By Todd Ciolek
It’s no wonder barbarian fantasy is the genre of choice among many sexist, mediocre film directors and pulp authors. No other school of fiction provides such an immediate excuse for men to be violent warriors, for women to be easily exploited objects, and for plots to make no real sense. When you’re filling a story with bulked-out cavemen and curiously well-groomed women in fur swimsuits, few people will bother criticizing your narrative subtexts.
No one really expects barbarian tales to be smart, and the same goes for the protagonists of such tales. After all, that’s their appeal: they’re brawny, fearless types who shun the suffocating depravities of civilization and hygiene. Of course, most barbarian chroniclers miss the point of this and end up with heroes who aren’t just simple-minded; they’re full-blown stupid, and so are their stories. And with the explosion in Conan the Barbarian imitators since the 1980s, we’ve seen lots of stupid things.
8) Kutchek and Gore
Appearances: The Barbarians
Featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000: No.
By the time The Barbarians emerged, it was 1987 and even the most inept B-movie hacks were starting to realize just how inherently stupid the whole Conan-knockoff genre was. The Barbarians isn’t a full-blown parody, but director Ruggero Deodato (who’d made the cult legend Cannibal Holocaust seven years before) knew better than to take it seriously. Bodybuilding twins Peter and David Paul play brothers Kutchek and Gore, who go through a reenactment of Conan’s movie backstory: orphaned at a young age, they’re sold into slavery and brought up to be gladiators. Oh, and they also walk around oiled-up and shirtless more often than Schwarzenegger ever did in either Conan flick.
There are monsters to be slain, dubbed-over women to be saved, and a trailer to be narrated by Peter “Optimus Prime” Cullen. Between the villain’s preposterous look (at a glance, he could be an aged David Bowie) and the constant Clearly Not Homoerotic shots of the stars’ rippling beefcakery, it’s all way too hokey for us to despise. Not bad for a movie that was, according to one of its cast members, essentially a producer’s tax write-off.
7) Cartoon Conan
Appearances: Conan and the Young Warriors
Featured on MST3K: Not a chance.
Sunbow Productions’ Conan the Adventurer series wasn’t such a bad cartoon. In fact, it was relatively faithful to the Conan the Barbarian ideal laid out in movies and Robert E. Howard’s original stories. No one died and the show treated women with a modicum of respect, but the other parts of Conan lore were undoubtedly there.
When Conan the Adventurer left the airwaves in 1993, Sunbow decided to follow it up with a worse idea: instead of pairing Conan with grown-up sidekicks and somewhat dark themes, the sequel clearly needed to put Conan in charge of a trio of three blond kids drawn together by magical “star stones.” It’s the same idea that gave us Mr. T’s cartoon gymnastics team, and it works about as well in Conan and the Young Warriors. Though he’s technically the same character as before, Conan seems more comical when he’s babysitting barbarian kids.
Sunbow, if you can’t even show properly horrific battles with giant snakes, you’ve got no business adapting Conan the Barbarian.
Appearances: Deathstalker, Deathstalker II, Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell, and Deathstalker IV: Match of Titans
Years: 1983, 1987, 1988, 1990
Italian-made: Nope. The first two were produced in Argentina.
Featured on MST3K: The third Deathstalker movie and its “Renaissance Festivals of the Old West” earned a slot in MST3K‘s seventh season.
The Deathstalker series was a staple of any locally owned video store that bothered to stock a “fantasy” section in the 1990s. All four Deathstalker films look the same at a glance, their covers decorated with muscled swordsmen and taunt amazons, each one nearly naked and gleaming with that Boris Vallejo brand of oil. Yet they’re fairly different movies: the first is straightforward faux-Conan schlock, with Deathstalker (Rick Hill) seeking treasures and instead rescuing a captive princess from pig-people and a bald wizard with a huge spider smashed on the side of his head. Still, it has its purely comedic moments.
The second Deathstalker movie, featuring a new and equally forgettable actor in the title role, plays its sword-and-sorcery nonsense for even more laughs, from the actors who never bother to hide their accents to a dwarf assassin introduced as Buddy “Footstool” LaRosa. It’s a terrible, terrible movie packed with as much demeaning, boring claptrap as its contemporaries, but at least it can laugh at itself. And at the expense of women.
Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell tries the same trick, but it’s even more awkward about its attempts at comedy. The third Deathstalker actor is easily the most annoying, and his adventures are a pedestrian procession of horse thievery, potato-eating, and painful wisecracking. His foes: a bald wizard (sense a theme?) with the imposing name of Troxartes and a legion of undead warriors who are basically talked out of killing anyone. All of this sets things up for the fourth and final Deathstalker film, which brought back Rick Hill as the title character. He started this mess, and he had to clean it up.
Appearances: The Sword of the Barbarians
Italian-made: And how.
Featured on MST3K: No.
Another Conan clone from Italy, The Sword of the Barbarians has a noble, beefy brute named Sangraal seeking a magic crossbow to avenge the death of his wife (Barbarian Movie-Writing Tip: crossbows, while effective, are just about the least symbolically potent weapon you can put in your movie). Along the way, he’s attacked by fake Roman soldiers, advised by a fire god, and seduced by a sorceress wearing only glitter and pasties. He also jumps into the air an awful lot. If you expect more out of a character named after the Holy Grail, you’re not only looking in the wrong movie. You’re in the wrong genre.
Despite his failings, Sangraal is able to lead a band of rebels even denser than he is, seeing as how they’re scared of a snake climbing on pike-mounted bones. There’s nothing to be afraid of, because that snake’s just as confused as you are, folks.
Appearances: Various Ator movies with several different titles each
Years: 1982, 1983, 1987, 1990
Featured on MST3K: If Ator is remembered at all nowadays, it’s because The Cave Dwellers became riotously funny MST3K material.
Among the many films that scrambled to profit from the success of the Schwarzenegger-driven Conan the Barbarian, Ator was the first and perhaps the most prestigious. Why? Well, it had Miles O’Keeffe, who’d played Tarzan opposite Bo Derek the year before. It didn’t have much else, but being quick is often more important than being well-budgeted.
In the first film, Ator the Invincible, our hero starts off as a common village hunter who wants to marry his sister, because there aren’t enough buck-toothed, three-eyed kids running around his barbarian homestead. Ator soon finds out that he’s adopted, making his affections only slightly less creepy, but his not-really-sister gets abducted by a spider cult before anyone can marry anyone. Ator sets out to rescue her, picking up a bear-Ewok pet and a love interest who, thankfully, isn’t his adoptive sibling. And then he fights shadows and a giant spider puppet.
O’Keeffe returned for a second Ator film, The Cave Dwellers, with a largely silent Asian sidekick and a hubcap-wearing woman to aid. By the end of the movie, Ator has fended off cavemen, built his own hang-glider, beaten up a huge snake puppet, and faced down a mincing, moustache-twirling warlord.
Clearly fascinated by the role, O’Keeffe appeared in a third Ator movie, Iron Warrior, without the input of Ator creator Joe d’Amato. For strangely hilarious reasons, d’Amato decided that the world needed a fourth Ator movie to get things back on track, and so he made Quest for the Mighty Sword, which lost O’Keeffe but gained the best title of any barbarian movie ever. With this fourth film, d’Amato at last figured out that he was making comedies.
When you’re using leftover masks from Troll 2, it’s time to put down the camera.
3) The Warrior King
Appearances: Wing Commander Academy, The Savage Dragon, Street Fighter: The Animated Series, Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm
Featured on MST3K: Sadly, the show didn’t take on cartoons.
In the mid-1990s, a cartoon producer had an idea. The USA Network was running animated shows based on Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, The Savage Dragon, and Wing Commander, so why not have a crossover among them? And it shouldn’t be just any crossover, either. A single character should appear on all four shows on the same day!
And just who is this show-hopping guest star? He’s a warrior-king who’s hunting a magical orb across dimensions in an attempt to save his homeland! The Warrior King, as he is apparently known, popped up on all four of USA’s Action Extreme Team shows in 1996, and yet he’s remember mostly for his stint on the Street Fighter cartoon (which by then had already destroyed whatever dignity Street Fighter still possessed after the live-action movie). In his appearance, the Warrior King pops up to help Chun-Li, reporter and secret agent, keep the dictator M. Bison from using the orb for evil ends. They thwart Bison soon enough, with the Warrior King saving kids and learning a valuable lesson about chauvinism in the process. Then our hero gets spirited off to another dimension, but not before Chun-Li falls in love with him. We are not exaggerating a word of this.
It’s an astounding feat to be the worst thing ever associated with the Street Fighter cartoon, but we think the Warrior King clinches it. His appearance makes little sense, he’s as generic as barbarian-fantasy heroes get, and he looks ridiculous. Someone clearly hoped to spin off the Warrior King into his own series. That didn’t happen.
Appearances: The Eye of Argon
Featured on MST3K: Only in fan-made parodies.
Before the Internet brought waves of terrible fan fiction to all points on the globe, connoisseurs of terrible writing had to hunt for their amateurish stories. Pulp magazines and homemade booklets were the best source, and from this subculture came a tale destined to become a classic in the most embarrassing way. That tale was The Eye of Argon by Jim Theis.
Conan-esque barbarian stories are commonplace in the cheap fiction of any era, but The Eye of Argon is truly special. Written by Theis when he was a 16-year-old with a head full of fantasy stories and awkward vocabulary, the story follows a barbarian named Grignr as he infiltrates an opulent palace and steals a “scintillating, many-fauceted scarlet emerald” that, we are told, is “capable of domineering the wealth of conquering empires.” Consider Grignr’s first encounter with the story’s heroine:
“Glancing upward, the alluring complexion noted the stalwart giant as he rapidly approached. A faint glimmer sparked from the pair of deep blue ovals of the amorous female as she motioned toward Grignr, enticing him to join her. The barbarian seated himself upon a stool at the wenches side, exposing his body, naked save for a loin cloth brandishing a long steel broad sword, an iron spiraled battle helmet, and a thick leather sandals, to her unobstructed view.”
And it only gets better from there. It’s considered a challenge to read the story out loud while keeping a straight face, and YouTube shows a number of people trying.
Of course, nothing compares to reading it yourself. If you’ve never tackled The Eye of Argon, set aside the better part of an hour and explore the lowest and most hilarious rung of the barbarian-fantasy ladder. Well, it’s the second-lowest, anyway.
Appearances: Yor: The Hunter from the Future
Italian-made: Excruciatingly so.
Featured on MST3K: Not directly, but you may recognize star Reb Brown from the MST3K-roasted Space Mutiny.
Yor: The Hunter from the Future lets you know from the start that you’re not dealing with just any run-of-the-mill barbarian movie. It kicks off with the hunky, blond-haired Yor running carefree through caves while a theme song trills in the background, praising
Yor in various nonsensical ways. Then he introduces himself to a tribe of cave people by punching a triceratops to death and drinking its blood. Driven by a medallion he’s worn and kept spotless since he was a child, Yor roams about with an instantly attracted woman named Kala and a dumpy, middle-aged caveman named Pak. On his trek from one tribe to another, Yor bodyslams cavemen, hang-glides with a dead pterodactyl, and destroys no less than three civilizations before the “future” part of the movie’s title arrives. Yor’s stone-age world is, in shocking fact, a post-apocalyptic wasteland ruled by the hooded Overlord and his army of Darth Vader androids. Seriously, the designers gave them the exact same helmets.
Despite borrowing from Star Wars and Conan, Yor is most like a feathered-hair ’80s version of Zardoz, only with no Sean Connery, no red speedo, and fewer hallucinogens (or perhaps more of them). When it comes to derivative fantasy films, Yor‘s cheerful inanity is hard to match. Reb Brown, who will forever be Space Mutiny‘s Dirk Hardpec (a.k.a Bolt Vanderhuge, a.k.a. Punch Rockgroin) to Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans, goes about slaying androids and romancing mysterious women with the shrugging ease of a guy changing his minivan’s oil on a lazy Sunday. The movie’s sudden shift to a futuristic island base makes it all the more hilarious, thanks to the Overlord’s reverb-heavy voice and the bored-looking, whiter-than-white rebels who can’t actually rebel without the help of a blond hero named Yor. It all comes down to a laser shootout in a boiler room, a seeming prototype for Space Mutiny‘s epically hilarious finale. At least Yor has a better theme song.