Another feature of...
So why is this relevant?
Once upon a time, Andrew Borntreger of Badmovies.org was in a position to pick the next film I’d be reviewing. He chose a movie entitled Prayer of the Rollerboys. Well, that film turned out to rate about a nine on my personal Suck-o-Meter. I got a few jabs in, but I think it hurt me a lot worse than I did it.
Flash forward a year or so. Andrew and some others are planning a round robin of futuristic sports movie reviews. Apparently deciding that their own pieces would look better if a complete yutz were asked to join the party, they invited me to participate.
Then the other shoe dropped: I didn’t really know any futuristic sports movies, other than Rollerball new and old, and those were taken. So Andrew 'kindly' suggested Deathsport. "Oh, yeah," Nathan Shumate of Cold Fusion Video agreed. "You’ll get a lot out of that one."
One problem with conversing with people by e-mail is you can’t hear or see them when they’re giggling manically and repeatedly smacking their palms on their upper thighs and wiping tears from their reddened eyes. And so I went forward in blissful ignorance. Deathsport was available on DVD, I learned, and moreover Netflix rented it. I ordered it and a few days later it arrived.
I popped the film into my DVD player and sat back to get a taste of what I was in for. After about five minutes I started putting the pieces together. Movie suggested by Andy Borntreger…extraordinarily painful to sit through...set in a (to say the least) poorly formulated futuristic dystopia…extremely unappealing male lead…involves, if not roller skating, then still lame racing of another sort entire…
Dammit, he did it to me again! Shame on me, brother. Shame on me. Still, I’m in it now, and I’m not one to whine. (For more than five or ten paragraphs, anyway.)
Also, while in confession mode, I should mention that I’ve never seen Rollerball père or fils. Since those are the films that apparently inspired this roundtable, I wanted to state upfront that direct comparisons between them and Deathsport are not on the agenda.
In any case, back to today’s subject. This is the kind of movie where the first ten seconds has you reaching for the aspirin jar. The opening credits appear over a distorted light effect playing against a black background. It’s the kind of ‘sci-fi’ effect that the Dr. Who show might have used back in the late ‘60s.
The music, meanwhile, pretty much defines the term 'discordant.' Imagine a pretentious yet markedly untalented monkey, one suffering, perhaps, from severe arthritis, doodling with a Moog synthesizer. There, now you’re at least in the right ballpark. Said keyboards prove to have been provided by "Blue" Gene Tyranny, whose surname proves all too apt. Oddly, there’s also a *ahem* credit for Jerry Garcia (!!), who we’re informed provided the guitar work. The funny thing is I don’t recall hearing a guitar at any point during the movie.
The credits also herald what amounts to a name cast for a ‘70s B-movie. This seeming plus, however, simply heaps further cruelty upon the audience. Any expectations raised by these names will be summarily and rather viciously dashed. Admittedly, the production credit for Roger Corman is more credibly predictive. At this stage in his career, Corman’s name more often accompanied uninspired junk than the sort of lovable cheapies he personally ground out in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
As the credits end we get a pompous narrated introduction.
"A thousand years from tomorrow, after the great Neutron Wars, the world consists of desert wastes and isolated city-states. A few machines remain as a reminder of the past, but only the city dwelling Statemen use them. Between the cities roam the dreaded cannibal mutants and the Range Guides. Guides are legendary warriors, leading an independent nomadic life, owing allegiance only to their code."
A presumed Range Guide—a man wearing a loincloth/diaper, Wonder Woman-esque wrist bracelets, boots and a white hooded cloak—is riding a horse though the wilderness. His progress, meanwhile, is covertly observed from a nearby hill by veteran heavy Richard Lynch. The latter utilizes a telescope that filters everything red (gee, that’s handy) and makes beeping noises for little apparent reason. As the Guide approaches, Lynch radios various Expendable Flunkies to position themselves. The latter are adorned in metallic silver jumpers and carry what appear to be futuristic pellet guns.
The Guide is not so easily caught, however. Sensing danger, he dismounts from his horse and (kinda) stealthfully makes his way forward. He leaps into the rock formation in which the EFs are hiding. At this point you’d think Lynch would radio his men and inform them of the Guide’s movements, although he doesn’t. This all might make sense if they better established where everybody is positioned, but needless to say, they don’t.
In fact, that about sums up the entire movie. Things maybe would make sense if perhaps they were executed and/or explicated better. It’s like the Chicken or the Egg. Does this movie make my head hurt because the elements that comprise it are fundamentally bad, or are said elements valid but just horrendously assembled? Actually, this query probably presents a false dichotomy. It’s not one or the other, it’s both.
For instance, the action in this scene is accompanied by simply horrible music. In fact, given the complete and utter lack of anything resembling harmony or even structure, ‘music’ might not be the correct term. It makes the stuff heard under the credits sound like Beethoven.
The Guide attains a position over where the EFs are lying in wait. He draws his sword and leaps into their midst. Said sword is something. It’s a big Lucite prop, presumably designed so as to look ‘futuristic.’ Mostly, it looks more than a little unwieldy. Nor is the red plastic crosspiece helping to reduce the weapon’s Goofy Factor. In all, it resembles something a kid might have fashioned in his junior high school shop class after studying too many Saxon album covers. The sword also makes a laughable electronic "zzwish" sound as it’s unlimbered. Why? Got me.
The Guide, or an unreasonable facsimile thereof, jumps from a twenty-foot height down towards his attackers. This is not entirely well shot. As the stunt man falls—in slow motion, of course—he clearly lifts up his legs so that he can hit the offscreen safety cushion below him ass-first. Needless to say, however, when we cut to the Guide hitting the ground, he lands on his feet. Whereupon he mows down his three ambushers, ably demonstrating his mastery of the fatal running-the-sword-under-the-guy’s-arm technique.
Aside from their Futuristic Pellet Guns, the men also carried Disintegrator Guns. These, weirdly, look quite a lot like small spotlight units. As we’ll eventually figure out, the FPGs are used to stun opponents, the DGs to overlay them with a cheesy cartoon effect as they fade away into nothingness. Despite being as unwieldy as, oh, small spotlight units, nobody will ever miss with these things. (Could it be the filmmakers didn’t have the money to "disintegrate" anything like a boulder or a section of a set?) Instead, the beam always evaporates exactly what the person is shooting at.
The Guide, his hood now pulled back to reveal the weathered features of actor David Carradine, jumps from rock to rock as more pursuers make their move. Our Hero’s leaps are often shot from directly beneath him, in an attempt to make the scene look cool. Unfortunately, the actual result is severe audience wincing. This is because the leg holes of Carradine’s diaper gap in an extremely disconcerting fashion as he gambols about. I’m not sure if we ever actually see anything, but merely the suggestion of it is horrifying enough. The effect is downright Lovecraftian.
The chase continues. The Guide stops once in a while to evaporate a pursuer, then resumes running about. Occasionally he spouts some half-assed, ersatz Zen dialog. My favorite is when he pauses to note, "Like sand in the wind, keep moving." That he stops to say this makes the line even more nonsensical. Meanwhile, they naturally cut to Lynch ordering that the Guide be taken alive. When are villains going to learn to kill the Hero while they can? And anyway, if the plan is to capture him alive, then why the hell have the henchmen been issued disintegrator guns? That’s about the least non-lethal weapon I can imagine. (The answer being: So the Hero can steal one, of course.)
By the way, I really, really can’t emphasize enough how annoying the so-called music is here. I can’t even imagine what it was like for those who saw the film in a theater, with this atonal dreck issuing from giant cinema speakers. Never has the phrase "pounding score" been more apt, at least according to the throbbing pain in my forehead.
"Machines," Lynch radios, from wherever his position supposedly is, "advance and take him!" Here we learn how influential the movie was. For the machines he refers to are gaudily adorned cross-country dirt bikes that quite obviously inspired the battle cycles seen in the later Megaforce.
These fearsome vehicles are primarily considered battle worthy because they have the disintegrator units affixed to their forward shields. As with a long line of similarly equipped cycles—in Megaforce, Delta Force, Warrior of the Lost World, etc.—the question is how the hell you aim these weapons without driving off the road. Of course, the cyclists will only hit what the script wants them to. Here the Guide’s escape is thwarted when, and I have to admit it’s a gut-busting moment, his parked horse gets evaporated. It’s not quite up there with John Travolta blasting the legs off cows in Battlefield Earth, but it’s pretty close.
All bad things come to an end eventually. And so this sequence, which has delivered visual ennui and aural sadism in roughly equal measure, comes to an end when the Guide is finally captured. Here’s a sign, by the way, that you’re watching a bad movie: When a film sports a total running time of 80 minutes, and find yourself glancing at the clock before it hits the six minute mark, that’s a pretty good indication.
Bundling the Guide into a sidecar, the bikers ride toward a really bad matte painting of futuristic Helix City. Next we see the Guide being tossed into a cell. Meanwhile, Lynch is meeting with his Eee-vil despotic boss, Lord Zirpola. Zirpola’s chambers include a purportedly futuristic but nonfunctional looking desk, as well as a bed with a big shiny pillow. Here we learn that Lynch’s character is called Ankar Moor. Which we glean because this is the sort of movie where nearly every sentence addressed to a character includes his full name. As in, "Would you prefer a peanut butter or tuna fish sandwich for lunch today, Ankar Moor?"
Ankar Moor—who we see carries a big plastic sword, like the Guide, and thus is presumably a renegade member of their order—is reporting on the success of his mission. Lord Zirpola, however, is angry that two "death machines" were destroyed in the process. (Those being the bespangled motorcycles, in case you were wondering.) "If they destroy the death machines in the Deathsport," he rants, "it would be catastrophic!" Oops, there goes the Plot Point Buzzer™.
Let’s pause here and examine the film’s displayed range of technology. Helix City has modern conveniences. The buildings have electrical (or other) power, they sport elevators, artificial lighting, etc. However, the only mechanical vehicles we see are the "death machines," which again are just gussied up motorbikes with disintegration units welded onto them. As to why there are no cars or trucks or whatnot, the issue remains unaddressed.
I guess my question is, why is most of the technology from comparable to, oh, I don’t know, 1978-level stuff, but with one or two extraordinarily advanced gizmos sprinkled in? Like the disintegration units, or the force field technology seen later in the picture. None of this seems well thought out. (Actually, there’s a structural reason this is so, but we’ll get into that later.)
And why was only some technology salvageable? This film takes place, we’ve been told, after the Neutron Wars. I’m assuming that means a war fought with neutron bomb-like weapons. In other words, ones that would have killed the majority of life on Earth but spared the cities in which the victims lived. Meaning that all sorts of neat crap should be on hand.
Yet let’s ignore all this and really bend over backwards to go with the movie as it stands. Even so, why would it be a "catastrophe" to lose the death machines? Is it because they only have so many motorcycles? Or are the disintegrator weapons what they can’t afford to lose? You’d think the later. I don’t know what kind of funky circuitry or power sources the latter utilize, but I can believe they wouldn’t be easily replicable in a ravaged society.
On the other hand, manufacturing motorbikes would seem well within their apparent abilities. So if the problem is that they can’t afford to lose the disintegrator weapons, why mount them on expendable motorcycles to start with? Especially since the "death machines" seem to be primarily employed in running the Deathsport. Aren’t motorized vehicles and handguns—by which I mean the stun pistols—enough of an edge over sword-bearing targets that are on foot or at best riding horses? Do the City’s representatives really need disintegrator weapons to boot? Especially since the only way the City could lose the weapons, apparently, is by using them for this purpose?
Zirpola does spout some dialog in this regard, but it raises more questions than it answers. "The people," he asserts, "must believe riding a death machine makes them as powerful as a Guide. It’s essential for the war effort." Uhm…OK. I’m not sure who they’re at war with. The Guides? Another city? And if they are at war, why are they wasting resources playing a sport?
[Future Ken: While the whole issue remains hazy in detail, we are eventually told that Helix City is warring with nearby Triton. I guess we can assume that Zirpola is behind the whole thing, because he’s an Eee-vil tyrant, but that’s purely conjecture.]
Ankar Moor is ordered to capture another Guide, a female this time. Zirpola sarcastically asks whether he can do this without losing further death machines. Ankar Moor replies by noting, "The most powerful Guide of all was a female, my lord. Defeated by Ankar Moor." Cripes, he even refers to himself by his own full name. Anyway, this establishes that Ankar Moor is the enemy of all Guides.
Cut to refugees traveling by horse through the desert wilderness. These are citizens of Helix City hoping to escape to the presumably more peaceful Triton. They are being led by Deneer, a female Range Guide. Which, I guess, explains why they’re called that. Deneer is played by Claudia Jennings, was one of the very few Playboy Playmates to actually *gasp* become a working actress. After becoming Playmate of the Year in 1970, she took up acting and quickly graduated to lead roles in numerous B-movies.
It’s sort of interesting, from a sociological standpoint, to see Playmates from a previous era. Certainly Ms. Jennings had little in common with the manqué Pamela Andersons who seem to sum up the average example today. She was without doubt pretty, but with more distinctly individual features than we seem to get these days. (I’m working off the women I’ve seen on TV with Heff, I must admit, as I haven’t actually perused an issue of Playboy in several years now.) Nor was she as chesty as today’s Playmates invariably seem to be. The camera loved her, though, and she moreover turned out to be a serviceable actress.
Ms. Jennings quickly became a star, at least in low budget exploitation fare. This was at least partly because she wasn’t afraid to disrobe in her pictures. Her first lead role was in the roller derby epic Unholy Rollers, a knock-off of Raquel Welch’s Kansas City Bomber. Following that she starred in such ur-‘70s fare as ‘Gator Bait, Sisters of Death, Moonshine County Express and The Great Texas Dynamite Chase.
After Deathsport, Ms. Jennings starred in Fast Company. This car racing picture was an early effort of director David Cronenberg, with Jennings starring opposite William "Big Bill" Smith and John Saxon. Tragically, it proved to be her last movie. She died in a car accident soon afterward, a few months before turning thirty years of age.
Back to the movie. Suddenly, or as suddenly as things happen in this picture, we see an approaching group of men riding their *cough, cough* death machines. Here things become even more annoying, if you can imagine such a thing.
See, whenever a motorcycle races past the camera, they dub in a loud Doppler sound effect. Each and every time, throughout the remainder of the picture. If a line of five bikes speeds past the camera, as occurs with some regularity, we hear the effect five times. This means we hear this sound, without exaggeration, probably hundreds of times over the next 70-odd minutes. Between this and the ‘musical’ score, this might be the most aurally annoying film I’ve ever sat through.
At the same time, the fugitives are being stalked by a group of cannibalistic mutants. These are portrayed by actors clad in matching rags—which makes little sense—and wearing, I swear, ping-pong ball eyes. This is an ‘effect’ so cheesy I haven’t seen anyone outside of Lee "Killer From Space" Wilder or Larry "Curse of the Swamp Creature" Buchanan dare use it. On the other hand, fans of Marty Feldman must have been ecstatic.
Deneer, sensing danger, orders the Statemen to dismount and form a protective circle. Meanwhile, she and Adrian, another Range Guide, prepare to repulse the approaching death machines. Left with the Statemen is Tara, who is apparently Adrian’s young daughter. (And is played by a really bad child actress.)
There follows another in the film’s string of boring action sequences. In fact, if you want to boil the essence of the picture down to one sentence, you could do worse than "A string of boring action sequences." On the other hand, veteran buffs will enjoy the fact that all this is taking place at the same rock formations where Captain Kirk fought the Gorn.
Also, I couldn’t help noticing that both Range Guides are already armed with disintegrator units. Which presumably means this particular technology is widely available, thus making the general concept behind the death machines even more pointless. Since the cycles don’t move fast enough to make themselves a difficult target—and believe me, we get plenty of evidence that this is so—they’re almost entirely useless as mechanisms of war.
In fact, they’d actually be counterproductive, other than as a quick, if inefficient, way to move troops. A standing person with a disintegrator unit would have a much easier time hitting a moving death machine than the other way around. Especially since the weapons on the cycles are fixed in place, which would require you to literally aim the machine itself at your target to have any hope of hitting it.
That doesn’t even take into account someone sniping at the riders from a ridge or, even better, some raised position. (Meaning the death machine rider would both have to ride towards his target and pop a wheelie, so as to bring the fixed weapons to bear, in order to have even a remote chance of hitting their opponents.) All in all, the death machines are an exceedingly lame device to build so much of the movie around.
Also, let me again ask why you’d send men armed with disintegrator weapons to try to capture a live prisoner?
Of course, the film is hoping we won’t notice any of this. So instead of hiding behind any of the numerous boulders in the area and firing upon the death machines from utter safety, the Guides ride their horses forward to meet them in combat. Adrian quickly evaporates two of the fearsome death machines, only to then get zapped herself. (I told her to hide behind a rock, but did she listen?) Meanwhile, a concerned Tara has ridden forth to help, only to be captured by the mutants.
Deneer, for her part, eventually falls to a stun gun. I don’t know who that guy was, but if he could hit a target on a trotting horse while he himself is steering a moving motorbike one handed, well, he’s a hell of a shot. It was here I noticed another of the film’s ongoing flaws. We clearly saw six of the mighty death machines approaching the area before. However, counting the two death machines that get disintegrated, what we see here would require ten or twelve of them. It’s like that car chase in The Thing With Two Heads, in which half a dozen cop cars manage to get involved in about twenty disabling crashes.
Cut to the same shot of riders approaching the Helix City matte painting. Then on to the cell holding the male Guide captured earlier, who is now regaining consciousness. Range Guides being Free Spirits and all, he’s enraged to find himself imprisoned. He batters the door of his cell until a guard, watching over a closed-circuit camera, chastises him with an agony-inducing blue cartoon effect.
Looking out the little grate in his door, the Guide sees Deneer in the opposite cell. They turn out to have a telepathic connection, which I guess is a ‘Guide’ thing. (Not that this really comes into play to any real extent.) She sends him footage, er, images of Tara. "We take care of our own," the Guide replies. So add saving Tara to the plot checklist. We also learn here that the Guide is, in fact, Kaz Oshay. He’s the son of Oshay, the powerful female guide Ankar Moor boasted of slaying.
I’ll admit to being a bit slow on the uptake, but this is where the coin fell for me. Let’s see. Range Guides, a mythical group of warriors given to spouting pseudo-Eastern adages. They have telepathic powers and carry distinctive swords in a world where others mostly wield beam weapons. (In fact, the few times the disintegrator guns are directly referred to, they are called "blasters.") Our hero, Kaz Oshay, dresses in white. He learns that a renegade member of his sect, Ankar Moor—who dresses entirely in black—killed his mother.
That’s right, they’re totally ripping off Star Wars. There are other details as well. Ankar Moor’s relationship with Lord Zirpola roughly corresponds to Vader and the Emperor’s. The "death machines" are meant to be an overwhelming super-weapon that will crush all resistance to Zirpola’s plans, much like the rather more epic Deathstar. Etc.
I really should have been cognizant of this possibility. After all, Star Wars had come out the year before this was released. And remember, at this point Vader wasn’t known to be Luke’s father, but rather the guy who killed Anakin Skywalker. Nor is changing the hero’s slain father to a mother a brilliant reworking of this concept.
Of course, there are differences. For one, Star Wars was a fun movie. This one is extremely ponderous, amongst other audience-unfriendly traits. No, if I were to compare Deathsport to a more prominent ‘70s sci-fi flick, it wouldn’t be Star Wars. In fact, the film it reminded me of most was John Boorman’s incoherent and infamously pompous Zardoz. While the comparison isn’t perfect, it’s pretty strong. See the following chart:
Cut to Lord Zirpola working at this futuristic desk. More screeching music plays as the camera zooms into a tighter shot. He grabs his head in pain. (The acting here, it should be noted, would not be out of place in a silent movie.) A quick trip to Dr. Karl confirms that Zirpola has what is obviously a brain tumor, although because it’s a post-apocalyptic future, the doctor admits he doesn’t "know what to call it." The tumor is driving Zirpola mad, the doctor explains—how he would know this when he "hasn’t seen anything like it before" is left to our imaginations—and then will kill him. The first sign of this incipit madness is, unsurprisingly, paranoia. And so Zirpola has Karl assigned to Deathsport for conspiring against him.
As a side note, I liked the fact that the doctor has X-Ray and other advanced—or advanced circa 1978, anyway—medical equipment, but doesn’t have a phrase for "brain tumor." There’s two ways to look at this. Either the technology was redeveloped after the Neutron Wars, which means, you’d suspect, that medical science would have by now rediscovered the idea of tumors. Or, the machines could be pre-Neutron War artifacts. Still, what use would they be if so little medical knowledge was squirreled away that, again, the concept of a tumor is only now being reformulated?
Next is a gratuitous, albeit time padding, scene of Kaz and Deneer getting zapped with the pain ray. Then Karl, looking rather worse for wear, is tossed into Kaz’s cell. Here we get our first look at some guys in black uniforms sporting leather vests and gauntlets. The funny thing is that they are clearly wearing the gorilla army uniforms from the Planet of the Apes movies. And I’m recognizing them nearly thirty years after the series ended. Imagine how recognizable they must have been in 1978.
Of course, Karl has been put in with Kaz so as to provide exposition. "Zirpola has abolished the death penalty," he notes. "Instead, condemned criminals now fight each other in Deathsport. The winners go free and the losers die." (Yes, I guess that explains why it’s called ‘death’ sport, by gum.) Karl notes that this mechanism allows Zirpola to stay in power. Yes, because such a system, one that weeds out all the weak criminals and traitors and releases the strongest ones back into society, would…wait, could somebody go over this again?
Ankar Moor appears in the hallway, interviewing the prisoners through the windows in the cell doors. For some reason, presumably "atmosphere," the lighting in both the hall and the cells is now a dark orange, whereas up to now it’s been a bright white.
Deneer knows who Ankar Moor is, and dismisses him. "Everything is within the Self," she piously mantras. "Nothing is outside. It is known that you have lost your Self." Hmm, so then, you might say that Ankar Moor has gone over, or been seduced maybe, by the…Other Place? Or the Lightless Part? No, that’s not quite right. I’ll keep working on it.
Kaz has a few words for him as well. "You who betrayed the Consciousness," he accuses. "Your dishonor is legend." What’s amusing is that, sans Star Wars, all this gobbledygook would nearly impossible to follow. Only to the degree that stuff corresponds to elements from Star Wars—such as the Guides being Jedis, and the Consciousness being the Force—does it sorta/kinda makes sense.
One wonders if anyone really bothered to think this stuff out. There are occasionally signs that they might have. For instance, the woman Guides all have one word names. ‘Oshay’ was Kaz’s mum, and we’ve met a Deneer, Adrian, Tara, etc. Meanwhile, assuming the two males presented are representative of the sect as a whole, the Guide men—past and present—have two word names. Perhaps this is a coincidence. Even if it isn’t, it’s quite possible that the screenwriters came up with the name thing without bothering to think out what, exactly, it signified. Still, it does suggest some small sense of internal continuity.
Ankar Moor, for his part, is pleased to learn that the "Seed of Oshay" is his prisoner. (I’m not even going to speculate on how Kaz would be the "seed" of his mother.) Being eee-vil and all, he plainly relishes condemning Kaz to die in the Deathsport.
Cut to the next morning. Three guards (you’d think the situation would require more than that) come to get the Guides and deliver them to "disorientation." Presumably this is meant to scramble them up a bit to make their defeat in Deathsport more certain. Although, as we’ll see later, the process will have little apparent effect on them.
So the main guard opens the door to Kaz’s cell, while the other two cover him with their weapons. However, one of the latter turns his weapon on the others. Kaz takes advantage of the situation to attack them, and even knocks out the guy who turned on his comrades. Karl identifies this fellow to be his son Marcus. "He’s lucky I did not kill him!" Kaz snarls. Yes, but only because you’re a nitwit. The guy was patently attempting to help you escape.
And we’ll just ignore how Marcus managed to take the place of a guard, even assuming he wasn’t a prisoner himself. By which I mean, earlier he was in the group of those fleeing Helix city that Deneer was guiding to Triton. Shouldn’t he have been jailed after being caught?
Kaz kills those guards in the immediate area and frees the others prisoners. However, the walls leading outside are protected from his blaster by a force field. Meanwhile, we cut outside to see citizens scurrying around in response to the sirens. This small bit is filmed near some baroque-looking building, probably on a college campus somewhere. You could arguably say the structure looks "futuristic," but it in no way matches the edifices featured in the Helix City matte painting.
Back in the compound, Karl points out what might be a vulnerable wall. Kaz, Deneer and a third imprisoned Guide now all have captured blasters. "We’ll fire together," Kaz announces, "one at a time." (???) Their combined if separate fire begins to have an effect, but gas jets from the walls and knocks everyone out before they can finish the job. In what might possibly be the movie’s most shameless moment, Ankar Moor strides in wearing a gas mask and making, that’s right, Darth Vader-esque breathing noises. Cripes.
In one of the film’s most Zardoz-like bits, Deneer is taken to Zirpola for punishment. This involves the completely naked Deneer—because of the bad lighting I can’t report whether Ms. Jennings is a natural blond or not—being tossed into a barely lit black room. This contains a series of transparent tubes with Christmas lights inside them hanging on wires from the ceiling. Apparently touching the tubes is pleasurable, since Deneer starts doing so.
At a flick of a switch on Zirpola’s end, however, contact causes agonizing pain. I still find it strange how the left-wing, even radical, politics in Corman’s ‘70s films were so often matched with nude scenes ‘motivated’ by a woman’s pain, rape and/or humiliation. Not that I would call such scene right-wing in nature, either, but the divorce of leftist politics from today’s militant political correctness remains surprising.
Meanwhile, Kaz is tortured in a more traditional fashion, with a bullwhip. (Funny how that doesn’t require him to be nude, although personally I’m not complaining.) After he’s been worked over, Ankar Moor comes over for further Supervillain taunting. Kaz demands a personal duel, as provided for by the Guide Code. However, Ankar Moor is past recognizing such rules. He orders Kaz returned to his cell until the following day’s match.
With his old cell compromised, Kaz is tossed in with Deneer, Karl and Marcus. Deneer has recovered well, even to the point of fixing up her hair and make-up. Presumably that’s one of the mystical Guide powers. There follows a boring "cool" scene where Deneer magically heals Kaz’s wounds. This process involves a lot of really goofy New Age verbiage, which ain’t helping. At least the music here actually sounds like, well, music. Not good music, necessarily, but music nonetheless.
Since I strive to be fair to these films, let me note that at least they’re having Kaz being healed before his Deathsport match. I’ve seen a lot of movies where guys get flensed with a whip and then just bounce back from it. A bullwhipping would cut your back, flesh and muscle alike, to pieces. If it didn’t kill you, it would almost certainly cripple you for a while. Also, the actors playing Karl and Marcus do have very similar features. You definitely buy them as father and son.
As sun rises the next day, Kaz and Deneer are engaging in ritualistic affirmations to prepare for the trial ahead. At this point it’s pretty clear somebody was basing the Guide stuff on some philosophical concept or other, most probably a mishmash of classical Eastern ones. I’m not saying it makes much sense or is very entertaining to watch, but I don’t think it was just dashed off.
Some Deathsport squad guys come to haul off Kaz and Deneer. The pain ray is used, and while the two writhe in agony, they’re knocked out with the stun pistols. For the only time in the movie, the stun pistols fire cheaply animated cartoon beams. Since we never see this effect in any other part of the film, all it does here is call attention to this fact.
Our Heroes are put on gurneys and taken to two small, waist-high chambers. This, presumably, for the aforementioned "disorientation." Which basically appears to be just another pain-causing doohickey. Stuck into unlit slots, gurneys and all, a light bulb strobes above each of them as they scream in agony. Despite this, neither seems the least ‘disorientated’ when we see them next. Although I guess this could arguably be a sign of their amazing Guide mental powers.
I should note that Deneer’s strobing light sheds a lot more illumination than Kaz’s, and that she’s again fully naked during this process. Which is odd, as she was dressed when being transported. Apparently they unstrapped her—which seems unwise—removed her clothes, re-secured her, and stuck her in the chamber. Again, I find the whole connection of nudity with pain to be more than a little unseemly.
Next Our Heros, who appear little effected by their ordeal, are taken to a tunnel. This supposedly leads out into a huge arena. If I’m not mistaken, this is the same stadium matte painting used in Death Race 2000, albeit with some slight modifications. A guard, with a great goofy dubbed voice, tosses them uniforms. These consist of white linen trousers and white wrap-around tunics. In fact, they’re quite similar to what Luke Skywalker wore in Star Wars. Just a coincidence, I’m sure.
The one necessary difference is motorcycle helmets. These have been made to look all future-y by being painted gold and having a goofy ridge affixed to the top of them. In terms of internal continuity, the helmets make absolutely no sense. The Guides aren’t meant to be riding the death machines, in fact, quite the opposite. They’re to be sent out on foot and then slaughtered by the death machine riders, so as to prove to the citizens of Helix City that victory in their war is inevitable. And since the weapons the death riders use are the disintegration blasters, I’m not sure what protective utility the helmets are meant to have.
That, again, is a matter of internal continuity. In terms of the movie itself, though, it’s obvious Our Heroes are going to commandeer a few motorcycles and stage an escape. Which means the characters need to have helmets established beforehand, because no insurance company is going to permit unhelmeted actors to be doing all the riding that pretty much takes up the rest of the picture. Besides, if the actors weren’t wearing helmets, it’d be all the more obvious when stunt drivers are employed for cycle gags.
You could, of course, have them grab helmets off the death machine riders when they steal the cycles. However, the distinctive gold helmets are one of the only ways we’ll sorta/kinda be able to tell who’s who during the ensuing chase scenes. So there you have it. Kaz and Deneer are provided with motorcycle helmets, whether it makes sense or not.
We open the games with two Statemen contestants, who are operating under the ‘one lives/one dies’ rule. In other words, we watch two stuntmen driving their motorcycles around the arena floor, until one disintegrates another. (By the way, if death machines are at such a premium, again, why equip them for Deathsport matches with weapons that will inevitably destroy the cycle as well as the rider?) Meanwhile, Kaz and Deneer watch the televiewers to study how one operates the death machines. Which is a nice touch to explain how they’d know to drive one when they get the chance.
Next is the main event. Six Statemen prisoners, including Marcus, are sent out to battle Kaz and Deneer. I still find this system a little suspect. Marcus committed treason against the state by attempting to flee to Triton, then tried to spring prisoners and was subsequently involved in the murder of various prison guards. Yet all this will be washed away if he wins Deathsport?
Kaz and Deneer draw their goofy Lucite swords (zzzwish!) and trot out onto the arena floor. Next occurs the film’s big set piece. It runs nearly five minutes, and there’s no use detailing the whole thing. Here’s the highlights:
And so back to our regular coverage.
An enraged Ankar Moor sets out with his trained death machine squad to hunt down the Guides. At this point we’re a tad over half way in, and if you’re the sort to thrill to motorcross action, this will be the picture for you.
Meanwhile, Lord Zirpola is licking his wounds by tossing another fully naked chick into the swinging translucent tubes room. She does a little dance and seems quite happy, at least until Zirpola throws the pain switch. Perhaps he was displeased with her terpsichorean skills, and the chamber functions as an extreme version of The Gong Show. Anyway, the woman, after being savaged by the pain tubes, reaches to Zirpola for help. He makes to pull her out, but she hauls him in instead. The agony proves too much for him and he croaks. How ironic, killed by his own torturing device. And yet, how apt. (Still, the lack of safeguards on these torturing devices always amazes me.)
Upon being radioed, Ankar Moor informs the squad of Zirpola’s death. He demands, however, that they stay on Kaz’s trail until he has been found and put to death. One squad member argues against this, and I think you can figure out his fate.
Kaz and the others are heading for the area where Tara was last seen. (Her capture by the mutants having not been witnessed by Deneer.) This takes them through a canyon, and Ankar Moor splits his men up in order to trap them there. Let’s see. He clearly was shown earlier to have eight riders with him. He just disintegrated one himself, and now Deneer gets another from ambush. Let’s see if we can’t track this. Of the four riders chasing Kaz, one has been toasted by Deneer. One other still rides after Kaz, while the remaining two clamber up a hill, presumably to set up an ambush. Deneer skulks after them and nails both. So four out of Ankar Moor’s eight men are now dead.
The remaining pursuer follows Kaz towards the edge of a cliff. Of course, the pursuer goes over. The crashing bike triggers another monstrous explosion. Atomic Gasoline in the future must be even more potent than the stuff they use now. Count: Five of Ankor Moor’s eight men are dead. To be fair, when next we see Our Villain he is, in fact, leading three men.
Having regrouped, Kaz and the others come across an abandoned factory complex. (Yeah, like it would be left standing rather than having been pillaged over the last thousand years.) They decide to bunk out there overnight, so as to have a defensible position from any nocturnally rummaging mutants. Making torches, they examine the, er, surprisingly well preserved building. Plaster apparently holds up quite well after centuries of neglect. They find a room littered with human bones. It’s spooky, I guess.
Settling in for the night, Kaz and Deneer have sex. Where are Karl and Marcus during all this? Got me. Maybe the Guides tied a sock to the doorknob or something. The scene is rather short, and I couldn’t help noticing that Deneer’s topless body is much less fawned over than in the earlier torture scenes.
In the morning they head out. Ankar Moor is waiting nearby, however, with his four men. (Oops!) In fact, a bit later it seems like he again has eight men with him. How did that happen? I mean, what, they couldn’t toss in a shot where he radioed the city for backup?
Kaz and Deneer observe that the opposing forces are trying to surround them, and decide to attack. In one shot, Deneer uses the blasters mounted on the front of her death machine to wipe out two guys behind her. Which is seemingly impossible, but whatever. In any case, we’ll be kind and start the henchmen count back at eight. Which, given the two Deneer just kacked, means Ankar Moor is again down to six men.
Karl and Marcus enter the fight as well. Oh, and now there are again at least eight henchmen. Maybe Ankor Moor magically replenishes them by tossing dragon’s teeth on the ground. Another two squad members get whacked, but Karl bites the dust as well. At this point the heroes escape for the time being by leaping over a crevice.
A travel montage brings them to the cliffs near where Tara was captured. Ankar Moor and his ever changing crowd of henchmen are close behind. However, Kaz warns that a "flashwind," an apparently deadly windstorm, is soon to make its appearance. He knows, you see, because his mother passed on her ability to forecast such. Once the storm becomes apparent, Ankar Moor and his men break off pursuit so as to seek shelter.
Kaz and his companions reach the spot where Tara was last seen. We enter Deneer’s mind to re-watch glimpses of footage from earlier in the movie. (Have to eat up that eighty-minute running time somehow.) This allows her to realize that Tara was taken by the mutants, which I’m not entirely sure makes any sense, but whatever. She and Kaz head off to seek the caves where the mutants live, and a reluctant Marcus follows.
They find these just as the flashwind hits. That pretty much takes care of the whole killer storm subplot, as the weather will be clear once they depart in about five minutes. (Getting back to the factory they found earlier, how could it possibly still be standing if these super-violent windstorms are happening all the time?)
There follows some rather uninspired derring-do as Our Heroes creep along until they find Tara in a dog cage. (!!) Then they must fight their way out. This is all supposed to be quite suspenseful, but the mutants really don’t seem like much of a threat, especially to super-warriors armed not only with swords but with hand blasters. They say the mutants’ bite is poisonous, but that’s still not really upping the tension levels much.
Probably the most amusing aspect of the ‘fighting through the mutants’ sequence is the inordinately useless running commentary from Tara. "They’re coming!" she shrieks, as we watch the mutants coming. Then we see some mutants with torches. "They’ve got torches!" she yells upon seeing this.
By the way, this seems a good time to examine mutant physiology. They’ve got those huge ping-pong ball eyes, presumably because they live in caves and mostly venture forth at night. (Although the attack on the caravan earlier was in broad daylight.) Anyway, would the mutants really use torches? Wouldn’t the increased lighting just serve to blind them? Maybe they have them so that they can be set afire and…yep, there one goes.
Oh, and during the torch fight with Deneer: Watch when the flailing mutant, who is literally engulfed in flames, sets the second one alight. I don’t know if the stunt went wrong, but you can see the second guy tearing off his flaming clothes, and then you can see the discharge from the fire extinguishers being used off-camera to put him out. From this it seems quite possible the second fellow wasn’t meant to be lit up at all.
Our protagonists escape, but Marcus has been bit. Deneer notes that they’ll have to get him to Triton if he’s to live. They split up, Deneer taking Marcus and Tara, Kaz leading the reappearing Ankar Moor and his men off in the opposite direction. Thus we immediately find ourselves ‘enjoying’ more motorcross ‘action.’ Maybe if they remake this the death machines could be ATVs rather than motorcross bikes. Why, that would be even cooler yet!
Now we get the film’s second big action set piece. This involves a chase through a gigantic concrete facility. This is identified as a "fuel base," which means that throughout the complex there are random collections of fuel barrels just sitting around. It’s rather like your typical video game, where supplies are scattered about with little logic, waiting for the player to grab them. Needless to say, the barrels prove unstable in the extreme and will massively explode with little provocation.
There are several things to watch for here. For instance, the entrance to the base is protected by a red cartoon force field. Oddly, this opens up as Kaz approaches. Why? They never explain. Presumably Ankar Moor somehow disabled it, so that Kaz would enter and be trapped in a contained area. Even if this is so, however, they shouldn’t leave it to the audience to piece these things together.
Also, why is there an unmanned Helix City fuel base so close to Triton? It’s a pretty massive complex, so presumably Triton could have interfered with it being built, especially since the cities are supposedly at war. And even if it were already established before this was so, why hasn’t Triton attempted to capture the base or at least post guards around it to block its use?
There’s some pretty impressive riding here. So if that’s your thing, I guess you might be entertained. Those like myself, however, are likely to let our attention wander a bit between the jumps—below camera-level ramps abound—and the humongous fiery explosions. Soon one rider slides into a collection of barrels and BOOM!! Again, I can’t fault the pyrotechnic work here. Except that, if anything, it might be a little too spectacular.
Another noticeable problem is that, wherever this base is, it was very recently rained on. The concrete is (in some shots, anyway) slick with water, and the surrounding foliage glistens with moisture. Considering that the chase right before this occurred in a desert, this seems a little strange.
There goes remaining henchguy number two in an even bigger explosion. Then the whole base explodes just as the survivors exit it, for no apparent reason. Again, though, the flames here are simply gargantuan. And there’s no bluescreen work, the stuntmen appear to riding directly in front of all this. As well as Carradine himself, unless his double looks extraordinarily like him.
Kaz crests a hill in time to see Deneer and the others approaching the Triton City matte painting. Nearby, Ankar Moor witnesses this as well. "The Truth needs no introduction," he muses. "When the sun rises, there’s no necessity to announce it. Clearly, we have lost." (Uhm, wasn’t that an announcement?) So saying, he sends his one remaining soldier back to the city. All that is left is to finally confront the waiting Kaz. "Man is like a candle," Ankar Moor further philosophizes. "He must radiate life by burning himself." Uh, OK.
The climatic swordfight is interesting mostly from a logistical standpoint. Because the actors’ weapons are made from plastic, they can’t really have them hitting together, lest the props shatter. Therefore everything is filmed from oblique angles and severe close-ups, with dubbed in clashing sounds used to help ‘disguise’ this. I suppose an inattentive viewer might not notice any of this. However, I’d been wondering all along how the plastic swords would function in a fight, so I noticed this straight off.
The fight opens with the combatants facing each other. Each fighter, we see, is visualizing their moves in advance. Carradine does his own fighting—he did, after all, star in Kung Fu—but Lynch is mostly shot from the back. Therefore it’s difficult to tell if he’s performing his own moves, which include some flying kicks. I suspect, purely from the camera angles used, that they used a stuntman for most of Lynch’s more gymnastic stuff. Still, that I remain unsure indicates they did a good job of hiding it if that’s true.
The fight ends with Lynch’s decapitation. The ‘head’ we see rolling away is OK, although the following close-up insert of it was rather ill advised. Moments after his foe is slain, Deneer and Tara arrive with horses*. All through the film we’ve been told what loners the Guides are. Here, naturally, after a ‘suspenseful’ moment, Kaz decides to join them and form a makeshift family unit.
[*Editor Ken: Jabootu Minister of Proofing, Carl Fink, wonders how Deneer and Tara could have reached this spot from Triton so quickly. That's easy: Teleporting horses.]
First, let’s be fair. Deathsport has more than its share of problems. However, if you’re a fan of these post-apocalyptic pictures, and many are, this is probably about as good as you could hope for from a night’s video rental. (Especially given the majority of the ones that came over from Italy.) If I were the type to lean back with a six pack and watch the film without being overly critical, it just might pass muster.
However, I’m not that guy.
Probably the biggest problem with this film is that it was marketed as more or less a follow-up to the popular Death Race 2000. (Which itself actually was a knock-off of the same year’s Rollerball.) Just the similar title and same lead actor, David Carradine, would indicate such a situation. The problem being that Death Race 2000 was a hilarious black comedy, while Deathsport is a tediously pompous entry with barely a molecule of humor to be found. The one was bouncy, the other turgid. People expecting the first were probably more upset than those who never had seen the earlier film at all.
Perhaps the most painful element, however, is the material ripped raw and bleeding from Star Wars. The poster for the film even dared to proclaim, quotation marks included, "If you were thrilled by STAR WARS, don’t miss DEATHSPORT." And disappointed fans thought Attack Of the Clones was bad.
Nor were things copasetic on the set. Supposedly the reason the film ended up having two listed directors—not to mention rumored uncredited work by Corman himself—is that Carradine got into a fistfight with director/screenwriter Nick Nicophor, aka Harry Suso. (One can only imagine Carradine got the better of him.) This led to Allan "Rock ‘n’ Roll High School" Arkush being brought in to finish the picture. In any case, Nicophor only wrote and directed one more film, the fittingly titled Good-bye Cruel World, and that four years later. Since then, Mr. Nicophor has mainly written scripts for TV movies, both here and in Germany.
Mr. Nicophor documented his thoughts on the matter in a hilariously long letter printed in Psychotronic Video Magazine. Carradine was interviewed in issues #4 and 5, in which Nicophor wasn’t even mentioned. However, he followed up with a letter, printed in issue #7, asserting that he beat Nicophor up after the director physically assaulted Claudia Jennings on the set.
Mr. Nicophor responded with a missive that would make a considerably more entertaining movie than Deathsport. I wish I could print the whole thing, but that, of course, would be a copyright violation. He describes a chaotic work environment, which isn’t out of line with other tales of Corman production. He first met Carradine, he reports, at the star’s home. The tale is nightmarish and baroque, and ends with Carradine tossing his own dog over a balcony railing after the pet relieved itself on the carpet.
Supposedly Nicophor’s issues with Ms. Jennings stemmed from what he asserted to be her cocaine problem. (This being the ‘70s, it’s certainly not impossible, although I don’t know enough to properly weigh in on the issue.) He maintains the purported assault involved dragging her off a motorcycle she was too stoned to drive safely. The attack by Carradine, one of many supposedly initiated by what the director describes as an utterly crazed star, ended when the actor broke his nose.
Again, I’m not in a position to judge which version—or mixture thereof—is correct. Ms. Jennings, as noted above, died shortly after the film was completed, so her side remains untold. Still, what a Rashomon-esque flick you could make this into!
-by Ken Begg
to Carl Fink for selflessly parsing the