(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.
|Black Emanuelle herself, Laura Gemser,|
sending a subtle message to Ator.
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.