Knives of the Avenger (1966) Knives of the Avenger / Viking Massacre / Bladestorm / I Coltelli del Vendicatore (1966/1968) **

     One summer during my junior high years, I started hanging out a lot with a kid called Chuck Armstrong. (A tremendous name, isn’t it? Sounds like he ought to be the hero in a movie about the battle of Anzio or something.) Chuck was kind of a jock and a geek at the same time, which was interesting to me because that combination was completely not allowed under the social rules prevailing at Crofton Junior High School in the late 1980’s. He was the guy who enjoyed the most success at getting me into Dungeons & Dragons (although his concurrent efforts to turn me on to TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes RPG bore significantly less fruit), and I tried to get him into slasher and zombie movies in return. My status as Chuck’s oddball movie-nut friend made me the logical person to ask when he caught the second half of some ultra-violent Medieval film on cable— did I have any idea what the hell this thing was? Chuck’s description didn’t ring any bells, but it sounded awesome. It was, too, when we finally tracked the mystery film down— it turned out he was talking about Flesh & Blood. But we must have checked out every sword-fighting movie in the “action” and “fantasy” sections of Paul’s Video (the only rental shop we could reach on foot) trying to find it.

     The part of that hunt which most sticks with me is the day we rented something called Bladestorm, the cover art for which promised such testosterone-soaked badassery that we’d each probably wake up the next morning with twice as much hair on our balls as we’d had before. What Bladestorm delivered, however, was… well, something else. (We should have read the back of the box more clearly. Then maybe we’d have noticed the wee little line disclaiming, “The scenes depicted on the sleeve may be an artist’s impression, and may not necessarily represent actual scenes from the film.”) For one thing, it was old— like, maybe even 60’s-old. For another, the dialogue track was weird, almost like in the movies they showed on “Kung Fu Theater.” But most of all, it had the same kind of story and style as one of those strange, grimy Westerns with Clint Eastwood, in which nobody ever talked and people could never just have a gunfight without standing around staring at each other for, like, half an hour first— only it was about Vikings instead of cowboys, and the hero was a knife-thrower instead of a gunslinger. What the hell was this movie?

     Well, it sure wasn’t “Bladestorm,” for one thing, at least not initially. What Chuck and I watched that afternoon was really Knives of the Avenger, Mario Bava’s second and final contribution to a genre that is largely forgotten today. I don’t have a firm enough handle on Italian Viking movies as a whole to say much about them right now, but their heyday coincided with that of the sword-and-sandal films, and they seem to have been a response to the local success of the 1958 Kirk Douglas vehicle The Vikings. By 1966, the genre was very much on its way out, retreating along with the peplums before a rising tide of Spaghetti Westerns. That changeover is what makes this frankly rather dull movie interesting in spite of itself, for Knives of the Avenger is for all practical purposes a Spaghetti Western with furry vests and horned helmets in place of ponchos and Stetsons, right down to the music. It’s weird enough to be worth watching once, even if it’s much too sluggish and sleepy for most of its length to be terribly satisfying.

     We begin on a stretch of Adriatic coastline that makes an impressively poor substitute for the fjords, where one character after another will stand up to hurl mudballs of exposition at us in the most static and declamatory manner possible. First Shuna the sea witch (no source I’ve consulted has offered so much as a clue to the actress’s identity) announces that somebody named Arald is still alive, that somebody named Hagen is doomed to death and defeat, and that somebody who doesn’t get a name yet is on his way to make the latter happen. Then Karin (Elissa Pichelli), the Norse princess to whom Shuma has been babbling, clarifies that Arald is her long-absent husband, and asks how she and her son, Moki (Luciano Polletin), can possibly escape Hagen’s men. The witch replies that if they make the first leg of their flight along the beach, the waves will erase their footprints behind them. Then Hagen himself (Fausto Tozzi, from War Goddess and The Return of Dr. Mabuse) gives a speech before his followers, in which he tells them a bunch of things that they must already know, but which we do not: that they’ve been in exile for many years, that their king is dead, that said king laid a curse on them when he was alive, and that they mean to exterminate their former neighbors if they are not welcomed back into the village after all this time. He also says something about capturing Karin and Moki before riding off with a few warriors to Shuna’s part of the beach. The witch gloats to him about the fugitives’ escape, and also about the prophecy Odin sent her regarding Hagen’s death. Hagen rides off again in a huff.

     Flash forward a few months, and inland a few score miles to a valley where a grizzled, middle-aged Viking (Cameron Mitchell, from Memorial Valley Massacre and Island of the Doomed) is riding his horse to the tune of a cue that could have come from one of Ennio Morricone’s basement tapes. This guy’s name is a needlessly complicated issue; he’s traveling under an assumed identity, but by the time anyone mentions that, we already know who he really is, and the movie is three-quarters over before anyone ever calls him by his fake handle. Oh, screw it— he’s really Rurik, but he’s calling himself Helmut. Obviously there’s a story there, and we’ll get to it in due time. Anyway, Rurik comes upon a cottage in the valley where he hopes to solicit a bite to eat and maybe a tankard of beer from the owner. The latter turns out to be Karin, and she’s in no mood for the company of strange men. If Rurik is hungry, then he’d best head over to the river and go fishing.

     It’s Karin’s good fortune that Rurik doesn’t hold a grudge— or at least not over so trivial a slight. Rurik has just sat down to his repast (Jesus— aren’t you even going to cook that thing?!) when he hears sounds of a struggle coming from the direction of her cottage. Investigating, he finds a band of Hagen’s men trying to intimidate the woman into coming with them. Rurik’s intervention wrecks most of the furniture in Karin’s house, but he eventually kills all of her attackers. Then he volunteers to hang around long enough to fix everything he broke in the fighting. Over the days it takes Rurik to do that, he bonds with both Karin and her son, and wins enough of the former’s trust that she tells him (and us) her story at last.

     Karin was the daughter of the King of the Makars (Amadeo Trilli, from Vulcan, Son of Jupiter and Treasure of the Petrified Forest). That Arald we heard about earlier (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, from War of the Robots and The Crimes of the Black Cat) was her husband, the leader of a different Viking tribe with whom the Makars traditionally had difficulties, and their marriage was part of a wide-ranging plan on the king’s part to reset his people’s relationships with their neighbors on a friendlier, more peaceful footing. The king was even pursuing an alliance with his deadliest enemy, a powerful warlord named Rurik. (Hmm…) Alas, Hagen apparently never got that memo. In the middle of Karin’s wedding, he and a couple of his boys rode into the courtyard of the royal longhouse to present the king with the heads of Rurik’s wife and child. His Majesty’s reaction was not what Hagen anticipated. Leaving aside the point that interrupting the ceremony to toss severed heads at the father of the bride is a breach of wedding etiquette even among Vikings, what does it say about the king that he negotiates peace while his followers murder the other party’s family? That was how Hagen and his men got cursed and banished, but unfortunately their expulsion from the tribe was hardly the end of the matter. Rurik declared all-out war on the Makars, not a bit mollified by the fact that his loved ones’ killers were no longer among them. Eventually, his army reached the village where the king made his home, and laid it to waste. The king was killed and Arald wounded in the attack, and once the village was securely in his hands, Rurik consummated his conquest by raping Karin. Oh— hang on a minute… At this point in the tale, Karin realizes not only that she recognizes her scruffy houseguest, but also why.

     Now it’s Rurik’s turn to exposit like a motherfucker. Once the deed was done, he regretted his excessive and indiscriminate vengeance almost immediately. Furthermore, when his tribesmen learned that after all that, they never even crossed swords with the right guys, they decided it was time for a change in leadership. That’s why Rurik is now wandering around alone like a great big old sad-sack, neglecting to tell anyone that his name is Helmut. He’s still out for revenge, but this time he intends to exact it upon the correct target. Meanwhile, he’s happy for this chance to make it up to Karin at least a little for his previous behavior, and Moki’s obvious affection is lent a bit of frisson by the fact that he may very well be Rurik’s son instead of Arald’s.

     So far, Knives of the Avenger has been extremely long on people talking about the past and extremely short on them doing things in the present. That balance shifts at least slightly when Karin tells Rurik exactly what Hagen wants from her. The warlord intends to force their marriage so as to gain legitimacy for claiming the Makar crown. That must mean he’s nearby, which in turn means it’s time for Rurik to go hunting. But what neither antagonist realizes is that Arald is about to enter the playing field, having returned at last from a much longer sea voyage than he intended. So now we’ve got a Good to complete the set with Hagen’s Bad and Rurik’s Ugly, and we can finally begin progressing toward High Noon in earnest.

     Knives of the Avenger is an extremely un-Bava-like movie, and I was not surprised to learn that it was another case of him being brought in to salvage a troubled production after the original director either quit or was fired. Most of the film was shot outdoors, under natural light, offering little scope for Bava’s usual stylistic trademarks. Such sets as the picture required are mostly log cabins and converted barns, which are equally far removed from the physical environments of the typical 60’s Bava film. Only the sea caves where Rurik and Arald confront Hagen for the last time offer any hint of the classic Bava look, somewhat suggesting the creature’s lair in Caltiki, the Immortal Monster or the Tartarus of Hercules in the Haunted World. Bava seems to have tried to squeeze in a bit of his usual color trickery during the scenes set in Karin’s cottage as well, but he accomplished nothing there save to give those sequences the blotchy, mustard-stained look of the tinted images in 1940’s lobby cards. I guess that’s noteworthy in a way, since I can’t remember ever seeing a Bava movie be ugly before.

     Otherwise, it’s difficult to find much to say about Knives of the Avenger beyond that it’s a stern test of your endurance and attention span. Much of the problem is structural. I think I can see what Bava was trying to do by beginning in media res with three acts’ worth of a five-act plot already in the past, but it simply doesn’t work. The starting point he chose in particular requires too many flashbacks and above all too many explanations to be satisfying, especially since the film makes so little use of the potentially resonant irony of Karin falling in love with and depending on the protection of a man whom she doesn’t initially recognize as her rapist and her father’s killer. It would have been much more effective to tell this story in its natural order, building up to an operatic blast of violence at the midpoint, and then treating Karin’s retreat to the valley as a late diminuendo before the hunt for Hagen cranks up the volume again. That would have driven up both the production cost and the running time considerably, to be sure, but it would also have made for a far more satisfying movie. Besides, if Knives of the Avenger wants to be a Spaghetti Western anyway, then why not ape Sergio Leone’s sprawling narratives and butt-punishing durations, too?

 

 

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