Jim Wynorski was an emerging genre filmmaker in 1986. Having finished The Lost Empire (Ever seen it? Paul W.S. Anderson did – right before he did Mortal Kombat. Cut the budget by nine-tenths, make Sonya Blade the protagonist, and replace Cary Tagawa with Angus Scrimm, and you’ve got some idea of what you’re in for), Wynorski found himself at the helm of the extraordinary Chopping Mall (aka Killbots) – which was produced by the inimitable Roger Corman.
Perhaps because Corman saw a bit of himself in the young filmmaker – he was smart, economical, and willing to make films with “exploitable elements” – Wynorski ended up the go-to guy for what could be considered the “high profile” Concorde/New Horizons/New World/New Concorde productions.
His next assignment: Deathstalker II.
The original Deathstalker was a Sword and Sorcery-style Conan rip-off from 1983. Corman did decent business with it, since those sorts of pictures – along with post-apocalyptic sci-fi action flicks (and any combination of the two – ever see Yor: Hunter From the Future? Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared Syn?) – almost always turned a profit all the way into the late-eighties.
There seemed always to be a formula with these productions – nab a Playmate or Pet for a bit of “name” recognition, write a ponderous script, create a piece of key art better than anything that shows up in the film (someone get Boris Vallejo or H.R. Giger on the phone) and shoot where human life is cheap.
In the case of the first Deathstalker film, we’ve got former mansion-dweller Barbi Benton on hand as a princess in need of rescue from an evil wizard named Munkar, who’s trying to assemble a trifecta of majikal (Did I really spell it that way? What am I, a Wiccan? A hip-hop artist? Or – in the words of my man Van Damme – “bof”) objects said to create life, the universe, and everything. Beefcake Rick Hill brings the titular hero “to life” – and I’d wager that his soulless performance was less “acting choice” and more “everything in the arsenal”. He basically flexes, squints, and swats at lumber draped in chintzy “Grim Reaper” Halloween cloaks (to be fair, Hill fared much better as a Heavy-of-the-Week on shows like Knight Rider, The A-Team and The Dukes of Hazzard). Deathstalker also features a performance by future Phil Spector bull’s-eye Lana Clarkson, with whom Corman was so impressed that he produced two more flicks featuring the athletic blonde in warrior woman mode (Barbarian Queen and its sequel – which, in typical “B” fashion, has absolutely nothing to do with the original film).
As an aside – I’ve always thought that it would have been really awesome if Clarkson’s last words to Spector were “I’ll be no man’s slave and no man’s whore!” Am I awful?
Production on Deathstalker took place in Argentina – which means that it took about twelve minutes to comb a couple of seedy Buenos Aires disco joints for two dozen skinny 19 year-old girls with bad teefs and Jennifer Beals hair to fill out the disturbing-as-all-hell orgy sequence – and far less time to awkwardly dub over their original voices. The film is rote, joyless, and turgid. It makes the Mystery Science Theater-maligned Miles O’Keefe Ator films look like Lord of the Rings. Basically – Deathstalker is the fucking pits.
That’d look good on the front of the Corman/Disney DVD re-release, huh?
But hey – you make a film cheaply enough, it’s bound to turn a profit, (and like I said, back in the day, Conan cash-ins captured cake) and so…Deathstalker II.
Wynorski signed up-and-comer John Terlesky to play his Deathstalker. Terlesky had been making it happen on the small screen, most notably during the action/detective series boom of the early-mid 80’s (when every page Steven J. Cannell yanked from his typewriter got a twelve episode network commitment) – as the star of a short-lived NBC series called Legmen, in which he and Bruce Greenwood (yes!) solved crimes and punched guys. Terlesky was that rare breed of disarming performer (yeah, I’ve got a man crush – what of it?) who looks like a jock but acts like a goof (think Ryan Reynolds…with better hair).
And he spends much of Deathstalker II‘s running time doing just that – spit-takes…mugging…pratfalls – at one point he even exclaims “Yipe!”
See…Wynorski and Terlesky touched down in Argentina, read the Deathstalker II screenplay, unceremoniously binned the thing, and set about writing a second draft. The resultant script is whimsically, wonderfully silly – filled with double entendres, puns, double entendres, sight gags and double entendres – often accompanied by a groan-inducing musical “sting” from long-time Wynorski collaborator Chuck Cirino (Cirino is also credited with the genuinely rousing Deathstalker II theme, which – after the twenty-third time you’ve heard it (performed at one point by a midget with a busted-ass baby-blue lute) – will haunt you forever.
Inspired by the lunacy of Your Show of Shows, Laugh-In, and Bugs Bunny cartoons (which the duo claims was the only programming they could understand in Argentina), Wynorski and Terlesky fashioned a shticky sword and sorcery sendup that set the tone for Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess in the years to follow.
Deathstalker II sees the titular character repurposed. No longer a terse, monosyllabic slab-o’-beef warrior king, ‘Stalker is a snarky rogue – a self-christened “Prince of Thieves” (again – there is no doubt that this movie is the template for Xena/Hercules). We’re shown an example of his prowess early on as he pilfers a priceless (painted) rock from one of the weakest sets ever built for a sword and sorcery pic (pausing to weigh his actions Indiana Jones-style, by the by) – which incurs the wrath of scantily-clad swordmistress Sultana (Wynorski stalwart Toni Naples), who snarls to her guards, “I’ll have my revenge…and Deathstalker too!”
And yeah…right after she says that – titles.
As I mentioned previously, these flicks require some pin-up skin, and here Wynorski ups the ante – or, at least, the cup size – by wrangling B-Movie Goddess (and former Penthouse Pet) Monique (pronounced “Mon-ih-Q”, just so you know) Gabrielle in an awesome (and undoubtedly taxing) duel role.
After our James Bondian opening sequence, we meet Reena the Seer (Gabrielle, in the only performance on her C.V. anyone could possibly describe as “winsome”) outside what passes for a strip jernt in the Hyborean age (Abud’s 4 Food – Live Entertainment Nitely!), as she’s getting roughed up by the same three guys Terlesky stabbed six times each during the film’s opening. Deathstalker shows up in the nick of time to confront the masked soldiers thusly:
“You know boys – ordinarily I don’t mind seeing a woman get a good beating if she deserves it – but this doesn’t look like much of a contest to me.”
After ‘Stalker thwarts Reena’s (first) rape – and participates in a western-style bar brawl – he agrees to accompany the oracle (she uses a magic doorknob to promise him vast riches and a place in legend “right up there with Conan”) across the wastelands to a castle where an evil sorcerer/swordsman has enslaved the populace.
Jerak – played by the legendary John (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) La Zar – has come by his despotic rule by magically creating a duplicate of the land’s actual ruler, and – with the assistance of Sultana – dethroning and banishing the original (he couldn’t just kill her because his Faker version’s lifeforce is tied to that of the real princess – “I’m still working out the bugs” he says). When we finally meet Jerak’s Puppet Princess Evie, we find she bears a striking resemblance to Monique Gabrielle! As Evil Evie, Mo does the vampy slut/tawdry whore work that seemed to be her DTV bread and butter – but it’s her goofy-cute, wide-eyed take on Reena that proves Gabrielle’s merit as a charming light comedienne.
‘Stalker and Her Royal High-ass hit out on horseback for the land of Jzafir, plagued by their burgeoning love/hate relationship – as well as midgets, assassins, zombies (the sequence works in references to Night of the Living Dead, Lucio Fulci’s Zombie, and once again – Raiders of the Lost Ark), and – in the film’s most inspired sequence – amazons.
The duo is captured by a tribe of Argentinean Amazonians and taken back to their village (apparently, they all chipped in and bought a Fiat – it’s in the upper left hand corner of the frame in the establishing shot of their camp) for questioning. While the women worry that Reena bears a striking resemblance to an evil princess whose soldiers have plagued their land, they know for a fact that Deathstalker has plagued all womankind with his sexy ways, and thus, they sentence him to a gladiatorial Fight to the Death.
In a wrestling ring. With the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling’s own Queen Kong.
“Do you have to buy your clothes at a special store?” Deathstalker asks Kong before she pummels him mercilessly into the mat. We get a Rocky homage, and more mugging…and spit-takes…
Eventually, Deathstalker defeats Kong, but refuses to kill her – earning the admiration of the Amazon Queen. But alas, the truth about Reena comes out (she’s the real Princess Evie, and she’s using our hero to thwart Jerak and return to her kingdom), and – feeling like he’s been thoroughly had – ‘Stalker gives her the kiss-off. He comes to regret this decision just minutes later, when he discovers that the Amazon Queen’s plans for him include marriage (this revelation leads to the film’s twenty-eighth spit-take. Make Room for Deathstalker).
It is this Amazon village sequence that really hammers home the irrefutable genius of Deathstalker II. Actress Maria Socas was a veteran of this sort of chintzed-out sword and sorcery vehicle (you may remember her from the David Carradine Sword and Sorcery adventure The Warrior and the Sorceress – where she played…the Sorceress) – and it seems as though the film’s irreverent tone is lost in translation, as she renders her Amazonian Queen murderously straight. The beauty of this is that her dialogue doesn’t help – it’s that ponderous genre stuff we talked about earlier. Terlesky consistently cuts her off at the knees, chuckling at his own lines (which include asking her if she decorated her hut herself) and rolling his eyes at hers – as if the character himself finds the trappings of the genre he’s stuck in utterly preposterous. It’s in moments like these where the film proves that it is smart about being stupid. Deathstalker II isn’t funny because it’s terrible – Deathstalker II is funny because it’s trying to be. The movie plays like a Hope/Crosby “Road” picture, if one of the men were a cute blonde with a penchant for falling out of her top and a knack for getting raped.
Not long after the Amazon adventure portion of the film, Reena nearly gets raped again (the film is hilariously mechanical when it comes to dishing out the nake) – but is rescued in the nick of time by…oh, why spoil it? You’re gonna’ hit Amazon.com to pick this thing up after we’re done here, aren’t you?
Reena and ‘Stalker II – with the help of the entire nation (or a couple hundred locals in distressed tunics) eventually generate some malice in the palace (in a sequence that looks so much like something out of Army of Darkness – nearly a decade before Army of Darkness – that a random bolt of lightning lashes out and overturns a cart full of straw – weird), but not before Deathstalker has an uncomfortably long romantic interlude with Evil Monique. Good Monique intervenes – bopping herself on the head (the logistics of this had to take a good forty minutes to explain to Mon-ih-Q) right before her evil duplicate drinks Deathstalker’s blood in order to remain corporeal. Yeah…
Finally, Deathstalker and Jerak come face to face, and they engage in a not-too-shabby swordfight (aided and abetted by a nice piece of Corman catalog score by Christopher Young in full-on “cribbing James Horner” mode). Will a triumphant Terlesky emerge…triumphant, or will he taste the black sperm of Jerak’s vengeance?
Wynorski moved from amazons to aliens when he directed the remake of Roger Corman’s own Not of this Earth in 1988 (notable for being Traci Lords’ first foray into mainstream film – after making headlines as America’s favorite junkie jailbait pornstar), then cemented his position as a B-Movie king by helming the charmingly campy Return of Swamp Thing (a sequel that outdoes its Wes Craven-helmed original in every fashion). From here, he began a cycle of films featuring his favorite subject – boobs – including Hard to Die (let’s see if I can do a logline – how about “Die Hard meets The First Power meets…uh…boobs”?) and Sins of Desire (starring Notebook director – and son of John – Nick Cassevettes).
After a fashion, Wynorski hit on a high-tech version of an old-school bit of Hollywood trickery. He began making B-action movies that utilized A-film trims. Making a sub-hunt flick – McTiernan didn’t use all of the submarine footage ILM whipped up for Red October, did he? Need a building to blow up – maybe Carolco’s auction included footage from the Cyberdyne Building destruction from T2? Need a snowy mountain plane crash – here’s a pair of scissors and a print of Cliffhanger!
Why if Wynorski had half a chance…he could make an entire movie using this stock footage!
The story opens on these mysterious explosions…nobody knows what’s causing them – but it’s upsetting all the lingerie models. So Treat Williams, Dean Cain, and Kristy Swanson are called in to solve the mystery…
Simultaneously – and with the aid of about a dozen pseudonyms – Wynorski sits atop a sort-of neo nudie-cutie empire. Shot on video…with flimsy plots and flimsy tops and ex-pornstars thankful for a gig that doesn’t end with taking a shot in the eye, these films – with titles like Busty Cops and Alabama Jones and the Busty Crusade – line Hollywood Video shelves and make insane cake for a filmmaker who learned Roger Corman’s lessons with sinister skill.
John Terlesky has also stepped behind the camera, helming a brace of entertaining, unassuming little B’s (one of his best, Chain of Command, features Michael Biehn, the all-powerful Ric Young, and – proving that he did indeed learn from his time and toil with Master Wynorski – the Argonautica detonation from Deep Rising) and a bit of ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy and Boston Legal.
Man…Spader, Shatner, and Terlesky in the same room – are there any trims from the White House explosion from ID4? Shatner’s the President, Spader’s his sinister VP, and Terlesky’s the ex-Navy SEAL Secret Service agent framed for the assassination attempt…
Deathstalker II is a strange case – in that everyone knows that the first film is awful. Everyone knows Deathstalker III is awful because it wound up on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Far fewer people have seen Deathstalker II as a result (fewer still have seen Deathstalker IV – but that’s a door you don’t want opened), the rationale being that if two films in a series just suck for days, any other sequels will also suck – so why bother tracking them down?
Well…that may work when considering the Matrix franchise…or the Harry Potter films – but here, avoiding the entire franchise means missing out on a real gem. Don’t bother with any of the others – just see Deathstalker II: Duel of the Titans. Good stuff.
When next we descend…you will put your weight on it and attack the wack.
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