Tuesday, May 17, 2022

The Imperturbable O'Keefe: ATOR: THE FIGHTING EAGLE, THE BLADE MASTER, THE IRON WARRIOR

D'Amato captures a near-Frazetta style color and lighting scheme here.

"The dividing line between goodness and stupidity is very, very fine." - Zor, Ator 2: The Blade Master

Watching the Oscars last night week month in my usual squirrelly Sunday night stupor, all I could think of was.... Ah-tor. Ahhhh-TOR

I'm getting too old and weird to want 'great' movies that remind me of how racist, sexist, damaged and otherwise screwed up the world is, nor do I want movies to tell me, us, how love, hope, and the movies themselves can transform and effect social change. In addition to moving itself to tears with its own humble self-congratulations, Oscar seems to insist on telling us what to feel, which is love. Of the Oscar movies, I did dig Dune. That's as far as I'll go. 

Here's an example of how bad it's gotten. As you know, Sword and the Sorcerer finally came to Blu-ray. I got a review copy and I started to watch it and was instantly bored and bummed by the mix of way too much plot. There's an innocent naive and unprepared good king overthrown by evil magic-borrowing social climbing Richard Lynch, who's only real competition is a man called Lee Horsely who finds himself recruited in a tavern by an in-disguise princess offering sex in exchange for a hostage rescue. I needed instantly and suddenly to take a break, which means weeks have already gone by and it's collecting dust. The kind of escapism I need is too simple and pared down to get lost in big set pieces, writerly overthink, dated sexism, and derring do scored to bombastic hack sweep. 

To reiterate. For this old alcoholic, no more Oscar bait, no expansive sweep, no sexist blather. I need a film so cracked it crumbles into dust with the strike of a gong and the gleaming golden skeleton of true myth is revealed beneath its B-movie bones. That's ATOR! (It's pronounced "Ahh-tor." AHHHH-tor). Someone at Time Out once called Xena a "brain cooler". That put it so well. That's what I want, but even Xena got too complicated after the first season, what with the dips into musical episodes, Joxer's baggy pants routines, and sudden detours into profound social sermonizing and way too much female bonding. Now that we've come so far, Xena's cautious lavender hand-holding seems timid. And if there's no sexy frisson, why are we even watching? 

Brain, uncooled once again. Save me Ator.... the pool of escape is shrinking under the global warming summer sun.

ATOR, THE FIGHTING EAGLE
(1982) Dir. Joe D'Amato 
****
Pity poor Ator (Miles O'Keefe), in love with sister Sunya (Ritza Brown). But how can they be married when it is forbidden? Don't worry, you're adopted, Ator! As the son of Torin, you are destined one day to defeat "the Ancient One" - so as is custom in these things, a wise warrior swept you away from danger and left you with some farmers. Now you're all hot and in love with your sister, but it's OK! You're adopted! But at the folksy wedding, horse-riding brigands led by "the High Priest of the Ancient One" (Dakar) ride in and slaughter most everyone at the wedding except the bride and groom, making off with cute Sunya, and leaving Ator in the frustrated dust. Quick, Ator, time to harness that sexual angst training with a mysterious stranger named Griba (Edmund Purdom, in a terribly hacked-up Mongol warrior wig), the same one who brought you to your adopted parents so long ago! Meanwhile, Dakar makes his single digit army stand around for hours while he plays with his pet tarantula. Oh yes, Ator's travels will be fraught with sun-dappled danger, such as when he's caught by Amazons and forced to breed with a hot warrior named Roon (Sabrina Siani, who is in nearly every early-80s Italian post-Conan sword and sorcery film) and seduced by a foxy witch (Laura Gemser). What other sexy challenges will he face en route to his destiny as killer of the Ancient One (aka a giant spider)? 

Maybe it's his languid sexually uninhibited postures, the dreamy look in his eyes, the tastefully provocative fur loincloth, his golden toned skin and flowing 70s metal hair and copper/gold chest plate, but whatever, Miles O'Keefe cools the brow as Ator, the Fighting Eagle.  To paraphrase Murray Ballstein in Zoolander, he's dumb as a stump, but I love him. That love is important with the bad movies I keep on my emergency 'speed dial.' In order to make that hallowed list, everything must be right, that means no caged or abused animals, 80s perms, tight hair buns, tacky Roman-style bangs, act of courtly treachery, broad comic relief stooging, narcissistic male leads, fake breasts, tacky colors, realistic screaming or convincing torture. A tough order but Ator delivers on the lack of all those things and so much more. 

Everything about it hits me just right: D'Amato's cinematographic palette of purples, golds, and yellows; the rumbling timpani, Jerry Goldsmith-style piping and occasionally Wagnerian brass of Carlo Maria Cordio's subtly soaring score; the relatively short time frame; the long flowing wigs, golden skin, and cute fur boots and wrist bands on the young leads; the right lack of self awareness or narrative urgency; the endearingly clumsy fights (no stunt men were harmed--or even, apparently, employed); the clevery use of shadows and reflections--it all serves to put me in a calm and happy state. Squarely in a bloodless PG camp, somehow its lack of nudity and sex makes everything paradoxically sexier, more alive with a kind of erotic haziness. (1)



Stabbing, the easy way.
My affection for this all may have something to do with age and nostalgia so your mileage may vary. I don't have any kids but this movie makes me feel like I have grandkids, and they've made this on super-8mm and I'm watching it every night after dinner. My childhood friend Alan and I would screen our violent Conan homages for his grandparents and they never got tired of projecting them again and again. They adored us. I feel like I've become those same grandparents when I watch Ator, I feel the same indulgent pride, like Miles and D'Amato are my grandchildren and Ator was filmed in the park across the street and so all its flaws and limitations are just fine, part of its folk art/outsider art tradition. Take the stabbing scene at left, for example -- you can tell O'Keefe is stabbing behind the stuntman bad guy rather than through him, and somehow that makes it adorable. It has that same dunderheaded innocence. For example, though it's implied a long journey is underway the travelers never seem to need to get anywhere, and indeed double back over some stretches of where they've been (it looks like a relatively well-manicured park, replete with stone walkways and artificial waterfalls). 


But even all that doesn't totally begin to explain the appeal, the pull of Ator. A great example of it I think can be found in the two scenes of O'Keefe's resting a goblet on or near his genitals (above), splaying his legs out, when sitting, as if trying to get some air flow to his balls or obliging a waiting-in-the-wings. In your average 80s sex comedy this laid guy pose might be done by some loathsome frat boy with a plastic beer cup, and it would be rapey-vile instead of sexy-cool. The difference is between wanting/inviting vs. muscle memory of having. In short, Ator/O'Keefe seems like a very laid guy (always consensual, and usually instigated by the woman) and too naive and young to become a dick about it  Rumor has it that D'Amato was routinely frustrated with O'Keefe's continued listlessness during the shoot, but he was probably just sexually exhausted! No blood flow getting to his brain. What guy can't relate to that in the age of Cialis for daily use? To me he's at the perfect "low" setting for this kind of affair, and he even has a good (familiar-voiced) actor doing the dubbing who manages to inject just the right note of deadpan knowningness to every cliche'd line ("First I must complete... what I was born to do.") without crossing over into camp.

I think the appeal for me might lie in this sense of Edenic pre-sexual sexy cool. Any young boy knows the pain of those long years of childhood when you're caught between the pangs of sexual awakening and the maturity to understand why it's happening and what to do about it. Until puberty there is no outlet for it so sex is tied up with going to the bathroom (what Freud calls the anal phase). There's no chance of succor, no real idea how even to achieve it, thus fantasizing in bed at night has a sweet masochistic torturous edge. It's all about spanking and being each other's horses, or dogs, or slaves led around on leashes (at least it was for me growing up trying to seduce my babysitters). It's that prepubescent sexuality that fuels Ator. No one ever has any sex and as a result the whole thing falls into a hazy erotic miasma.  Instead of mating as she's supposed to, Roon teams up with him (he reminds her there's lots of treasure in the tomb of the Ancient One and she's very greedy). But the pair have barely begun to playfully shoot arrows at each other before D'Amato regular Laura Gemser as a horned enchantress lures Ator away, drugging him with another goblet at his crotch. Roon spies his goblet resting from a hole in the roof and sends their pet bear cub through a crack in the rocks to run a Toto-style cockblock. And so, again and again, sex never happens but almost happens --with Ator fought over as an object being used for sex and seed, always too languid and reposed to resist, preferring to just rest his flagon near his pelted crotch as if a grail light for wandering maidens. Not to mention, Ator plans to marry his own sister (even before knowing he was adopted) -- their early scenes together pulse with a yearning primal energy, of the sort I imagine only opposite gendered twins might repress from their polymorphous childhood. In other words, it's the allure vs. the follow-through. The Eden I seek to escape the Oscars with exists only in the delay of gratification, the fairy bower of erotic inertia.  

Like all good D'Amato movies, a close analysis reveals just how truly fucked up this all is. Michele Soavi was an uncredited co-writer and I'm guessing he maybe helped keep a kind of surrealist lid off things. Surely his absence is felt in the later sequels. The weird non-erotic eroticism vanishes altogether. 

Lastly, there's something about the look and feel of the film that reminds me the smell of 1980s Grateful Dead tour. Watching it I smell the mix of patchouli, unwashed bodies, hashish and sizzling meat and charcoal, all mixed together. One cheap acid that smell opened my 21 year-old third eye like a burning ember in the center of my forehead. Maybe you know it too? The earthy complexity of fire, roasting meat, bodies, earth and ancient perfumes commingling to tap into something ancient, spreading into past lives, helping you feel connected to the lives around you, deeply aware of gravity and the earth's rotation in the stas. The sound of the sizzling of a tailgate grill cracking open kundalini serpent eggs up your serpent spine --it's all there in Sabrina Siani's gleaming light-blonde princess wig, the dusty purplish cave walls, the big googly eyes of the giant black fur covered spider hiding in the columns on the hill, the shadow Ator convincingly sword fights with, the shiny mirror flashes, the long dark hair of the Ramones-evoking blind blacksmiths and warriors of Roon and Ator fight, in Cordio's grounding timpani and Wagnerian crescendos, in the gorgeous but unfussy cinematography (by D'Amato himself, a master cinematographer up there with Bava and Sergio Salvati when he applies himself), the fog-enshrouded zombie scene that goes nowhere, the Zeppelin wigs, the nicely small cast, the endearingly clunky violence, the cute black fur boots on Ritza Brown, the golden smooth limbs of Sabrina Siani, the horned crown of Gemser, and every strand of oversized clothesline web. 

ATOR 2: THE BLADE MASTER
(1982) Dir. Joe D'Amato 
*

We know we're in trouble from the get-to: the opening stretch is clearly from another movie, perhaps one D'Amato was starting to shoot, called Cave Dewellers (when Italians weren't ripping Conan in the early 80s they were ripping Quest for Fire, a big hit in Europe). He dropped that idea upon learning a Conan. sequel was in the works, and set about making his own Ator sequel because that's what Italian exploitation heroes do, they don't wait to imitate something after it's a big hit, they find out what's in production and venture as to what will be a hit, so they have a similar movie finished and ready to go at the same time. It's genius when it works, but when it doesn't.... 

To add running time, D'Amato keeps the cave men intro anyway (and even the US release is called "Cave Dwellers"), then eats up another reel of running 'previously on Ator' footage from the first film, taking care to omit ALL of the female characters. Didn't D'Amato suspect there were numerous women in Conan the Destroyer in addition to the requisite jailbait princess? Destroyer had Venessa Redgrave as a magical villainess and Grace Jones as a wild warrior! Actually Conan the Destroyer came out in 1984, and Blade Master is credited as from 1982 on imdb. WTF?

Gone too is Ator's innocence. He's  no longer the once blank barbarian slate who just wantsed to marry his comely sister and live a peaceful life in the country set to kickass pop ballad as they ran off in a freeze frame toward Edenic tomorrows. Now Sunya is forgotten and Ator is a combination Lone Ranger / Batman and Obi Wan Kenobi, training alone in his cave with his faithful Asian sidekick Thong. I can presume the reason Ator lives in a cave, and the king/wizard and his daughter live in a cave, and the bad guys hang out in a cave, is that D'Amato had reserved those caves for Cave Dweller and there was no refunds. So Ator and Thong read giant books and draw each other lifting weights in the mirror, you know, guy stuff. He now knows about herbs and how to make explosives from what's lying around in the walls of his cave. And women have no place in his life, even as drinking partners. 

Gone too, his glorious Zeppelin hair. Now, as befitting sanctimonious zen student, he has appropriated a Japanese style samurai headband / top knot.  

Gone too--unless there's a nice Blu-ray out there somewhere in Asia or Germany or something--D'Amato's usual peerless cinematography. Those original's dusky Frazetta-esque interiors and dappled green park exteriors have been replaced by a scrubland and grunge, probably due to never having come out on a remastered DVD or Blu-ray. The copy I saw (on Youtube) is a pan and scan (presumably) VHS tape transfer which does it no favors. We also miss a cool pop song to play over the end credits, and a score as fun and rich in Wagnerian brass and timpani. 

So, the pointless cave man intro and 'previously on Ator' scenes over with, the women excised from history (just like in the bible), we now learn that Ator's old mentor has in his possession of the "Geometric Nucleus" and Zor wants it, so where is it? Mila (Lisa Foster) the mentor's comely daughter must find Ator, now retreated from the world of men! To find him, he tells her, she must travel until so far "it seems that nature itself declines to follow you on your journey. Then you will have reached the land of Ator." Like nature itself, we may be also thinking of declining, but for love of the first film, perseverance! Thong, my sandals!

With her vaguely nerdy informal accessible vibe; Lisa Foster takes her role as Mila seriously enough that she helps balance out the blandness around her; her deep black eyeliner and black headband, straight shoulder length dark blonde hair and black dress on pale skin makes a nice complimentary contrast that pops against the washed out and muddy analog mise-en-scene. Then again, she's Canadian, so kind of too balanced and nice to deliver that wild sexy-dangerous edge of someone like Sabrina Siani or Laura Gemser. You can't have everything. At least she's got that popping eyeliner. And though it's nice to see some diversity, Ator's shadowy Asian partner Thong (Kiro Wehara) barely registers as anything more than 'Asian' and the sudden detour into Japanese-ness in Ator's whole schtick is odd and makes no sense. Where the hell are they? Some of the foes they run into look like they just rode off the set of Kurosawa's Ran. Apparently they were working with no script, just kind of coming up with ideas, and it shows. They never really decide if they are in feudal Japan or the dawn of history. And it shows. 

So with Ator a bore, Thong a silent cliche, and Mila nice but bland, it's a good thing they've got wondrously fey Brit David Brandon (left, with Foster) as the bad guy Zor. With his Vlad the Impaler facial hair and a giant Black Swan helmet, he's like a mid-80s fusion of Mick Jagger and David Warbeck. I love Brandon as the fey director in Michele Soavi's Stagefright; black-eyed Ariel in Derek Jarman's Jubilee; the tortured priest in Claudio Fragasso's Beyond Darkness (not to be confused with D'Amato's Beyond the Darkness); and even a werewolf aesthete in Avi Nesher's She. Too bad in Blade Master his lovely face is hidden behind the oversize black wig and mustache. That's his voice though, and he's serving charm and catlike menace. Enduring his old mentor's put-downs ("Patience is a virtue found only in the strong") with a fey grace ("you do amuse me") he's way more fun and easygoing than the cranky killjoys he's up against.

Alas, aside from some half-hearted cave-set battles, including a listless attempt at fighting with invisible warriors (I would have loved to be behind the scenes for that day), most of the lazily-choreographed fights are outdoors; a lot of time and energy is wasted on a side plot wherein Ator tries to convince villagers to fight back against the cannibal ravagers that demand monthly human sacrifice (the old conveniently decide to sacrifice their young), only to wind up drugged by some wine and tied to a pole, forced to watch as these town elders are (deservedly) massacred anyway by Zor and his goons (shades of Dogville). "Your eagerness for good deeds has betrayed you, Ator!," Zor chides back at yet another cave. 

This all leads to the best/worst interlude in the movie, one of only a handful of legit bad movie moments, though even it is undone by excessive bad screaming. Ator and friends are brought to the sacred cave or something where the prisoners from the village are thrown one by one into a pit with about six real snakes and one huge coil of thick rubber hosing meant to be a giant snake. The female victims have to hide in a corner and scream for hours as the life-size snakes avoid them on the other side of the pit. Watching these poor girls pretend to be scared and devoured by a couple of half-asleep boa constrictors would be hilarious, as would the dialogue of the bad guys ("And now, the fourth victim to appease our omnipotent god.") but the welcome sounds of snake hissing and a distant growling noise is also contrasted with feminine half-hearted screams that go on and on until the giant snake finally wakes up. By then Ator and the princess are also in the pit and a wondrous grimy time is had by all.  Except us, of course, since the scene is so dark we can barely see the outline of this marvelous snake. Was it so bad that D'Amato realized he had to keep it totally obscured by darkness or is this just the result of the fuzzy transfer? Will we ever know?  Then, because maybe O'Keefe got one for Christmas, Ator is suddenly hang gliding. He's dropping bombs on Zor's fortress. Oy! It would be a great anachronistic WGAF mic-drop moment except it goes on waaayy too long. Then, at the end, he can't hang out with this cute Canuck as he's got to escort that dumb nucleus safely into no man's land where it mushroom clouds our way to a more hopeful tomorrow. 

And Ator? I guess he'll be ready whenever outlaws rule the west once again. We don't see him after he leaves with the bomb. The narrator has to fill us in over a nice mushroom coud. I guess if trouble comes again we just got to look where nature itself wisely declines to follow. 

It's the pits, but if anyone knows of a good Blu-ray import or something give me a shout out. I can only find one dubbed in Hungarian with no subtitles. Maybe I'm better off without one, maybe the world just isn't ready. 

ATOR 3: THE IRON WARRIOR
(1987) Dir. Alfonso Brecia
***1/3

"Eternity.... passes... quickly" 

Continuity is left miles behind, as is Joe D'Amato, in the third ATOR film, 1987's The Iron Warrior. Alfonso Star Odyssey Brescia has stepped in as director to save the series from the awful dregs that was Blade Master. Actually there is almost no resemblance to the previous two films at all, other than snatches of Cordio's score, O'Keefe and the name ATOR (which isn't even in the onscreen title). What we get instead is more like an occult matriarchy's high fashion take on a fairy tale on the island of Malta. Recently released on a spiffy Blu-ray, with glistening cinematography showing off every detail of the beautiful Maltese scenery and the eye-popping contrast of bright red and green haute couture against the azure oceans and milky cliiffs. Artsy tableaux take precedence over continuity, evoking some 80s high-end perfume ad ("Ator- the new fragrance by L'Oréal"). People emerge from swimming across the sea but their clothes are dry when they come out. Dresses and hair styles change color from shot-to-shot. The wind allows the oversize (80s, remember) dresses and oil rags to flutter evocatively, providing as well a good excuse for scarves over the actor's mouths allowing for easy substitution of stunt doubles. 

Just to add to the challenge of discerning the plot, the sound mixer hit upon the happy idea of running the whole soundtrack through what sounds just like my old guitar flanger. Sword swings sound like jets; horse hooves like gun shots fired in an echo chamber; the roar of the ocean wind sounds like a swarm of drunken bees, drowning out most of the opening voiceover narration and any dialogue not shouted. Composer Carlo Mario Cordio (he's back in form!) underscores certain emotional moments with Morriconey minor key schmaltz, and over-scores bigger battles with unfortunate major key John Williams Raider of the Lost Ark-style pomp. Actually, all the best passages of music are those returning from the first film. But all the Italian composers steal from themselves as well as each other. 

Luckily being able to hear doesn't matter because it looks marvelous. Every image is a poem. Witches pose in silhouette against boiling moons (below) issuing directions from beyond ("Ator - you will have to manage on your own.") Princesses and handmaidens frolic like a merry fauns by the colonnade. In some post-modern black box theater, beyond space and time, three color coded witches/fates chant the sins of the evil witch Phaedra (imprisoned in a pair of revolving red hula hoops) via multimedia rear screen projection (as if the Wooster Group was making a multimedia disco Macbeth). Ator poses and practices his mighty sword in soaring helicopter shots atop a white cliff overlooking the sea. Ator, you're needed once again!



Taking motifs from Sleeping Beauty, as well as Macbeth, ancient Greek tragedies, and Clash of the Titans, we get Phaedra, a wild red-haired bad older witch (a hammy Elizabeth Kaza, all wild gleaming eyes and mocking movements) being imprisoned in glowing red hula hoops for 18 years after stealing Ator's kid brother to use in her evil deeds. When released, she's allowed to once more sway events on the mortal plane. Lickily Ator is all grown up and ready. The good witch, Deeva (Iris Peynado, Fred Williamson's pale blue-eyed love interest in Warriors of the Wasteland) alerts Ator to the adventure ahead like a girl dusting off an old action figure for use in her latest bedroom adventure. Phaedra's boy--his brother--now commands all things iron! He's the IRON WARRIOR.  And if e'er Ator was "the Son of Torin" (as in ATOR 1) or an ascetic student of ancient samurai ways (ATOR 2), now he's neither. On the other hand, we're never sure just what he is, other than... a hero. 

Furthering the post-modern disconnect, there's a feeling of all eras going on at once as Brescia makes use of Malta's unique scenery and architecture, notably "Sweethaven," a huge, still-standing and very quirky and quaintly ramshackle cliffside fishing village left over from Altman's 1980 musical Popeye (it's now a still-standing amusement park - but they only celebrate Popeye there, not Ator, which is a shame). Seeing Ator hide from clattering horsemen under a dusty Sweethaven Chinese laundry store window makes one feel like he's wandered into a spaghetti western. We also get rope bridge crossings that look pretty real and dangerous, tunnels, caverns, and cliffs towering above the glowing blue ocean, and even a brick castle replete with pane windows, sewer gratings, and probably trash cans and souvenir shops just off camera. . Compared to the first two films with their easygoing ambling, Iron Warrior seems far more ambitious, strange (lots of weird demented dream sequences and magical illusions) and pretty to look at han one might expect for a sequel to what was an impoverished sub-Conan to start with.    


There's also a strange gender-bent aspect about O'Keefe's Ator now. When I first saw him in a profile close-up (above)- with his hair pulled back in tight, small braids, a dangling thin straight earring, sharply slanted high cheekbones, straight graceful neck, all lightly dabbed in make-up with that serious expression, he reminded me of an androgynously striking girl I knew in high school. And I like that he seems to embrace it. If, in the first film he conveyed a languid innocence and earnestness that was refreshing, like the good looking kid with all the Zeppelin albums who was still nice to the nerds, and if, in the scond one, he was dour, grimy and self-important (his vegan years?), now he's grown up and developed a genial collegiate knowingness which suits the off-Broadway Vogue-ry on display. 
Three faces of Ator! 


He and Jenna--the endangered princess he rescues--have a very sexy low-key chemistry that makes even dialogue like: "Is the king in danger?" / "Yes, Ator,"  seem like whispery come-ons. 


Taken all in all, I love most everything about this movie but with several glaring caveats: aside from the high fashion-emulating costumes, hair and make-up. The cherry red oversize kaftan princess Jenna (Savina Gersak) wears is fine when it's billowing in the Malta wind, but strikes one as très gauche when worn at midnight dungeon soirees, especially with her hair pulled up tight in that hideoys fantail top knot (above) giving her a kind of radis récolté look most at odds with all the flowing of her garments (and the one magenta eyebrow smacks of teenage desperation). The flowing hair metal locks of "Ah-tor" meanwhile have similarly been symbolically castrated into a reverse dread center braid (though a big improvement after his greasy samurai top knot in Blade Master), his signature gong-shaped chest plate now obscured with an array of tattered garage floor oil cloth furs flung over football shoulder pads (ugh, the 80s). Man, it's a shame as their long hair blowing in the Malta winds would have been sick! 

Maybe the wind had something to do with it. Did it get in your hair, Ator? At one point the Iron Warrior's signature long red scarf blows up over his eyes and Ator has to patiently halt their to-the-death sword fight so he can move it. In several scenes the wind compels them to wear scarves over their mouths, which makes it easier to sub in a stuntman when needed. Suddenly Ator can really fight and zips through the slow-mo bad guys so fast the climactic fight is over in a few seconds, and he still finds time to show off an array of warrior poses. Then, it's back to normal, O'Keefe can hold a sword and be can swing it. Period. When it's time to do some moves, put on the scarf! 

check out the witch in the middle, eating... something


Unlike the first two films, magic, dreams, and hallucinations reign supreme. The Iron Warrior is so named because he can float, disappear, and make spears stick out horizontally from the wall, and even make swords appear in his hand should he lose them, and rise to the top of the cliff behind Jenna he's some kind crazy William Castle spook show phantom. And evil Phaedra has the power to assume any form, so can change ages (as young Phaedra she's played by Tiziana Altieri and she looks a bit like Billie Eilish (above) crossed with Natasha Leggero and is probably cast because she looks like the hot witch (Cassandra Gava) in Conan. And even look like her rival, or the princess herself, if she chooses. When she starts eating ribs while gyrating pantsless, staring mockingly into the camera, surrounded by revelers in tacky red face scarves and owl skin should pads and other costumes that seem rejected from The Wiz, I was in weird dream heaven. Here's a typical progression: Phaedra turns into her younger sexy self, and lets herself be chased by a bunch of evil horsemen while Ator is practicing nearby. He instantly changes armor and hair style and rushes to her rescue. Before you can say don't fall for it, Ator, he's passed naked out in her bed and she's getting dressed turning back into her old witchy self and setting the place on fire. The voice of Deeva the good witch (crystal-eyed Iris Peynado) from beyond wakes him up saying "She for whom you are fated, needs you now"  and off he goes to one of Cordio's tumbling synth timpani rolls as Jenna lies atop a stone bed on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean with a magic sword posed over her neck as a bunch of skull faced jawas bang rocks around her stone altar bed.  Ator chases them off! Iron Warrior appears by floating up from below the cliff!  They tussle! An open smoke pot blows in the ocean wind behind them they duel atop the cliffs! Suddenly the Iron Warrior vanishes and Ator stabs a pile of his clothes. Phaedra laughs from someplace outside of space and time. Now Jenna and Ator are wandering through the woods at magic hour as the setting sun sets. All this happens in about two minutes!

The dialogue, shouted over the wind, is great throughout, especially when Phaedra flubs a line, shouting "you are no--you are no match for me, Ator!" at one point. In nine times out of nine, they'd retake that or edit it out or redub it, but the fact it stays in gives me no small amount of happiness, as does the way the whispering oracle statue Ator and Jenna visit is impossible to hear it over the flangered wind. Later a giant rolling tone ball like in Raiders of the Lost Ark chases her, and then a different one chases Ator, as if they're all in a giant pinball game and they eventually collide. Every time anything violent or cool happens things slow down to slow mo and the sound gets flanger-modulated, which rocks my world no end. 



Brescia keeps the action and scenery humming. All the boring stuff and--after the opening narration which we can't hear anyway-- narration and plot continuity are gleefully stripped away and everything is whittled down a series of stunning tableaux vivant. Every shot is like a fashion spread still by someone who didn't want to pay for hair spray. Compared to the dull by-the-motions chore of the Blade Master the amount of effort lavished here restores one's faith in the Ator juggernaut. So what if there's no rhyme or reason to who these four masked riders are or why they're riding away with Jenna's splayed limbs tied between them like a flying draw and quarter. Good thing for Ator all these spears just hanging there along the chase route so Ator can grab and throw them as he goes. It almost seems like some kind of race course set up just for him to practice his riding and throwing. Don't think about it. Just endure Coridio's hackneyed majestic action orchestration and try not to roll your eyes. It'll be over soon. 


A feminist matriarchal thread runs from text to subtext. For example, at the end, the color-coded witches enclave talk about how Ator belongs to Jenna now. There's never a thought of Jenna belonging to Ator! And not to spoil things but this time Ator isn't getting away to go back to no cave. In a great penultimate shot we see her face as she embraces Ator (his back to us), looking dead at the camera with an "I got him now" kind of wicked smile. The inference she's actually Phaedra in disguise is instantly put to rest by the witches rhyming away like a Greek chorus in their multimedia black box theater beyond space and time, with Phaedra immobilized once again in her revolving red hula hoop prison. The implication can only be Jenna herself is sort of evil, as all women must be apparently, when ensnaring wandering faux-Ronin to their bosom clutches when all they wants to do is get back to showing off their swords in the mirror. 

-----

Ator's whole origin would change yet again for a fourth in the series, also knowns as QUEST FOR THE MIGHT SWORD (1988) with D'Amato returning to direct but O'Keefe inexplicably replaced by beefy Meatloaf-meets-Roddy Piper-esque Eric Allen Kramer. This new Ator seems to  have drunk seventy thousand beers too many, maybe hanging out at Chicago ale houses, gaining about six inches of height, a hundred ponds of beef ("like he's ten years out of military service and eating his way through PTSD" notes Cheapsteak). He now has long light blonde hair, and a throne, which he quickly loses through one too many ill-advised trials by combat much to the horror of wife and son. 

He dies, deservedly, and mom and his child end up on the run as their kingdom is claimed by the challenger, who is evil of course. The pursued mom decides to leave Ator Jr. with an ugly troll in order to get a magic ring or something like that. The troll, a true douchebag kind of anti-Yoda drugs her on her way out, rapes her, blows her mind, and sends her out as a sex slave, or something while young Ator grows up to, unfortunately, be played by Kramer, too. No offense meant to Kramer. I'm sure he'd be fine in his usual role as a bouncer or henchman but he's all wrong as either young or old Ator. Though it's nice to see that old Troll 2 mask trotted out again, yeesh! What an au pair mom has picked for her son! That's two terrible hiring choices in one film, one meta, one textual. Question is, when will Ator Jr. figure out how to steal the troll's magic sword or ring or whatever and free himself without getting caught in his ugly guardian's web of illusion? I don't know either. I can't get around Kramer's casting as the son too. I could buy Ator gone to seed as an older dad, but as the son he's twice as miscast. How did he even get this part? Did D'Amato see Roddy Piper starring in Carpenter's They Live (from the same year) and think beefy Chicago/Toronto-style guys were 'in' as leading men? That old troll must really know how to pull some magic strings.

And so... after 6+  months, my 12 Days of ED WOOD CONCLUDED! Yer welcome. 


NOTES:
1. By now, with all the smash-cut rutting on AMC, and HBO ("HBO, where foreplay is forgotten!"), sex onscreen is no longer forbidden, and therefore not spicy. In ATOR it's always about to happen, but something prevents it, just like in dreams. 

Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Brokeback Barbarians vs. the Metalheads: CONQUEST (1983)

 "No one can rule the sun!"

As DJ Stevie Wayne said, "there's something in the fog."

It's Day 11 of the 12 Nights of Ed Wood, a series I began back in October. but inexorably, it gets bogged, fogged, and waterlogged. But, there's so much to see - even when seeing the same things. Just like melting polar ice reveals strange prehistoric tundras on our Google Earth, so too does the ever-clearer and ever-sharper HD 2K-4K restoration of once pixelated, panned, scanned and streaky old bad movies reveal whole new vistas.

Of course, not everything is better for all the clarifying. This is especially true for a lot SFX that involve overlays, where a sharp outline around, say, giant ants or insects in Bert I. Gordon movies or Harryhausen movies where the background rear projection of the live actors in the background now look faded and washed out by contrast. Sometimes the harsh clarity of 4D after tge comforting fog of analog VHS, makes films look like Blanche Dubois suddenly exposed by the bright lights of a 2 AM closing time bar.  

Luckily (?) no amount of HD sharpening can pierce the 1983 Lucio Fulci entry in the post-Conan sweepstakes, Conquest.  It's fogged forever. Maybe its volcanic rocky surface still cooling, its oceans still condensing from the steam clouds, but fog obscures everything. On the one hand, did they not check the film stock? On the other, pretend it's intentional and embrace it. Suddenly everything is alive with the possibilities inferred by obscured perception. The result: Conquest becomes a big glowing, steaming fissure in the surface sword and sorcery genre. Genre traits and cliches creep out and/or tumble back in to be cooked and baked and boiled around it until the air is thick with steam and smoke and all that's left is a sticky crust of dried blood, burnt fur, dead bats and bromance that survives beyond death. Not unlike the silhouette animation of Lotte Ellinger or some kind of primordial cave wall shadow puppet show, our unconscious projectionists fills in the details the clouds obscure, or our convulsive DT-addled mind just grooves on the absence of any detail that might make us nauseous. Even primordial Tom Jones-style sexy meat eating, people being torn in half, or roasted on beds of coals, doesn't make us the least bit nauseous, as the fog makes it no more troublesome than a dream safely woken from. 


Meanwhile, like a blind person developing keener hearing, our ears tune deeper in than normal to the soundtrack and are deeply, satisfyingly rewarded with a rich tapestry of howls, squawks, distant animal grunts, whispered chanting, moans and murmurs. Claudio Simonetti's music churns up the mud with pulsing mellotron, an echo-drenched flanger and some gorgeous little synth moments. There's so little dialogue that when someone finally speaks it sounds odd, it's as if words have only recently begun to form like rivers condensing from the fog of inchoate growling. A wearying slog through blood and mud turns into drug dream poetry, especially if you watch it, as I like to do, while half-asleep, with good headphones on, the setting sun in blazing in your eyes through the open window. 



On the wise and 'good' side of the river, civilized but naive warrior youth Ilias (Andrea Occhipinti) is given a boat (looking suspiciously like a repurposed gondola prop) and a bow and arrow set by his sophisticated peaceful village and then launched on his evil-fighting rumspringa. Barely has he landed before his presence disrupts the mystical reverie of the lady who runs these forbidden lands, the brain-eating sorceress Ocron (Sabrina Siani) With her black feather cape/boa and regular boa, naked body, and metal head, she looking a bit like Shanghai Lilly giving reverse-birth to an Oscar while recreating that 1981 Nastassja Kinski photo. The weird misogynistic subtext of her iron mask and naked body is perhaps the only really galling element, partially undone by her all-consuming power. Hanging around in her Abel Ferrara-does-Thulsa Doom smoky cavernous orgy den with her wolf-headed and iron masked minions, snorting powdered brains through a straw (I think) to get high, she's got the whole world believing the sun depends on her morning salutations to rise. Yet even the full head of a tasty, ripped-apart peasant girl can allay her mounting dread over the wanderer with his glowing blue bow. Look out, Ilias! You're about to get attacked by waves of Ocron's posse of genuinely weird and wolf muppet Chewbacca-style raiders and their iron masked associates. You're gonna need back-up. Enter Mace, (Jorge Rivero) who wields a great nunchucks-bolo-sling shot combo bop bop bop. Mace will be the Xena to Ilias' Gabrielle, the Robin to his Batman, the Jake to his Heath. Mace can talk to the animals. 

One of Fucli's secrets--one of the reasons his best films are so revered and hold up so well to repeat viewings (besides the gore)-- is his gift for paring out all the boring linear story-advancing subplots and details and 'suspense' crosscuts and character arcs that follow the hack auteur's idea of what a 'story' is all about. He does this by presuming you're familiar with these fantasy worlds. We don't need to know why Mace can communicate with animals because of The Beastmaster (an influential hit in Italy). We don't need to know why Ilias is sent across the river or why he's so much more civilized than everyone else in this haunted land, because of One Million BC. 

And yet, the film we're seeing is far from predictable because the plot and film language are so fractures. We're never quite sure who is who or what's going to happen. Connecting tissue like character backstory and cohesive mise-en-scene are jettisoned in order to put the viewer in a mindset similar to tripping, being asleep, schizophrenic, or having a flu-boosted nightmare, where signifier chains and logic are totally disrupted. If you need handrails to vault down the unlit cellar stairs, maybe Fulci isn't for you. If you just jump, heedless of a fractured skull, down into the inky darkness, then you love the minutely-etched ambiguity, where every reaction shot carries the DNA of a dozen possible meanings, including accidental, i.e. we're reading too much into it. Chances aren't we are. 

Usually, as per Deleuzian cinematic theory, film editing either operates on either the 'time-image' or 'movement-image' principle. In the movement image, we see X walking from across the street from a neutral vantage point; we see X open the door and walk inside from across the street. We follow the man from place to place as if a neutral observer. In time-image, we see the door from X's perspective; we see a close-up of X's hand turning the knob (if the filmmaker can afford inserts) and then X's view of the inside, then X's face as he sees the inside, and so on. Of course most films use both methods and we're used to both methods. But then crazy horror maestros like Fulci come along and use our comfort with these methods and they slam our fingers in the window jamb of these methods and boom! Half the critics feel miffed and blame their alienation on authorial incompetence, but others 'get' the disruptive 'nightmare logic' at work in his weird editing / story approach. They realize that even if the alienation is unintentional it's reminding them of a time when they hadn't seen enough movies to be predict what was going to happen next. Suddenly instead of a familiar world (i.e. the hero will survive to the final reel to kill the villain, who will surrender moments before being killed, the hero will walk away, the villain will then pull out a knife and try to throw it, the hero will whip around and kill him, etc.) we're in a world of vivid kinetic action and reaction - nothing is certain. Main characters can die at any time. That's why a film like Conquest holds up so well to repeat viewings... we never really see the same movie twice, regardless of how many times we watch it, because its pattern never follows a recognizable trajectory.  That blend of borrowing motifs from other films and yet abstracting what they add up to, simplifying yet complicating the overall impression by a refreshing lack of morals and messages or cumulative logic.

So we know Mace talks to animals  
Because The Beastmaster has been a hit in Italy, Mace is also loved by all animals. A hawk overhead warns him of approaching monsters; dolphins bite off Mace's bonds when he's crucified at the bottom of the sea; a snake shows Mace the way out of a rocky pit. As a reward, Mace won't kill animals, but on the other hand, he he no problem eating the ones someone else has killed after killing their killer --a guilt-free PETA-approved carnivore diet!  

Ilias and Mace's bond settled, and the film clicks into the gear at which it will stay for the rest of the film: Mace will teach Ilias of the ways of the wild and the dangers of this new land; Ilias will show Mace his magic bow. The animals shall look out for danger; the endless growling wolf man minions of Ocron shall come at them making actual "Grrr!" noises and always... always... in a cloud of murky fog. What could go wrong? Love? A volley of venomous demon darts!? 
 
Conquest gets a bad rap, the common consensus is it's too foggy; but it's a guilty pleasure for me and for many critics whose word I value.  I love how deftly it stays free of the detailed ponderous plotting that oft bogs these things down. There are no intro plot scrolls about days of olde; no voiceovers, no duplicitous courtiers, despotic generals, mustered extras, horses, dopey sidekicks, slapstick escapades, rollicking tavern fights, mickey mouse scoring, dungeon incarcerations, children, jugglers, rape, or extended macho torture sessions. A lot of people and monsters die but mostly it's just two dudes who like each other on a journey of amiable forward momentum, pausing every half a mile to bash a bunch of thugs and werewolves squarely on the sconce with a satisfying crunchy sound. 


We never learn what is in the straw Ocron and her posse pass from nostril to nostril, 
but the slow languid heavy way everyone moves gives us several interesting options. 

A bit like Clu Galager and Lee Marvin in The Killers (if Ronald Reagan was a metalheaded naked woman snake handler) they're cool enough you kind of want to be hanging out with them, even if three would probably be a crowd. A groovy homoerotic subtext thrives on close reading, depending on how much you want to feel around for it in the white-out fog. Hunky Mace knows some rivers are best left uncrossed ("your world is better than mine," he bemoans at one point, "but this is where I come from.") You can imagine the same scene in the third half of Brokeback Mountain with Heath Ledger as Mace, i.e. too repressed to suck venom out of Ilias's leg wound, the way, say, latter barbarian lavender soulmates like Xena and Gabrielle would do in nearly every episode (admittedly a decade later). Mace probably wouldn't even give him mouth-to-mouth if it was needed. He'd ask a bear to do it.

Still he's not afraid to pick his beau friend some healing lavender flowers when he's sick. Look at him there (below) - gazing pensively around in the early morning mist while Ilias pines away in engorged agonies back on the riverside. As you see below, the mist adds an impressionistic, almost Matisse-esque lyricism to the image. 

In today's more enlightened times, the closeted-even-to-itself sublimation of the Mace-Ilias bond seems quaintly timid, while the choice of making the most powerful woman in the film a naked, faceless monster is problematic. Good thing that the sort of critic who would dig deep enough to be offended by either reading will probably never take this fogbound journey into the unknown. Long hard to see (figuratively as well as literally), it's been remastered and made available online and in Blu-ray only because Fulci has such a fervent following. But even Fulci disowned it, walking away right after shooting. Hardocre Fulci apologists would rather champion something like The New York Ripper, wherein Fulci finally justifies his misogynistic accusers. It was his first in years without his go-to screenwriter Dardano Sacchetti, who was pretty pissed to be left off the team. The legend has it Fulci was losing his health and his damned mind and this was the proof. 

But what a run he'd had! Surely some of the classic Fulci magic had to spill over, even if no one saw it yet in that opaque fog. And there are plenty of touches that make it unmistakably Fulci: the idea that he almost never films from the expected angle or distance. The camera is seldom at eye level; usually it's kept low so the boys loom as giants with the magic hour sun behind their heads, or it swoops high up on a crane, as if some friendly giant beaming down at their foggy folly. The gore is always satisfying in its crunchiness. Callbacks to classic Fulci films abound: the way Ilias goes "yayayayayayaya" when batting away at the cave bats references Fulci's House by the Cemetery; the 'Eibon' symbol on Mace's forehead references Fulci's The Beyond; the gross close-ups of Ilias's venom and pus-engorged dart wound reference City of the Living Dead; the eerie center-screen-eyeless-head shot close-ups of the zombies resembles, you guessed it, Zombie. All in all, a Fulci capstone to a brilliant seven film / four year run. 

It's not perfect. I do wish we got to see Siani's pretty face, and I wish we got an occasional break from the fog. But any old film can be in focus, and we can see Siani in Ator, the Fighting Eagle and Throne of Fire. Two movies that are like the PG-13 daytime and Conquest is the R-rated night. 

I also find that, watching online, with pop-up ads, is the key. That's when it all comes together in some divine Woodsian masterpiece. Grubhub + half-asleep eyes + pareidolia fog + the Brooklyn accent of the voiceover artist doing Ilias's dub (the same guy who does Trash in 1990: The Bronx Warriors) + Chase Visathe primordial synths + the Clan of the Cave Bear make-up on the cute girl who lives just long enough to almost shag Ilias + So Clean for sleep apnea +  someone getting ripped literally in half + the web people emerging from their cliffside crevice, looking like Pillsbury snowmen and talking like Herve Villechaize. 

Maybe that scene sums up the appeal, the way it reminds me of childhood bonds: "Where is your friend?" the monster asks a crucified Mace. "I have no friends," Mace says. "You lie!" the monster shouts back.  It's so weird and basic and may evoke the realization that these guys are mentally ten years-old and making their first friend in school. Suddenly there he is: Ilias, rowing back to his Mace like a romantic gondolier as the moody Assault on Precinct 13-ish synth chords oscillate, shouting up at his crucified friend "Mace, I've come back! I'm not afraid!" My fellow Conan-loving friend Alan and I would have loved this movie, had we not been such snobs about dubbing. 

Prepared with rock bottom expectations, I loved it the first time I saw it, and I always will love it. I have been turning to it for sleep and stress relief ever since to the point my girlfriend rolls her eyes when she hears some of those cycling Simonetti synth riffs. As B&S's Sam Panico says: "Conquest is either the worst film you’ve ever watched or a batshit insane descent into mythical archetypes. There can be no middle ground."  Studied through a jeweler's lens, it may seem a cloudy piece of junk, but we of terrible vision know it's a rare jewel whose facets are best appreciated via indirect gazes i.e. like a ghost you can only see in reflections on your silverware. And man, is it ever relaxing - resisting the brain's attempt to memorize and overthink it through its mythic parade of the warmly familiar and the forever unknowable. Like half a Remeron chased with a smoke shop shot of kratom, it's the next best thing to being asleep. In his chapter on the film in his his Fulci book Beyond Terror, the amazing Stephen Thrower writes: "Half the fun of sleeping pills is in fighting the effects, staying awake to experience their weird pharmaceutical slurring: but few would want to feel that way whist trying to crawl through a Conan the Barbarian rip-off. " (183). 

Count me one of the few, Stephen. Let the fog come and rub the clarity from out my heart until all is fuzzy brain straw reverie. 

Yayayayayaya!  I'm not afraid! 


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