Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell (1988) – MST3K Review

Summary:
In an amazing fantasy world the hero Deathstalker (John Allen Nelson) is enjoying a pleasant day at the local fair. But he is also keeping an eye on his wizard friend Nicias (Aaron Hernan) who is telling fortunes for the peasents. Before you can say Conan, a bunch of evil men in black armor ride up and attempt kidnap Nicias. Deathstalker fights them off, and Nicias uses a spell to disappear, but not before giving a lovely girl a magic crystal.

Naturally this girl turns out to be a princess, and she is on the quest for the other half of the crystal. If the two are combined they will lead to a city of fabled treasure. Of course there is an evil warlord named Troxartas (Thom Christopher) who is also after the same crystal. The princess is killed and Troxartas assumes that Deathstalker has the other half of the crystal. So he uses his nightmare powers to summon undead warriors to track down our hero. Along the way Deathstalker faces other perils including the feisty twin to the dead princess, a couple of potato loving hermits and a noble woman who loves torturing captive men. Will Deathstalker have a chance in hell (see what I did there) in surviving his most dangerous adventure yet?

Movie Review:
Deathstalker unleashes his smarm!
As much as I pick on Roger Corman’s directing, he really was a wizard when it came to producing films. He could figure out what audiences wanted, and how to give it to them cheap and fast. In the early 80s, audiences wanted sword and sorcery fantasy flicks. So Corman cobbled together a crew, sent them to Mexico and started cranking out the Deathstalker flicks. Corman also managed a few other trashy classics like BarbarianQueen and the more family friendly fantasy flick Wizards of the Lost Kingdom. But the Deathstalker concept spawned an actual series of four films.

The first film was pretty much a Conan the Barbarian imitator, but with a bit more skin. The second film injected some humor and upped the skin quotient a bit. But here we have the third film which has neither the violence or the skin of the first two. The budget seems extremely low, the script cobbled together at the last minute and the cast, well, we’ll get to them in a minute. The final result is like a D and D fever dream. It is wonderful in it’s wretchedness.

Squeak, I say, squeak!
What is funny is that Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell (which I’ll just call Deathstalker III from this point on) is that compared to some of the other bargain basement 80s fantasy out there – well it’s really bad. That’s right folks, we may have found something that makes even the Ator movies like Cave Dwellers look like they had the budget of Lord of the Rings. But I don't let that get in the way of a fun movie. You can still have a fun flick with a low budget. And as we well know even films with huge coffers for sets, costumes and special effects can end up really horrible.

It takes a skilled director to really make a no budget fantasy film work. Unfortunately, we don’t get that kind of skill here. Nearly all the production elements, from costumes to sets are really unimpressive. Toxartas’ castle doesn’t look too bad from some angles. The interiors are the best part, some of them actually looking like they may not be on a soundstage. Really, the location shooting helps the film a bit.

"Wait till Radagast hears about this."
While we have a couple wizards in the film, don’t look for any flashy special effects. Instead look for some laugh inducing arm flailing and smoke puffs. The movie’s most impressive sequence, when Troxartas raises his dead warriors ends up being a cheat. All those ghostly (and silly looking) specters that show up are taken from the film Wizards of the Lost Kingdom. Yes, Deathstalker III borrows from only the best.

Am I being too harsh? Not really because the borrowing doesn’t stop there. When you start the film, you hear a full orchestral score kick in. It’s a heroic theme with a big bold sound. It is also borrowed from another film from the Corman factory: Battle Beyond the Stars. Yep, James Horner’s score kicks things off for us. Don’t get too excited, because that is the only hint of anything that impressive you’ll hear from that point on.

The rest of the score is simplistic meandering on an old Casio keyboard. It repeats endlessly and seems to only be about a minute long. There are maybe three or four tracks to pick form and they all are done in the same style. Think along the lines of Puma Man but without the catchy appeal. Just when you think you can’t take it any more, something new but still borrowed shows up. This time from Brain Eno and his Prophesy piece from Dune. It is surreal to hear that music for a silly scene of Detathstalker stealing horses.

"The chilling sound of cardboard against cardboard!"
Bad film lovers should seek out Deathstalker III  for one reason: the acting his horrible. Deathstalker is one of the smarmiest, slimiest and most annoying heroes I’ve seen in one of these 80s sword and sorcery flicks. John Allen Nelson sneers, smirks and swaggers his way through the movie, convinced every woman wants him and every man fears him. But he is about as intimidating as a plush puppy. Granted the character is supposed to be more of a rogue than a fighter, but Allen just doesn't seem like the guy who would have the reputation for being such a bad ass. I like that Allen is trying, but the final result is a main character so unlikable that you actually miss the cardboard acting of Miles O’Keefe from Cave Dwellers.

Then you have Carla Herd in an amazing double role as the twin sisters Carissa and Elizena. One sister is the confident, brave and noble one. The other is the bratty, spoiled and selfish one. Herd isn’t bad doing the bratty sister. But she isn’t so hot as the noble sister. Her early scenes with Deathstalker contain some pretty confusing reaction shots and odd line delivery. It is possible the editing is to blame (more on that later). Sadly she is just not much of a leading lady. 

No seriously, lavender doesn't make you look scary,
at all.
But the real reason to seek this episode out is the amazingly over the top, ham-tastic performance by Thom Christopher as Troxartas. Sci-fi fans of a certain age will immediately recognize Christopher from his role in Buck Rodgers in the 25th Century as the mighty Hawk. For the role of Toxartas, Christopher drops the cool intensity, and replaces it with eye popping, ranting, and line deliveries that could easily be described as Shatner-esque. In fact you almost feel like you are watching Thom Christopher imitating William Shatner hopped up on cocaine and pretending he was a wizard. It is one of the funniest performances I’ve seen in any Mystery Science Theater 3000  episode. You get the feeling that Christopher figured he was doing this god awful movie (and Wizards of the Lost Kingdom a couple years before that) and he might as well just GO OVER THE FLIPPING TOP!!!!

The supporting cast falls right in line. Some of them are over the top and ridiculous. Aaron Hernan as Nicias is a perfect example of this. He takes the blowhard wizard stereotype to a whole new level. Then you have the people that really couldn’t be bothered to be in the movie, because you know, whatever.

Yep, the man on the left is Vadinho from Puma Man.
The real problem is the basic construction of Deathstalker III. The script seems like it was made up as they went along. The basic idea of finding two halve of a jewel to find a lost city is a fun fantasy trope. Hell, the same basic plot fuels the entertaining GoldenVoyage of Sinbad. But instead of creating a simple plot that moves forward from peril to peril, the movie just kind wanders around aimlessly. Things happen because um… they just do. Why kill off one princess if you are only going to have her twin show up later? It has NOTHING to do with the rest of the story. It just lets the actress wear different cloths and act more bratty. Why make a big deal about Nicias, only to have him vanish about 10 minutes in and then reappear about 10 minutes before the movie ends.

But the worst offenders are eponymous Warriors from Hell. We get not just one scene dealing with their resurrection – but two scenes. Yes both are hilarious because we get to see Christopher chew all the lead paint on the scenery. But the build up leads you to believe that these bad boys are going to be a major problem for Deathstalker. When you see them in their glory, well they look like a bunch of dusty guys in fake armor with white stuff in their hair and beards (I’m not sure what that stuff is supposed to be). So they are visually disappointing. But you think, well maybe they’ll be part of a huge battle scene with Deathstalker or something. Nope. They don’t do a damn thing, but end up as targets for stupid dead people jokes.

"Is it wrong for me to want to see him get tortured?"
This turd of a script (I’m sorry, there is no point in softening the blow here) is directed with almost no life or interest. Fight scenes have little energy to them. This works in favor of the unintentional comedy because some of the stage fighting is the really bottom of the barrel stuff. The Deathstalker versus Troxartas fights are hilariously horrible. Christopher just isn’t good at this kind of thing and Nelson has to keep prompting him to do stuff, even going so far as grabbing the evil warlord's sword and pulling it closer to he can execute the choreographed move. I’m guessing that director Alfanso Corona took a look at his footage and realized that it would be nearly impossible to salvage this one. So he started editing and editing and editing. Deathstalker III starts to rival the amazingly horrible editing of Devilfish, jumping wildly from scene to scene. Cutting on the action but not in an exciting way, but in a way that only creates massive confusion. Even Coleman Francis at his most random (see Beast of Yucca Flats) seemed to be trying to create a mood. Deathstalker III is just flailing around.

So here is the hearty recommendation from a guy who loves these bad 80s fantasy flicks, it really doesn’t get much worse than Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell. It ends up beating Cave Dwellers and Outlaw in sheer stupidity on nearly all fronts of filmmaking. And for all that, it is a blast to watch. And when you add Mike and Bots firing on all cylinders for Season Seven – well you’ve got a one hell of an episode.

Episode Review:
Troxartas has spirit, yes he does!
This movie gets the riffing it so richly deserves. The fodder ends up being so prevalent that the boys seem to be drowning in it. There are moments when the jokes and wisecracks come flying so fast it is nearly impossible to keep up with all of them. Deathstalker III found the Mike, Kevin and Trace at the peak of teamwork, and I’m so happy they got to tackle this film (and my other favorite from this season The Incredible Melting Man) at this time. The movie seems to be giftwrapping items for them, from the ridiculous faire at the beginning at the film, to the stupid costumes and Christopher’s amazing performance. Everything is fair game.

Highlights include lots and lots of bat jokes as the evil henchman rides around with a couple of silly batwings sticking out of helmet. Mike and bots have them squeeking out their lines on several occasions as well as having the terrorized villagers shriek “Rabies!” or “They get in your hair!”

Deathstalker is not immune to riffing. After about five minutes of his smarmy performance Tom asks, “Is it too early to hate this guy?” Later after Nelson lets a little twang escape from his smirking face Crow asks Mike, “Were there crackers in the middle ages?” Mike replies with “Apparently.” Near the end after Deathstalker escapes tortured but gets captured… again, Crow declares, “I’m glad he gets hit a lot.”

Deathstalker encounters the potato people.
Toxartas provides the bulk of the laughs. Most of the cast pronounces his name like Trucks Artist. This ends up turning into a running joke, where all the characters start asking if he also does van art. After one of his rants when he hits full blown William Shatner stylings, Tom says in a very funny imitation of Christopher’s intonation “I wrote the… beats in… my script and I… ‘m sticking to… them!” Later as he looms over our hero while dressed in billowing lavender robes and very femine turban Crow advices “It’s hard to look menacing when you’re dressed like Maude.”

Deathstalker III contains two of the oddest characters in any fantasy movie I’ve seen: a mother and daughter living like hermits in the mountains. They raise horses… I think, and they eat nothing but potatoes. Deathstalker runs into these two and the daughter falls head over heels in love with him (Krom knows why). After the mother declares in an emphatic voice “Potatoes are what we EAT!” A whole set of hilarious potatoe bases jokes are unleashed. They pop up when you least expect it. The boys also modify the line, saying it with the same determination, such as “Horses are what we RIDE!” or “Swords are what we SWING!”

The fantasy nature of film actually provides a bunch of Lord of the Rings based humor. It was surprising to hear these when this episode aired back in 1995, years before Peter Jackson's films were released. One of my favorites is when the old wizard Nicias is being tortured by Troxartas. Nicias bemoans, “This is not the life for an old man like me.” To which Tom adds, “I should be playing canasta with Saruman.”

The complete ineptitude on display in Deathstalker III makes for some hilarious general riffs. Like when Mike says, “The director’s vision: vagueness mixed with confusion.” Or his observation near the end of the film when he says “This is one of the most ambitiously bad movies we’ve ever done”. I have to agree with him.

Mike enjoy his time at the Ren Faire! Huzzah!
The episode begins with Crow showing Mike and Tom his new active lifestyle, thanks to his new hair. It’s a fun parody of the old Hairclub for Men commercials that were constantly appearing on Comedy Central back in the day. Before the movie begins we learn that Dr. Forrester’s mother Pearl is very sick. She proceeds to whine and moan and whine. Dr. Forrester is obviously losing hiis mind… even more than usual. To make things worse, when the mad scientist tries to tell Mike and bots about the movie, they pretend they are at a drive thru and trying to take his order. “Do you want to supersize that?” At the first break Tom, Crow and Gypsy create their own Renaissance Festival and charge Mike for all kinds of stupid and insulting “attractions”. At the next break, Mike had so much fun being insulted and paying for it that he comes back for more Renaissance Festival fun. The bots don’t have much else to work with, but this manage to take the rest of his money. These skits it very obvious that whole cast and crew hated Renaissance Festivals with a fiery passion. At the next break the sickly Pearl begs for Art (her nickname for Crow) to read to her. Turns out the book is a very naughty romance novel filled with descriptors like milky white and throbbing. When the film ends, Tom is inspired to forge his own ring of power. It goes wrong. Dr. Forrester is inspired by the classic Hitchcock film Suspicion and brings poisoned milk to Pearl. It glows with an unnatural light.

This is easily one of my favorite episodes from the Comedy Central era. Deathstalker III is a wonderfully bad movie on it’s own, but Mike and the bots make it even funnier. The riffing is some of the best in the series. The host segments are pretty funny, but I’ll admit that Pearl gets really annoying with all her whining (which is the whole point). That may drag down the score a bit.

In the end I have to give it 5 Warriors from Hell out of 5.

I don't even want to know what Troxartas is doing
to Nicias in this picture.

This episode is available on DAP.


(Let’s keep our fingers crossed that it gets a proper release very soon! All my images are taken from the DAP version which was based on someone’s well loved and watched VHS recording. That is why they are so blurry.)

4 comments:

  1. Wow, I don't now if I could sit through this one or not. Even with the comedic riffing. :) I certainly would have to be in the mood for it. What's odd, we tend to think of bad movies like this occurring in the past, but the Syfy Channel continues to crank out awful ones as well: Dinocroc, Sharknado, etc. But there seems to be a difference. I don't think that the directors back then thought they were making anything other than to dupe a few teens out of some spending money--but I sense a difference somehow.

    It's hard to believe that Deathstalker was made in 1988! It looks like one of those straight to VHS releases. The lure of the video is the packaging--slap some Boris Vellejo-looking art on it. This is the sort of stuff I wish was playing on the Comedy Channel, but doesn't.

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    1. Yeah I think the whole Deathstalker series was all straight to VHS. Maybe the first one got a theatrical release, but I kinda doubt it. When I worked at the video store we had a ton of these early and mid 80s fantasy films. And they were a ton of fun to watch. But yeah this one was pretty late to the party. And Deathstalker IV was even later, 1991 I think.

      You know sometimes the Syfy stuff is fun to watch. "Sharknado" is a blast. But it is obviously in on the joke. With these older ones they aren't always in on it, or sometimes just a few of the cast seems to be into the whole thing, or aware this is a horrid film. Thom Christopher has to be in on the joke, I mean look at that mug!

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  2. And all this time I've bought the story that potatoes are a New World crop...

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    1. You are living a lie my friend. Obviously Deathstalker planted them in the New World after he traveled there with his potato loving girlfriend. :)

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