Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Deathstalker
Every so often, a cheesy movie can be overshadowed by its even cheesier sequel. Troll is by no means a great film, but the infamy of Troll 2 obscures its potential for bad-movie night fun. Similarly, Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time gets more plaudits for its deficiencies than Beastmaster gets for being a fun-but-cheesy good time. See also: this weekend’s cheesy movie, Deathstalker.
The plot concerns a roaming adventure with the unlikely name of Deathstalker (Rick Hill). After saving a woman from being assaulted by orcmen — and then attempting to assault her himself — Deathstalker is invited by a deposed king to save his daughter (Barbie Benton) from the local wizard/despot Munkar (Bernard Erhard). But first, he must claim a magical sword and find fellow adventurers; including a thief named Salmaron (August Larreta), a fighter named Oghris (Richard Brooker), and a warrior woman called Kaira (Lana Clarkson). The group journey to Munkar’s domain, where he has organized a tournament to find the strongest fighter in all the kingdoms. While he offers rewards, women, and a high-ranking position in his organization, Munkar’s real intent is to remove all threats to his dominion.
Upon arriving at Munkar’s castle, the fellowship are invited to partake of Munkar’s larder and harem. Deathstalker saves the princess from a pig-man’s advances, but later attempts to force himself upon one of Munkar’s goons disguises as the princess. The goon also kills Kaira. After Salmaron makes his way the the harem’s chamber, Oghris reveals he was hired by Munkar to bring Deathstalker to the tourney and kill him. Deathstalker, true to his name (well, sort of) quickly dispatches Oghris despite the two becoming friends.
After killing the last champion standing, an Ogre, Deathstalker gets his hands on all the talismans and defeats Munkar. Declining the opportunity to rule in Munkar’s place, Deathstalker destroys the talismans — which includes his own sword — and drops Munkar into the crowd, where they proceed to rip him to shreds. The adventurer, having fulfilled his quest, moves on to find more gold and glory.
And if the whole things sounds like a rushed and unsavory Dungeons & Dragons campaign, that’s part of the charm. Deathstalker was one of the early Conan rip-offs to ride the sword-and-sandal wave to profitability. But its relative box office success required a certain cheapness in design and story. Luckily, producer Roger Corman and director James Sbardellati (as John Watson) were good at keeping costs down and the ideas cheesy. But unlike the film’s successor, Sbardellati gives the film the stone-faced seriousness of a first time Dungeonmaster trying to impress his friends with his “mature” additions to the campaign he bought down at the Game Zone.
Which is a nice way of saying that while this movie is cheesy, it’s not family friendly or in particularly good taste; what with its hero attempting to assault nearly every woman he meets in his quest. It is, nonetheless, a perfect example of a Conan knock-off and just how quickly sword-and-sandal tropes emerged in the handful of years between Conan the Barbarian and Deathstalker. Some would even suggest the latter rips off the former almost completely, adding only lurid details and a generally topless performance by Clarkson.
Oh, we should probably talk about her a little bit. While she now lives in unfortunate infamy as the last victim of Phil Specter’s penchant for firearms, she had a minor success with Deathstalker, which led her to continue working with Corman on Barbarian Queen, Barbarian Queen II: The Empress Strikes Back and Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II; which uses a lot of material from Barbarian Queen. As a performer, she’s … well, she’s not much of one, but she had the right sort of look for a warrior woman in a cheap-and-dirty Conan knock-off. She was also willing to play the part while wearing nothing but a g-string and a cape, which was probably the key reason she was hired.
Star Rick Hill also fails to shine as the first of three actors to play Deathstalker. He gives the character a humorless, straight-forward sensibility which sort of makes sense considering the grimy world he inhabits. But besides looking like a He-Man doll come to life, he offers very little to role; especially after one sees John Terlesky’s more spirited take in Deathstalker II.
Which is kind of the point, really. Like the actors in the title role, Deathstalker II will always be more enjoyable that its predecessor. It plays more tounge-in-cheek with its fantasy environment and it is just more fun to watch. Director Jim Wynorski and Terlesky imbue that film with much more self-awareness and can-do spirit than a sequel to Deathstalker deserves. At the same time, Deathstalker offers an academic contrast as it is literally the film Deathstalker II is a reaction to. And if you watch the films in reverse order, you get a sort of cheesy film education in Corman productions of the era.
But again, beware as Deathstalker‘s rougher edge left Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson no choice but to cancel plans to feature it on his 2018 live tour and replace it with Deathstalker II. As Hodgson told me last week, the first film “lent itself to [us] because it’s so whimsical in its own weird way,” but as he edited out the R-rated material, he was left with only 60 minutes of a movie. While not the most graphic or unpleasant of cheesy movies, Deathstalker requires a little more fortitude as its hero is often as bad as the villains he faces. Which, as it happens, is something to expect when watching just about any cheesy sword-and-sandal movie from the era.
Deathstalker is available for rent on Amazon Prime.