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. And yet others thrive on a tone not easily marketed in Hollywood. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these films for what they get wrong — when they get it wrong — and what they right do in spite of the wishes of the studio or the director.
This week: Deathstalker and the Warriors From Hell
It’s been a while since we discussed the output of Roger Corman’s company in the 1980s. And last weekend’s cheesy movie, Hawk the Slayer, made us nostalgic for the Deathstalker series. The first film set out to be a cut-rate Conan knock off. Deathstalker II, one of our favorite cheesy movies of all time, won our hearts by turning the fantasy cliches into a lovable, Looney Tunes-inspired romp. And since the bar to make a sequel at Concorde Pictures was set quite low, a third Deathstalker film quickly went into production.
But as we’ll see, forces would conspire to make it different from its predecessors.
The plot concerns Deathstalker (this time played by John Allen Nelson) as he wanders the land with the wizard Nicias (Aarón Hernán). During a festival, Nicias encounters Princess Carissa (Carla Herd). She hopes to find a second piece of a stone which legend tells will point the way to the treasure city of Arandor. Nicias informs her the second stone is in Southland. But just as he prepares to tell her more about Arandor, the city of his birth, Southland raiders attack the festival. Nicias escapes and Deathstalker finds himself protecting Carissa from the raiders. He totally bungles this job, but she tells him about the stone, Southland, and Arandor with her dying breath.
Down in Southland, the cruel magician/ruler Troxartes (Thom Christopher) plots to get a hold of Carissa’s stone — he has the other — so he can become more powerful and, presumably, expand his holdings. But he is also under the impression the stone is with Carissa’s twin sister Elizena (also Herd) and agrees to marry her. Deathstalker catches up with her entourage, luring Troxartes’s raiders to the camp where they kill all of Elizena’s guards and retainers. As this journey took some unspecified amount of time, word has spread that Deathstalker killed Carissa, so when he meets up with the now defenseless Elizena, she assumes he’s appeared to do her harm as well.
She leaves Deathstalker behind and finally finds Troxartes. They leave the forest for his castle with Deathstalker in pursuit. But now that Troxartes knows the legendary warrior is his opponent, he uses some of his magic to resurrect a legion of top soldiers: the titular Warriors from Hell.
And if all of this sounds a little uninspired, that’s actually part of the charm. As Deathstalker II director — and Your Weekend Cheesy Movie mainstay — Jim Wynorski noted in his commentary for the film, it was the last Corman picture to be shot in Argentina. The tax breaks and favorable exchange rates were drying up, so Corman moved stakes to Mexico. The switch of hemispheres would mean a palpable change to Deathstalker as a series and to Corman’s low budgets productions as a whole. In Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell‘s case, it means a film encased in low-wattage ambitions.
Which isn’t to say the earlier films were trying to be high art, either. But there’s an obvious love in Deathstalker II missing from Deathstalker III. Key connective scenes appear to be missing. That imprecision about the time it took Deathstalker to reach Southland makes a mess of the plot. Characters are introduced only to be forgotten. Key parts of the plot are mumbled thanks to dreadful sound design. Thom Christopher’s hammy tendencies are not reined in and all of the generic fantasy trappings feel a lot more generic this time around. Whether or not this was the mood set by director Alfonso Corona or not, the film just doesn’t care enough about itself to make even a half-way decent low budget fantasy flick.
But curiously enough, these faults make Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell a lot fun to watch. It’s not striving for much and you can sort of appreciate that. There is, however, one person striving for some sort of quality: star John Allen Nelson. With his good looks and affable charm, Nelson should’ve been a bigger deal in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell, he gives the character a decidedly smarmy quality not present in John Terlesky’s Deathstalker or even original Deathstalker Rick Hill. You almost get the sense he watched Deathstalker II and chose to follow some of Terlesky choices with the character. But as screenwriter Howard R. Cohen failed to provide any quips for Deathstalker, the bravado turns into self-absorption. Nonetheless, Nelson commits to his choices and provides a pretty consistent Deathstalker — even if his accent wavers throughout the production. Had the film been of a slightly higher quality, you could see Nelson winning some good roles as an action hero off the back of this film.
Christopher, meanwhile, is a hoot to watch. The actor came to some prominence in the second season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, but found himself in the Corman camp by the mid 1980s. He plays essentially the same role in 1985’s Wizards of the Lost Kingdom, an attempt to make a kid-friendly Corman fantasy film by reusing a lot of Deathstalker footage and cutting out the nudity. In that context, his performance works for a dopey children’s antagonist. Here, it feels like he is just trying to get a rise out of the seemingly uninterested director. Nonetheless, it is still a remarkable performance and the right bad guy for Nelson’s Deathstalker.
Other performances are non-starters as the other actors are either dubbed over with American voice talents or not terribly talented performers delivering uninspired dialogue. But one curious note: Herd is currently the US Ambassador to Denmark — a suddenly newsworthy item in the last few weeks.
If Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell illustrates one thing in our survey of Corman’s ’80s output, it is the diminishing returns fantasy films offered him by 1988. Moving production to Mexico may have saved money, but it also underscores a certain fatigue with the genre. Corman would produce a handful more before the decade’s end, but the cable-ready ’90s would see him focus on martial arts, horror, and post-apocalyptic settings. Nonetheless, there would be one more Deathstalker film … but that’s a story for another day.
Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell is not currently commercially available in the US in its original form. But you can watch it as Episode 703 of Mystery Science Theater 3000.