Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Movies of Dungeons & Dragons, Part 3: Secondary Sources

As the 1980s trundled on, fueled by Miami Vice, swatches, and Duran Duran videos, the fantasy films should have gotten better, but they didn’t. After such a promising start, the rush to make more of the same spawned a host of shittier and shitter sword and sorcery movies, each one worse that the last. The genre had split into two tracks: cheap-o boob-grab exploitation nonsense, or big budget ham-fisted embarrassments, and both of these new movie styles served to give Sword and Sorcery a bad name.

Granted, we still watched them, because we were young and our tastes had yet to fully develop, and also because even the mediocre movies had cool swords, sometimes pretty cool effects, and maybe a neat battle sequence or some wizardly shenanigans or a monster. At least, that's what we hoped. We were quickly getting used to disappointment.


That thing? In the background?
Red Eyes, Stupid Mouth?
That's the bad guy.
Krull (1983)
Another science-fantasy spectacular, with a surprisingly large special effect budget, and a perfect example of what happens when you have all the money in the world and a sub-par script. You get Krull, A movie that feels like it was made in committee, out of brainstorming lists for what had rapidly developed into the Sword and Sorcery Master Plot.

The Beast from another World rules with an iron fist and shiny medieval cylons who shoot lasers. Colwyn, the Prince of the King who opposes the Beast (I wonder if he’d faced such opposition if his name had been “Jeff” or “Ron”) is about to get married, so what does the Beast do? Crash the party, kill everyone, and kidnap the bride-to-be. But don’t follow the Beast’s men, and don’t seek revenge, you guys. Okay, that’s fair, now let’s get back to being evil. Wait, what? The Prince is following the bad guys to exact his revenge? Such impudence! Such obvious choices!  

We run with Colwyn as he picks up a cheeky, inept con-man of a wizard who keeps turning himself into animals, a band of merry brigands, and a Deus-Ex-Machina—I mean, a cyclops named Rell. Together they brave the dangers of the road, shape-changing assassins, and a giant white stop-motion spider—in this movie, no less!—to suss out where the Beast’s castle will be. Will these rag-tag heroes make it in time? Barely! Will that goofy five-pointed switchblade throwing star…excuse me, the Glaive…be used to kill the bad guy? You betcha! Ugh. It’s plot by numbers, and the final picture, once painted, ain’t very interesting. I didn’t like the movie then, and I don’t like it now. That said, I have a confession to make: I did play the bejeezus out of the stand-up arcade game, though. That was a cool game.

What Krull did bring to the gaming table was this: party teamwork. Whenever something happens to one member of Colwyn's retinue, everyone springs into action without question to save, protect, or rescue whoever is in trouble. This point wasn’t some major part of the plot, but rather something you noticed after you watched the movie a second time, thinking maybe you’d missed a couple of scenes that would help the narrative of the movie.

At least the movie poster
wasn't a crushing disappointment.
Fire & Ice (1983)
This movie may well have been the best and the worst thing to happen to us at the time. It should have been perfect; a collaboration between Ralph Bakshi, the producer and animator behind Wizards and Fritz the Cat, and Frank Frazetta, one of the premiere architects of sword and sorcery in the modern era. The concept was brilliant—using rotoscoping, Bakshi proposed to capture Frazetta’s artwork, some of the most kinetically-charged imagery ever, and bring it to life. The story would be a kind of “sword and sorcery’s greatest hits,” that utilized Frazetta’s most famous and iconic paintings and creations as Central Casting for the movie. Frazetta was even brought in to consult with the key artists and animators to make sure the heroes were appropriately heroic and the women were appropriately Frazetta-esque. So, what was the weak link? Where did it go wrong?

I’ll tell you where it all fell apart: Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway. Both were veteran comic book writers from Marvel Comics, and in particular, Thomas was an expert on Conan the Barbarian, having written all of the major issues for years, including adapting every Robert E. Howard story they could scavenge into comic and magazine formats. Conway’s career wasn’t quite as pedigreed, but he worked on most of Marvel’s super hero line and later transitioned into television, working on major high profile shows. Both of them served as editor-in-chief for Marvel Comics, which is essential the creative director position. These guys should have been able to write this thing in their sleep, and man oh man, did they blow it.

Even if we ignore that every character in the movie serves as a kind of checklist for a literary archetype (Darkwolf is Conan, Nekron is Elric, Larn is Brak the barbarian, etc.), the plot is scrambled eggs. Nekron is pushing a massive wall of ice (called a glacier in the film) across the land, smashing everything in its path. His sub-humans then run through the debris and loot and pillage. There’s not really a reason given for this, other than the guy’s name is Nekron. Larn (the blonde-haired barbarian) is the last survivor of his decimated tribe (when will these villains learn to leave barbarian villages alone?) and he fights with the sub-humans and runs from them in equal parts. Meanwhile, across the great desert, the people who live in the volcano are negotiating with Necron’s More-Human-Sub-Humans, while they kidnap the princess, Tegra. She slips away from the cavemen and runs into Larn. Their brief encounter at the Lost City of Kraken-in-the-Lake is enough to bring Darkwolf along. They team up to rescue Tegra and kill Nekron.

As plots go, this one is about as deep as a Koi pond, and when the sparse dialogue is uttered, it’s an embarrassment of riches. Nekron is aggressively effeminate, Darkwolf sounds like the gym teacher you used to hate, Larn is as colorless as his hair, and the random witch in the woods with the Giant-Sized Man-Thing for a son, Roliel, takes the prize for being the single craziest woman of all time. Knowing that she had three scenes, and one of them was as an animated skeleton, she apparently elected to make the absolute most of her two and a half minutes of glory and do a credible impression of every woman I dated in college.

However, there is one thing that redeems Fire and Ice, something that made us periodically break the movie out and watch it intently: the animation is awesome. Rotoscoping was always Bakshi’s real crutch, even when he didn’t need it, but here, he performs an incredible service: the live-action actors on the set were swinging rolled up paper tubes for swords and axes. That meant that they could swing fast and swing hard and hit their opponents in the head or the chest at full contact. When animated, we had axes that stuck when thrown, and swords that planted in bodies and then were ripped out again. This was something that simply could not be done in the practical effects world of the 1980s. Not in full view, and not in every battle. Fire and Ice did what was once thought to be impossible: it brought Frazetta’s artwork to vivid life. And our battle scenes in Dungeons and Dragons were never the same again. It’s still worth checking out, but my advice is to turn the sound off and play Basil Poledouris’ Conan the Barbarian soundtrack instead. It makes the movie noticeably better.

There's an awful lot of words on this
poster. Who do they think is watching
this movie?
Conan the Destroyer (1984)
Conan the Barbarian was one of the most popular and successful films of the 1980s. Maybe it was a surprise hit, and maybe it was just lightning in a bottle, but the movie rocketed Schwarzenegger to overnight super-stardom. The reason we’re talking about all of these movies in the first place is because of how well the first movie did. I wonder, if I had that kind of runaway hit on my hands, what I would do for a follow-up? Hmmm…Oh! I know! I’d hire the two guys who wrote Fire & Ice to whip the character that Roy Thomas is best known for working on into shape! After all, if anyone is going to get it right, it’ll be Roy, right? Right? 

What a travesty of a movie. Full disclosure: Conway and Thomas are on record as saying they were very unhappy with how the movie turned out, and that much of what they turned in was omitted or rewritten by screenwriter Stanley Mann. Mann, by the way, is the same guy that took one of the most easily film-able Stephen King novels ever, Firestarter, and rendered it into a lackluster and sad script that became an embarrassingly awful movie. At least he's consistent. Thomas and Conway eventually filed the serial numbers off of their original script and got it published at their old Alma Mater, Marvel Comics, as an original graphic novel called Conan the Barbarian: The Horn of Azoth. Read it and judge for yourself.

I know that you think I’m being an elitist pig because I know some stuff about Robert E. Howard, and while that may be very true, it does not inform my feelings about the movie. When this film first premiered, I was 15 years old. That should have been the sweet spot for this kind of movie, and I sure as hell didn’t know all of this ancillary information; I was just a fan, like everyone else. I hated this movie. It was such a profound disappointment for a number of reasons, starting with this: If you thought the first movie was light on Howardian material, let me tell you, you have not seen Conan the Destroyer, which contains exactly 60 seconds of anything resembling Robert E. Howard’s literary creation. Here, I’ll show you the scene. Subtract the Three Stooges Head Clap. Start the clock when Conan starts counting. Stop it when he frees Zula. Start it again when he rides over to break up the fight. Stop it when he rides off. In between, we see Conan being sardonic, freeing an outnumbered opponent so that the fight is more fair, and then look at the grin he gives her when she pledges her life to him. That’s pretty good Conan, right there, especially for Arnold. The rest of the movie is weak-sauce sword and sorcery, but it's also a top-grade Dungeons and Dragons adventure.

I’m serious. The adventuring party has to find secret doors, solve puzzles, avoid traps and skirmish with lots of zero-level henchmen. The thief steals and backstabs, the wizards duel and sorta cast spells, the fighter with exceptional strength even gets to make his bend bars/lift gates check. The worst part of it all is the terrible creatures. Not just the bowdlerized Thak in the hall of mirrors (using Thoth Amon? Really guys? How many names can you cram into one movie?) but the Dagoth monster (proudly credited to Carlo Rambaldi, the same guy who screwed up the werewolf in Silver Bullet) is not only a half-step away from looking like a Kaiju suit run amok, but managed to be both phallic and vaginal at the same time. Say what you will about the animatronic snake in the first movie, but it at least looked like what it was supposed to be. And Tracey Walter as the comic side-kick? Don’t get me wrong, I love the guy, but not in this. Olivia D’abo was fine for being the virginal sacrifice, and Grace Jones was…interesting. Wilt Chamberlain was more stunt casting so they could get size contrast between Conan and his adversaries. The only interesting casting choice was Sarah Douglas as Taramis. Everyone else was really out of place, except maybe Mako. This movie wasn’t just a step-down from the original; it was a Karate Kid leg sweep.

Clearly Brigitte Nielsen wasn't
supposed to be the draw for this
schlock-fest. Oh well, at least she
doesn't have on a chainmail bikini.
Red Sonja (1985)
There is much about this movie that breaks my heart. I mean, earnestly shatters it. Red Sonja should be great and I should love it; this movie has an amazing pedigree going for it. Directed by Richard Fleischer, fresh off of Conan the Destroyer (and the son of Max Fleischer, the legendary pioneering animator). The script was written by Clive Exton and polished by George MacDonald Fraser. In case you’re not suitably impressed, let me help you out. Clive Exton is the guy who took all of the short stories of P.G. Wodehouse and turned them into four seasons of Jeeves & Wooster for Masterpiece Theater, and they are some of the best adaptations of literary material that the BBC ever did, and that’s saying something. And as for Fraser, well, if you have not read his excellent and highly recommended Flashman series of novels, you should know that he’s the man responsible for the Richard Lester Three Musketeer movies, otherwise known as the most faithful version of Dumas’ story ever put to film.

So, these two guys, who should know a thing about adapting source material to television and movies, should have no problem with Red Sonja, right? Fraser himself had this to say about adapting literary works to film in his memoir of Hollywood, The Light’s On at Signpost:
…for one thing I have learned is that trying to improve on a classic is seldom a good idea; yes, you must adapt and shape and perhaps put a different spin on it, but it is well to bear in mind that it isn’t a classic for nothing, and the closer you can follow the author, the better. It never ceases to amaze me the number of writers who think they know better than the original, and whose attitude is “What a good idea—now stand back and let me do it my way!” The result is usually a godawful mess. Oh, for David O. Selznick, who never permitted unnecessary liberties with masterpieces…and made sure above all that their spirit was respected.

Clearly Fraser didn’t think Red Sonja merited classic status, because there were more liberties taken with that movie than a Sadie Hawkins dance at the La Grange Chicken Ranch. Was Exton even handed a stack of the Red Sonja comics? I mean, giving them Robert E. Howard books, or even the Dick Tierney and David Smith series of Red Sonja books, might have been too much to ask for, but come on…not even a single comic book?

I don’t even know where to begin, but the movie sure does: the opening is such a boring cliche after five years of Sword and Sorcery movie, they don't even bother showing us the whole scene, instead reducing it to a flashback montage as Red Sonja (a baby faced, yet still amazonian Brigitte Nielsen) is confronted by, what? Glenda, the Good Witch of the North? Who says, because she was raped and her family was murdered by Ghedron (Sandahl Bergman), she will be given power (and, evidently, training in the ways of the sword). We then cut to the opening credits, featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger on horseback, riding for several shots. Who's movie is this, again?

Aided by Toht from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghedren, the jilted sorceress (or priestess, or warlord, or...oh, who cares), attacks and kills a bunch of warrior priestesses to get a giant green stone of power and since one of them was Sonja’s sister, here we go on another bloody trail of vengeance. Along the way, Sonja runs into a boy prince who knows Kung-Fu (like Short Round from Temple of Doom only exponentially more insufferable) and his handler/bodyguard, and they all keep being rescued by Conan—I mean, Kalidor, the mercenary, played by Arnold, who was running out his contract at Universal while presumably the third Conan was being worked on. It later became Kull the Conqueror. I don’t know if I have the strength to talk about Kull.

The acting is sub-par; it’s Nielsen’s first movie and she’s completely out of her depth, even with this thin material, and what’s worse, the people who could have done a good job, like Sandahl Bergman, clearly don’t care. Inept writing, a plot made of Swiss cheese, and scenes and sequences that aren't funny enough to be funny, nor serious enough to take seriously. In fact, the scenes only serve to fritter away the audience's valuable time, and also the slightly above average score by the legendary composer Ennio Morricone. I'm not sure what's more insulting to me: that they didn't even bother to try to replicate the tone and sense of humor, however misplaced, from Conan the Destroyer, or that there was such a lack of respect for the source material that it need not have been a licensed property in the first place. 

This movie cannot be saved. It’s never so bad it’s good. It just swings ponderously down to the bottom of the Bad category and never breaks free of its own suckage. What did this movie do for players and D&D fans? It did one of two things: you either decided to seek out Red Sonja in print just to see if it was as bad as the movie, or you took the movie’s word for it and didn’t bother.

The poster may be my favorite thing
about this movie. 
Legend  (1985)
Twenty seconds into this movie, I was rocked by a grammatical error in the opening crawl of Legend. I was 16 years old, and was savvy enough in my tastes to think that a fantasy film directed by Ridley (Blade Runner, Alien, and The Duelists) Scott and starring Tim Freaking Curry as the Devil would be awesome. But here comes this fakakte crawl that reads: 
Unicorns are safe from the Lord of Darkness, they can only be found by the purest of mortals…

There are two acceptable pieces of punctuation that can fit between those two sentences, and let me assure you, a comma isn't either one of them. All those British people working on the movie, and y’all don’t know what a semicolon is? How about a period? Okay, maybe that’s not entirely fair; the listed screenwriter is William Hjortberg, an American. By the way, that last sentence demonstrates the proper use of a semicolon and a comma. Just in case Ridley Scott is reading this. Hjortsberg wrote the novel Falling Angel, which was made into the movie, Angel Heart (1987). He also wrote what some consider to be the best of the various Houdini and Doyle fictional what-if mystery stories, Nevermore. This guy knows what he’s doing. He is a competent and engaging writer.

So why do I want to donkey-punch Legend? For starters, it bears no resemblance to anything fantastical before or since--it's a mishmash of Judaeo-Christian imagery, Alan Lee fairies, Howard Pyle arms and armor (straight out of Robin Hood) and nearly every Hans Christian Anderson fairy story ever illustrated. That would be all well and good, I suppose, if the movie hadn’t been shot on a soundstage, and looks it. The film has a shallow depth of field and a narrow focus. This enchanted realm feels claustrophobic with no room to breathe, let alone stretch its wings. This supposedly rich and lavish world is sparsely populated. How they sprang for two unicorns, I'll never know.. But that’s a problem of production, and not story. I suspect Hjortsberg was shooting for an Andrew Lang feel to his fairy tale script, but what he forgot is that no one asked for that, wanted that, or needed that. Not in live-action form, and certainly not in 1985.

Also, and for this you have to lay the blame at Ridley Scott’s feet, here, but there’s a handful of different cuts of the movie (Scott does this shit all the time, and I'm sick of it). The American cut of the film (the one we all saw) is the shortest of the extant cuts, and by far, the shittiest. I can sum it up in four words: Soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. The reliance on synthesizers and electronic keyboards in movie scores may be the single largest cultural crime committed in the 1980s. I can forgive day-glo neon-colored leggings and I can overlook Izods and penny loafers, and I can even shrug my way through the whole of Yuppie culture, as the reaction to it was really good for several art and literary movements. But synth music in movies is a bridge too far, a kind of cultural boat anchor that forever mires these supposedly timeless stories as somewhere East of Beverly Hills Cop, or worse, slightly south of Fletch.

I have not seen Scott's director’s cut of the movie. For all I know, it’s an amazing, transcendent piece of work. It may well be the best thing ever. But if it’s still got rhyming goblins in it, and pig-faced minions, and if the Gump is still a kid that’s been overdubbed, and if Tim Curry still bellows “Innocence! INN-OH-SEENCE!” and if the goblin still squeals out “Adios, Amigos” when he commits suicide in the bottomless pit, then I am pretty sure I’ll still hate this movie. It brings nothing to the table. It’s got great visual appeal, but it’s empty calories. Really harried DM’s might find some interesting dramatic nuggets in Tim Curry’s role as the Lord of Darkness, but that’s stretching it.

All of these movies had money, and budgets, and talent (however squandered) and could have been much better than they were, except that the powers-that-be (such as Dino De Laurentiis) had visions of grandeur and absolutely zero taste. Synth music, bad creature design, ludicrous weaponry, a yearning for spectacle over technical considerations, and a seeming need to get the look right and hang everything else, dooms these movies to the pile of one-offs. If you watch five sword and sorcery movies in a row and they all suck, you may well come to the conclusion that all sword and sorcery sucks. And that’s what people did. It wasn’t just the cheap-o exploitation movies that sucked—here were movies with people you recognized from other, better films, and directors you knew from other, better films, and composers and screenwriters from other, better films, and if this was what they thought of sword and sorcery, who were we to assume any different?
___________


Did you miss Part 1 and 2 of this series? Catch up here:

The Movies of Dungeons and Dragons, Part 1: Primary Sources
The Movies of Dungeons and Dragons, Part 2: The Ray Harryhausen Playbook

The Movies of Dungeons and Dragons, Part 4: The Best of the Rest
The Movies of Dungeons and Dragons, Part 5: The End of an Era

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