Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Barbarian Boom Part 6

Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Barbarian Boom Part 6

Amazons (1986)

By late 1986, the Barbarian Boom was well into its deliberate self-parody phase — and all the better for it, frankly. If nothing else, self-parody is inexpensive, and if you have a rock-bottom budget anyway you might as well aim for something that’s within reach. Though the spate of barbarian films in the Eighties is beloved by fantasy nerds of a certain age, as we’ve seen in our previous instalments in this series, very few of them hold up to a contemporary rewatch. Thus, it’s a pleasure this week to cover two movies we can actually recommend! To prepare yourself properly, practice your “Hur hur hur!” ahead of time so you can laugh like a real barbarian.

Amazons (1986)

Rating: **
Origin: Argentina/USA, 1986
Director: Alejandro Sessa

This heroic fantasy has a screenplay by Charles R. Saunders based on his fine story “Agbewe’s Sword” from the Amazons! anthology edited by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, and therefore one could hope it might be good. But in the end, it’s one more example of how anything good fed into the Roger Corman woodchipper comes out the other end as mulch.

Still, this barbarian boobfest may be the best of Corman’s cheapo Argentine action fantasies, though that’s admittedly a low bar. The bad news: what passes for acting isn’t any better than usual, the costumes, sets, and fight direction are bottom-of-the-barrel, and the special effects for the wizard magic are acutely embarrassing. Saunders’ story, though, is just interesting and complex enough to pull you through, even while you’re shaking your head at the terrible performances.

In outline, the plot is nothing special: a sorcerer-king named Kalungo (Joseph “Cool” Whipp — okay, I made up the “Cool” part) uses his lightning powers and black-clad mercenaries to conquer a generic fantasy town, and threatens to conquer the rest of the Emerald Land unless a warrior can bring back a magic sword from a distant, mystic cave. But because this is called Amazons, Kalungo is opposed by a corps of warrior women in leather bikinis, and the warrior with the quest, Dyala (Mindi Miller), is the bikiniest and blondest of them all.

This may sound dumb, and it mostly is, but the interest comes from the character interplay between Dyala, her treacherous bottle-blond aide Tashi (Penelope Reed), and Tashi’s even more treacherous but equally blond mother Tashinge (Danitza Kingsley), who is the commander of the Amazons but is selling them out to Kalungo for wizard-nookie and future queen rights. As played by Mr. Whipp, Kalungo in this setting is jarringly incongruous, less the usual gloating mad tyrant than an oily self-satisfied California producer who has somehow ended up in a fantasy world with lightning powers. It’s so wrong that after a while you kind of get to like it.

There’s a lot of gratuitous female nudity on display here, so be prepared for that, and the battles between Kalungo’s troops and the Amazons are unusually feeble, even by low-budget fantasy flick standards. However, there’s this one action sequence where Dyala has to save Tashi from being sacrificed by a tribe of masked goons to their creepy sacred tree that’s not half bad — like, somebody spent time and effort on setting it up, and it works. It totally makes up for the scene where Dyala has to wrap a tame snake around herself to make it look threatening and then roll around in the dirt. (Yep.) Just… don’t let your expectations get out of hand.

Deathstalker II: Duel of the Titans

Rating: ***
Origin: Argentina/USA, 1987
Director: Jim Wynorski
Source: Shout! Factory DVD

This is the last of the low budget barbarian flicks producer Roger Corman made in Argentina; the genre was nearing the end of its popularity and there was no money for magic or monsters, so director Jim Wynorski threw out the script he’d been given and rewrote it as a comedy. Of his two stars, one, John Terlesky as Deathstalker, is replacing Rick Hill in that role, while the other, model Monique Gabrielle, has never done comedy before, but they manage to hit it off and even display some onscreen chemistry together, a thing nearly unheard-of in a cheap sword-and-sorcery film. It’s chemistry at the junior high chem-lab level, but still, that’s not nothing.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t even try to make sense and the comedy isn’t very funny, most of the jokes being older than the stars’ grandparents. Since it’s a farce, you might think that the story doesn’t need to make sense, but only the wildest farces can get away with that and this ain’t one of those. It’s a fantasy quest movie, of course: a princess in disguise, Reena (Gabrielle), cons Deathstalker into helping her regain her throne from evil Evie (also Gabrielle), a clone created by the sneering swordsman-and-sorcerer Jarek (John LaZar).

On the way Stalker and Reena face hapless pirate thugs, shambling zombies, the usual black-clad villains’ goons, and their most dangerous opponents, a tribe of Amazon warriors. The Amazons capture them and sentence Stalker to fight a duel to the death with their champion, a very large woman named Gorgo (wrestler Queen Kong). Manly hero Stalker getting thrown around the ring by a very large woman — funny stuff, eh? Eh?

The exterior sets are the same ones seen in previous Corman fantasies, but by this time they’re looking pretty ragged and ratty. The interiors are worse: new, but clearly made of painted plywood with textures barely sketched in. The costumes are of sub-Ren Faire leatherette, and don’t ask about the props and weapons. (A glass doorknob fills in for a crystal ball.) Fights between the faceless guards and Amazons are as dull and terrible as ever, but Terlesky, who is active and enthusiastic, shows an unexpected talent for stage fencing that’s almost matched by LaZar, who tries to keep up.

In fact, it’s Terlesky, Gabrielle, and LaZar who sell this thing, especially the romantic leads, who seem to be having a genuinely good time. Nobody is under any illusions that they’re involved in serious filmmaking and that may have freed them up to be engagingly goofy. It’s still a flimsy exploitation flick with gratuitous nudity and gore, but at least it knows it’s no more than that.

The Barbarians (or Barbarians & Co.)

Rating: ***
Origin: Italy/USA, 1987
Director: Ruggero Deodato
Source: Quadrifoglio DVD

This Italian heroic fantasy appears on the face of it to be a terrible Eighties barbarian flick, when actually it’s a lively parody of terrible barbarian flicks, while at the same time still being a terrible Eighties barbarian flick. Got it? Good!

The eponymous barbarians are Kutchek and Gore, “the Barbarian Brothers,” twins who are played by Peter and David Paul, a pair of bellowing musclebound lunkheads who don’t even begin to try to act, which is just as well as their entire repertoire consist of hooting and flexing and performing Mighty Feats of Strength. The film appears to have been inspired by the first three Mad Max movies, both visually and in its feverish, headlong exuberance, an energy entirely missing from the Roger Corman barbarian films. In fact, it opens with an extended action sequence in which the wagons of a band of traveling entertainers are pursued by mounted, leather-clad raiders, a scene that answers the burning question, “What if Mad Max was set in the world of Conan the Barbarian?” Now we know.

The entertainers are being chased by the goons of a mad warlord named Kadar (Richard Lynch) who is after the magic ruby held by the troupe’s queen, Canary (Virginia Bryant). She manages to send the ruby off to be hidden before the troupe is captured by Kadar, who demands the gem, only to have his demanding fingers bitten off by a pair of fierce twin twelve-year-old boys.

Canary agrees to become Kadar’s slave if he swears never to harm the boys, and he accepts — and then raises them as brutal pit fighters so they’ll kill each other. That plan fails: the now-adult Bros tear up the combat arena and escape, and then find the remnants of the entertainer troupe, who tell them what they need to do to find the ruby and free Canary. Quest time!

The Bros go with a thief named Esmene (Eva La Rue) to a tavern to buy weapons, but there are no weapons, it’s really just an excuse to get the Bros into a barbarian dive bar and the inevitable ensuing brawl. And you know what? The ridiculous brawl is both tightly directed and pretty darn funny.

It’s followed by a series of lampoons of barbarian flick clichés that are mostly spot on: sacking the Tomb of the Ancient King for magic weapons and armor, fighting random fang-toothed monsters that leap out of nowhere (“Who the hell were they?” “Hur hur, forgot to ask!”), eventually leading to a swamp haunted by blue klieg lights and fog machines where the Bros must face a giant phallic dragon puppet. How they kill it, and what they find inside, is too good a joke to spoil.

After that climax the film keeps going, mostly so it can parody the requisite Final Duel with the big bad, Kadar, but it’s a mistake as we’ve already had our fun and don’t really need one more high-five and “Hur hur!” But I guess you can’t expect barbarian bros to know that the essence of comedy is brevity.

Where can I watch these movies? I’m glad you asked! Many movies and TV shows are available on disk in DVD or Blu-ray formats, but nowadays we live in a new world of streaming services, more every month it seems. However, it can be hard to find what content will stream in your location, since the market is evolving and global services are a patchwork quilt of rights and availability. I recommend JustWatch.com, a search engine that scans streaming services to find the title of your choice. Give it a try. And if you have a better alternative, let us know.

Previous installments in the Cinema of Swords include:

The Barbarian Boom, Part 4
Blood-Red and Blind: The Crimson Bat
Updating the Classics
Sink Me! Scarlet Pimpernels!
The Barbarian Boom, Part 5
Musashi and Kojiro
Forgotten Fantasies
More o’ Zorro
Laugh, Samurai, Laugh
Boarding Party Bingo
They Might Be Giants
Mondo Mifune
Swashbucklin’ Talkies

LAWRENCE ELLSWORTH is deep in his current mega-project, editing and translating new, contemporary English editions of all the works in Alexandre Dumas’s Musketeers Cycle; the fifth volume, Between Two Kings, is available now from Pegasus Books in the US and UK, while the sixth, Court of Daggers, is being published in weekly instalments at musketeerscycle.substack.com. His website is Swashbucklingadventure.net. Check them out!

Ellsworth’s secret identity is game designer LAWRENCE SCHICK, who’s been designing role-playing games since the 1970s. He now lives in Dublin, Ireland, where he’s a Narrative Design Expert for Larian Studios, writing Dungeons & Dragons scenarios for Baldur’s Gate 3.

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Eugene R.

I hope that Mr. Saunders was paid decently for his story rights and his screenplay for Amazons, whatever its rock-bottom budget was.

Speaking of budgeting, the original art by Boris Vallejo for the Amazons poster is open for offers to the most recent buyer (according to the auction house website that sold it in 2016), with the last (refused) offer at $8,000, and newer offers starting at $8,400.

Alec Semicognito

Give Monique Gabrielle her due — she wasn’t just a model; she won “The Great American Strip-Off” in 1983! 😉

Sarah Avery

As a former reviewer, I especially enjoyed this sentence:
“It’s so wrong that after a while you kind of get to like it.”

I may have enjoyed the sentence more than I would have enjoyed watching any of the films. You’re taking one for the team, watching these things. Thanks!

John E. Boyle

Another Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords? Yes!

I’ve always had a weak spot for any film where the cast is obviously having fun, even the bad ones like Deathstalker II. A guilty pleasure that I admit I’ve watched far too many times. But these other two films have somehow escaped me and I’ll have to hunt them down. Thanks for the post!

*Thank you also for pointing out that Charles R. Saunders wrote the script for Amazons! I had heard he had written such a script but lost track of the movie title. I’ll have to watch it.

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