This is just a working theory, but since cocaine plays such a huge part in the films of the
70s, whether in front of or behind the camera, it behooves us to look into it while discussing the era's intense interest in icons of sexual purity and the permissiveness of the social order, the erosion of 'decency' like melting ice until slavering over young girls, the ultimate pseudo-incest taboo, was somehow socially acceptable.
For in the height of the drug's popularity (late-70s) there was disco and there was a 15 year-old Brooke Shields inferring she wore no underwear underneath her Calvins, creating quite a lot of tabloid and water cooler arguments as to where naughty fun ended and licentious statutory leering began. Shields already had a lightning rod signification, having appeared two years earlier in a film by Louis Malle, Pretty Baby, about a New Orleans child prostitute. The jeans ads rocketed her into a weird, unique, odd place in the zeitgeist, one that--nowadays--would be unthinkable. The more the press condemned her exploitation and licentious positioning the more the jeans were sold.
|One sniff makes you wilder....|
Looking back at it, man it had to be that she tried coke the night before her radical change. In an effort to win her man she said yes to her first line of coke and was blown out of her goody two-shoes. By the second line she was borrowing Roz's trashiest black leather, and by dawn she was chain smoking. This is the power of drugs, and especially the insidious power of meth and cocaine, to remove one's sense of empathy, guilt, shame, and responsibility - all the things that keep a girl virgin pure. Just like Laura Palmer or some victim of Monarch mind-control, give any girl cocaine, it seemed, and she was yours for defiling.
At the time all this was going on, I was just a kid myself, two years younger than Brooke Shields. She was, in a sense, too young for me (I went for Charlie's Angels), and a little too generic for my tastes. I remember having zero interest in either her controversial sex scenes in The Blue Lagoon (1980) the following year's Endless Love (1981).
But as someone unable to buy a ticket to an R-rated movie (which they both were), it was fascinating that, actually, neither could she.
|Shields reclines by the BLUE LAGOON|
America was still in a pre-AIDS hedonistic mindset and nudity was still something you could only get on the big screen at an R-rated picture (or-X, gasp - for there were no video players except in the homes of super rich a-holes); we saw sex as 'good' maybe because we hadn't seen that much of it. We were all curious. How could there be anything bad about it, especially with adorable Dr. Ruth dispensing prime time sex advice?
We were too innocent to know how dangerous it was to let coked-up producers capitalize on our prurience by promoting innocence itself as sexy.
As recent events and movements indicate, we're still learning.
In this light, it's clear 1982's Conan wasn't born in a vacuum, but because people were confident about the success of the insanely-hyped Bo Derek film Tarzan the Ape Man (1981 -above) a kind of adult's only-Lagoon meets the violence and macho of classic pulp, a short jump from Burroughs to Howard - indeed, the paperbacks looked almost alike.
In the late-70s, you see, things, crazes, ran in quick succession. We were all 'on the same page' in a lot of ways, interests flared up across the country and then were replaced by the next big thing (in the age of the internet that's not really feasible). Thanks to the surprising box office of Blake Edward's "10" (1979), its 'focus' (the '10' herself) Bo Derek was the goddess at the top of a big pyramid (everyone was giving everyone else a number all of a sudden). Girls got those tacky micro-dreads--or tried--then combed out the damaged hair, the resulting frizz leading to the perm. John Derek, Bo's husband/ photographer was the 80s American equivalent of the 60s Roger Vadim (see Pimps: The Devil's Auteurs). He would direct her next film - a kind of Blue Lagoon 2 (implying nudity amidst the fronds) for a slightly older pair of naturalist lovers to entwine within.
That was the hype. But a critical bomb was born instead. Hoots and hollers and not in a fun The Room kind of way, but a boring way... Bo began a descent as meteoric as her rise.
Yet - just because Dereks' Tarzan, the Ape Man became a DOA laughingstock doesn't mean it wasn't profitable, or that the engines of Italian 'draft rider' pulp hadn't already started up behind it. Dino De Laurentiis' Conan (1982) was another 'adult' adaptation of classic pulp (Robert E. Howard instead of Burroughs -above) with a fetishized male body (Arnold) instead of female, and this time it worked! People liked it, boys like me especially. And the best element was the genuinely touching romance with Sandahl Bergman as Valeria, a character we loved from the comics and were worried would not be represented well and Arnold - whose accent endeared us immediately. We adored these lovers' openhearted moxy. Valeria (left) was a strong, capable character - Bergman did most of her own stunts, and wielded a real scimitar -- she was no kibbitzer. She was worlds away from the innocent naifs of Tarzan, Blue Lagoon, and aught else. This was a movie where corruption of innocence was met not with musical numbers and leers but with sharp steel. This was barbarians sneaking downstairs to crash the party and send the reptilian cokehead directors running for the door. Brooke Shields was safe again, brought home to her worried Max Von Sydow father to sober up, and the doors of the orgy were sealed shut.
The film was a hit. And so the draft riders pulled in behind that, and the sword and sorcery age of the early-80s was born. The hedonistic debauching of innocents was out - the disemboweling of hedonists by the innocents was in.
Imitators came especially from New World, and of course, Italy, where they mixed and matched with the other big hits of the moment (see my list of awesome ROAD WARRIOR rips from last month) and hey -- many are on Prime. Four of them are worth mentioning, for they give the right kind of viewer a peaceful, easy feeling of nostalgia and archetypal alignment - making them perfect for napping to... on a lazy... Saturday... after... nnnz. And hey, onr og yhrm stars Miles O'Keefe, Derek's Tarzan himself! Everything comes full circle.
1. ATOR, THE FIGHTING EAGLE
(1982) Dir. Joe D'Amato
**1/2 / Amazon Image - B+
Maybe it's the languid sexually uninhibited postures, the dreamy pace, the tastefully provocative furs and armor; maybe it's the muted cinematographic palette of purples and yellows, or the rumbling timpani and Wagnerian brass of Carlo Maria Cordio's score; maybe it's the long flowing wigs on the young, lovely actors, or their flawless faces conveying just the right level of blankness, but goddamned it there's something about this terrible movie that really gets me. There's little nudity or sex in it, which helps, paradoxically to make it sexy. More overt sexual versions of this tale, like Deathstalker, or Sorceress for example, may miss this special erotic haziness. Look at the above, for example: is that supposed to be a cave wall or a frumpy tent tarp behind our plate-chested hero? Look at his splayed posture! Look at who he is, the Derek's Tarzan himself, Miles O'Keefe!
He plays Ator, a young warrior type raised by farmers after escaping a 'first born male son' purge by an evil warlord (a not uncommon procedure in these films). Though surely worlds more awake than he was as the Ape Man, O'Keefe is still a sleepy presence. But here it works! He lacks the ability to play his role any other way than deadpan straight (there's not a shred of self-awareness in performance, god bless him). Rumor is, D'Amato was routinely frustrated with his star's continued listlessness. But you won't be. Even as you want to shout to him from beyond the pale: "Miles! You're playing Ator, a naive young warrior whose bride/sister is abducted by a band of roving spider-worshipping brigands! You must rescue her! G'head! Git!" And all he does is mill around in a clearing.
Inevitably, he does start moving, and soon hooks up with an enterprising young Amazon named Roon (Sabrina Siani- above) after she wins him in combat over breeding rights. She's not in the same league as Sandahl Bergman, fighting skill-wise, but she does all right, carrying more than an equal share of battling derring-do once they team up, and I'm a fan of her big blonde wig. You can call their many fights with guards, boors, slavers, etc. amateurish but why bother? They're not using stunt doubles, and they're probably tired, and D'Amato doesn't know where to put the camera. I don't find any of that a problem, since it reminds me of my own filmed (super-8mm) Conan-inspired battles made around this same time. We used all the same unconvincing tricks (their swings miss by a mile; their stabs are just behind the person) which is maybe why I love this movie so much -- it's so damned innocent. D'Amato spares us gore and torture, sleazy sex close-ups, and all the other things associated with trying for an R-rating. That's maybe why I find it so relaxing. Compared to Game of Thrones it's like Lawrence frickin' Welk. There's no trauma, no investment, it's got that sublime terribleness all over itself. I've already seen it three times since discovering it last January!
But that doesn't explain the appeal, it's not what's so drowsily sexy about Ator. I think it has to do with O'Keefe's habit of resting his goblet on his genitals (he always seems to have one), splaying his legs out, when sitting, as if trying to get some air flow to his balls or presuming a fluffer is going to be down there rummaging amidst the luxuriant pelts of his furry loincloth momentarily (as in the above) so he can rouse to easy rider action. In your average 80s sex comedy that pose would be icky, but there's a difference between acting like you're hoping that happens, like a smirky frat boy, and acting like it's already happened so much in your life it's carried over into your regular posture, i.e. it's just unconscious habit -you're not expecting or hoping for anything. In other words, our Ator/O'Keefe seems like a very laid guy. Maybe that's why he's so listless?
Like many truly sexy films, though, Ator is seldom overtly sexual (i.e. think of Bunuel or Cronenberg), and when it is it's strangely frank - maybe that's another reason - it's sexuality is more akin to the kind of thing I used to fantasize about as a seven year-old, all tied up in power and submission: the Amazons choose one of their sisterhood to mate with Ator since he looks healthy, and so he's locked up in a hut and the victor comes in to claim him like a prize stud (but without any soft focus or jazz) and there's also the alluring witch who seduces him while Roon spies from a hole in the roof and sends his pet bear through a crack in the rocks to run a Toto-style cockblock. Again, the sex never happens, as Ator is put in a powerless position, an object being used for sex and seed, but too languid and reposed to resist, preferring to just rest his flagon near his pelted crotch as if a grail light for wandering maidens. This movie's so fucked up Ator plans to marry his own sister (even before knowing he was adopted) -- their early scenes together pulse with a yearning primal energy, never falling over the side into the abyss of puerility or camp. Michele Soavi was an uncredited co-writer and I'm guessing he maybe helped keep a kind of surrealist lid on things.
Other highlights: Ator fighting his own shadow (surprisingly well choreographed) and a hilarious finale that seems like 20 minutes flashing his shield's solar reflection onto a giant spider monster hidden in the recesses of a cave/temple. Then he goes up to battles it, the real size spider arms poking feebly out from between the columns. If nothing else, it's failure to convince as a real spider may give monster movie fans a new respect for Bert I. Gordon and his use of miniatures and rotoscoping in films like Empire of the Ants and Food of the Gods. Man, you can feel the tiredness of the effects guys in the shadows waving those big legs. Between the sleepy Prince Valium-ness of O'Keefe and the feeble leg action, the whole movie feels like its settling down to sleep... mmmm why not join in?
Working a weird languid artistic spell like that more than makes up for its countless inadequacies, and isn't that, in the end, what great bad filmmaking is? Maybe the zombie-like lagging of O'Keefe compelled the usually slipshod Joe to smell the roses? Either way, we get to smell them. And they smell like patchouli, hash, sage and bodies - the smell of Dead tour, the smell that LSD-added senses 'see' as the maroon bewitched core of life itself, the sizzling of a tailgate grill cracking open kundalini serpent eggs in the back our neck as we walk the rows looking for that miracle ticket. It's all there in Sabrina Siani's gleaming blonde wig, in the purple hues of the cave walls, in the golden shine of O'Keefe's magic breast plate, in every strand of web.
(1982) Dir. Jack Hill
*** / Amazon Image - A
The usurping, wild-eyed sorcerer Traigon (Roberto Ballesteros) needs to sacrifice his firstborn child but his hot young wife (Silvia Manríquez) has twin girls and won't tell him which one came out when. A wild-haired good wizard, Krona (Martin La Salle) strides forth to zap Traigon into a 20 year-long period of oblivion, alas, too late to save the mom from Traigon's sword. As is the custom, Krona leaves the babies with farmers so they don't attract despotic attention. He drops back in twenty years later, alas, too late to save the farmers from Traigon's soldier's sword. The twins have gestated into beautiful Playboy playmates (natural breasts, most excellent) Lynette and Leigh Harris and they vow revenge! A hearty, if unusually short, red-bearded Viking named Baldar (Bruno Rey), his curly-haired romantic-lead rascal buddy Erlick (Roberto Nelson), and a ridiculous horny satyr, vow to help the twins get revenge against the revived, reviled Traigon, who still needs that first born! Traigon's right hand woman, Delissa (Ana de Sade) promises the second-born twin to her pet monkey monster, and the monkey uses druggy fruits to disorient the gang and abduct the right one. Hair-raising escapes, magical spells, fights, gods fighting in the sky while zapping the battlers below with lightning, remote orgasms (the girls are linked psychically), and undead warriors culled from their crypts ensue.
To call back to my long-winded out-on-a-limb opening introduction, there are copious drug references here: the idea that a fruit spore cloud - created by throwing rare fruits on the ground by the good guy's campsite, will reduce them to laughing idiots, allowing their shady dealers (the apes) to carry the girls away with no resistance - dude, I've been to those parties. And the later drugging and hypnotizing of the first born of the twins and Erlick so they'll get it on during a big pre-sacrificial sex magick ceremony to appease one's reptilian overlord? That's so Illuminati-Monarch7! (1)
It was director Jack Hill's final film (alas, and woe to us!), this was made for Corman's New World down in Mexico as part of a multi-picture deal. Its production values are a little higher and the extras and supporting cast a little sexier than we're used to in a New World film of the time (no day-for-night or other lame tricks), and Amazon's streaming source is pretty solid, presented HD and with deep, blazing reds (see below) and blacks. My only issue is that, perhaps to enhance the night scenes and presumably, and bring out that red, the color correction effort gives a lot of the actors an orange-sunburnt tint. I didn't get this issue on the Scorpion Blu-ray (see my review here), where the blacks are jet deep. But hey, it beats having to get up and plunk the Blu-ray in the machine.
Sorceress's release year (1982) was a high point for A-list sci-fi and horror/adventure, and amidst that year's B-list, Hill could have rocked out for at least a few more classics or even moved up to the big leagues. Today enough Hill fans are in high enough places that he could get a film funded in five minutes if he wanted. Hell, Tarantino alone could hook him up! Do it, Jack! Do it!
Hey, Jack, I get it. Age and experience brings wisdom at the expense of exuberance. And Spielberg was coming along to leave decadent deadpan larks like this -- too dirty and weird for the young kids and too cheap for the adults-- lurching along solely with the 16-20 year-old males at the video rental store looking for a post-Conan fix. And then, 30 years later when they get nostalgic pangs for a simpler age. So thanks, Jack, for putting in the extra effort, and leaving some of your cool self, even in rote epics like this, so even if we never heard of it back in 1982, we can enjoy it now because we know we would have loved it back then. Your weird genius endures. Would there'd been a trillion, that you'd been a Crio Santiago, a Wynorski, or a prolific guy like Matt Climber, the director of...
(1983) Dir. Matt Climber
** / Amazon Image - C
By now you know the story- a peaceful Amazon village is overrun by slavering invaders, killing men, enslaving women, etc. But one brave woman escapes to seek a mate and return to whatever in the name of her fallen sisters. No one's ever stayed awake through the opening to get the exact details but there's a bouncing Ennio Morricone score and vivid Spanish desert locations and a reasonable amount of action courtesy director Matt Climber. As the unstoppable, untamable Hundra, Laurene Landon does all her own stunts, which is pretty cool but she seldom loses her doofus smile, which can be confusing in the action scenes. Probably cast due to her resemblance to Bo Derek (and another big California nature girl-type star of the late 70s, Linda Evans) she has no problem literally picking up guys and spinning them around. She jumps on an off horses onto and across roofs, knocking guards over right and left like a merry Errol Flynn in fur bikini. She seems to be having a kind of sloppy boozy time of it- hanging back on her lines and reactions like she's waiting for a cue card, smiling confidently before leaning into a guy or throwing him over her shoulder like she's Tarzan and he's Maureen O'Sullivan, all with a buzzed smile on her face. How are we supposed to read this? Morricone isn't going to help --he's no Mickey Mouser and not about to add comic effects or ominous undercarriages. He's going to go the antithetical route regardless, just pumping the lady up like a cheering papa with Wagnerian orchestral urgency. Since she's proving her mettle right in front of us, it's hard not to forgive her trespasses. I even forgive her dated hair (were they trying for those Bo Derek braids and then gave up and just hot combed them out?).
Alas, as an adventure of feminist empowerment, the ramshackle tale tries to do too much and in the process gets old fast (it's taken me three years to finish watching). It may help to consider that the writer/director, Matt Climber, was once married to Jayne Mansfield, and more importantly, shepherded the original GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) TV show, shortly after making this film, making him the obvious inspiration for the character played by Marc Maron in the Netflix series of the same name (see also Climber's masterpiece, The Witch Who Came from the Sea, both also on Prime). When you realize Laurene Landon played one of the lady wrestlers managed by Peter Falk in All the Marbles (1981) it gets clearer. Whether or not Climber has some weird women wrestling 'thing' or not, his love of strong women makes him an ally, of some sort of another.
Pros: That big chase scene I mentioned really benefits from Landon doing her own stunts as we see her leaping around in single takes not unlike Errol Flynn or Buster Keaton, albeit a bit sloppier. It goes on an on in and around this small gated village, from parapet to rooftop to second floor balcony and back again, the horse and dog keeping perfect time below (the dog leading the horse!), all three together in an elaborate and quite impressive centerpiece action scene. It ends with her falling through the roof and onto the bed of a brooding doctor (Ramir Oliveros). Without even pausing to shake off the wild ride she just had, she jealously eyeballs the girl who's leaving without missing a beat, not even being out-of-breath. Eating an apple from his table, she starts pinning him to the wall with hurled daggers proclaiming she intends to mate with him! She's like Kate and Petruchio from Taming of the Shrew, rolled together and sheathed in odd furry raiments!
Cons: Alas, the inevitable temple orgy sequence that follows the lengthy single-take / clearly great chase sequence, is sordid, full of hot girls pawed by fat ugly middle-aged drunks, however, which gets old fast. It seems present mainly to show how vile temples were before the Christ our lord did pass amidst them. We're subjected to gross men loudly announcing their superiority to women, who are all there solely to serve them, etc. and making women bow down to a bull they worship (how and why is vague). The snotty king (Cihangir Gaffari) likes to have interminable snit fits, letting girls know who's boss while his little toadie does the close-up bullying. It's all paving the way to Hundra teaching the court virgins to kick their men's asses and --in a big slow motion climax set to dynamic Morricone howling Wagnerian ecstasy--killing them all with her mighty sword. It's cathartic but at the same time very odd that she'd wait so long, and submit to make-up regimens and how to walk in heels, rather than just wiping them all out and odd that Climber keeps it all in slow-mo. Though not as odd as the super slow and unconvincing deaths in They Call her One-Eye, nonetheless are slow enough we have time to notice the punch pulling in some detail.
|Maria Casal - right|
4. DEATHSTALKER 2
(1987) Dir. Jim Wynorski
**1/2 / Amazon Image - C-
Even if, like me, you have problems with Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) you still love John Lazar as the insane and charismatic record mogul. And even if, like me, you have serious problems with the oeuvre of Jim Wynorski, you still love Deathstalker 2, because Lazar is the evil villain, Jerek, and though he's not looking quite as dashing as he was 17 years earlier (spending most of the film 'practicing' swordsmanship, killing off his warriors with a drowsy hooded-eyed flatline level of bemusement) who is? John Terlesky stars as the titular Stalker and his 'B-list Bruce Campbell' self-aware grin is free of the snarky puerility that undoes so many of his ilk. Toni Naples is Jerek's evil henchwoman; bewitching-eyed Maria Socas is the Amazon queen. They're all fine but the movie really belongs to Monique Gabrielle as the pauper/princess. Her tanned and toned limbs, buckskin minidress, cool punk rock blonde hair and pouty eye rolls go a long way towards absolving her flat line delivery. Lucky for us, what she and Terlesky lack in acting chops is made up for by their youthful chemistry. They may plow through the classical screwball rhythms of the conceivably clever dialogue like a lawnmower through a victory garden (they maybe saw His Girl Friday like, once, though it's clear from Wynorski's script he knows it as well as he knows The Thing) it's not their fault, they are lovely and young, and that forgives almost any transgression. The passion, youth and beauty is all there... but crazy Jim Wynorski is no Oscar Jaafe.. (three Hawks references in one paragraph... about a movie called DEATHSTALKER 2!
The plot is a variation of the familiar "princess disguised as beggar/seer recruits wandering warrior to help her reclaim her stolen throne by an deposing evil sorcerer usurper" story. And though parts are certainly innuendo-laden, even during Deahstalker's trial by combat with a gigantic lady wrestler (Dee "Queen Kong" Booher -- from GLOW - second GLOW reference in one post!)--it's a film that never courts misogyny or grotesque undulance.
The first Deathstalker is also on Prime and worth checking out, but cropped for full frame, and looks way better in widescreen. Also, the print is kind of messy looking - something that hurts it far more than it hurts its sequel (which was clearly shot with full frame more in mind). I'd say if you like either film, get the Shout Factory set, where both Stalkers are anamorphic widescreen and look real good. (and come with commentary tracks). Don't waste your time with the other two films on the set, though. Just a hint from one right guy to another. Take it or leave it.
If you must continue along these schlocky lines, you can also try the Bakshi-rotoscoped, Frazetta-templated Fire and Ice (1983--what else?) but it's a little too sophomoric (lots of near-naked fantasy babes, lazy animation shortcuts, and a very tired storyline) and as far as teenage boy boob-and-blood animation you're better off with that extended bit in Heavy Metal. But if you're over the age of thirty you may feel slightly embarrassed by the fact you used to love either one. But hey, look at you now, all grown up and healthy -- why you're a regular 'ally'! You've seen now how the chain of event that began with cocaine's rise in socially-accepted popularity, coupled to the risque use of minors in ads and movies begat the sword and sorcery anti-drug backlash, or slash. There's no more excuses. You can't go back to the blithe ignorance that made such dehumanization possible!
The Dregs of Prime
(To be Skipped at all Costs)
If you want to keep on the Tarzan/Conan rip tip, stick to the above and avoid these:
MISTRESS OF THE APES (terrible quality, misleading cover)
GUNAN: KING OF THE BARBARIANS (murky source)
LIANA, JUNGLE GODDES (zzz)
GOLD OF THE AMAZON WOMEN (decent image but very dull, pictured above - the only cool bit, lots of gorgeous broads with nothing whatever to do while we slog around with dull dudes)
WARRIOR AND THE SORCERESS (murky, full frame and vulgar)
PRISONERS OF THE LOST UNIVERSE (murky, tedious)
* YOR: HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE (1983) - Now on Blu-ray or for $$ download
Great ancient aliens / dinosaurs / ape creature movie with Reb Brown as Yor and a bevy of comely Italian actresses vying for his... love.
*SHE (1984) Starring Sandahl Bergman
it was once on Netflix! Now... in the void. By cracky, it must be released! If you're the one holding it hostage hear my demand: Release SHE! (not to be confused with the 1935 film or Hammer's Ursula Andress remake)
* HEARS AND ARMOR (1983) - avail. on VHS, but needs a good Blu-ray upgrade - Tanya Roberts as the Muslim princess! A beautiful Italian girls lying in beds of flowers wearing full armor - never was all that is cool and lovely so succinctly in a single image wrapped.
DEATHSTALKER (1983 - get the anamorphic shout DVD with Deathstalker 2, and two forgettable other films)
Sigh - this concludes my lengthy and obsessive journey into Amazon Prime. See them all! I'm moving my focus to the Criterion channel. I need art, damnit! I have depth. Krona - come save me!
1. See (for starters)L The Illuminati, Hypnosis, Paranoia, Schizophrenia, Kubrick, and Tom Cruise