Monday, July 2, 2012

Cult Movie Trash: ATOR THE FIGHTING EAGLE (1983)

(Italy - 1983)

Written and directed by David Hills (Aristide Massaccesi).  Cast: Miles O'Keeffe, Sabrina Siani, Edmund Purdom, Laura Gemser, Ritza Brown, Dakkar.  (PG, 92 mins)

The success of 1982's CONAN THE BARBARIAN spawned an entire subgenre of mostly Italian-made barbarian/sword & sorcery ripoffs that flooded drive-ins, video stores, and cable in the early 1980s.  One of the most recognizable is 1983's ATOR THE FIGHTING EAGLE, written and directed by Italian exploitation legend Aristide Massaccesi (1936-1999).  Massaccesi was known for extreme gore classics like 1979's BURIED ALIVE and 1981's ANTHROPOPHAGUS (aka THE GRIM REAPER) and numerous BLACK EMANUELLE films but dabbled in every genre imaginable, including hardcore porn, and had worked under countless pseudonyms, with "Joe D'Amato" being the most commonly known.  He uses two on ATOR:  as writer/director, he's "David Hills," and functioning as his own cinematographer, he's "Frederick Slonisco."  ATOR THE FIGHTING EAGLE, just released on DVD in a surprisingly nice-looking 1.78 anamorphic transfer by Scorpion, was one of the first CONAN ripoffs to hit theaters, and unlike its inspiration, keeps things generally clean and PG-rated, much like 1984's CONAN THE DESTROYER would.

'80s Italian barbarian movie fixture
Sabrina Siani, with Miles O'Keeffe.
Starring as Ator is Tennessee native Miles O'Keeffe, who made a splash in 1981, co-starring with Bo Derek in the highly-publicized laughingstock TARZAN THE APE MAN.  Because of this fiasco, O'Keeffe's Hollywood A-list career ended as quickly as it began, but he found plenty of work in Italy throughout the 1980s and in numerous low-budget American DTV titles in the 1990s.  He went on to play Ator in two of the three sequels in addition to starring in the British-made EXCALIBUR knockoff SWORD OF THE VALIANT for Cannon in 1984 and appearing as Dracula in Anthony Hickox's 1988 cult horror favorite WAXWORK.  Now 58, O'Keeffe hasn't appeared in a feature since the 2005 DTV horror film CLAWED: THE LEGEND OF SASQUATCH, though he did get a bit of notoriety in the UK around 1999-2000 when comedian/talk-show host and O'Keeffe superfan Graham Norton would routinely prank call him, which eventually led to O'Keeffe appearing on Norton's show, much to the host's delight.

Black Emanuelle herself, Laura Gemser,
sending a subtle message to Ator.
ATOR THE FIGHTING EAGLE opens with a hopelessly confusing exposition voiceover by mellifluously-voiced dubbing veteran Tony La Penna.  Something about newborn Ator (who's born looking eight months old and, judging from the camera angle, appears to slide out of his mother's womb already cozily pre-swaddled) being your typical Chosen One to bring down the evil reign of Thulsa, er, I mean, Dakkar the Spider King (who, as luck would have it, is played by the actor Dakkar, of ZOMBIE).  The infant Ator is given to a couple to live in anonymity until he is old enough to take on Dakkar.  Years later, Ator marries his (adoptive) sister Sunya (Ritza Brown), who is abducted by Dakkar and his evil followers.  After being trained by mentor Griba (Edmund Purdom), Ator sets off on his quest with bandit/warrior Roon (Sabrina Siani) and his trusty bear cub sidekick Keog, who gives the film's best performance. Keog is introduced in this scene, which also features one of the greatest dialogue exchanges in cinema history.

From Ator's heroic quest and his various adventures to Dakkar's very James Earl Jones-ish presence to Carlo Maria Cordio's obviously Basil Poledouris-inspired score, ATOR THE FIGHTING EAGLE is about as blatant a ripoff of CONAN THE BARBARIAN as you can imagine.  The only real differences are the PG-rating and that Ator's quest is motivated by his new bride, so there's no hookup with Roon.  He's hypnotized and almost seduced by an evil witch (Laura Gemser), echoing an early CONAN vignette.  He's ultimately rescued by Roon, but not before Massaccesi gives us some shots of Gemser oiling her hands and holding a slithering snake, because he's still Joe D'Amato at heart and probably can't resist.  And instead of a giant snake, Ator battles a really hokey-looking giant spider.  ATOR was clearly made fast and cheap, but given his roots as a cinematographer, Massaccesi does manage to offer some frequently very well-staged shots and beautiful scenery, even if it's accidental.  O'Keeffe seems to invest a little more into this than he would his later Italian films, such as THE LONE RUNNER, where he appears to be half-asleep.  The 20-year-old Siani is effectively cast as Roon, clearly modeled on Sandahl Bergman's Valeria from CONAN.  Siani quickly became the go-to female lead for Italian CONAN knockoffs, appearing in THE INVINCIBLE BARBARIAN and Lucio Fulci's CONQUEST later the same year, and THE SWORD OF THE BARBARIANS and THE THRONE OF FIRE in 1984.  Audiences were losing interest in the barbarian genre by 1985-1986, but I'm still surprised that Siani was never given her own RED SONJA knockoff to headline.

ATOR THE FIGHTING EAGLE is a total cheesefest, but it's good fun for '80s Eurotrash ripoff completists, and it's never looked as good as it does on Scorpion's DVD.  The film was enough of a success to spawn three sequels.  THE BLADE MASTER (1984), again directed by Massaccesi as "David Hills," finds Ator (O'Keeffe, also returning) and his Asian sidekick Thong (Chen Wong) teaming up to help Ator's mentor Akronas (Charles Borromel), who has discovered something called the Geometric Nucleus that's fallen into the hands of the evil Zor (David Brandon).  Or something like that.  THE BLADE MASTER is pretty terrible, and is better known under its alternate MST3K title CAVE DWELLERS, which became one of that show's most popular episodes ("How much Keeffe is in this movie, anyway?").  The MST3K crew have said that O'Keeffe contacted them at some point to request a copy of the CAVE DWELLERS episode and that he really enjoyed it, which is very much in line with his willingness to self-deprecatingly guest on Graham Norton's TV show.  O'Keeffe may have been a washout as Tarzan, but he managed to keep working, and if nothing else, seems to be a good sport about the number of bad movies he's headlined.

O'Keeffe returned as Ator in 1987's dismal IRON WARRIOR.  I'm not entirely sure this is meant to be an official Ator sequel.  It was made by others (producer Ovidio G. Assonitis, director Alfonso Brescia, aka "Al Bradley"), and O'Keeffe doesn't appear to be playing the same Ator that he did in the two previous films.  In this one, Ator is revealed to have a twin brother who was possessed by an evil witch and turned into the evil Iron Warrior, a pawn in her plot to kill the king and his princess daughter (Savina Gersak) and usurp the throne.  Brescia, who helmed a lot of coma-inducingly dull post-STAR WARS sci-fi films like WAR OF THE ROBOTS in the late '70s, managed to go his entire career without making a good film, but IRON WARRIOR is probably his best-looking one, simply because Assonitis had access to a little more money.  The film still makes no sense and shamelessly rips off past blockbusters like SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, and O'Keeffe doesn't even seem to be entirely awake.

Massaccesi and his "David Hills" moniker made a triumphant return for the final chapter of the ATOR saga, 1990's QUEST FOR THE MIGHTY SWORD, aka ATOR III: THE HOBGOBLIN (further evidence to suggest that IRON WARRIOR wasn't supposed to be an Ator film).  O'Keeffe sat this one out, forcing Massaccesi to do his best Dick York-to-Dick Sargent with Ator now played by one Eric Allen Kramer, perhaps best known for appearing as Little John in Mel Brooks' ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS (1992).  Kramer, sounding like Seth Rogen and looking like Philip Seymour Hoffman in a bad wig, plays both Ator and Ator's son (also named Ator).  Ator Jr must help an imprisoned goddess (Margaret Lenzey) and in the process, battles a two-headed robot, a guy in a half-melted Godzilla costume, and an evil troll left over from the Massaccesi-produced TROLL 2.   Other than Eurocult legends like Donald O'Brien (DOCTOR BUTCHER, M.D.), Marisa Mell (DANGER: DIABOLIK), and a brief appearance by a returning Laura Gemser (playing a different character than she did in ATOR THE FIGHTING EAGLE), there's little reason to watch QUEST FOR THE MIGHTY SWORD unless you love bad movies.  Interestingly, QUEST was shot with direct sound since a large number of cast members spoke English, and one highlight comes from Lenzey clearly and painfully flubbing a line and Massaccesi just leaving it in the finished movie.  You can even see the other two actors seemingly waiting for someone...ANYONE...to yell "Cut."


  1. That Margaret Lenzey clip is beautiful.

  2. One of the best "left in the movie anyway" flubs ever.