Whenever I’m in a dollar store one of my favorite things to do is look for the toys, specifically action figures. More often than not comedy gold can be found In the form of cheap knock-off figures based on Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings, Transformers, Robocop or even generic G.I Joe knock-offs with names like “Action Fighting Man”, the packaging promising such exciting things as “Aplomb!” and “Service!”.
This generic knock off phenomena can be applied to movies as well, especially those that follow in the wake of a blockbuster fantasy or science fiction film. In the 80’s it was Star Wars and Conan the Barbarian, and I watched my fair share of derivative versions of both.
Recently I wrote about how fantasy author Robert E. Howard’s creation (Conan) inspired many, in bad ways as well as good. There are a lot of terrible, bizarre, hilarious and simply “just good enough” films that followed in the wake of Conan the Barbarian. Some carved out a place of their own in cult movie fandom, some are simply film equivalents to dollar store toys like the Tolkien-inspired King of the Magical Jewels.
You can’t blame Howard either. The man had been dead for about 50 years by the time the film adaptation of Conan the Barbarian released in 1982. It took place in the world of Hyboria, borrowed elements from some of his stories and had the visual flair of Frank Frazetta’s Conan illustrations. Still, the film was its own creature. It was an introduction to Arnold Schwarzenegger with a vicious dose of Nietzsche philosophy, courtesy of director John Milius and then-unknown writer Oliver Stone.
The film had lots of bare skin, swords, gore and a wizard or two thrown in for good measure – the same ingredients for the knock offs that followed. Conan itself was basically an exploitation film in its own right, just not as exploitative as what was to come.
As a kid I remember the Beastmaster movies, WPIX channel 11 staple The Sword and The Sorcerer, an unintentionally hilarious Hercules film starring Lou Ferrigno (who fights a robot dragon and in one scene as well as throwing a bear into outer space), Red Sonja, starring future reality show mess Brigitte Nielsen and a non-Conan Arnold playing a different barbarian and of course Dolph Lundgren’s Masters of the Universe movie.
What I didn’t get around to until I started researching the topic were films like the Deathstalker series (with all of its sequels and spinoffs) and bottom of the barrel C-movies like Ator, The Fighting Eagle and Conquest, a fantasy film by Italian horror director Lucio Fulci.
This is probably due to the fact that most of these films were too gore and sex-ridden for me to watch in my pre-teens. Thanks to the internet, Netflix streaming, and limited edition DVDs I can finally “enjoy” them. They’re all fun to a degree, but unfortunately (due to a variety of factors like budget and lack of ideas) the bad ones tend to come to a grinding halt at some point halfway through. Fortunately when things start to lag the best of these movies will throw in gratuitous nudity or ridiculous puppets and gore.
That said, few things piss me off more than when fantasy movies would take the action to earth or the modern day due to a small budget. I saw Masters of the Universe back in the day and was so pissed when the action shifted from Eternia to Earth within the first ten minutes. For the rest of the movie He-Man and his crew were eating fried chicken and fighting stormtroopers in a keyboard shop.
Ditto Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time, which makes the earthbound adventures of He-Man seem like Blade Runner. At the time the concept of budget eluded me, so the forced scripting reasons for these changes were just silly, even if there is some hilarity to be taken from this scenario.
Ator and Conquest are Italian films meant specifically as cash-ins on Conan the Barbarian. There are many, many more, but that’s another topic entirely. Ridiculously slow pacing, bad voice overdubs and acting, low budget monsters and special effects, bad fight choreography and convoluted plots are the order of the day here.
In Conquest a very Link-like hero sets off on a quest with his big Italian barbarian friend to free their land from an evil sorceress. This sorceress is topless (wearing only underwear) and dons a Destro-like gold mask for the entire film. While Conquest is a fun novelty for Lucio Fulci fans, it can’t maintain its pacing throughout. (It picks up a little bit towards the end when a demon robot shows up – not kidding.) Like many Fulci horror films it features an ample supply of nudity and gore, which is unfortunately utilized in this case to distract from the lack of anything happening.
Ator fares much worse. It’s for fans of bad movies only – sluggish pacing, an anti-climax and a lack of abundant gore and nudity does it no favors. Nevertheless, the plot follows Ator (played by C-movie veteran Miles O’Keefe) must go on a quest to rescue his bride (and sorta sister) from the villainous High Priest of the Spider.
He is joined by an Amazon thief along the way and learns the martial arts. Despite this it remains surprisingly boring, with the sole highlight of the movie being Ator’s cute black bear cub sidekick that follows him around everywhere.
Ator managed to spin off into a series of sequels, although really just in name only. Ator III: The Hobgoblin is notable for featuring a companion for Ator who wears the laughably awful Troll costume from midnight movie “classic” Troll 2. In German Ator III is even called Troll 3, as Deutschland seems to have invested more value in the Troll franchise than Ator’s plodding adventures.
It’s interesting to note that Conan the Barbarian only has one official sequel with Arnie to date, Conan the Destroyer. This film manages to resemble the Conan knock-off movies more than the original film. (Meanwhile, due to lack of concern about budget, a lot of knock-offs themselves have about four or five sequels.)
This includes the Argentine-American Deathstalker series, produced by longtime b-and-c-movie collaborator Roger Corman. Out of these the first Deathstalker is legitimate trashy fun, with the first Beastmaster and Sword and the Sorcerer being the only movies to best It as far as budget fantasy films go. It’s not a great movie by any means, but manages to be escapist entertainment while embracing its identity rather than pretending to be anything better.
The giant blonde Deathstalker sets out on his quest and meets a puppet ghoul who he transforms into a guy who looks like Elliot Gould, another warrior who is going to a fighting tournament held by an evil wizard and an eternally topless woman warrior. It’s a mess of enjoyable cuts stuffed with naked people, blood, puppets, and a villain who looks like a character from Mortal Kombat. There’s even a pig man thrown in for good measure.
Deathstalker II and Barbarian Queen, on the other hand, are just bad movies. Deathstalker II is basically a poor man’s version of Kevin Sorbo’s infamous Hercules tv series, with boobs and somehow worse special effects (it literally recycles scenes from the first film). While the unintentional humor of Deathstalker is priceless, this film tries to wink at you the entire time (with two leads that look like teenagers who were plucked from the local arcade). If there’s anything I can say in its favor it at least manages to be light, the lead actors are charismatic, making it less offensive than Barbarian Queen.
A movie that manages to lose steam like its Italian counterparts – even sooner, no less – Barbarian Queen features Lana Clarkson (that’d be the eternally topless woman warrior from the original Deathstalker) as, you guessed it, a barbarian queen. Together with her sister and two friends, the queen must save their fellow imprisoned villagers from an evil guy. (For once he’s not a wizard.)
That’s about the only thing I can get excited about in regards to this movie. There’s not even a barely charismatic actor or actress to latch onto, so you’re basically just watching a bunch of random people wearing reused costumes and running around on the reused sets from the first Deathstalker. That Roger Corman knew how to save a buck or two!
Though the idea of watching a lot of ridiculous low-budget fantasy movies I missed as a kid seemed exciting at first, I’ve now watched enough dollar store knock-offs that I can stand to take a break. While I would not recommend most of these to the average viewer, I would say that genre fans and fans of bad movies will love Deathstalker. Even Deathstalker II will entertain some. Fans of Lucio Fulci and Italian exploitation should check out Conquest. Unless you’re a completist or a glutton for punishment like myself then stay away from the other films.
There is a rise in fantasy and Sword and Sandal shows on TV. Despite being based on books, mythology, and historical sources there’s no denying a borrowing of the aesthetic of some of Conan the Barbarian and its bastard offspring in shows like Game of Thrones, Spartacus, and Vikings to name a few. Not to mention the continuing influence on books, comics, video games, and movies.
It will be interesting to see how the influence of outside-of-the-box films – rented based on the outrageous and totally misleading covers of various VHS boxes by kids of the ‘70s and ‘80s – will influence all media in the years to come. If anything they will always exist to be marveled and laughed at, like that random Spader-Man figure you find in a box in the attic.