Film Review: Conan The Destroyer (1984)

SYNOPSIS:

“The wandering barbarian Conan, alongside his goofy rogue pal Malak, are tasked with escorting Queen Taramis’ virgin niece, Princess Jehnna and her bodyguard Bombaata, to a mystical island fortress. They must retrieve a magical crystal that legends say can awaken the god of dreams, Dagoth. Along the way, Conan reunites with the wise wizard Akiro and befriends the fierce female fighter Zula. Together the heroes face ancient traps, powerful wizards, plots of betrayal and even the dream god Dagoth himself!” (courtesy IMDB)

REVIEW:

“Between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Arius…” enterprising producer Dino De Laurentiis commissioned this follow-up to John Milius‘s ambitious screen adaptation of Robert E. Howard‘s pulp action hero, with considerably less ambition. With Milius already having laid the groundwork, veteran director Richard Fleischer‘s economical no-nonsense sequel sends the burly sword-swinging Cimmerian Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) on a mission to retrieve a mysterious key for the duplicitous Queen Tamaris (Sarah Douglas), who promises to bring Conan’s beloved Valeria (Sandahl Bergman) back to life.

With the queen’s niece (Olivia D’Abo) and her bodyguard Bombaata (Wilt Chamberlain) in tow, the gullible but honourable Conan begins his quest, collecting a motley band of sidekicks en route including munchkin sorcerer Akiro (Mako Iwamatsu), a cowardly thief (Tracey Walter) and a fiery Amazon warrior named Zula (Grace Jones). While lacking the spectacle of the Milius epic and with some of the optical effects showing their age, Conan The Destroyer (1984) – like most Dino-produced films – manages to look far more expensive than it actually is, with exotic Mexican locations and lavish looking sets effectively conjuring the Hyborian ‘Age Of Steel’.

But if the first film was vaguely pretentious, at least it managed to convey a magisterial air. Rather than trying to find the Nietzschean significance of the character, director Fleischer is more interested in unfolding an action-packed quest film that finds a barely-clad Conan battle as many monsters as possible in order to save a princess. It’s a simple narrative devoid of any thematic depth. The comic-book feel of the film is heightened by Fleischer’s approach to special effects, which take the Ray Harryhausen approach to suspension of disbelief, and his extremely static camera, which plays the film out like a series of panels from a comic. The result is a film far more superficial to its predecessor on every level.

Richard Fleischer, whose eclectic filmography encompasses everything from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea (1954) to Amityville 3-D (1983), gets the most from Dino’s dough, aided immeasurably by a rousing soundtrack composed by Basil Poledouris. Having obviously enjoyed the experience and ever the workman, Fleischer would return again to Robert E. Howard’s pulp universe the following year with the ill-advised Brigette Nielsen vehicle Red Sonja (1985), in which Schwarzenegger makes a cameo appearance as the Conan-like Lord Kalidor.

Conan The Destroyer also features a risible rubber monster named Dagoth courtesy of Carlo Rambaldi, the man responsible for some of the shonkiest creatures to appear on the silver screen: the giant shark in Jaws (1975), the giant ape in King Kong (1976), the alien leader in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977), the tentacled alien in Possession (1981), the giant snake in Conan The Barbarian (1982), the giant worms in Dune (1984) and, most infamously, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Once on-set, none of these mechanical creations ever worked properly, forcing the filmmakers to compromise during photography and editing. How he continued to get work is beyond me. I believe there’s an old Hollywood adage that states one should never work with children or animals or Carlo Rambaldi.

In his pumped-iron prime, Schwarzenegger returns to the role of Conan with sword-wielding gusto almost as if he can sense that his time is about to come – The Terminator (1984) was due to be released a couple of months later – and gets able support from amazing Grace Jones and lovely Olivia D’Abo. Having already left an indelible impression as the PVC-clad villainess Ursa in Superman II (1980), Sarah Douglas camps it up as evil queen turned sequel queen, with subsequent appearances in Beastmaster II Through The Portal Of Time (1991), Puppet Master III Toulon’s Revenge (1991), Meatballs IV (1992), Return Of The Living Dead III (1993) and Mirror Mirror II Raven Dance (1994).

Having since encouraged a gym-load of meat-headed mates like The Beastmaster (1982), Yor The Hunter From The Future (1983) and Deathstalker (1983), Schwarzenegger’s Conan remains the real deal. There has been talk of the aged Schwarzenegger returning as King Conan in 2014 directed by John Milius but, considering the dismal failure of the attempted reboot Conan The Barbarian (2011) starring Jason Momoa, those plans have probably fallen by the wayside and swept neatly under a carpet somewhere.

Vestron Video’s 1986 domestic VHS release of Conan The Destroyer must surely be one of the best arguments for letterboxing in home video history. Hopelessly panned-and-scanned to the point of eliminating most of the on-screen action, Conan fans will be thrilled to discover that MGM’s special edition DVD contains a revelatory 2.35:1 widescreen transfer. Also included on this bonus-heavy disc are two separate audio commentaries: one is a series of perfunctory observations from stars Olivia D’Abo and Tracey Walter, who displays an amazing memory for detail; the second is a far more enjoyable affair by director Fleischer who contributes some priceless anecdotes concerning his frequent collaborations with producer Dino. “We’ve had our arguments and sued each other, but have remained good friends.”

There’s also a fourteen-minute featurette entitled The Making Of A Comic Book Legend, which has Roy Thomas, creator of Marvel’s Conan series, whose success in adapting Robert E. Howard’s hero to comics landed him a story credit on both Barbarian and Destroyer films, while Basil Poledouris discusses his mythic score at length for seventeen minutes in a second featurette entitled Composing The Conan Saga. There’s also the theatrical trailer, behind-the-scenes photos and an extensive Conan Comic Book Gallery, which allows you to relive some classic cover art. It’s at this point I’ll now bid you a good night and farewell until we meet again to grope blindly around the bear-trap known as Hollywood for next week’s star-spangled celluloid stinker for…Horror News. Toodles!

Conan The Destroyer (1984)

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Wee Willie"Nigel Honeybone's debut was as Hamlet's dead father, portraying him as a tall posh skeleton. This triumph was followed in Richard III, as the remains of a young prince which he interpreted as a tall posh skeleton. He began attracting starring roles. Henry VIII was scaled down to suit Honeybone's very personalised view of this famous king. Honeybone suggested that perhaps he really was quite skeletal, quite tall, and quite posh. MacBeth, Shylock and Othello followed, all played as tall, skeletal and posh, respectively. Considering his reputation for playing tall English skeletons, many believed that the real Honeybone inside to be something very different, like a squat hunchback perhaps. Interestingly enough, Honeybone did once play a squat hunchback, but it was as a tall posh skeleton. But he was propelled into the film world when, in Psycho (1960), he wore women's clothing for the very first time. The seed of an idea was planted and, after working with director Ed Wood for five years, he realised the unlimited possibilities of tall posh skeletons who dressed in women's clothing. He went on to wear women's clothing in thirteen major motion pictures, including the Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Star Wars (1977), heartbreaking as the remains of Aunt Beru. With the onslaught of special effects came the demise of real actors in these sorts of roles. After modeling for CGI skeletons in Total Recall (1990) and Toys (1992), the only possible step forward for a tall posh skeleton was television, imparting his knowledge and expertise of the arts. As well as writing for the world's best genre news website HORROR NEWS, Nigel Honeybone is currently signed to star in a new series for television presenting the finest examples of B-grade horror. THE SCHLOCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW is seen on Friday nights at 10.30pm on TVS Television Sydney, and where ever good Youtube downloads are available." (Fantales candy wrapper circa 2007)

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