THIS WEEK on Film Torments, Dan takes a look at a slice of cheap and cheerless nonsense that’s, inexplicably, deeply dear to him: Corman-produced and brimming with 80s-sleaze, it’s Deathstalker.
Deathstalker (not to be confused with the keyboard) holds a very special place in my heart. I picked it up for £4 from Blockbuster’s (RIP) used DVD section, its promise held in the awesomely kitsch cover art; a screaming damsel, held captive by a giant ogre-bear-pig-man, flanked by a beef-man clutching a sword mid-swing. It was a thing of beauty, and I had to own it. I still do, price-tag included, and it served as my gate-way to the arena of low-budget schlock that I perpetually occupy.
It was also my first introduction to Roger Corman. I last mentioned B-movie maestro Corman in Humanoids From the Deep, a disgusting piece of slime that highlighted the seedy underbelly of exploitation trash. Deathstalker, meanwhile, is a brazen, capitalistic take on Conan the Barbarian, swapping the sweeping plains of Cimmeria for the smoke-machine forests of Argentina, pulling numerous extras and character actors from the region in order to cobble together a swords-and-sandals rip-off on the cheap. It would prove to be the first of nine movies Corman would make in the country during the 80s, citing cheaper production costs. It’s living proof that you get what you pay for.
Unlike Humanoids From the Deep, Deathstalker doesn’t even wait until the opening credits finish rolling before it starts with the sexual assault. Fortunately, Deathstalker (Rick Hill), our flaxen, flexing, avenging hero is here to save the damsel from molestation, awkwardly stabbing a troupe of goblin-men in the process… and then he promptly starts molesting her as well. Wait, what?
The titular Deathstalker – for that is, indeed, his name – is one of the most weirdly engaging heroes in fantasy cinema. Portrayed by Hill with the emotional oscillation of a doorknob, Stalker sashays from forests to caves to imperial fortresses with the laissez-faire indifference of a man who couldn’t wish harder to be somewhere else. “This just isn’t your day, is it?” he says to a man he’s just murdered. “This isn’t my day either!” he says when the aforementioned damsel runs into the forest. Hill delivers these lines with the graceful timing of a table, and his total lack of charisma, bizarrely, becomes gripping.
Later, he is presented with a quest to save the abducted Princess Codille (regular Playmate Barbi Benton) by a king in the woods wearing a cardboard crown. The camera and score do their best to underline Stalker’s credibility as a divinely-ordained hero of legend, via a swooping zoom and choral ballyhoos. Hilariously, he doesn’t verbally accept his task, wandering off to vaguely discover the third of Three Powers, the MacGuffins of Deathstalker’s lauded mythos. Combined, the Three Powers grant immortality and invincibility and all that guff, and Munkar (Bernard Erhard), the usurping villain, has two of them.
Erhard, with his pithy goatee, bald head, Tyson-esque face tattoo and lugubrious voice, is a deliciously campy delight, revelling in how fucking evil and immortal he is. At one point, he feeds an eyeball to an angry sock-puppet within a treasure chest – he laughs sinisterly, but it is hilariously cut short by an interrupting guard. He looks genuinely hurt at the intrusion, and immediately turns the male guard into a woman to seduce Stalker in his quarters. It doesn’t work. In fact, most of Munkar’s schemes fail in spectacular fashion; his final gambit to kill Stalker includes multiplying himself and slowly walking toward him, apparently in the hopes he’ll die of laughter.
Laughter is the principal state elicited by Deathstalker. The sets are cheap and cheerful, with Styrofoam battlements and brick-mortar walls lining Munkar’s impregnable fortress, and the interior battles often seem in danger of breaking a wall down altogether. The music is hysterically over the top, with chunky synth strings and noodly electric drums comprising most of the soundtrack, barring the occasional blast of Spaghetti Western brass; when it’s not being overpowered during the action sequences by people muttering indistinctly to each other, of course.
Whole scenes are constructed around the desire to get as many naked breasts onscreen as possible, including a requisite fantasy bar fight with an actual mud-wrestling pit in the middle. The rest of the scene is a glorious melange of flying fists, beer swilling and the pig-man from the poster eating a pig’s head on a platter. I imagine this is meant to be a visual metaphor for the film-making process, and indeed a summation of the film itself: as violence erupts around him, Stalker is in the middle of it, looking bored and doing nothing.
But all of this is understating how rampant the misogyny is in the film. Even when a woman comes to him willingly, Stalker has to sexually assault her. The woman in question, Kaira (Lana Clarkson, who went on to achieve some cult status in Barbarian Queen and other Corman productions), wears a strip of crossed-over cloth passed across her shoulders and underneath her breasts, the nipples exposed. Suffice to say, it is not practical warrior wear. (Though she does at least put a bra on later.)
Like the rest of the women in the film, she exists to be beautiful and ravaged by muscular men. This should come as no surprise, given both the producer and the director. James Sbardellati, second unit director on Humanoids From the Deep, filmed most of the awful rape scenes in that abomination, and here he gleefully throws nubile women at the screen for broad strokes of titillation, no doubt encouraged by Corman’s shrewd understanding of the target audience. It’s at least masked by upbeat music and, very occasionally, consent, but it’s the casual prevalence of masculine intimidation that makes the skin crawl regardless.
Again, the practice is hardly alien to the barbarian side-genre. Pioneered by Conan and propagated by dozens of lesser imitators, it became almost as integral to the low-budget sword-and-sandals structure as warlocks and ogres, but is no less repulsive for the fact. It detracts from the campy thrills of Munkar and his antics; it prevents us from enjoying the slap-shit editing before the pig-man and the strong-man lock up in the bar fight, and it makes us question why we even enjoy this kind of woman-hating tripe in the first place.
It might have something to do with the fact that the pig-man beats the strong-man to death with another man’s arm. It might not.
In any case, Deathstalker is perfect for a bad movie night, and I speak from multiple viewing experiences. It’s a film chock full of corny lines, technical incompetence and budgetary limitations; i.e., the perfect fodder for yelling profanities at the screen. More importantly, it paved the way for the true masterpiece of the four-film spanning franchise – the immediate sequel, Deathstalker II: Duel of the Titans. We’ll have our revenge; and Deathstalker, too.