Sorceress (1982) Sorceress (1982) -***

     Among the most notorious products of Roger Corman’s 80’s-90’s schlock factory, Concorde-New Horizons, was a succession of ever cheaper and ever sillier sword-and-sorcery movies, shot in Argentina and relying to an ever greater extent on material recycled from earlier films in the cycle. The first of the bunch was Deathstalker; Deathstalker IV: Match of Titans seems to have been the last. The template for those pictures was established a bit earlier, however, toward the end of Corman’s tenure at the helm of his previous company, New World Pictures. Sorceress was made in Mexico rather than Argentina, and to a somewhat higher standard of production value than its successors, but basically all the salient features of the Corman Conan Cash-In are in place here just the same. This movie even features a script by Deathstalker II writer/director Jim Wynorski, graduating from his prior role at the studio cutting trailers.

     It suddenly occurs to me that, apart from The Blade Master and The Sword of the Barbarians, every barbarian movie released in 1982 begins in its hero’s childhood, infancy, or pre-partum existence— and even those two aren’t much of an exception, since they were either sequels or abortive sequels to one of the others. Sorceress joins the club, too. The evil wizard-warlord Traigon (Roberto Ballesteros, of Midnight Ladies and Diabolical Narco-Satanists), not content to rule just his own Bronze Age kingdom, has designs on the entire world. To that end, he has promised his firstborn child to the arch-demon Kalghara (who will eventually manifest herself as Germaine Simiens— or at least her huge, disembodied head), but his consort, Kanti (Silvia Manriquez, from Mystery in Bermuda and Funeral of Terror), has other ideas. Together with a single retainer, Kanti flees with the intended sacrifice into the wilderness patrolled by Krona (Martin LaSalle, from Mansion of Madness and Innocents from Hell), a magic-wielding master of the martial arts and sworn enemy of Traigon. She plausibly figures that her doomed child will be significantly less so under Krona’s protection, but Traigon catches up to her before she can make any such arrangements. Even so, Kanti has one last card to play: she gave birth to identical twin girls, and she alone can tell which one is which. Traigon attempts to torture the information out of her on the spot (evidently he’s on a tight schedule), but Kanti holds out until Krona arrives on the scene after all. The wandering hero makes short work of Traigon’s soldiers, and nearly as short work of Traigon himself, but is far too late to save Kanti. And indeed even this nigh-total victory is not to be the end of the matter, for Traigon had already performed sufficient service to the powers of darkness to be granted three lives. In twenty years, when the stars are properly aligned, the evil wizard will rise again to complete what he began in his first incarnation. Krona sees to it that he’ll have a fight on his hands, though, when the time comes. He magically imparts a latent mastery of hand-to-hand combat to the two infants, together with a suite of vaguely defined paranormal abilities hinging upon their mutual affinity as identical twins. Then he drops in on Dargon (William Arnold), a stout-hearted peasant who owes him some pretty big favors, and instructs him to raise Kanti’s daughters as his own. However, because Traigon will be looking for twin girls when he returns to this plane of existence, Krona also exhorts Dargon to raise them as his sons.

     Two decades later, little Mira and Mara have grown up to be Playboy Playmates Leigh and Lynette Harris. It rather makes one wonder how Dargon could possibly have maintained Krona’s subterfuge as to the twins’ sex— especially given their habit of skinny dipping in plain sight. Nevertheless, it seems that the only person (for a rather loose definition of that term) to catch on in all that time is Pando (David Milbern, of Slumber Party Massacre and Midnight Confessions), a satyr who spies on the supposed boys bathing one fateful morning. Mind you, the morning isn’t fateful because of anything Pando does or says. He’s a decent sort, despite various appearances to the contrary, and in any event, Mira and Mara are more than capable of handling one horny goat dude. The satyr also has no capacity for speech intelligible to humans, so the girls’ secret is inherently safe with him. No, the fate that rides in that morning takes the form of horsemen under the leadership of Khrakannon (Antonio Zubiaga, from Barbarian Queen II: The Empress Strikes Back and The Throne of Hell), the rat-bastard who’s been keeping Traigon’s throne warm for him these past twenty years. Not one to lie down on a job, Khrakannon has kept busy looking for twins who might be his temporarily deceased master’s daughters in disguise, and he’s finally gotten around to searching Dargon’s remote little homestead. To be sure, Mira and Mara put a man-sized hurting on the soldiers, even leaving their leader a non-fatal arrow wound in the back by which to remember the occasion. By the time they’ve done so, however, their whole adoptive family— father, mother, and sister— lie dead. Luckily for them, the battle was observed not only by Pando, but also by his blustery human companion, Baldar (Bruno Rey, of The Infernal Rapist and Blue Demon, Spy Smasher). Baldar recognized Khrakannon and his troops, and since he isn’t exactly a fan of the man’s regency himself, he pledges his and Pando’s aid to the vendetta on which the “lads” are now understandably eager to set out. Krona wanders belatedly by at that point, too, and briefly explains his role in the twins’ past before immolating himself on Dargon’s funeral pyre.

     Now if Mira and Mara are twenty years old, that ought to mean Traigon is back in business, right? Indeed. And since Traigon is an evil wizard with a diabolical pact, he gets to skip over the whole “birth, growth, and maturation” thing on his second go-round. He just *poof*ed back into existence on his altar to Kalghara one night at the exact same age (and wearing the exact same outfit) as when Krona killed him. Naturally he isn’t pleased to learn that Khrakannon let the girls slip through his fingers after finally locating them, but his annoyance is counterbalanced by the mere fact of them having been found. Now that Traigon knows where his daughters were, it’s a much simpler matter to re-concentrate the search on places where they’re likely to turn up in the near future.

     Meanwhile, Baldar convinces the twins that they’re apt to want a little more help, in the form of his old friend, Erlick (Roberto Nelson, from Dynasty of Dracula and The Neighborhood). Erlick is actually the heir to a powerful kingdom, but ever since he came of age, he’s been shirking whatever responsibilities go along with that to roam the Earth in search of adventure and excitement. The last Baldar heard, he was hanging around Traigon’s own capital, which is famous for having the best dens of vice to be found anywhere. Baldar, Mira, Mara, and Pando find Erlick in the midst of provoking a riot in a whorehouse by cheating at dice with a bunch of customers nearly as rough as himself. (The man who first rises to the bait is Miguel Ángel Fuentes, of Deathstalker III: Warriors from Hell and The Pumaman.) It’s all in good fun, so far as Erlick and Baldar are concerned, and it gives the twins a chance to impress their prospective new ally with their skill at double-teaming motherfuckers who never knew what hit them. Erlick is also one of the few people in this movie who catch on at once that Mira and Mara are girls, which makes their “help us take on an evil sorcerer” pitch considerably more enticing than it might have been otherwise.

     Various stages of the whorehouse riot were witnessed by two interested parties, however. One was Traigon’s current main squeeze (Ana de Sade, of Caveman and The Holy Mountain), a noblewoman with a small talent for witchcraft by the name of Delissia. (Did I mention that Jim Wynorski wrote this thing?) Even since Khrakannon delivered the news that Mira and Mara had been found, Traigon has been neglecting her in favor of his demon-raising project, and Delissia has had about all she can stand of that— close enough to it, in fact, to cast lustful eyes at a brawny, blond rogue with the face of a prince and the attitude of a freebooter. The other witness was one of the prostitutes whose workplace Erlick and his opponents wrecked up (Luz María Jerez, from Orgy of Terror and Revenge of the Punks). This girl knows that there’s a reward out for information leading to the capture of “two who are as one,” and that’s a pretty fair description of what she saw of Mira and Mara. The hooker tracks the twins and their companions to Erlick’s lodgings in the city, then spills everything she knows to Khrakannon’s men.

     With a little more help from the treacherous whore, the soldiers manage to catch Mara and Mira alone, and the pair are taken prisoner. Worse yet, Delissia’s magic quickly reveals Mara as Traigon’s firstborn. Erlick, Baldar, and Pando attempt to rescue the girls, but only end up trading Mira’s escape for Erlick’s capture. At first, Traigon intends to have the troublesome drifter impaled, but then Delissia’s pet ape-man (did I mention that Delissia has a pet ape-man?) notices a piece of jewelry on him that reveals his princely identity. That changes the situation, because it turns out (don’t ask me how) that Erlick’s royal blood is capable of supercharging the Kalghara-summoning ritual if he fucks Mara before she is sacrificed. Traigon and Delissia ply Mara and Erlick with a suggestibility potion to make them more tractable, and then leave them alone together to let nature take its course. Meanwhile, Mira, Baldar, and Pando attack the problem of freeing their captive friends, although the magic drugs may make that a great deal more difficult than they realize. Mira and Baldar, as is their wont, do their attacking literally, and wind up sidetracked in a catacomb full of zombies. Pando, smarter than he looks, tries a different approach, and heads out into the countryside to rile up the peasantry against Traigon’s rule.

     One thing that I appreciate about the Corman Conan Cash-Ins is that none of the ones I’ve seen have been content merely to copy the films whose box office crumbs they were designed to hoover up. Even The Warrior and the Sorceress, which stole fully three quarters of its plot, stole it from Yojimbo rather than Conan the Barbarian or The Beastmaster. That pattern, like so much else about its successors, is already visible in Sorceress. Whatever its faults, Sorceress is very much its own film, mining the legacy of Robert E. Howard and his pulp fantasy imitators on its own terms. Much like The Sword and the Sorcerer, it seeks to duplicate the Howardian flavor by constructing a fictional world built out of mixed-and-matched analogues for real ancient cultures. This movie gives us a Viking and a Satyr and a non-specifically Teutonic muscleman tromping around a setting that vaguely suggests Carthaginian Spain, and in case that weren’t good enough, it has one of those characters explicitly namedrop Babylonia, and make reference to the invention of tempered steel. Sorceress was also the earliest film of its type that I’ve seen to incorporate, successfully or not, the Lovecraftian themes that loomed so large in print sword-and-sorcery tales, via Traigon’s ongoing effort to maximize his power by bringing Kalghara to Earth with a ritual of human sacrifice. It was the first to attempt shifting the focus to female characters, too, although it does so only indecisively, and has its efforts in that direction hampered by two leading ladies whose acting talents begin and end with a lack of inhibition about doffing their clothes on camera. And dearest to my own heart, as always, this film has some pretty wild and imaginative monster designs, even if the execution of them is often lacking. Once again, this is the Roger Corman Academy of Film in action, because the man behind those creatures was John Carl Buechler, whose work we’ve seen before in Forbidden World, Troll, and Friday the 13th, Part VII: The New Blood.

     But for all its commendable dedication to not being a just a cheap copy of Conan the Barbarian (or of Excalibur, Clash of the Titans, etc.), Sorceress never quite musters a comparable degree of clarity about what it’s supposed to be instead. On an extremely basic level, for instance, it has neither a single protagonist nor a proper ensemble. Mira and Mara, who at first look like they’re supposed to be co-protagonists, become mired in an unsatisfying limbo between the modern active heroine and the old-school passive damsel in distress. They get just enough done on their own to thwart anybody else from really driving the story, but not enough to do so themselves successfully. They kick plenty of ass when the stakes are low, but have a tendency to hang back and rely on the men when it matters most— and in doing so, they put all the potential heroes in an inversely untenable position. Erlick, surprisingly, spends as much time languishing ineffectually under the influence of Delissia’s mind-control drug as Mara does, so that poor Baldar becomes a second banana without a first one. Krona, similarly, is a mentor without mentees, his role limited to casting his spell over the twins, dropping them off at Dargon’s place, and then committing totally unearned ritual suicide.

     Sorceress also has a bad habit of setting things up without bringing them to any kind of fruition, beginning with the very title. The closest thing to a sorceress that this movie has is Delissia, but she’s far too minor a character to merit naming the film after her. After all, it’s Traigon, and not Delissia, conspiring to call forth Kalghara, and although it looks for a while like she might usurp him to become the true main villain, nothing ever comes of that. Then again, the motivation for the witch’s notional betrayal— her dissatisfaction as the consort to a man too dedicated to demon-summoning to spare any time for romance— never makes much sense anyway. Delissia is rather too young to have had any preexisting relationship with a guy who’s been dead the past twenty years, yet there also isn’t nearly enough time for her discontent to have reached the necessary pitch if she’s a recent addition to the wizard’s life. Baldar’s big-deal sword of Babylonian steel doesn’t seem to give him any noticeable edge over any of the other characters, nor does it play any special role in the endgame. And after the final battle, the matter of Traigon’s third incarnation is left not merely hanging (in which case it could have served as a perfectly good sequel hook), but totally forgotten to all outward appearances.

     Finally, the entire climax is a complete fucking mess. Traigon unleashes powers that he wasn’t supposed to get until after he sacrificed his firstborn child. Kalghara arrives in response to a substitute sacrifice at whom she ought to have turned up her misshapen nose. The participation of the characters whose story we’ve been following is reduced practically to an afterthought, subsumed as they are within a massive clash of revolting peasants and Traigon’s zombie warriors. And the cosmic battle between Kalghara and the literal deus ex machina that emerges to fight her is impeded by the fact that the former is just an incorporeal floating head, while the latter is a nifty-looking but almost immobile puppet. I realize that one doesn’t achieve New World Pictures turnaround times by doing rewrites or reshoots, but Sorceress badly needed three or four of the former, and a couple of the latter wouldn’t have hurt either.



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