Prisoners of the Lost Universe (1983/1984) -**½
I don’t see how this is possible either, but apparently Hawk the Slayer must have made a little bit of money— enough, at any rate, for the prime movers behind it, producer/writer/director Terry Marcel and producer/writer/composer Harry Robertson, to try their hands at heroic fantasy a second time. That somewhat belated follow-up, Prisoners of the Lost Universe, is if anything even lousier than its predecessor. However, like Hawk the Slayer, Prisoners of the Lost Universe is interesting for its unexpected approach to the genre. Even now that they had some successful sword-and-sorcery movies to imitate, that isn’t what Marcel and Robertson did. Instead, Prisoners of the Lost Universe takes its cues mainly from Edgar Rice Burroughs, dropping three relatively ordinary, modern-day Earth-people into a savage fantasy world via a hastily contrived science-fictional accident.
Carrie Madison (Kay Lenz, of Stripped to Kill and House) is the host of a Los Angeles-based fluff-journalism TV show called “The Weird and the Wacky.” (Incidentally, if you’re thinking this version of LA looks off somehow, that’s because most of the time it’s really someplace in South Africa.) On her way to interview a physicist named Dr. Hartmann (Kenneth Hendel, from Die Screaming, Marianne and Four Dimensions of Greta) about some invention of his that the scientific establishment doesn’t take seriously, Carrie narrowly avoids a serious car crash when a minor earth tremor hits just as she’s passing what looks like the only other vehicle on the narrow, winding road through the Hollywood Hills. The driver of the pickup truck, a handyman type called Dan Roebuck (Richard Hatch, of Best Friends and Unseen Evil), is less fortunate than Carrie. The circumstances of their passing basically offered him the choice of smashing into her Datsun or smashing into the hillside itself, and Dan picked the latter. His truck isn’t going anywhere without a tow, it’ll probably need a couple thousand dollars’ worth of work once it’s freed, and as if that weren’t enough, Dan’s bamboo kendo sword was in the back with all his tools, and it’s been crushed to a pulp. That last complaint seems at first like a bizarre non-sequitur, but it’s actually a plot point in embryo. Roebuck will soon find himself one of the titular prisoners of the lost universe, and it’ll make the writers’ job easier if he already has some experience using a sword when he gets there. Anyway, Carrie isn’t Dan’s favorite person right now, but not only does he reject the money she offers him (“I don’t need your charity!” he barks; um… the hell?), he doesn’t even ask to see her auto insurance card before she speeds off to keep her appointment with Hartmann. I wonder if traffic accidents work differently in the British Commonwealth than they do over here?
Hartmann’s invention is indeed both weird and wacky. He claims to be able to transmit matter out of our universe, into another, and back. Carrie takes him at first for a charlatan, but she can’t explain away the vanishing act that his machine performs on her powder compact. The business end of the device is open to the air like the transporter pads on “Star Trek,” so it’s hard to see how Hartmann could have temporarily hidden the makeup kit without her noticing. Hartmann is just as surprised by the demonstration as Madison, though, because this time he noticed something about his transmitter that had always escaped him up to now. The scientist just happened to look straight at the transmission beam when the compact went through, and he thinks he caught a glimpse of where it went— a hilly woodland on an apparently Earthlike world. Excitedly, Hartmann fires up the machine again, this time expressly for the purpose of looking into that other universe. That’s when the aftershocks from the earlier mini-earthquake rumble through, with the result that the doctor gets thrown into the beam. The next thing Carrie knows, she’s alone in Hartmann’s lab, and the matter transmitter has inadvertently had its first human guinea pig.
That same aftershock drops a power line right onto what’s left of Roebuck’s truck, forcing him to abandon his efforts to extricate it from the hillside. Seeing no better course of action available, he trudges off, figuring he’ll stop at the first house he comes to, and phone for a taxi. Would you believe that first house is Dr. Hartmann’s? And would you believe Carrie takes him for a prowler, and bashes him over the head from behind with a convenient heavy object before she realizes her mistake? Man, meeting cute isn’t usually this violent… Anyway, once that’s sorted out, it remains for Madison to explain what she’s doing at Hartmann’s place, and why Hartmann isn’t there with her. Those explanations lead to Dan monkeying around with the matter transmitter, which leads in turn to him being zapped into the other universe just like the machine’s inventor. And Carrie, for her part, now takes the plunge deliberately, on the theory that under the circumstances, she’s better off on the same side of the dimensional barrier as the guy who knows how the matter transmitter works.
Oddly, though, there’s no sign of either Hartmann or Roebuck when Carrie arrives in the other world. It’ll be a while before anyone works this out, but that’s because time is out of synch between the two universes. A second here to a day there is probably good enough as a first-order approximation. The first person Carrie encounters on her transdimensional adventure is a sort of huge, slow-witted ogre named Kahar (Outlaw of Gor’s Philip van der Byl), whom she finds languishing helplessly in a pool of quicksand. So great is the creature’s gratitude once she helps him free himself that he’ll spend the whole rest of the movie popping up out of nowhere at moments when colossal strength and mountainous endurance would come in handy. Next, she crosses paths with Dan, just in time to join him in being menaced by a tribe of goblinish little monsters. After Kahar (who was nowhere to be seen a moment ago) comes to their rescue for the first of many times, the Earth-people notice that the goblins already had one captive. I’m sure he must have a proper name, but we’ll know him only as the Green Man (Ray Charleson, of Dark Corners). Functionally, this is exactly the same character that Charleson played in Hawk the Slayer; he’s just got green skin instead of pointed ears, and his marksmanship manifests itself via a sort of primitive air-rifle instead of a bow and arrow. He too is grateful for being bailed out of his fix, and he promises to help Carrie and Dan until he feels that his debt has been paid. Which doesn’t take that long, honestly. Barely has the Green Man acknowledged his indebtedness when the opportunity arises for him to save Carrie from attack by a gill man, after which he cheerfully takes his leave of the stranded outsiders.
That’s about when Carrie glances up at a hilltop, and finds herself looking at the very same weird, sparkly tree that Hartmann had the transmitter beam aimed at during his demonstration. That might mean this is where the scientist came through, and that might mean Carrie and Dan have their first clue to his current whereabouts. Somehow, this realization causes the two of them to lay off their hitherto constant bickering, and fall in love. Their newfound happiness is spoiled a moment later, however, when the warlord Kleel (John Saxon, from The Evil Eye and Black Christmas) rides through on the hunt for two men who tried recently to usurp his position. Blondes being apparently very rare on this side of the dimensional barrier, Kleel takes an immediate liking to Carrie, and decides to add her to his harem. When Dan objects, the warlord shoots him in the head with a crude flintlock pistol! Then he grabs Carrie, and hauls her off to his fortress, where she discovers that Kleel’s authority might be the only thing protecting her from even worse enemies. On the one hand, Kleel’s right-hand man, Vosk (Larry Taylor, of Gor and The Creeping Flesh), likes blondes, too, and he’s not as gentle as his master. And on the other, Shareen (Deadly Prey’s Dawn Abraham), formerly Kleel’s favorite slave girl, takes great offense at that “former” business.
Meanwhile, Dan is discovering that he has an incredibly thick head. Not dead after all, he regains consciousness while a diminutive thief named Malachi (Legend’s Peter O’Farrell, who like Ray Charleson is playing a minor variation on his Hawk the Slayer role) is attempting to loot his corpse. Thus begins a strange alliance between Roebuck and the thoroughly untrustworthy little man, to whom Dan promises his gold watch in exchange for help finding and rescuing Carrie. From Malachi, Dan learns that firearms are a new technology in Vanya (as this world is called by its inhabitants), introduced by a wizard who took up service with Kleel within the past year or so. He also learns that nobody has ever survived an attack on the warlord’s base before, and that it’s much too far away to be reached on foot.
Consequently, Malachi takes Dan to see a friend of his (Charles Corwyn, of Mutator and Jane and the Lost City) at the pub he runs out of a dank cave to trade Roebuck’s tool belt for a suitable mount. Once there, Dan sees a bunch of roughnecks (led by Ron Smerczak, from The Mangler and The House of Whipcord) plying the Green Man with booze; Malachi explains that they’re the horse traders, and that they’re trying to get him to reveal the secret of his people’s talent for calling and taming wild horses. Roebuck makes the mistake of trying to barge his way into the conversation, and ends up provoking the first big sword fight of the film. Let’s just say those kendo lessons have served him well, even though his moves don’t look one tiny little bit like kendo. That puts the Green Man back in Dan’s debt, securing his aid until the end of the movie. It also secures the enmity of the horse traders, whom Malachi (who really just wants that watch, whatever else happens) leads straight to Dan. The thief gets his Instant Karma payback, however, when the traders turn around and include him along with Dan and the Green Man in the package deal of slaves that they offer to the fire-worshipping Nabu people for their next human sacrifice. You will not be shocked to learn that Kahar just happens to be passing by when the Nabu begin their rites, or that he lends his unique abilities in support of Roebuck’s escape plan.
So now that the party is finally fully assembled, it’s time for them to go adventuring in earnest. They get a lucky break when they stumble upon Shareen, trussed up and left to be devoured by who-knows-what after Kleel finally got tired of watching her rivalry with Carrie play out. Who-knows-what turns out to be a tribe of cannibals who look like somebody’s half-assed Blind Dead cosplay, and the tunnels where they live— through which they now pursue the heroes— just happen to lead directly under Kleel’s headquarters. Meanwhile, Carrie is introduced to her captor’s pet wizard, who turns out to be none other than Dr. Hartmann. Not that the scientist has any great affection for the warlord, you understand. He simply saw an opportunity to ensure his survival in a hostile environment, and jumped at it. That argument doesn’t impress Carrie, nor will it impress Dan when he hears it later. However, the stockpile of explosives that Hartmann has been cooking up in his makeshift lab could just as easily be used against Kleel as by him, assuming that enemies of his could infiltrate the castle. Enemies like Dan, Malachi, Kahar, and the Green Man, who are about to become Vanya’s answer to the A-Team.
Perhaps you think I’m merely being snide in comparing the heroes of Prisoners of the Lost Universe to Hannibal Smith and company, but I assure you there’s more to it than that. The climax to this movie is exactly the sort of thing that would have happened on “The A-Team,” only with swords and crossbows instead of machine guns. It has the exploding base, the guard-diverting mini-bombs, the waiting getaway vehicle besieged by cannon-fodder goons, the ensemble takedown of the main bad guy, the whole nine yards. There’s a clear B. A. Baracus figure in Kahar, and although the roles of the other three adventurers don’t project consistently onto Hannibal, Face, and Howling Mad Murdock, Dan and the rest do seem to rotate their status as analogues for those characters. Like, when it’s Dan’s turn to be Hannibal, the Green Man and Malachi will have a Face moment and a Murdock moment respectively. It’s an utterly mystifying thing to see in a heroic fantasy movie, or at least it is until you compare the cast of Prisoners of the Lost Universe to that of “The A-Team.” Face, you will recall, was played on that show by Dirk Benedict. And before Benedict was on “The A-Team,” he played Starbuck on the original incarnation of “Battlestar Galactica”— where he costarred with Richard Hatch, whom we currently know as Dan Roebuck. Now it’s common enough for a team of good guys to include some permutation of the courageous leader, the hyper-competent badass, the muscle, and the guy you can’t entirely trust, and my guess is that if you read the original script to Prisoners of the Lost Universe, those archetypes (rather than any specific mirroring of “The A-Team”) are all you would see. But once the filmmakers had Richard Hatch— aka the Guy Who Wasn’t Dirk Benedict— on their hands, the temptation to make an inside joke of him still being the Guy Who Wasn’t Dirk Benedict must have been too great to resist. Or maybe I’m reading way too much into a coincidence. But either way, once you spot how Prisoners of the Lost Universe is doing an “A-Team” climax, you won’t be able to un-see it.
Nor is that the only unexpected direction in which Prisoners of the Lost Universe roams off-model for an 80’s sword-and-sorcery movie. As I said at the beginning of the review, the basic premise here is pure Edgar Rice Burroughs, an author whose writing probably should have had a huge impact on the post-Conan barbarian cycle, but didn’t. Accidents with advanced technology were one of Burroughs’s favorite means of getting his heroes to the Lost World, whether it was David Innes misjudging the digging power of the Iron Mole, Julian 5th and the crew of the Barsoom getting shipwrecked on the Moon en route to Mars, or Jefferson Turck’s antiquated aero-submarine suffering a crippling mechanical breakdown just in time for a North Atlantic gale to carry him to post-apocalyptic Britain. Similarly Burroughsian is the notion of Dr. Hartmann using his scientific knowledge to become a power broker in Vanya. Indeed, you might almost think of him as a villainous version (well, de facto villainous, anyway) of At the Earth’s Core’s Abner Perry, especially as Perry was portrayed in some of the sequels.
Then there’s tonal weirdness to consider. Barbarian movies of the 80’s were no strangers to comedy, of course, but this one’s attempts at humor are something else again from the black and bloody slapstick of Deathstalker, the sophomoric silliness of Conan the Destroyer, the cute-animal clowning of The Beastmaster, or the ribald wit of The Sword and the Sorcerer. When Prisoners of the Lost Universe aims to be funny, it comports itself as a live-action cartoon, all wacky sound effects, exaggerated reaction shots, and musical cues designed to underline the gags so that not even the least perceptive could miss them. Meanwhile, one quickly notices the absence of genre commonplaces like gore and nudity, and the presence of features like euphemistic swearing and theoretically lethal violence that somehow doesn’t kill anyone. And when people do die in this movie, they typically go bloodlessly, while the heroes are weirdly impervious to injury— like when Dan shrugs off being shot in the goddamned head. To a greater extent than any other contemporary film of its type, Prisoners of the Lost Universe seems to have been made with children in mind, even though great swaths of its subject matter (most conspicuously Vosk’s ongoing efforts to rape Carrie on the sly) would normally position it strictly for adult audiences. Those oddities, abnormalities, and eccentricities of both genre and tone plainly mark the film as kin to Hawk the Slayer, which was odd, abnormal, and eccentric in strikingly similar ways.
Prisoners of the Lost Universe has one thing, though, that Hawk the Slayer sorely lacked. It has a well-developed, well-written, and well-played villain to counteract some of its ridiculousness. Kleel, in stark contrast to most fantasy movie villains, is not so much evil as savage. When he claims that his law is “hard but just,” it’s obvious not only that he genuinely does believe that, but that it might even be true by prevailing Vanyan standards. He certainly seems preferable to the goblins, the horse traders, the Nabu, or the cannibal troglodyte Blind Dead cosplayers, and it’s no wonder that Hartmann sees Kleel as the best of the unpalatable options before him when he arrives in Vanya. If nothing else, Kleel has a genuine society going, with ground rules beyond “take what you can, when you can.” John Saxon plays him with remarkable degrees of nuance, restraint, and conviction, too. It’s like he’s performing in some much better movie that only he can see. Granted, neither Kleel nor Saxon is enough to overcome the film’s junky ambience all by himself, but character and actor together provide a bit of solidity near the center, something that can be appreciated in earnest while the rest of Prisoners of the Lost Universe tests the limits of what you can appreciate ironically.