Greetings, readers. I don’t know about you, but I love 1980s-era cheesy Sword and Sorcery movies. Hell, I love Sword and Sorcery as a genre in general — literature (Robert E. Howard’s Conan, Leiber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser, Moorcock’s Elric), art (Frazetta especially; Boris Vallejo never did that much for me), music (Domine, Manowar) and especially film. I consider John Milius’ 1982 film CONAN THE BARBARIAN, starring Arnold Schwarzeneggar and James Earl Jones, to be one of the most perfect films ever made. Perfectly written, beautifully shot, and the soundtrack by Basil Pouledouris gives me an erection.
In the wake of CONAN THE BARBARIAN’s success, a wide variety of lower budget films were made, featuring bare-chested musclemen, swords hammered out of car bumpers in Pakistan, and women will to dance around wearing nothing but a thin sheen of baby oil. In short, these are some of the most fun movies out there. For the purpose of this article, I’ll be looking at some of the creme de la creme of these films, the Argentian-filmed DEATHSTALKER franchise.
DEATHSTALKER (1983): Meet Deathstalker (Richard Hill), an amoral barbarian swordsman. How amoral? Upon meeting a deposed king in the woods, Deathstalker eats the down-on-his-luck aristocrat’s dog. The king wishes to hire Deathstalker to save his daughter, the Princess Codille, from the clutches of the evil wizard Lord Munkar. But since the king has no gold, and won’t let Deathstalker take Codille’s virginity as payment, Deathstalker declines.
Unfortunately, Deathstalker is forced into a quest against Lord Munkar, sent out by a witch to seek the Three Powers of Creation — the Amulet, Chalice, and Sword. Munkar has the Amulet and Chalice, and soon, Deathstalker has the Sword and some traveling companions, including the busty and bare-chested lady thief Kaira (Lana Clarkson). Deathstalker enters a tournament Munkar is hosting, with the prize being Codille’s sweet, sweet honeypot. Deathstalker comes out on top in the tourney after a brutal battle with a pig-man, but does he have what it takes to defeat Munkar?
Richard Hill is fun as Deathstalker, though his purpose is largely to look muscular and swing swords at people, then grab the naked girl and enjoy himself — pretty standard archetypal male power fantasy. One of his opponents is played by Richard Brooker, who played Jason in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 3, and Princess Codille is played by Barbi Benton, one-time girlfriend of Hugh Hefner. Additionally, I think Lord Munkar may have played a bigger role in the creation of the modern evil wizard stereotype than either Thulsa Doom in CONAN or Saruman in THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy — he’s pasty-faced, bald, clad in dark robes and has a big facial tattoo and a goatee.
DEATHSTALKER II (1987): Deathstalker this time around is played by John Terlesky, while Jim Wynorski takes over the directorial seat. I love Wynorski’s work, so this always bodes well for me. The film opens on Deathstalker intervening to save a young woman, Reena the Seeress (Monique Gabrielle, Penthouse Pet and actress) from being gang-raped by guardsmen. Reena turns out to be the recently-deposed Princess Evie, who asks Deathstalker to help her regain her throne from the evil wizard (Deathstalker: “Is there any other kind?”) Jarek and his assistant the Sultana.
The quest to Evie/Jarek’s castle takes them through encounters with bandits, zombies, and a nation of Amazon Warrior Women. Captured by the last of these, Deathstalker is put on trial for his crimes against womanhood, forced to fight Gorgo the Champion (Dee “Queen Kong” Booher, a wrestling/roller derby sensation) for the right to survive. Evie is recaptured by Jarek and sentenced to torture-with-lesbian-overtones by the Sultana. The Amazons show up to help Deathstalker, who duels Jarek to the death. Evie restored to the throne, a new alliance forged with the Amazons, Deathstalker is in for all the sweet, sweet Princess Evie-Lovin’ he can handle.
This is the pinnacle of the franchise as far as I’m concerned. Wynorski has turned Deathstalker into a wise-cracking ass-kicker and cranked the Fun dial up to 11 with this film. The gore and nudity is slightly reduced from the first film. Another high point of the film is Monique Gabrielle, here given the opportunity to exercise her comedic talents as well as her buoyant pleasure zeppelins. I wish she got more roles like this — she can pull faces that put Jim Carrey in his prime to shame. “Deathstalker? Is that your first name, or your last name?”
DEATHSTALKER III: THE WARRIORS FROM HELL (1989): This time around, Deathstalker is played by John Allan Nelson. We find him in a small village, giving fighting demonstrations for a few coins. He’s been traveling from village to village doing this with his friend Nicias, a wizard whose life he’d saved. Enter Princess Clarissa, who has a fist-sized jewel with magical ability. She reveals that the gem is one of the Keys to Erendor, a city of magical treasure. The other Keys are in the hands of the dread wizard Troxartes. Soon Clarissa is dead, and intrigued by the idea of a city of treasure (and killing evil wizards), Deathstalker is pursuing Troxartes for the Keys. Troxartes’ response is the resurrect an unstoppable army of the dead — composed of the corpses of everyone Deathstalker has ever killed.
After DEATHSTALKER II, DEATHSTALKER III is a bit of a disappointment. Gore is minimal, there’s barely any exposed breasts, and most distressingly, there is a complete lack of Pig-Man warriors. The story is just kind of blah, it’s not as fun — I mean, don’t get me wrong, it is still fun, but after the ridiculous antics of DEATHSTALKER II, it just doesn’t feel like as much fun. To top it all off, the “army of the dead” is just a bunch of guys smeared with some gray paint and dirt. Blah.
DEATHSTALKER IV: MATCH OF TITANS (1990): Richard Hill returns to reprise the role of Deathstalker, in the only entry not filmed in Argentina, but rather, Bulgaria. We find Deathstalker using his trusty sword to protect a young woman whose caravan has been besieged and slaughtered by cat-people. The girl rescued, Deathstalker returns her to her village, where he was going anyways to find an old friend, Aldilar, who has Deathstalker’s Sword. Y’know, capital-S Sword. The magic one. Aldilar’s not there, and the girl’s father tells Deathstalker a tale. The area is under the control of an evil woman named Kana who has kidnapped all the strongest warriors for nefarious purposes. Adventuring a little further afield, Deathstalker runs into a band of warriors who are training for the honor to compete in a special tournament. The leader of these warriors is Vaniat, a surprisingly straight-edge barbarian who doesn’t drink, smoke, eat mutton, rape women, or even have consensual sex. So…how is he a barbarian, exactly?
The tournament is largely made of stock footage from the tournament in the first DEATHSTALKER, including a fantastic fight where a giant guy with a giant hammer smashes a little guy into slush. Where the original tournament was pretty strictly male (aside from the nude female mud wrestlers), this tournament is a little more co-ed, with women warriors fighting each other. Deathstalker gets suspicious, however, between Kana’s talk of wanting his “power” and the fact that some of the contestants are disappearing without a trace. Before too much investigation can be done, he’s pitted against Vaniat, which goes pretty much as one would expect, with Deathstalker defeating but sparing his opponent, all while ripping off a snippet of dialogue from THE PRINCESS BRIDE.
It is soon discovered that the wine that’s been flowing “like a waterfall” throughout the tourney to be poisoned, and Deathstalker finds a use for the straight-edge Vaniat, asking him to “seduce” Kana in order to find the antidote. Before he can manage that, however, Deathstalker makes two discoveries: One, that Kana has his Sword. Two, that the poisoned wine turns those it “kills” into living stone statues, stronger and tougher than mortal men. Kana is building an army for world conquest.
Basically a re-iteration of the original DEATHSTALKER, the stone men being little different from the undead of DEATHSTALKER III…this film, I think, is strictly for DEATHSTALKER completists.
And there you have it. The DEATHSTALKER franchise, in a nutshell.