Conan the Destroyer (1984) *½
Dino De Laurentiis would have had to be a fool not to make a sequel to Conan the Barbarian. Not only did that movie launch the career of the man who would quickly supplant Sylvester Stallone as the biggest action star of the 1980’s, it also breathed new vigor into a cinematic genre that had been languishing on life-support since the mid-1960’s. If there was a single producer of exploitation movies in the Western world who had a phone number for some retired bodybuilder’s agent and didn’t make the call in ‘82 or ‘83, then I can’t imagine who it would have been. Furthermore, Conan the Barbarian had come right out and promised a sequel with the “But that is another story…” bit at the end of its closing crawl. Now admittedly, all available evidence suggests that De Laurentiis was indeed a fool, but he was the kind of fool who wastes his money, not the kind who passes up chances to make more of the shit. A second Conan movie, in other words, was virtually inevitable, but could anyone not involved with Conan the Destroyer’s creation have accurately predicted the form it ultimately took? Surely I wasn’t the only one expecting to be shown the story of how Conan “made himself king by his own hand,” nor can I have been alone in taking the character’s titular promotion from “Barbarian” to “Destroyer” as a cue to expect a sequel even grimmer and more wantonly violent than its predecessor. What we got instead would have made more sense as a follow-up to The Sword and the Sorcerer, a film as campy, breezy, and devoid of seriousness as any product of the international Conan cash-in cottage industry. The weird thing, though, is that Conan the Destroyer, is a lot closer to Robert E. Howard, in plot terms, than the first film, even though it gets the tone as utterly wrong as possible.
The first thing an observant viewer will notice when we are reintroduced to Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger again) as he kneels before a crude pagan shrine is that he has apparently acquired that tongue for prayer that he claimed to lack the last time we saw him, at least when the object of those prayers is his dead girlfriend, Valeria. The second thing such a viewer will notice is that there is no sign of Subotai or the little bald wizard anywhere. Instead, the Cimmerian arch-thief is attended by a man called Malak (Tracey Walter, from Ginger and Repo Man) who is plainly ill-suited to perform any function whatsoever beyond perpetrating the movie’s most odious comic relief. Seriously, Ergo the Magnificent was more impressive than this twerp. We’ll quickly get a chance to see Malak in inaction, too, for Conan’s solemnities are intruded upon when a contingent of armed horsemen surround the shrine’s precinct, clearly looking for trouble. These soldiers are led by Queen Tamaris of Sharazad (Sarah Douglas, of The People that Time Forgot and Solarbabies) and her captain of the guards, Bombaata (Wilt Chamberlain)— the former wearing a face-concealing helmet and about nine times as much clothing as any other female barbarian-movie character on record, with the aim of necromancing that wizened old “Hey, wait— he’s a girl!” cliché yet one more time— and it would appear that their mission is to capture Conan alive. Notice, however, that I said “it would appear.” Actually, what we have here is a second cliché raised from its tomb via the blackest sorcery, the authority figure sending scads of her men to die fruitlessly as a test to establish whether or not a legendary bad-ass lives up to his reputation. And like all such authority figures, Tamaris has a job she’d like Conan to perform for her, in return for which she’s prepared to grant him a colossal favor.
The queen has a niece, you see, a teenage virgin called Jehnna (Bolero’s Olivia D’Abo), who happens to be prophesied to do some terribly important thing related to Dagoth, the Dreaming God, once she has come of age— which, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, she’ll be doing in just a few days. Fulfilling this prophecy will first entail recovering two magical treasures, one the lost horn from the idol of Dagoth in Sharazad’s temple, the other a gem called the Heart of Ahriman, which is the key that will grant Jehnna access to the horn. The trouble is, the Heart of Ahriman belongs to the evil wizard Toth-Amon (Pat Roach, from Clash of the Titans and Red Sonja), and Toth-Amon seems none too likely to hand over the gem just because a cute blonde asks him for it. Tamaris is fairly certain that Conan could find a way to make the wizard part with his treasure, though, and in exchange for his stealing-and-slaughtering services, the queen (who is pretty handy with a spell herself) promises to give Conan the thing he wants most in all the world. She’ll bring Valeria back to life.
That’s the version Tamaris gives Conan, at any rate. But unfortunately for him, Malak, and the annoying teen princess, there’s considerably more to this Horn of Dagoth business than Tamaris is letting on. Jehnna is actually being set up for ritual sacrifice, for reinstalling the missing horn on the idol will enable Dagoth to take living, physical form, triggering what Tamaris’s grand vizier (Jeff Corey, from Battle Beyond the Stars and Jennifer) assures her will be a readily controllable apocalypse— assuming, that is, that Jehnna’s blood is fed to the divine monster immediately upon its awakening. Nor is that the only consideration limiting the margin for error so far as Tamaris is concerned. Everyone knows that evil gods will no more accept a non-virgin sacrifice than most snakes will accept a non-living mouse, and because Dagoth in particular will accept no other sacrifice than Jehnna, it is absolute imperative that the girl’s hymen remain zealously defended. That being so, turning Jehnna loose to secure two priceless artifacts with no chaperone save Mr. Steals Anything, Kills Anyone, Fucks Everyone With Compatible Equipment is an obviously terrible idea, and the queen assigns Bombaata to accompany Jehnna, Conan, and Malak on their quest. She also gives her captain secret instructions to eliminate Conan as soon as the Heart of Ahriman is safely in Jehnna’s possession, and deploys an ambush force of her elite guards to help make it happen.
Conan, meanwhile, decides to recruit some reinforcements of his own. Evidently having learned his lesson about taking on sorcerers unaided (the pedagogical value of Trees of Woe is sorely underappreciated, if you ask me), he seeks out his old wizard buddy from the last movie, who is now finally given a name: Akiro (Mako again). I’m still pissed about Subotai, but that’s something, at least. Conan and company find Akiro none too soon, for he’s in the middle of being prepped for rotisserie roasting by a tribe of cannibals who look like they wandered in here after being dismissed from the set of Ironmaster. Those savages don’t last long, unsurprisingly. The party picks up a sixth member a bit later, when a visit to a small village brings them by the square where a foreign bandit (Robert E. Howard would probably have called her a Kushite) named Zula (Grace Jones, from Gordon’s War and Vamp) is chained to a post for execution by stoning. At Jehnna’s insistence, Conan rides up and severs Zula’s chain, giving her a halfway credible chance against the crowd. So grateful is Zula for that act of not-obviously-warranted kindness that she pledges her life to Conan once she catches up to the gang after fighting her way out of the village. Bombaata is not pleased with this turn of events, but Conan has made it pretty well clear by now that he’s in charge here, regardless of what Tamaris or Jehnna might have to say on the subject.
With the full cast thus assembled, we can at last get on to the tale of the quest— and with it, to the part where Conan the Destroyer stops making any but the most superficial sort of sense. Take a close look at the raid on Toth-Amon’s castle, and you’ll see at once what I mean. Conan understandably decides to camp out overnight on the shore of the lake that serves as the wizard’s moat, rather than mounting a frontal assault immediately after a long, hard day of travel, but doing so allows Toth-Amon to get the jump on the interlopers by kidnapping Jehnna with his magic while they all sleep. Although this point is never made explicitly, the wizard’s declaration to Jehnna that “Tomorrow you will touch the Heart of Ahriman” is intelligible only as a hint that the wizard, too, as a worshiper of Dagoth, every bit as eager to see the princess sacrificed to the Dreaming God as Queen Tamaris. Fair enough— both characters are villains, and villains often find that their interests are in synch. But if Toth-Amon is a Dagothite, then why bother abducting Jehnna? Why turn himself into a cheesy reptilian ape-man, and fight Conan to the death to keep the Heart of Ahriman out of his hands? In fact, why not just Fedex the Heart of Ahriman to Sharazad as a birthday present for the princess?! The second phase of the quest is even more obvious in its pointlessness, for the cultists who attempt to prevent the adventurers’ escape with the Horn of Dagoth are explicitly shown to be adherents of the same faith as Tamaris, and to be actively dedicated to making sure Jehnna satisfies her prophesied obligations. Again, the sensible thing for their leader (Ferdinand Mayne, from Hawk the Slayer and The Fearless Vampire Killers) to do would be to organize a pilgrimage to Sharazad bearing the horn, timed to coincide with Jehnna’s coming-of-age festivities. And here’s the final kick in the ass, so far as the story’s internal credibility is concerned: if Toth-Amon has no reason to guard the Heart of Ahriman from Tamaris, and Ferdy Mayne’s cult has no reason to guard the Horn of Dagoth from her either, then the queen herself has no reason to hire Conan to steal the two treasures, and not one single bit of this movie, from one set of credits to the other, has any fucking reason to happen!!!!
After that, it seems kind of redundant to harp on all the smaller failures and miscalculations that Conan the Destroyer racks up during its hundred minutes of racing noisily and busily about to no good purpose. There are so many of them, though, that I really wouldn’t be doing my job if I allowed them to pass unremarked. How does someone who writes often enough to get paid for it fail to notice the idiocy of making Conan a universally recognized folk hero, known on sight by people who have plainly never encountered him before? This is supposed to be the Hyborean Age, people! It’s not like Zula or the citizens of Sharazad who crowd around Conan to cheer his arrival as he passes through the bazaar on his way to the palace have seen him on the TV news or the cover of Rape & Pillage Magazine. And if nothing else, it’s hard to see how he could continue to function as a professional thief if he’s famous enough that the bourgeoisie know to hide their jewelry under their clothes whenever he so much as passes them on the street. Then there’s all the ass-awful comedy. No matter how brisk the business being done by the lighter-hearted Albert Pyun-inspired barbarian movies of the previous year, what could make anyone think we wanted to see Conan do drunken pratfalls, Zula freak out over a single rat like the housewife in a 1950’s Tom and Jerry cartoon, or Malak uncomfortably explain sex to the impossibly clueless and naïve Jehnna? And really, wasn’t Mako already comic relief enough? Akiro may end up looking a little more bad-ass in Conan the Destroyer than he had in Conan the Barbarian, but that’s only because the rest of Conan’s sidekicks are even more broadly buffoonish in this installment. Wilt Chamberlain’s bid to extend to basketball players the benefits of the career path from washed-up athlete to B-movie action hero does nothing but to demonstrate that it takes more than being even taller than Arnold Schwarzenegger to make the transition stick. And although Carlo Rambaldi’s animatronic creature suit representing the awakened Dagoth is a fairly decent example of the art, it still puts the Dreaming God much closer to Octaman than to Cthulhu on the Menace Spectrum of Eldritch Abominations. Promise the audience a world-ending monster, and you’d better have more up your sleeve than a thousand-pound frog with a vagina dentata for a mouth. After the relatively reality-grounded Conan the Barbarian, I appreciate the sequel’s effort to play up the character’s Weird Tales origins, but this is by no means the follow-up Conan film that I (or anyone else, either, to judge by the continuing failure of the oft-invoked Conan the King to materialize) was looking for.