can rule the empire along with his mistress Sultana. Jarek is, in addition to being a sorcerer, an expert swordsman who idles away his time killing his own guards. Showing that his management strategy is only rivaled by his love life, Jarek is promising his eternal lust to both Sultana and the princess clone. Phew! Got all that? For reasons I cannot begin to explain this budget-strapped quickie has more plot than a dozen ATORs. Not that I’m complaining mind you.

Reena has embellished her sad tale with a hook to get Deathstalker to help her, untold riches! A king’s, well, princess’, ransom! Hook firmly in mouth, Deathstalker rides to Camelot! Or whatever the name of the castle is. After giving some pursuers the slip, Deathstalker exclaims “you have to get up pretty early in the morning to catch the prince of thieves!” At which point a crossbow bolt thunks into the tree next to his head and Reena points out “it is pretty early in the morning!” Seeing as the guards aren’t cutting it (or Jarek is running out of them), he decides to assemble a rogues gallery of assassins, including a midget. Oh yes, the bar is set high my friends. Basically the bulk of the film is a series of sketches where Deathstalker defeats explosive arrow wielding assassins with a dagger and a ninja shuriken (don’t ask, I don’t know), escapes from an Indiana Jones-esque trap, fights off the living dead in a graveyard, is captured by Amazons, forced to fight a wrestling match with ‘80s icon Queen Kong (Dee Booher), and deliver anachronistic wisecracks out of the side of his mouth that would make Bruce Campbell green with envy.

Featuring more spit-takes than a Mel Brooks film, DEATHSTALKER II predates the overtly campy and anachronistic, but significantly more wholesome, television fantasy outings such as Jack of all Trades (2000). Matter of fact, you could easily make the case that Campbell didn’t really fall into his shtick until after DEATHSTALKER II arrived on the scene. Sure, he was always a wisecracking goombah, but it wasn’t until well after 1987 that he fully developed his mock-heroic gimmick that mirrors Terlesky’s turn as Deathstalker.

The climax of the film features lines filched from GOLDFINGER (1964), gags lifted from Looney Tunes, a duel inspired by Errol Flynn and a pitched battle between what is left of Jarek’s guards and the tribe of Amazon warriorettes, with intricate fight choreography that must have taken a staggering amount of minutes to prepare.  At the same time, I really can’t poke fun at the film for its liberties, since it does a pretty good job doing that itself. If made today, this would come off so self-obsessed and terminally hip that it would drown in the mire of its own self-infatuation. Here Wynorski deftly avoids those pitfalls and turns in a film that has plenty of oddly clever moments thrown into the cauldron of comedy. When Jarek’s one-eyed henchman decides he needs to “call him right now”, he pulls some coins out of his pocket, contemplates them for a moment and tosses them into a mist-covered pool conjuring up Jarek’s visage. It’s sort of a magical medieval payphone gag that is a total throw-away, but it’s kinda funny in a cartoon sort of way.

Unfortunately, the huge success of this film on video didn’t exactly translate to Terlesky’s career, but it did wonders for Wynorski who went on to make SCREAM QUEEN HOT TUB PARTY (1991) and 976-EVIL II (1992). Uhhhmmmm… yeah… bus crash, evil twin, I’m tellin’ ya, it all makes sense. 

Moments of Clarity:

1 Reactions:

  1. The first Deathstalker had no humor and was really dark and grim. And that is why I liked it better than the sequels.

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