And now we come to the wet cigarette end of the bleak Conan rip-offs that seemed to dominate August of ‘83. Deathstalker may be the most notable of them, though only for the darkest of all possible reasons. Star Lana Clarkson – who made her name in the drive-in circuit with this film – was murdered by Phil Spector in 2003. As legacies go, this film could have been a lot better, but the extreme cheese on display has an air of sadness to it as a result.
The film also stars Barbi Benton, who was Hugh Hefner’s squeeze back in the 70s. The boob factor is thus in abundant display… as are the bottom-line sensibilities of executive producer Roger Corman. Sure, they don’t have a budget for any sets or costumes, but girls willing to drop their tops are in copious abundance, as is the low-end bloodletting that makes it clear this one is for grown-up children only.
Star Rick Hill gives it his all as the mysterious Deathstalker, warrior of the ancient world who tries hard to sound like a badass in order to offset his exquisitely feathered hair. As usual, he’s on a quest to save the world from evil: seeking a trio of mystic items in order to stop the evil Munkar (Bernad Erhard) for various undefined sins. He plays the disaffected outsider only to learn his true destiny through the regular slaughter of faceless underlings and the rescuing of numerous trembling maidens who happily fling themselves at him as soon as they learn that he won’t disembowel them. Dutiful plot expositionists occasionally show up to keep the stakes clear.
It’s silly as hell – you can’t take anything seriously when a villain named “Munkar” is involved – but its threadbare scenario has a little more competence behind it than some of its competitors. Deathstalker also earns some slack by not shying away from R-rated pleasures: adhering a little too closely to Conan for comfort sometimes, but embracing its “time of savagery” concept rather than shying away from it. Director James Sbardellati stretches his miniscule budget to the absolute maximum , and understands enough about the Hero’s Journey to keep the basic notions intact. “Good” is too much to ask for here, but “worthy of a little respect?” Yeah, we can grudgingly give it that.
Which isn’t to say you won’t see your share of cheesy puppets and ridiculous fight scenes, all shot in what appears to be an Argentinian game preserve somewhere. There’s a staggering amount of laughable material, and frankly the sexism on display is a little too copious for comfort. This is a big boys’ fantasy, where the women exist to be rescued so they can fawn over their savior in properly adoring terms. Clarkson’s barbarian swordswoman is a bit of a step up, but even she is more submissive gal pal than Grrl Power asskicker. As cheesecake goes, it could be worse – Benton and Clarkson are both, um, healthy and hey, there’s mud wrestling! – but the underlying taint of fear and hate are never too far from the surface.
That puts it in a curious position in the pantheon of its peers. It’s too knowing to dismiss out of hand – grinning at us periodically as if to say “we know it’s goofy, but what are ya gonna do?” – but neither can it claim ignorance of its various cinematic sins. There’s enough interesting things going on to justify our attention but never enough to mark it as truly good. It does a lot with a little, just not nearly as much as it could: avoiding MST-level awfulness only by glomming a little too closely to its Schwarzeneggan betters. Swords and sorcery fans should have a good time with it, and it never overstays its welcome. But the darkness surrounding it comes too close for comfort at times, leaving a lot of regrets in its otherwise harmless wake.