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Ironmaster (DVD)

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Actors: Sam Pasco, Elvire Audray / Director: Umberto Lenzi / Studio: Another World Entertainment

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      30.07.2012 09:26
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      A silly film about cavemen

      A film-only review. This can be imported through amazon for about £15.

      It really is amazing just how many genre rip-offs the Italian exploitation film industry churned out in the 70s and 80s. There was a little flurry of Conan the Barbarian imitators in the early 80s, and in true Italian style, some of them are endearingly dumb. This one was releaed in 1983.

      Umberto Lenzi is one of the journeymen of Italian exploitation. He's best known for directing the very first cannibal movie, Deep River Savages, and the last, the notorious Cannibal Ferox. He makes mostly decent films which are watchable but not a patch on films made by better directors. His zombie films are nowhere near as good as Lucio Fulci's, his crime films aren't as good as Enzo G Castellari's, his gialli not as good as Argento's, his cannibal movies less impressive than Ruggero Deodato's. You get the picture. So I had no real expectations for this little number. Happily, though, it was easily stupid enough to be fun.

      In prehistoric times, a tribe of hunters bemoans the fact that their primitive wooden weapons aren't good enough to allow them to kill bison or elephants. There's a little succession crisis as headstrong hunter Vood kills his own father, the chief, and then the witchdoctor, and is driven from the tribe. During a volcanic explosion, Vood finds a big chunk of iron in the shape of a sword, more or less. Going back to the tribe, and spurred on by the sexy Lith, he forces out good guy Ela and becomes the big chief. As Vood's tribe learns to forge metal swords, they sweep through the land, subjugating other tribes. Ela ends up with a tribe of pacifists, including the cute Isa. Can Ela persuade his new tribe to craft weapons in time to stop Vood? And can he find a weapon that will stand up to Vood's iron?

      This is a thoroughly witless film, and most of the enjoyment comes from the unintentional humour. That said, we do see a boar hunt early on which ends with one unfortunate animal being killed by a great big wooden spear, for real. We also see what looks to be a certain amount of cruelty towards a lion later on. These moments do rather spoil the film, as animal cruelty always does. The Italians had a shockingly louche attitude to animal welfare in some of their films, and it's a shame that this is one of them.

      Once you're past that, though, this is a cheesy delight. While most of these cavemen are hairier than Alan Moore, Ela is clean shaven. Vood's beard is neatly trimmed, and all the lady cavemen we see have shaved armpits. Vood is suspiciously quick to figure out how to smelt iron ore and cast it into weapons, and his tribe are remarkably willing to go and kill their fellow man (perhaps this latter is intended as some kind of commentary on man's general hostility. There's a bizarre pacifist message to this film, given that mostly it offers scenes of cavemen having fights).

      The star, playing Ela, is someone called Sam Pasco, a ludicrously ripped bodybuilder type who was apparently a fixture in gay porn at the time. There's something odd about his face, and the ludicrous big-hair wig he's been given makes him look like he belongs in a rubbish late-80s European guitar band. He's pretty bad at acting, but the scene where he runs gingerly through a field full of real bison is funny - the actor is visibly nervous. The real star is George Eastman, as the evil Vood. Eastman is an enormous, hulking presence in a lot of Italian exploitation movies, often directed by the sleazemaster general Joe D'Amato. He's best known for chewing out his own intestines in the video nasty Anthropophagus, but to my mind his finest moment comes in the hardcore Erotic Nights of the Living Dead, when he impassively watches a lady uncork a bottle of champagne in... ah... an unconventional way. His blank facial expression in this scene allows us to project our own emotions onto him, just like Garbo at the end of Queen Christina.

      Eastman is brilliant as Vood, giving just the right kind of silly, over-the-top villain performance. That he does most of it while wearing the stupidest lion's head you have ever seen really helps the film stay tolerable. Every time he appears in his mangy looking lion's head, you cannot help but laugh. Imagine Hitler wearing a clown costume and you can get an idea of how much the lion hat undermines Vood's sinister authority.

      The rest of the cast are rather negligible, although William Berger, as the chief of the no-good hippy pacifist tribe was in a few horror films that I've seen (and he gets the worst wig of the lot). The ladies look pretty in a most unlikely way, with their obviously styled hair. There's surprisingly little nudity in the film, and what there is looks semi-accidental (Lith pops out of her furs a few times). It's a bit too violent to be intended for children, which makes its prudishness all the more inexplicable. There are a few bad gore effects, but most of the violence is of the Robin of Sherwood bloodless variety, making for an odd film that never quite feels at ease with itself.

      The dialogue is unbelievably pompous, with no one ever having a casual conversation or exhibiting any kind of playful behaviour. Instead, every conversation is grimly earnest and serves either to further the plot or remind us of important plot points. This is certainly economical, but it also prevents us relating to any of the characters in any way at all. It doesn't help that they all refer to themselves in the third person all the time, a really dumb way of trying to convey their alien-ness to us. We have to have some reason to care what happens in the film, and by making the characters inaccessible, this really needs something spectacular to fall back on. It doesn't really manage it.

      It's largely set in a fairly realistic stone-age world (there are, at least, no dinosaurs running around). We do see some mammoths from a distance (which on closer inspection are very obviously little toy mammoths being waggled around in some rubbish foliage). I'm not sure what the stone-age zombies they encounter in a cave are meant to be, but the only real crime against history is a tribe of ape-men who wander around making trouble for the humans. These are basically guys in really poor ape costumes, but bizarrely (and rather charmingly) the film has blessed them all with tiny genitals. This is a strange and completely unnecessary bit of detail - it's not like we're going to overlook the woefully unconvincing masks just because they have teeny weeny little penises.

      It's directed in a workmanlike way, as is usually the case with Lenzi. There are some half decent special effects when the volcano erupts, although they're mixed in with so much library footage it's hard to be sure they were made for this film. Apart from the little plastic mammoths, the rubbish apemen and the misconceived lion's head, this is made respectably enough. There's decent music from Guido and Maurizio de Angelis who were good Italian composers of the era (their theme tune to the Franco Nero crime movie Street Law is absolutely superb).

      This is perhaps the genre where Lenzi excelled, in that the film is at least memorable. It's a great deal more entertaining than Conquest, the sword and sorcery movie that Lucio Fulci made, so Lenzi won that particular battle. Whether you will actually want to see it is open to question, but I was pleasantly surprised.

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