Deathstalker (1983) -****
Don’t ask me to explain why, because I couldn’t have even back then, but for some reason, the summer of 1991 was, for me, Barbarian Summer. I got on this huge barbarian movie kick, and spent many of the long, unstructured evenings between eleventh and twelfth grade watching the stupid things. The Conan movies, Red Sonja, The Sword and the Sorcerer, The Beastmaster— I revisited them all, along with checking out a bunch of others that had escaped my notice when the craze was at its peak. But the one I rented again and again, inflicting it upon virtually everybody I knew at the time, was Deathstalker. This is, quite simply, one of the stupidest movies of all time, and for that very reason, it’s also a perennial favorite of mine. Deathstalker was the first, and by most measures the trashiest, of a whole string of barbarian films shot in Argentina for a New World Pictures wannabe called Palo Alto Productions. In addition to what would ultimately total four Deathstalker movies, the studio was also responsible for such memorable sword-and-sorcery garbage as Barbarian Queen and The Warrior and the Sorceress. All those movies sucked, no doubt about it, but a lot of them sucked in the best way.
Deathstalker begins with a boy dragging a bound and struggling girl through a bunch of overgrown ruins. So intent is this lad upon finding a nice, quiet place to rape his captive that he doesn’t even notice the horde of subhuman icky-head men surrounding him. He catches on right when it’s just about too late, and the only possible way for him to save his hide is to hand the girl over to the uglies along with all his money, and then make a break for it. Even so, the boy is quickly caught. But then onto the scene strides a beefy, blonde warrior (Rick Hill, from Warrior Queen and The Devastator) with perfectly blow-dried 80’s metal hair, who announces that the owner of the ruins wouldn’t be happy if he knew what was happening inside them. The leader of the icky-head men protests that he and his followers have no quarrel with the warrior, but unfortunately for them, the warrior seems to reckon that he’s got a quarrel with them. With no help at all from Rapist Boy, the warrior makes short work of the whole shabby crew. And having rescued Rapist Boy from certain death at the hands of the icky-head men, the warrior steps right up and sticks his dagger in him, too. Then he makes ready to rape the girl himself! Ladies and gentlemen, our hero...
The aptly named Deathstalker never makes much headway on that rape, however, for he is interrupted in the act of deploying his johnson by another man, who says that somebody outside urgently wishes to speak with him. He’s referring to King Tulak (George Sorvic), who once ruled the entire land in which Deathstalker roams, but who is now little more than a wandering bum himself. The king, you see, was deposed years before by his court magician, Munkar (Bernard Erhard, who was the voice of Cy-Kill on “Challenge of the Go-Bots” starting the next year), but he still has high hopes that he will one day find a champion with the courage to win back his kingdom for him. Deathstalker makes it perfectly clear that Tulak will get no championing out of him, even after the king mentions that his daughter, Codille (Playboy centerfold Barbi Benton, who was also in Hospital Massacre and The Naughty Cheerleader), has been kidnapped by Munkar and added to his harem. Now maybe if King Tulak had offered to let Deathstalker rape his daughter after the battle was won, he’d have gotten somewhere; as it is, the warrior just insults him one more time and rides off.
So would somebody like to explain to me why it is that the next person Deathstalker meets— an old witch named Toralva (Lillian Ker)— is able to get him to agree to take on precisely the same mission and for no greater reward in the very next scene? When Deathstalker comes upon Toralva, her tent is being ransacked by soldiers under the command of Munkar’s top lieutenant, General Kang (Barbarian Queen’s Victor Bo)— really the wizard himself in disguise— who are trying to discover where she has hidden “the sword.” Deathstalker deals with this lot just as roughly as he had the icky-head men (although Kang/Munkar escapes by turning into a falcon and flying away), and then listens to Toralva’s pitch. The sword for which Munkar was searching is one of the “Three Powers of Creation”: the Amulet of Life, the Sword of Justice, and the Chalice of Cheap Special Effects... I mean, the Chalice of Magic. Munkar already possesses the other two powers, so it is of vital importance that he not get his hands on the third as well. To that end, Toralva has hidden the sword in a cave in the forest, where it is guarded over by Salmaron (August Larreta, from Wizards of the Lost Kingdom), a Yoda-like creature who was once a human being. Whether it was Toralva herself who cursed Salmaron 30 years ago, or some other cantankerous caster of spells is never explained. Neither is the fact that Salmaron can be restored and the Sword of Justice wielded only by “a boy who is not a boy.” So— what? Only a transsexual can break the spell? No. Rather, what that means is that Deathstalker will have to crawl into Salmaron’s cave and allow the sword’s power to regress him to childhood, at which point he can lead the weapon’s guardian to freedom and restored humanity. He’ll then be changed back to normal when the task is completed. Like I said, I don’t get it either.
Regardless, with the Sword of Justice in hand and the re-humanized Salmaron in tow, Deathstalker goes riding off, until his wanderings bring him to yet another person being menaced by a gang of shit-kickers for whom he is no match alone. This time the overmatched man is another warrior who goes by the name of Oghris (Richard Brooker, who evidently was wearing even more padding than I realized when he played Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th, Part 3). If Deathstalker looks like he should have been in Slave Raider, then Oghris looks like he ought to have been in Journey— rest assured I know which one of them I’d rather have backing me up in a dangerous situation! Once more, Deathstalker makes with the Barbarian Beat-Downs, after which the grateful Oghris explains that he had been on his way to a tournament at Munkar’s castle. This is not because Oghris owes the wizard any sort of allegiance, but rather because the childless Munkar has announced that any warrior throughout the land is welcome to compete for a slot as his heir. And to hear Oghris tell it, just about every warrior of any note is indeed going to be there, battling to the death for the chance to sit one day on Munkar’s throne. Deathstalker, whose inexplicable change of heart is proceeding apace, realizes that the tournament offers exactly the opportunity to infiltrate Munkar’s castle that would be necessary if a lone hero were to undertake to restore Tulak’s kingdom to him; he and Salmaron thus join up with Oghris and accompany him on his journey.
Along the way, the party acquires a third sword-arm, when their camp is snuck up on by an armed, cloaked, and masked figure one night. Oghris is the first into action against the intruder, but he is disarmed and cornered in moments. Were it not for Deathstalker, who can be awfully stealthy for a man his size, Oghris probably would have gotten his ticket punched right then and there. But before the mystery fighter has a chance to act, Deathstalker threatens from behind him, “kill him and you’ll be dead before his eyes are closed.” Wait a minute— that should have been “threatens from behind her,” for when the mask comes off and the cloak opens up, we see that Oghris just got his ass handed to him by a girl. This is Kaira (Lana Clarkson, from The Haunting of Morella and Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II), and she too is on her way to compete in Munkar’s tournament. Oghris isn’t happy to have her along for the ride, but Deathstalker certainly is. So, for that matter, is Salmaron, who spies discreetly on Kaira and Deathstalker while the two of them have sex beside the campfire.
Much of the movie from here on out is dedicated to Munkar’s contest and the festivities attendant upon it. (“Hey, everybody! Big rape party at Munkar’s place!” “Dude— I am so there!”) Meanwhile, we discover that Munkar’s generosity is a sham; being immortal, he has no need of an heir, and the true point of the tournament is to eliminate everyone in the kingdom who might be strong enough to overthrow him. We also learn that he has unaccountably figured out not only who Deathstalker is, but also that he’s carrying the Sword of Justice and means to use it to put an end to the sorcerer’s reign. Now given that Deathstalker has put himself up as a contestant in the tournament, you might think that opens up all the chances for him to die that Munkar could ask for, but you’d be wrong. Only now, with the movie well more than half-over, do we learn that whoever wields the Sword of Justice cannot be harmed so long as it is in his hand. Thus Deathstalker’s defeat in the arena can come only under the extremely unlikely circumstance that his foe manages to disarm him. With that in mind, the sorcerer turns to treachery, first by transforming one of his soldiers into the likeness of Princess Codille (to whom Deathstalker has taken a liking), and when that fails, by turning one of Deathstalker’s new companions against him. But we all know that a barbarian flick can end only with a showdown between the two principal antagonists, and besides, we haven’t even seen what the Chalice of Cheap Special Effects can do yet!
What struck me hardest watching Deathstalker for the first time in many years is the extent to which it was actually supposed to be funny. There really are a lot of outright gags in this movie, and in that light, the purely parodic turn that the series took with Deathstalker II makes a little more sense. The tone of the jokes is so deadpan, however, that I can see how I missed them back when I was a teenager. This is doubly so because the intentional humor is so totally surrounded by unintended laughs that sometimes it’s hard to tell the two apart. For instance, we may be fairly certain that it’s meant to be funny when, during a brawl in Munkar’s banquet hall, the small warrior who wears a dagger on the stump of his right hand gets stuck thereby in one of the rafters after being tossed into the air by a much larger opponent. Ditto the later scene in which the tournament contestant whose weapon of choice is a hammer nearly as big as he is reduces his opponent literally to a sticky, red stain on the arena floor. On the other hand, I really don’t think the production designers deliberately made the exterior sets for Munkar’s castle and the surrounding town look like something you’d see at the Renaissance Festival, nor do I think the special effects department meant to be funny in designing the makeup for the film’s various non-human creatures— the icky-head men, the slimy sock-puppet monster that Munkar keeps as a pet, the tournament contestant who is a gigantic man with a pig’s head. So with both of those strains present at once, what are we to make of, say, the tattoo on Munkar’s head, which the makeup artists never drew quite the same way twice, and which even switches sides for one scene?
Distinguishing between the deliberate humor and the accidental in Deathstalker is not made any easier by the forthright exploitation sensibility that informs it throughout. This is not a movie for feminists. Not only does naked female flesh abound in nearly every scene, scarcely five minutes can go by without somebody— even one of the heroes—attempting to force himself on the nearest convenient woman. The pinnacle of this (or the nadir, if you prefer) is without a doubt the banquet scene which precedes the tournament. Like Munkar says, everything he has— food, drink, and women— is shared freely with all of his guests, but only two of the resulting couplings are depicted as occurring with the consent of the woman involved. No other barbarian movie I’ve seen features anything nearly this sleazy, and having it turn up in what is often an unabashedly campy film is really quite jarring. The radical and unpredictable shifts in tone account for nearly as much of my affection for Deathstalker as the threadbare production values, the lousy acting, and the bafflingly illogical storyline. Besides, how can you not love a movie in which an evil wizard transforms a big, ugly, fat guy into Barbi Benton as part of an assassination plot?