Thursday, July 20, 2006

Time Barbarians

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time (which you probably haven't), you already know about my weakness for cheesy 80's sword and sorcery movies. And yes, Gentle Reader(s), I've got a new one for you today, one so low-budget and obscure that even I hadn't heard of it until recently. I present to you... Time Barbarians, an entry in the little-known but important subgenre of time-travelling barbarian films.

A scant few online reviews of the film have appeared.
The New York Times sums it up thusly:

When evil wizard Mandrak kills the wife of Doran, the warrior king, he immediately escapes through a time portal to modern day Los Angeles in an attempt to escape Doran's wrath. Doran follows him, however, and now the barbarian stalks Mandrak through a world that he does not understand. He will stop at nothing to have his revenge against the sorcerer, but who know what havoc he will wreck on the fragile city along the way.
Cammila Albertson, All Movie Guide

MK Magazine is less charitable:

“Time Barbarians” is a low-rent “Conan the Barbarian” with all of the compulsory trimmings; swords, sorcery, warriors, forces of evil, crystal amulets, kings, wizards, muscle men and near-naked barbarian babes. In a feeble attempt to pull his film away from the glut of others, that are completely superior to his, director Barmettler threw in a time travel subplot that drives the film from inept to sheer silliness. Scenes of our leading man hulking along the sidewalks of L.A., in a loincloth, getting into fights with a local street gang calling themselves, of course, The Gladiators is a sight to behold, but it certainly doesn’t save this amateurish mess. Barmettler went on to direct “Witchcraft 8.” - Christopher Curry

And At-A-Glance Film Reviews has a longer, even more uncharitable review here, giving the thing one star out of five, and wishing he could give it even fewer than that.

Pshaw, I say. It's clear from all of this that most reviewers just don't get the whole S&S genre. Zero stars out of five? Ridiculous. In a vastly superior ratings system I invented just now, Time Barbarians rates three furry boots out of a possible six. Decent, not a classic perhaps, but good for an evening of fun if you're in the right mood. Which, in the end, is all we can reasonably ask of this type of movie.

A few gems from the film, plus various comments about it:
  • Our story begins with a bit of scrolling text, a la Star Wars:

    "In an ancient time of swords and sorcery lived a remote tribe of barbarians who battled the forces of evil. These barbarians were protected by the power of a crystal amulet

    This is a story of their king."

  • Ok, that isn't precisely the beginning of the film. The DVD really begins with a typically atrocious intro by that Troma guy. This isn't actually a Troma movie, thank goodness, they just got the video rights to it somehow, same as Wizards of the Demon Sword. So that Lloyd guy really has no business introducing the movie. He annoys the hell out of me. When you see the guy with the bow tie, skip to the next chapter on the disc. As an aside, I'd like to take this opportunity to declare holy jihad against all men who wear bowties. They're a plague on our society, and I hate them all.
  • The amulet everyone's fighting over is a very ordinary-looking chunk of glass. In a belt, no less, very much not hanging around anyone's neck on a string. Which to me makes it a non-amulet, but hey. I'm not an SCA medieval costume geek, I could be wrong here. Also, other than shooting people forward in time to 1990 L.A., we never see any sign of the awesome powers it's supposed to possess. We don't even get a good explanation of what these powers are. It does have a nice rainbow twinkle visual effect, though, so that's something, I guess.
  • Right at the beginning, Doran vanquishes a baddie (who keeps hooting insanely throughout the whole fight) but doesn't kill him, a shockingly un-barbaric act that comes back to haunt him later, somewhat. Instead, he takes the baddie's mask and has a bit of swordplay with Lystra, his lady friend. She's pretty handy with a sword, by S&S movie standards, and has the crystal amulet for protection, and thinks he's an evil barbarian. Not smart, Doran. One false move here and this could've been a very short movie.
  • After the fight and inevitable tender moment, he gives her the amulet, which she was already wearing just a few minutes earlier. She acts all amazed, like she's never seen it before. If we play S&S movie geek and assume it's not just a silly continuity error, perhaps they've just been married for a long time, he's fallen into a giftgiving rut, and she's pretending it's a neat new gift in order to spare his feelings. Hey, I know people like that. It could happen. Usually in this situation people don't say "The power and strength fill me. It is as if I too were a great warrior." like Lystra does, but I'm chalking that up as just a matter of personal style.
  • A bit of deliciously bad dialogue about that pesky amulet:

    D: "My vow is to use its power to protect my people. To teach them honesty and bravery. To seek the truth. And if this is done, then the people of Armana shall be protected by its power."
    L: "So you have done. They worship you, doran"
    D: "That is not what i seek, for I am not a god. All i ask is that they listen and follow. Their lives then are their own."
    L: "You become wiser with each day. I am honored to be your queen."
    D: "My grandfather gave me fair warning. And you too must beware its power. For with one thought, one can make great journeys, to lands never seen by thine eyes, a land where one may never return. So dream not of lands other than this, or you shall leave me forever. The power shall make us great warriors. And with it we shall build a new world for our children."

  • S&S movies ought to have at least one scene in an idyllic barbarian village. If you don't have enough extras to film one, it's ok to lift some stock footage from some other S&S movie. It's fine. It's all good. You can probably recruit local renaissance faire types to be extras, free of charge, for this sort of thing. Very often they even come with their own props. The village scene in TB is not the best you'll see. It looks like maybe a dozen hippies in a state park campground, which is pretty close to what was actually going on. But that's ok. All you really need to do is suggest a pastoral paradise, and your viewers' overactive imaginations will fill in the blanks. Geek or anti-geek, moviegoers all know the boilerplate S&S plot by heart. You're just giving them basic visual cues, and they'll do the rest.
  • Doran's buddy Bartaga shows up and wants to go "hunting" with his king, spurning the advances of his would-be lady friend. He and several other characters are skinny, hairy little people with wild eyes. They work pretty well as barbarians, but I can't help thinking they look like junkies desperate for a fix. I mean, this was made in L.A., at the end of the 80's, so that's not much of a stretch here. Bartaga swills from his wineskin every chance he gets, so the druggie angle is almost too easy.
  • You could probably get a term paper out of the homoerotic angle, too. Let's be honest, every S&S movie has that to some extent. I mean, furry boots and loincloths? And when Doran embarks on his quest to find Mandrak, he expresses his fear for Doran's safety, whining "Who will I hunt with?" in the event Doran dies. It never gets totally overt, of course, because that would make the core audience nervous. There's just enough there to make the movies properly campy. Bartaga & Doran, Mandrak and his #1 henchman. We see more of these relationships than we do Doran and Lystra/Penny, and these guys bicker like old married couples. I'm not up on the latest academic phraseology or anything, but it's obvious what's going on under the hood here. Beyond that, well, write your own damn term paper, already, don't expect me to do all the heavy lifting for you. Sheesh.
  • Doran & Bartaga are wandering through the forest, bickering, when suddenly the Gatalite bandits (the bad barbarians) attack! There's a big swordfight with half a dozen bandits or so, including one female bandit. The crazy hooting guy is back, he's a bandit leader. Doran ko'd, so B. fights the other guys, and hooting guy kills him.

    The bandits' lair: fog, skulls on sticks, but looks like one of the other areas in the same campsite we saw before.

    The lair sequence goes on and on. Yawn. The Gatalites decide to sacrifice him to Moltar, their god of the underworld. They tie Doran up, he chats with a fellow inmate briefly. There's a female captive nearby too, who apparently doesn't get rescued.

    The baddies sacrifice the fellow inmate first, by pretending to cut the guy's throat from behind. You can see the "priest" squeeze the fake blood packet under the inmate's neck. Great stuff.

    Then hooting guy threatens Doran: "Tonight you meet Moltar. Strip him to the skin" and henchmen arrive to do it, cackling.
  • The big Deus ex Machina:
    All hope appears lost, and it looks like Doran's going to be Moltar's next sacrifice... But then!
    In a bit of magical music and heavy fog, a wolf trots past the camera. Suddenly, a woman in white appears! It's the wizard! And she's dressed in a transparent white outfit.

    The scene's not long, but it's worth it for the wizard's exquisite scenery chewing. After a brief bit of small talk, she demands
    "Where is my crystal amulet???"
    Doran lowers his eyes and responds "I lost it", like he was 8 years old and had lost his math homework.
    She berates him for this, and gives him a quest to travel to the future and bring the amulet back to her, or else his tribe will be cursed.
    She orders him: "Find the man who belongs to that hand on your belt."
    Suddenly, a magic sword appears. She tells Doran: "It will take it to your destination, and for the love of gods, don't lose it."

    There's a thunderclap, some cheesy "lightning", and Doran pulls the sword from a stone. He quickly kills the bandits, and then tells the hooting guy
    "Your evil Shall end. By my hands!", and kills him barehanded.
    Doran then holds the sword aloft, goes "huaaaagghhh!!!" and gets teleported to 1991 LA.
  • We cut immediately to L.A., where intrepid TV reporter Penny and her cameraman Bryce are in front of a run-down warehouse, doing a report on local street gangs. Penny looks just like Lystra, with big 80's glasses and one of those womens' business suits from that era with the frilly bit instead of a tie, and humongous shoulder pads.

    Seems the street gang "The Gladiators" has a protection racket going, and they've been extorting money from the warehouse owner. Suddenly, the gang appears, attacking Penny as she's trying to do a report. Bryce runs away, of course.

    The head Gladiator is a chubby guy with a peroxide buzz cut and a tie-dye shirt, who giggles insanely all the time. Just as they're about to get rough with Penny, Shazam! There's a thunderclap and a bit of lightning and some fog, and Doran appears. He immediately sees what's happening, and shouts "Free her!"

    The Gladiators confront him. He punches giggle guy, who stumbles back and jumps (very obviously) into a dumpster.

    Giggle guy tells his henchmen: "Get out your blades.", and they whip out their switchblades, like this is some sort of 50's juvenile delinquent film.
    Doran sees their little knives and says "Your swords match your manhood!". He whips out his magic sword, which materializes on his back when needed.
    Giggle guy's henchmen immediately run away. Giggle man stays a moment, thinks it over, folds his knife...
    and shouts "You SUCK!" and runs away. This is great stuff, I tell you. Probably the best moment in the film.

    Penny gets in the van and switches into a convenient little black dress, and stands there staring, drooling at Doran. Cameraman Bryce has an unrequited crush on her. Puny little guy in a lemon polo shirt. I can see why she hasn't noticed him. She convinces him to go back to station w/o her, while she chats up Doran:

    P: Wait. What's that thing you carry around on your belt?
    D: A hand.
    P: I kinda figured that. Whose hand is it?
    D: Mandrak's. Iv'e come to find him.
    P: Why do you have his hand? And what are you going to do when you find him?
    D: Battle!

  • The severed hand bit isn't bad. Mandrak gets his hand cut off by Bartaga's lady friend, who gives it to Bartaga as a "trophy of battle" as she dies. Doran carries it around on his belt for the rest of the movie, and when he finally confronts Mandrak, he beats him with his own severed hand. Mandrak falls, and Doran tosses it to him. Mandrak says "My hand!" with a disgusted look of "get it away from me", and cringes and flings it away, since the hand's a bit, um, overripe at this point. In the meantime, Mandrak starts out with a black glove as a replacement hand, and then has some sort of big metal clawlike hand during the final battle. This is never explained.
  • Oddly, neither Doran nor Mandrak really figures out that Penny and Lystra are played by the exact same actress. Mandrak seems puzzled for a moment and wonders why she looks familiar, but that's about all.
  • The movie's not without its flaws. (Well, duh!!) Mandrak appears far too late into the film. Once he vanishes into the future, the movie really takes its time getting Doran there, and spends far too long resolving the conflict with the evil barbarian tribe. If Mandrak had been the tribe's leader, it might have made sense.
    If you look at early 80's S&S movies, they tend to clock out at a touch over 80 minutes, while TB runs 96. My theory here is that the boilerplate S&S plot has a natural, inherent running time of about 80 minutes, and if you get too much beyond that, you need to start trimming the fat. If you're making an S&S movie, you'd do well to go back and read Aristotle's Poetics, in particular the chapter about dramatic unity. I mean, the very word "barbarian" comes from ancient Greek. Those guys knew all about barbarian adventures.
  • Mandrak is a classic, campy baddie, forever shouting "Silence!" and punching his underlings in the face for no apparent reason. We get far too little of him in the film. Other great Mandrak lines:
    "Tell me more of the amulet's powers! Tell me, or you will die by my sword, jackal!"
    "Give me the women or I'll cut your tongues out!"
    "Perhaps you can put me on the televison, make me famous, like ... movie stars."
    "Allow me to introduce myself. Mandrak the Magnificient, at your service."
    Also, he has a great, classic evil laugh, but we only hear it when we first meet the guy.
  • The music is pretty typical for this sort of movie. Someone noodles away on a synthesizer in a vaguely martial fashion, with a bit of hurdy-gurdy music during the renaissance faire bit. Once we hit the mean streets of L.A., we get someone noodling away on a guitar. You'd think a heavy metal soundtrack would be a natural here, but I can't recall any S&S movies actually doing that.
  • TB has a lower budget even than most S&S movies. Deathstalker II looks like Lord of the Rings in comparison. In the budget department it's right down there with Eyes of the Serpent, another three furry boot movie from the early 90's. For one thing, TB doesn't have a creature, not even a kid in a teddy bear suit like in Barbarian. This is the most surefire way to tell, because S&S movie makers always add a creature if they have the money for it, even if it's completely gratuitous.
  • Low budgets are a good thing in S&S movies. Throwing money at a S&S story doesn't make it a better movie. Look how Krull turned out. At best, a big Hollywood budget might get you some cool sets, but the movie as a whole won't be better, and it may well be worse. The first half of Time Barbarians was shot in Arroyo Seco, outside of LA, in what looks like a state park campground. You see the same stream and same trees over and over again, but it's all good. You know they're really different places, because sometimes there are a few fake skulls lying about, or the fog machine is hidden behind a different rock, or sometimes it's even nighttime. The second half is set around modern day LA, in vacant lots and empty warehouses where you don't need an expensive permit from the city to film.
  • Bad acting is par for the course in S&S movies. Bad acting is almost obligatory, in fact. I mean, of course they don't know how to act -- they're barbarians fer chrissakes. The good guy ("Doran") in Time Barbarians is played by Deron Michael McBee, who you might have seen as "Malibu" on "American Gladiators", back in the day. If you're casting an S&S movie, you want to hire your male lead primarily for the beefcake factor. How does he look in a loincloth? Can he wave a costume sword around without hurting himself or others? If he passes those tests, then figure out whether he can act or not. If not, just make his lines simple and easy to remember, and you'll be fine.
  • Casting female characters is just as easy: What do they look like? How do they look in a skimpy bikini top with jingly metal tassles? Couple of notes here, though. It's fine to have ugly male minor characters, but all your female characters need to be reasonably attractive, with the possible exception of the wise old woman who lives in a hut somewhere (and for her you can really overdo the ugly, with ridiculous costume warts, etc.) Also, to stay faithful to the genre you probably want to go easy on the silicone. I don't have any particular objections to that, let's be clear here, it's just that this was far less common in 1982 than it is now, and in the classics of the genre the uh, "natural look" is the rule, with fairly few exceptions.
  • Gratuitous nudity is very important. Since S&S movies are supposed to appeal to the 15 year old nerd demographic, a great way to get in some gratuitous nudity is to have a bunch of women lounging about in the altogether, thinking no men are around to watch, similar to the Porky's shower scene. If you can afford a harem scene, that's ideal. If not, you can do a bathing-in-a-forest-pool scene like TB does. If you're a weirdo, you could do a silver-mining scene like in Slaves of the Realm, a crossover S&S / women-in-prison tale that merits a pathetic one furry boot, because it's boring as hell unless it hits your personal fetish button, and for me it doesn't. Anyway, if you're going to have an outdoor bathing scene, you also need some catty gossiping, and some giggling and splashing water around, just because. Them's the rules.
  • Hair is very important, too. Your male barbarian needs long hair, but not Aragorn-style realistic long hair. No, he needs primped, permed, glam-metal hair, the pinnacle of 1980's hair care technology. Everyone's hair looks really great in Time Barbarians. Whatever else you say about the movie, it's got that going for it. You just know Doran and Lystra are made for each other, because they in fact have the Same. Exact. Hair. Same color, same style, feathered up the same way and everything. Identical. And each has a headband of course, just because it's the 80's. Mandrak, the baddie, has the inevitable dark hair, with a nice 80's-baddie ponytail, and once he hits the modern era he looks just like a tough-guy baddie straight out of Miami Vice. As usual, side characters typically get dark hair, so they don't distract too much from our blond hero and heroine.
  • In the present day, Mandrak also smokes, has an earring, has the fashion sense of a classic 80's Colombian drug lord, and knows how to drive shoot an assault rifle. He even knows some of the local slang: When he shoots the head of the Gladiators gang, he says "Have a nice day!" Pretty adaptable guy. You've got to give him that, at any rate.
  • And yet, he and his henchman came to the future to obtain a huge fortune, but they wind up as common thugs, robbing yuppies in back alleys and blowing the cash in the local skanky dive bar, with nobody but crack hos for company. The amulet doesn't work for bad guys, despite transporting them to L.A. (don't ask), and now they're stuck in the future. Mandrak laments to his henchman over a round of booze "Destiny has cursed us both, my friend", who reproaches him "You said the crystal would make us rich." When Doran kills Mandrak at the end, Mandrak finally gives him the amulet, laughs, and says "There is no way back for you, barbarian! Welcome to hell!". In a better movie, with a better script and actors, this could be touching, full of pathos and irony and all that art film crap. But here, not so much.
  • Speaking of the final battle bit, isn't it cool how magic swords can deflect bullets? That rocks.
  • Also, Doran says to Mandrak at the end: "Your evil shall end! By my sword!". Which echoes the bit earlier on when he did in the hooting Gatalite guy, he said "Your evil shall end! By my hands!" before doing him in barehanded. Who says these movies aren't fine art?
  • Doran isn't in the future for all that long, but he starts to adapt as well. He at least figures out how to work a TV. doran At one point Penny's in the shower, and he bides his time first watching war footage, and then MTV, and then, well, we here some cheesy music but don't see the screen, and we see Doran smile, so apparently he's just discovered porno.
  • The costumes aren't bad. Well, if you exclude the stuff Penny bought for Doran. Our barbarian hero ended up in a pink "Local Motion" t-shirt, tight acid-wash jeans, and a grey Members Only jacket. But I guess everyone thought that looked tres sexy back in 1990. S&S movies can be real time capsules sometimes.
  • Mandrak's henchman fares less well, and goes about in LA wearing a beige trenchcoat and a Batman baseball cap. Doran appears to kill the guy but later says he isn't dead and claims "he dies when I say so". But he does look really dead, lying there on a sofa with his eyes open. I suppose Doran never went to medical school. After that, we just never see the guy again, so it's anyone's guess what becomes of him. Possibly he snaps out of it, and is left marooned in the future, without even Mandrak for company.
  • Some of the other decorative elements are a bit less, um, professional. There is what I guess is supposed to be the flag of Armana, which is someone's fantasy sketch done in charcoal on white fabric. Everyone had a friend in 8th grade who did designs just like this, doodling on a pee-chee during math class. The rest of the Armana "look" is basically just antlers stuck on stuff, as opposed to the Gatalite (evil barbarian) look, which is fake skulls stuck on stuff. Although, I mean, they are barbarians and all, so I guess we should cut them some slack in the decorative arts department.
  • TB doesn't overdo it on fog machines like Conquest did, but they're very, very obvious here. What, other than a fog machine, would cause fog to billow out from behind a rock? But hey, things like that are why S&S movies are so great.
  • Despite the stars lining up, etc., Doran and Penny don't end up together at the end. Instead of that, we get this bit of silly speechifying:

    D: "I wonder if hope is lost for all mankind"
    P: "No, it's not. You and I are no different. It doesn't matter when it is or where we are. We'll both make sure hope stays where it belongs. In our hearts forever."

    He then gives her a little scrap of string or leather off his arm as a token of his eternal love, and says "Our love shall be for an eternity", and walks off down the railroad tracks, and eventually disappears.

    After he leaves, she tells Bryce to turn the camera on and keep it rolling, no matter what, and starts doing a news report. Fade to credits.
Updated 11/8/2010: Someone actually linked to this humble movie "review". It's in this forum thread on a site out of India called eXBii. Definitely not safe for work. You weren't seriously reading this post at work, were you? You were? Seriously?

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