As one of 1982's bigger box-office hits, Conan the Barbarian accomplished two things. First, it finally made a movie star out of thick-bodied, thicker-accented Arnold Schwarzenegger after several failed attempts. Second, it spawned a legion of cheaper imitations cashing in on the early 1980s' seemingly bottomless need for films to fill cable airtime and video rental shelves. (Remember, until that time there the only commercial outlets for movies were theatrical release and network TV—so these were entirely new markets.)
Most of the Conan knockoffs (including its official 1984 sequel Conan the Destroyer) were tedious, cut-rate affairs that featured big muscle dudes clanking swords, evil wizards, babes in fur bikinis and so forth, but not much in the way of spectacle, let alone originality. Arguably none of them were actually good. (The next time anyone made a really solid film in this category was probably 2002's The Scorpion King, which not only revived the genre but made a movie star out of The Rock.) But a precious few ascended to a realm of camp nirvana.
Among those very special cheesefests, you can count both early ’80s Hercules movies starring TV's erstwhile Incredible Hulk Lou Ferrigno, Schwarzenegger's onetime professional bodybuilding rival—two fantasy adventures absolutely daft with ridiculous FX and disco lighting. There's also something to be said for 1987's The Barbarians, starring real-life bodybuilder twins David and Peter Paul (aka “the Barbarian Brothers”) as separated-at-birth warrior knuckleheads of mythical antiquity.
But the guiltiest pleasure of all has got to be 1983's Deathstalker. Lacking the budget to equal PG-rated Conan I's big sets, special effects or crowd scenes, it figured out a different low-cost way to reel in the fan boys: R-rated nudity, softcore sex, and unconvincing-yet-satisfyingly-over-the-top gore. (There is just something fun about a decapitated head that's obviously papier-mâché, am I right?) This formula made Deathstalker so successful it spawned no less than three sequels, which even people who love this sort of thing don't like.
But the first edition is something else—a jewel of badness to be treasured, if not hidden in a dragon's lair for millennia. You will get a rare chance to see it on the big screen this Friday when it takes the coveted late-night shot at Midnites for Maniacs' latest Castro Theatre triple-bill.
This “Swords and Sorcery” evening curated by Jesse Hawthorne Ficks will kick off at 7:30 p.m. with 1987's beloved family-friendly The Princess Bride, then get a wee more sophisticated with Terry Gilliam's beloved same-year hit (yes, he had a hit once) Time Bandits. Afterward, those of tender age are advised to leave so the bulging muscles and myriad other well-oiled body parts that dominate Deathstalker can dominate the Castro audience. You will submit!
Its semi-tongue-in-cheek salaciousness is announced right away, when the inevitable heavy-metal-calligraphy opening title heralds a long sequence in which a maid of the forest is saved from some young rake's ravishment by a bunch of troll-faced warriors. Then she is saved from their ravishment by Deathstalker—played by the perpetually glistening Rick Hill, a living Ken doll with big muscles, a Flashdance leather headband and disturbingly wrong blond tresses. (Is it a wig or just a bad perm?) You'd think after two near-rapes the lass would not exactly be “in the mood,” yet by merely waggle of his eyebrow or triceps Deathstalker seems able to put comely maidens in an excited state one might summarize as “Skip the foreplay. Just do me against this 200-year-old oak.”
Alas, he becomes the third party in a row to have his coitus interrupted when an exiled king in the neighborhood has him summoned for an audience. Impressed by this roving outlaw's fighting skills, the monarch asks DS to regain his kingdom and captured daughter by destroying the evil magician Munkar (Bernard Erhard).
Our hero is at first unmoved—”I steal and kill to stay alive, not for the luxury of glory” he grouses—yet decides to take the job anyhow. Soon he's acquired three pals en route to chez Munkar. There's an old warrior he frees from a midget-monkey-cave-dweller curse; a young warrior who looks like Scott Baio after eight months' rigorous weight training; and a lady warrior as fearless as she is braless. They're also headed to Munktar's for a WWE-style smackdown tournament in which the whole kingdom's toughest mugs will compete to become the wicked ruler's heir.
Upon arrival, they find his castle is like the Playboy Mansion meets Caligula, one never-ending drunken orgy further spiced by gougings, torture, and miscellaneous behind-the-scenes treachery. There are a lot of heavily pumped-up dudes are running around (some rather less attractive for being literally pig-faced). But there are even more unclad castle wenches, some gamely cavorting in mud-wrestling pits and hot tubs for warriors who like that “girl-on-girl” stuff so long as it's not between actual lesbians.
More daringly, there's a sequence in which Munkar turns one of his henchman into the kidnapped princess' lookalike so he can assassinate Deathstalker, who's expecting “her” as a bedroom treat. Their sex play goes pretty dang far before DS realizes “something” is “wrong” and asks “What are you?” Now, just where on the Kinsey scale does that encounter belong?
There ain't much plot to Deathstalker, and what little there is sometimes goes missing—at least a couple scene transitions are so baffling you might think an entire reel got accidentally left out. Never mind; senselessness only enhances this film's charm.
The mix of boobs and brawn definitely worked for viewers at the time. Not only did Deathstalker make almost $12 million at the U.S. box office (quite impressive then for low-budget action schlock), but it became a staple of late-night cable and a big VHS rental item. Strangely, James Sbardellati (billed as “John Watson” lest buyers suspect this was a dubbed Italian production) only directed one other feature—thriller Under the Gun starring ex-Flash Gordon Sam J. Jones and ex-Miss America Vanessa Williams—preferring to stick with his still-active career as assistant director. Scenarist Howard R. Cohen, however, was quite happy to continue apace penning fantasy projects both sleazy (Vampire Hookers, Emmanuelle V) and squeaky-clean (like episodes of TV cartoon series The Care Bears and Rainbow Brite).
In 1982, Deathstalker's major sales point was “Princess Codille” Barbi Benton, known then (in descending order of recognition) as a recurrent Playboy pinup, Hugh Hefner's long-term girlfriend, halter-topped cheesecake on syndicated country music showcase Hee-Haw, an occasional actress and a minor recording star. Sporting a very 1980s hairdo a la aerobicized Jane Fonda, she is usually seen here in a see-through cape, squirming against captors and saying “No! Let me go!!”
Today, however, the film's leading female attraction is not Barbi (who's alive and well and retired from show biz), but her late, even more buxom co-star. Blonde Long Beach native Lana Clarkson was such a hit as warrior babe Kaira that she got to star in her own spinoff series of yea cheaper sword 'n' softcore adventures, as 1985's Barbarian Queen and 1987's Barbarian Queen II: The Empress Strikes Back.
In Hollywood this year's B-movie bombshell is next year's background extra, though, and by the 20th century's end Clarkson had fallen on hard career times. Getting a part-time job at West Hollywood's House of Blues club, she went home one 2003 night with a customer and in the wee hours was shot to death. Her host claimed she'd committed suicide, albeit with one of his many guns; after an initial mistrial, a jury decided the famously violent and unstable host had killed her himself.
Thus hilariously cheesy Deathstalker sports latterday curiosity value of a rather sad stripe: Two decades later, star Clarkson would gain her greatest fame for becoming the woman whose murder got legendary record producer and paranoid recluse Phil Spector a prison sentence of 19 years to life.
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