Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Video Cheese: 80's sequels double feature

Note: these pieces were originally written for's Video Cheese feature, and have been published here by the kind permission of Mr. Ken Begg. In both cases, a lot more is going on in either movie than I could really write about. This is largely because the happenings in each were positively generic.

   "Lou Ferrigno returns -for the second time- as the mighty muscle man in a new series of fantasy-based adventures."

   Among the many sub genres that enjoyed an intense interest during the 1960's, one was what became informally known as Italian Muscle Man Movie (the Sword and Sandal genre). These were a slew of films produced from roughly 1960 to 1964, detailing the adventures of assorted muscle-bound adventurers like Machiste, Goliath (not THE Goliath, obviously), Samson (sometimes the real one, but usually guys with the same name), "Colossus", and many, many others. The big gun on the block was, of course, Hercules. It was Hercules, but virtue of the astounding success of Joseph E. Levine's release of 1959, who kicked off the whole thing.

   When the film's sequel, HERCULES UNCHAINED proved an even bigger hit, the die was cast. Along came countless broad-shouldered giants like Kirk Morris, Reg Park, Gordon Scott, Alan Steele, and Rock Stevens (who went on to greater fame as Mission: Impossible's Peter Lupis), all attempting to fill the beard and tunic made famous by Steve Reeves (or, if cast as another mythical hero, a clean shave and tunic). 

   Such was the fame and success of the mighty Hercules, that a large number of otherwise unrelated muscle man epics were packaged in the US as a collective series detailing the adventures of the many Sons of Hercules (giving birth to one of the coolest movie theme songs of the decade that didn't involve a spy). There were seemingly hundreds of Sword and Sandal movies produced during this time. Roaming adventurers would do battle against countless armies, tyrants, dragons, vampires, giants, sea monsters, robots, and even spacemen!

   Yes, Hercules and his ilk reigned supreme for years, until Sergio Leone created an unexpected smash hit called A FIST FULL OF DOLLARS

   You see, the Italian M/O was usually to take a genre or formula that proved a success, and then mine the life out of the concept until the next big thing came along.  When it did, the last year's success was dropped at once, even if it were still popular. In the early 60's, it was the muscle man epics. The mid to late 60's produced the spaghetti westerns, peppered by a slew of Italian 007 look-a-likes, crime pictures of a supernatural nature took over in the early 70's, and so on. 

   Some in the industry have complained about this system, but I must champion it. Few genres can claim to be as consistent as the old Italian pictures, because they were made within the same period. Imagine if all the 007 movies were as good as GOLDFINGER, or if all the Godzilla flicks were as good as GODZILLA VS THE THING. If nothing else, imagine if there were a lot more entries in each series made during the same zenith. There were countless muscle epics produced in those few years, and they all share a lushness in production value that's truly staggering in the face of their rushed construction. The Italians definitely knew how to answer public demand.
   All good things come to an end, though.

   The heyday ended overnight in Italy. States-side, the Hercules movies went on to become staples of UHF programming for the next few decades. I personally recall a week of my youth when TNT screened dozens of these things. But as the Sword and Sandals slowly faded away from public sight, something new was brewing that would change the genre forever. That was the sudden emergence of Sword and Sorcery as a viable genre in the early 80's. 

   Born of the fantasy films produced in the 70's, but now matched with the muscle man formula of the 60's, it was the long-awaited production of CONAN THE BARBARIAN that set the new die in place. As had happened in the 60's, a new wave of sword-wielding muscle men stormed the scene, only these engaged in more fantastic adventures than their originators could ever have imagined.

   The cycle of the 60's had occasional elements of the fantastic like monsters and such, as well as the powerful abilities of the heroes themselves. They remained somewhat grounded in reality, though. Hercules or Machiste or whoever really had to strain to bring down mountains and bury cities. If they got cut, the bled just like anyone else. Moving a bolder to block a road required real effort. In most of them, the hero, even Hercules, wasn't as often supernatural as they were just strong men who tried to help others ("They were the mightiest of mortal men" explained the Sons of Hercules prologs).

   All that was out the window with the Sword and Sorcery genre. These heroes tended to possess supernatural invincibility, and could only get hurt if they let themselves slip into a trap (usually by a beautiful-but-evil woman, one of the few elements that remained from the old days). I'm speaking generally here, of course, but the first thing we see of Hercules here is the muscle man about to be slashed to ribbons by the spinning blades of a chariot's wheels. The blades shatter into tiny bits when they touch Herc's legs, something I never saw in a Kirk Morris movie! In this, the Sword and Sorcery heroes more resembled the supernatural Kung Fu masters of countless Chinese imports in the 70's and early 80's.

   Conan kicked off a new wave of muscular heroes, including his very own sequel film, CONAN THE DESTROYER. Sometimes the warriors in question were female, following the lead of RED SONJA. This led to an entire subgenre of warrior/barbarian women movies which combined the colorful supernatural adventure stuff with more base sex and violence. Of course, budgets were seldom extravagant in Italian films. The Conans and Red Sonjas were the exceptions, not the rule. Most of the knock-off characters were subject to truly pitiful little movies that looked cheaper than UHF television productions. Even so, a handful of these did manage to achieve a certain name value. Miles O'Keiffe starred more than once as the invincible Ator. 

   Naturally, the mighty Hercules had to get in on this. Enter Lou Ferrigno.

   Ferrigno was a body builder who came to fame (and pop immortality) as Bill Bixby's monstrous alter ego on television's The Incredible Hulk, which may still be television's finest comic book adaptation. Deaf in one ear, and therefore possessing a speech impediment that made his casting as a leading man problematic, Lou did manage to find star casting in a series of second wave Italian muscle epics. Among them, he headlined a pair of shiny-but-goofy depictions of our old favorite, Hercules.

   HERCULES remains most noted for the fact that Herc spends time duelling stop-motion robot monsters, evidently in the hopes of capturing the STAR WARS crowd. For good or ill, the film also stuck closer to the myths that inspired the original character. Thus, a series of larger-than-life adventures were faced by Hercules  as he battled more than just the usual despots and rubber dragons. This adventure was filled with magic and the gods themselves, and ended with Hercules taking his place among the stars.

   THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES is a direct sequel, and is often informally known as HERCULES II. This time, Hercules returns to earth to reclaim the Seven Thunderbolts of Zeus, which have been stolen by lesser gods and hidden inside a bunch of goofy monsters. You wouldn't think Zeus would ever let his guard slip enough for him to be robbed, would you? (Actually, he might tempt these little episodes just to liven things up. It seems pretty boring to be a Greek god, hence the fact that they keep messing with humans for their own amusement.)

   The familiar trappings of the Sword and Sandal genre are still in evidence. Our story begins with a maiden being sacrificed to the Fire Demon, at the command of the local tyrant. Most of these things open in one of two ways. Either a young maiden is about to be sacrificed, as we see here, or else a peaceful village is suddenly pillaged by an invading army. Should one think the latter started with Conan, it didn't. One thing that was tweaked slightly was the traditional climax. Back in the 60's, these films would usually end with an army of men rising up against that week's particular despot and his or her cruel military forces. Hercules would usually handle the main bad guy by his lonesome, but these big climactic battles were required first. Post-Conan and the big uprising was pretty limited. Like their model, it was usually only the hero and a handful of hangers-on who held the final stand.

    Said Fire Demon is a cartoon image, mostly rotoscoped from the Id Monster seen in 1956's much heralded classic, FORBIDDEN PLANET. I suppose this was meant as a tribute of some sort, but it just looks lazy to me, and it always irks me when I see it. Anyway, there's these two young women who are destined to end up on the Fire Demon's menu, so they pray to the gods for help. Since the Fire Demon is part of the whole Hidden Thunderbolt plot, Hercules is called from the stars and swings into action.

   From there, it's one adventure after another as the two warrior babes tag along with Hercules as he fights off assorted monsters and escapes from endless deathtraps. Among these side trips, a walk on the floor of the sea, an ambush by amazons, a fight with slime people, and Hercules growing into a colossus to keep the moon and earth from hitting each other! One thing that's different this time around, the monsters are a bit more traditional. No giant robots, as I recall (although several are highlighted in the opening credits, which play a bunch of footage from, as it's listed in the stock footage credit, "HERCULES I").

   The 60's films didn't use much stop motion, so its use here further separates THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES from the Sword and Sandal days. There's a steal/homage to CLASH OF THE TITANS in one segment when Herc has to face off against a stop-motion Medusa, only this one has a scorpion body instead of that of a serpent! I also note, this looked a lot more impressive when I was ten or so and saw the film on television.

    Even then, I was appalled by one big battle scene which turns into animation. (In general, this picture loves rotoscoping glowing animation over things, such is the means of creating a set of ghostly assassins who are otherwise completely human.) Herc and his adversary decide to take their battle into more cosmic realms and they become a pair of rotoscoped cartoons fighting against the stars. Now, that'd be fine, but they decide to amp things up. The bad guy suddenly turns into a cartoon of a dinosaur, mostly rotoscoped from Ray Harryhausen's allosaurus from ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. Now again, is this supposed to be an homage? Or am I right in being ticked off whenever I see this?

    Hercules decides to fight in similar form and he turns into a cartoon of King Kong! Yes, we next see a couple of battles from KING KONG reproduced in cell animated form! The colossal gall of this sequence has always irked me. It seems as if they were expecting some of KONG's greatness to rub off on this wacky epic! All I can do is sigh and shake my head. That's really the only response I had to the whole movie. It's silly fun, but it just reminds me of why I'm such a fan of the 60's films, and really don't care about the 80's ones.

   There's also so much going on in this one, that my days later reflection could never do it justice. Maybe Ken will give both films a full review in future....

    "A young lad must embark on a magical quest to unite/save the kingdoms of the realm from this week's evil despot holding a magical object that gives him power over others."

   I met David Carradine once. Well, I didn't actually speak to him, but my brother and my folks did (I was chatting with Ben Chapman at the time). I don't wish to speak ill of the dead, and I'm allowing that travel fatigue may have been a part of his listlessness, but I will say that David Carradine is a lot cooler on screen than he was in real life (at least at the moment that I crossed paths with him).

   I've never seen WIZARDS OF THE LOST KINGDOM, I know it only from Ken's review (and it sounds like a lulu). It must have done well in video rentals, though, because this sequel followed. Even so, release must have been held back, for the date on the film reads 1985, while the official date on the IMDB is 1989. Near as I can tell, it has no connection to the earlier Bo Svenson vehicle, although it does carry on the tradition of using scads of unrelated stock footage to pad things out. (Among other things shown during the opening credits, we glimpse that seashore castle from the Gothic AIP movies of the 60's!)

   I suppose the plot for this film is typical of such fare: a young boy trains to be a wizard so he can save the land from the rule of a tyrant and his magical items, uniting the local kingdoms in the process. This one is more light-hearted than I expected, though, and at least has a fair amount of cheesecake to help make things pass less painfully. Also on display, however sadly, is a fairly name cast. Direction is by none other than Charles B. Griffith, who penned a number of classics for Roger Corman, among them NOT OF THIS EARTH and ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS!

   As we open, there is but one old Wizard left in the world (Mel Welles!) who is hanging out in a cave and letting his magical powers rust. He suddenly gets a call from some mystical power (God? I don't think so, but that's more or less how they play this) to train a young lad to take an important quest. In an example of the film's sense of humor, this Being (a voice coming from some steam in a pot) departs and tells Mel to drink his coffee. Said liquid is left in the pot and Mel wonders what coffee is.

   Mel finds said lad, one Tyor by name, and explains that he's in for a big mission. Tyor takes this in stride and the two head off to train in magic, and to find some muscle. Said muscle is "The Dark One" who works a tavern in the woods. The Dark One turns out to be an easy-going former warrior played by David Carradine. He wants nothing more than to serve drinks and collect tips when his sexy wife comes out and dances for the patrons. His wife is a brunette beauty who dances for the drooling customers while wearing only a leather bikini-type affair. This really turns on Tyor, but Mel drags him out of the tavern, convinced The Dark One will be of no help.

   From there, we follow our heroes as they first aid some small kingdoms by freeing some slaves, organizing a few rebellions, and swiping a couple of magic articles. Among the people they meet is a warrior babe played by Lana Clarkson (she was the one shot by record producer Phil Spector a few years back). According to the IMDB, she's wearing the same outfit she used in an earlier movie, BARBARIAN QUEEN, because they use a lot of stock footage from that more impressive epic. Basically, these mini-adventures tie together when all the kingdoms unite behind Tyor  for the climax.

   Now, I have to wonder who this was aimed at. One would think small, hyperactive kids, given the juvenile nature of much of the proceedings. Yet showcasing as much cheesecake as it does (at the risk of over-selling it), that doesn't seem right. Tyor is nearly seduced by a scantily clad (though still TV friendly) vixen at one point. Also, The Dark One and his wife eventually join the fight and The Dark One's better half has her legs highlighted in several scenes. Lana Clarkson's gams also tend to draw one's eyes. 

   That stuff was supposedly meant to attract teenage and adult audiences, as was the nearly competent action scenes. The monsters and stuff, and the silly humor, still seem more likely there to grab kids, though. Then there's the cast of vet actors, like Sid Haig, that make it seem the film was aimed at fully adult viewers. I guess you could call it a family film, albeit one I imagine most families wouldn't want to watch together.

   If nothing else, things move at a fair clip so it doesn't have time to get too boring. Even so, I really can't say very much about it one way or the other. Really, I was just left reflecting on the fact that David Carradine sure is cool... on film.