In Defence of Deathstalker and a Warning to the New Heirs of Sword and Sorcery

Once relegated to what was perceived as the misogynistic fringe of fantasy, the genre known as ‘Sword and Sorcery’, which seemed to hang limply and somewhat shamefully from the more respectable branches of fantasy, has, against all odds, flickered back into life.

It’s reasonable to argue that it never truly faded, especially in comic book formats and among self-published novels. Additionally, the enduring pop-cultural influence of fantasy artists, notably Frank Frazetta, remains as intertwined with the fabric of the fantasy genre as it has ever been.

Oozing with allure… Egyptian Queen by Frank Frazetta

Rewinding slightly through history’s haze, we encounter the genesis of the Sword and Sorcery genre. It emerged from tales that often fused fantasy with science fiction, drawing inspiration from the hedonistic interpretations of the Wild West. Here, the solitary gunslinger morphed into the lone swordsman, venturing from the Texan plains to realms beyond description, populated by monsters, demons, and, inevitably, voluptuous maidens. This transformation is most notably attributed to Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan the Barbarian, whose extensive and poignant exchanges with his confidant H.P. Lovecraft illuminated the genre’s inception.

These narratives distinguished themselves from the intricate mythologies of authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, whose works were meticulously woven from the threads of ancient history and religion. In contrast, Sword and Sorcery thrived on raw, unbridled expressions of violence and sensuality, embodying a form of romanticism that was unabashedly and predominantly masculine.

The portrayal of women in Frank Frazetta’s artwork exemplifies this genre’s sensuous and vigorous essence, so potent it could captivate one’s imagination indefinitely. This stark eroticism contrasts sharply with the intricate and exhaustive descriptions found in Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’, particularly within its dwarven ballads.

Incubus by Boris Vallejo (another great sword and sorcery artist like Frank Frazetta)

This genre’s allure, marked by a blend of sensory escapism, violent and erotic romanticism, was often accentuated with a layer of dark humour and wit reminiscent of the memorable one-liners delivered by Arnold Schwarzenegger in action films or the quips found in Spaghetti Westerns.

Schwarzenegger would epitomise the cinematic foray of the Sword and Sorcery genre like no other, immortalised through his portrayal of Conan the Barbarian. This film, celebrated both for its portrayal and commercial triumph, triggered a flurry of similar productions. While some of these films might seem mere imitations to the discerning critic, they nonetheless contributed to the genre’s cinematic landscape.

The film ‘Conan the Barbarian’, with its divine score by Basil Poledouris, is often regarded as a prestigious example within this niche. Yet, the genre’s most provocative cinematic ventures arguably include ‘Deathstalker’ (1983), ‘The Sword and the Sorcerer’ (1982), and ‘Beastmaster’ (1982). These were accompanied by other, even more budget-constrained productions from Italy, such as ‘Ator the Fighting Eagle’ (1982).

Typical night-in, with a sword and sorcery film.

A discernible pattern emerges from the dates mentioned, all swiftly following the trail blazed by Conan the Barbarian.

As the budgets shrank, the exploitation elements proliferated: more nudity, more humor. And then, as if a candle were snuffed out, the cinematic sub-genre seemed to vanish overnight.

This silence persisted for years until ‘Game of Thrones’ burst onto the scene with its rich tapestry of violence, sex, nudity, and sorcery, rekindling interest in elements of the sub-genre within the public’s imagination. Packaged in a more palatable format, with sharp dialogue and political intrigue, we once again encountered warriors and nudity—plenty of boobs, though conspicuously fewer moobs. This revival was hardly surprising, considering George R. R. Martin’s seasoned perspective as an author. Having grown up with both the cinematic adaptations and the original writings of Robert E. Howard, his work is as much a testament to Howard’s influence as it is to J.R.R. Tolkien’s.

As cultural sensibilities shifted towards more vocal minority opinions online, producers sought to moderate the sub-genre’s more explicit content, diluting its daring qualities and, unfortunately, accelerating the pace of unresolved storylines to unsatisfactory conclusions. From my own experience as a film producer, I’ve noted the increasing challenge of producing and marketing content that, a decade ago, would have been far less controversial, but today might trigger walkouts and hashtags.

The initial press statements for “House of the Dragon” emphasized how it would diverge from its more provocative predecessors, while “Rings of Power” appeared more intent on establishing itself as a cultural and political landmark than on celebrating the core values of the fantasy genre.

Even ‘Red Sonja’ (1985) is set to get a re-make!

Are we experiencing a revival of the Sword and Sorcery film genre?

In the current sensitive, or rather, hypersensitive political and cultural milieu—exacerbated by the easily offended denizens of the internet—it seems that the authentic essence of Sword and Sorcery flickered briefly into existence only to disappear once more, like the briefest spark from a candle.

The prospect of reviving Sword and Sorcery as a cult film genre appeared unattainable, an endeavour seemingly beneath the dignity of any reputable figure within the film industry, especially those wary of the loudest complainers online.

‘Deathstalker’, directed by John Watson and featuring Rick Hill as the eponymous hero, unabashedly embraced the genre’s exploitation elements. It stands as a prime example of the hurdles and potential solutions for the genre’s revival, having inspired the creation of ‘The Slave and the Sorcerer’ and the recently announced ‘Deathstalker’ remake by Raven Banner, directed by Steve Kostanski.

These films navigate the tricky waters of a society where many struggle to separate fiction from reality, often interpreting any depicted immoral or morally ambiguous act literally rather than within its fantastical context.

The grandfather of Sword and Sorcery, Robert E. Howard.

The real challenge lies in depicting an anti-hero within a world rife with hedonistic sexuality and violence, surrounded by brutish warriors or deceitful magic users indulging in excesses of magic, sensuality, sex, or violence, in a way that aligns with modern sensibilities—such as those of a friend who prides themselves on their collection of organically grown vegetables and artisanal root beer.

Not that there’s anything amiss with a preference for organic produce or craft beverages, but that’s beside the point.

The truth is, such narratives defy sanitisation. They do not belong to a world concerned with the genteel or politically correct. Indeed, they’re not of our world at all. The allure lies in the fantasy of immersing oneself in a realm teeming with marauding warriors and sorcerers, a draw for both men and women who relish the genre.

In a recent Facebook group post that garnered notable attention, I remarked:

“The original ‘Deathstalker’ is great, and Sword and Sorcery is a hedonistic, morally ambiguous, violent, sleazy, sexy sub-genre. It is also projecting a fantasy; it’s not a political ideology to get your pants in a twist about! Otherwise, you’d best close your eyes before a Frank Frazetta painting!”

This sentiment holds true for me. Watching a Sword and Sorcery film doesn’t mean I aspire to transform into a womanising barbarian overlord, nor, I presume, does any female enthusiast wish to become a sacrificial offering to Thulsa Doom.

It remains, thankfully, a fantasy.

Yet, this raises questions about how these sensibilities will influence the reception and production of films drawing inspiration from the original ‘Deathstalker’.

The cult-classic Deathstalker starring Rick Hill, and Lana Clarkson

Is there a risk of diluting the Sword and Sorcery genre to the point of banality?

Following attempts to resurrect ‘Deathstalker’, now under the stewardship of Steven Kostanski, famed for ‘Psycho Goreman’, a notable backlash emerged from a conspicuously homogeneous group of sensitive-looking young men. Their chief concern? A fervent hope that the new ‘Deathstalker’ would eschew any elements of sexual violence—a trait they mistakenly attribute as central to the original film’s ethos, and, by some twisted logic, assumed to be the reason behind Raven Banner’s interest in the remake. Their critiques were often encapsulated in sentiments akin to, “Oh, I hope this ‘Deathstalker’ is less inclined towards depicting rape.”

In response, Raven Banner and Steve Kostanski seem to be proceeding with caution. Throughout their recent Kickstarter campaign, any hint of risqué content, or even questions pertaining to it, were seemingly sidestepped. The campaign’s emphasis instead appeared to champion a somewhat misguided crusade to ‘assist’ Kostanski in the creation of his movie and its creatures.

Let’s cut through the facade: despite the narrative that Kostanski is independently spearheading this project, it’s actually under the aegis of a multimillion-dollar distributor, leveraging community-oriented marketing to obscure the commercial mechanics at play. Indeed, a critical examination of the burgeoning trend among distributors to exploit crowdfunding, under the guise of supporting independent filmmaking while presumably seeking alternative revenue streams, is warranted. It seems the traditional exploitation of filmmakers may no longer suffice.

The new ‘Deathstalker’ cast is announced, while NO LEADING LADY mentioned yet!

So, what are we left with if Kostanski’s approach to Sword and Sorcery has been neutered? An abundance of PRACTICAL EFFECTS and CREATURES! The promotional material is replete with images of pink, rubbery figures poised to populate the film’s universe, reminiscent of the 1980s Mr. M.U.S.C.L.E. toys.

A sentiment never uttered in the aftermath of the original ‘Deathstalker’ viewing was, “If only they had toned down the sensuality and replaced the quintessential Sword and Sorcery atmosphere with a benign, rubbery, and thoroughly asexual environment. Yes, let’s transform it into a child-friendly Saturday morning cartoon!”

Surprisingly, the prospect of a politically charged, creature-centric film, stripping away the essence of Sword and Sorcery for a more juvenile presentation, might actually resonate with a certain segment of the festival-going crowd. They seem to revel in the idea of transforming what they dismiss as outdated, misogynistic ’80s television into something palatably ‘modern’.

Yet, what they fail to recognise is that these ‘outdated’ films are, in fact, cult classics that have withstood the test of time. It’s telling that we’re still discussing a film like the original ‘Deathstalker’, rather than many of the more recent fantasy productions with far larger budgets.

The original ‘Deathstalker’ thrived on a straightforward formula: a muscular warrior, enticing women, and a theatrically villainous sorcerer, supplemented by some rubbery creatures—but never diluted by a fear of embracing its sexually charged content. This very essence inspired ‘The Slave and the Sorcerer’, and it underscores the respect we owe to the original material and the broader Sword and Sorcery genre.

It’s not PG Goreman, it’s Deathstalker! A work-in-progress costume by Steve Konstantin.

Yet, the forthcoming ‘Deathstalker’ remake seems hesitant to even associate with the term ‘Sword and Sorcery’. In a recent interview, Kostanski seemed not just oblivious to the details of his Kickstarter campaign but also reluctant to use the genre’s name, preferring ‘fantasy’ as a safer, more sanitised descriptor for his reinterpretation.

I really don’t want the new ‘Deathstalker’ to be a peep-show of me watching a geek in a sand-pit playing with Mr. Muscle toys. Give me Sword and Sorcery, goddamnit! Don’t reduce the genre that has given you the opportunity and responsibility to preserve, and advocate for its rebirth!

These sentiments echo through our own production, ‘The Slave and the Sorcerer’. I kept a pad filled with screenshots from the movie close at hand during filming to ensure the cinematography and overall vibe remained true to the genre’s spirit.

Sword and Sorcery demands its defenders. To water down a cult classic into a neutered, politically correct parody, reliant on gimmicky effects and meta-humour, caters only to a mainstream niche that fundamentally misunderstands and rejects the sub-genre. Thus, I hope Kostanski and Raven Banner rise to the occasion with their remake, as we aimed to with our homage to Albert Pyun’s ‘The Sword and the Sorcerer’.

Interestingly, the announcement of a new ‘Deathstalker’ came shortly after our successful crowdfunding for ‘The Slave and the Sorcerer’, our tribute to Pyun’s classic. Now, even a ‘Red Sonja’ remake is in the works. When we first ventured to revive true Sword and Sorcery cinema, we were warned by every distributor that it would be a commercial folly.

Heroes abound in ‘The Slave and the Sorcerer’ Copyright Hex Studios

As I’ve mentioned, during the production and direction of our film, I always had a booklet of stills from the iconic exploitation films of that era at hand, including ‘Deathstalker’. Actress and costume designer Megan Tremethick drew inspiration from Frank Frazetta’s paintings for the erotic costuming of her character, Nemain the Sorceress, among others. Our film features violence and a hint of sauciness reminiscent of that time’s films. In fact, during production, my director of cinematography was overcome with laughter.

He looked me squarely in the eye and exclaimed, ‘I can’t believe you’re making an ’80s sword and sorcery film without a shred of irony.’

Nothing could have pleased me more.

Now, as our film has spurred a new remake in the form of ‘Deathstalker’, less than 12 months after our own, I am both anxious and hopeful. Our film drew inspiration from ‘Deathstalker’, and now, armed with more resources, Raven Banner and Steven Kostanski are endeavouring to produce a film that does justice not only to the title but also to a genre that has often been unfairly criticised.

I sincerely hope they avoid creating a sexless sword and sorcery film that ends up more like a gory rendition of an ’80s Saturday morning cartoon rather than a true ’80s Sword and Sorcery film.

Naturally, we’ll be keeping a close eye on the Kickstarter campaign for ‘Deathstalker’, and you can also check out the original campaign for ‘The Slave and the Sorcerer’ here.

We did reach out to Raven Banner to arrange an interview, which they had originally agreed to, but then never got back to us!