The Wynorski Project
Life gets exciting for Deathstalker, the womanizing "Prince of Thieves", when he rescues beautiful blond "seer" Reena from a trio of violent soldiers. After she convinces him that a vast reward awaits the man who stops the evil sorcerer Jarek from his reign of terror, they go on an adventure filled journey (Zombies! Female wrestlers! Amazons!), where our hero learns that Reena is a princess in exile, replaced by a mystical look-a-like who must consume men whole to survive. Blood is shed, breasts are bared, stuff explodes and there are happy endings for everyone who deserves one.
Before I begin, I want to say that the following might read more vitriolic than I intended. It is my belief that Deathstalker II is a bad movie, but the truth is that there's nothing wrong with being a bad movie. Bad movies make the world go round. And the fact is that as bad movies go, Deathstalker II isn't that bad. I just didn’t think it was very funny, which is somewhat problematic for a film that’s supposed to be a comedy.
But then this might be expected for a film that didn’t start out as a comedy. Originally written as a straightforward sequel to the original Deathstalker—a film best remembered today for featuring an early appearance by the late Lana Clarkson and the scene in which Barbi Benton’s see-through robe is rather redundantly torn off her bound body—Wynorski decided just as filming began in Argentina that the only way to save it from being a complete fiasco was to rewrite it on the fly with help from his leading man, Chopping Mall’s John Terlesky. Inspired by Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night and old Looney Tunes cartoons, they decided to turn it into a wacky road comedy.
This ad hoc approach to the screenplay is clearly evident onscreen. The script’s reliance on old jokes and routines borrowed from every comedy team filmed in the 30s and 40s is so blatantly predictable you find yourself mouthing the punch lines before the characters even have a chance to get to them. Though evidence of it could be found in all of the three films that preceded it, Deathstalker II is the first film to really establish Wynorski’s lack of an original voice. He’s the directorial equivalent of that guy at work who thinks he’s being clever by repeating jokes he’s heard in movies or on TV, seemingly oblivious to the fact that true wit requires you to come up with your own quips and observations, not merely parrot someone else’s.
But even more problematic to me is the ethical question Wynorski’s decision raises.
Now I realize “ethical” isn’t a word you hear used a lot in low-budget b-movie film reviews, but in the case of Deathstalker II I think it’s apt. As strange as it may sound to those of us who have seen the original Deathstalker, the very fact that its producers felt it was financially worthwhile to produce a sequel suggests that they believed there was a large group of folks who wanted to see that story continue. This being the case, Wynorski’s on-the-fly decision to turn the film into a comedy strikes me as an ultimately narcissistic move that—at best—represents a breach of trust.
Without a doubt had Wynorski filmed the original script without deviation the result would have been terrible, but it would have been consistently terrible with the first film and would have likely entertained the audience it had been produced for. The irony of Deathstalker II being that rather than save the film from descending into the laughable unintended camp of the Italian-made Ator films, Wynorski’s deliberately comic take only made the film terrible in a different way—one that undoubtedly ended up alienating the very audience who wanted to see it in the first place.
And here, I think, we get the first clue into the potentially unjustified negative feelings I had towards his work that I discussed in the introduction of this project. Despite his subject matter and apparent lack of pretension, Wynorski seems little different from those self-obsessed, self-proclaimed art house “geniuses” who make their films only for themselves and not their audiences. In his case though, his reasons for doing so isn’t to produce a work of “art”, but instead to make some money and hang out with pretty girls with big tits (which is, admittedly, a far more noble motive, but no less selfish and inconsiderate).
Truthfully, though, I’m somewhat dubious about Wynorski’s claim that the decision to turn the film into a farce was made at the last minute, if only because it’s very hard to imagine his chosen cast playing their roles in a non-comic capacity.
With his slim-build and jockish demeanor John Terlesky looks like he should be playing the bully in a teen comedy, not a medieval “Prince of Thieves” and it’s impossible to watch villainous John Lazar without thinking of his hilariously campy performance as Z-Man in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. As Sultana, Toni Naples looks good in a series of fetching outfits but is unable to do anything with the material she’s given. Of them all, it’s Maria Socas as the Amazon Queen who comes off the best, if only because she was the only actor already familiar with the genre (The Warrior and the Sorceress) and had the benefit of having all of her lines dubbed in by someone else.
That said, the film’s most memorable performance comes from Monique Gabrielle, a well-known 80s b-movie star who clocked more onscreen time naked than she ever did fully clothed. Deathstalker II features what is probably her most complex and difficult role, requiring her to take on the dual parts of the innocent exiled royal Reena and her evil, cannibalistic mystical doppleganger Evie. She’s not particularly convincing in either part, but this is more than made up for by her ability to carry off a series of nonexistent costumes that certainly leave a lasting impression on any heterosexual male who’s taken the time to watch the film. At the risk of blowing my already nebulous credibility, these costumes—and the moments she spends out of them—almost make Deathstalker II worth watching despite all of the objections I noted above.
Not of This Earth