Director Joe D’Amato probably isn’t one of the more recognizable names you’d see attached to an Italian B-movie – not quite at the same level of fame or infamy as a Fulci, an Argento or even a Mattei – but D’Amato was no slouch. Between 1972 and his death in 1999, he directed nearly 200 movies, including numerous entries in the Emmanuelle series and many other erotic films, as well as a spate of horror and adventure movies. If he left any lasting legacy besides a whole, WHOLE lot of porn, it’s his foray into the then-popular barbarian genre with the Ator series. It’s not hard to look at any of the Ator movies and not see a bargain-basement Conan, because if we’re being brutally honest that’s exactly what they are: a series of films made to cash in on a popular trend. That doesn’t preclude them from being enjoyable, but in general the Ator movies are very firmly a part of the “friends, beer, and a sense of humor” category of fun. The series really only became a cult phenomenon after being featured on MST3K, because that’s their ideal environment. While films like Dragonslayer or Conquest have enough going to make them something you could take at least somewhat seriously, Ator works best when it’s being mercilessly riffed upon.
Ator 2, also released as The Blademaster in the US, doesn’t require you to have too much knowledge of the first movie, in part because we get treated to a lengthy recap early on, and in part because these films have a loosey-goosey approach to continuity and storytelling in general. Miles O’Keefe, less of a man and more of a living action figure, stars at Ator, a mighty warrior with the usual noble lineage who is surrounded by revolving door of sidekicks and foils. This time around he’s facing off against Zor, a warlord in pursuit of the “Geometric Nucleus,” a device of vague purpose created by Ator’s former teacher, Akronas. After Akronas is captured by Zor, the Nucleus and Akronas’ beautiful daughter Mila come under the protection of Ator and his sidekick, a mute Asian man named Thong. Yes, Thong.
In most regards, Blademaster feels typical of low-budget barbarian/swords and sorcery movies of the day. The plot hinges on a dyed-in-the-wool McGuffin, a shiny object that doesn’t seem to serve any actual function besides to be an object of desire. The hero and his allies go from encounter to encounter in what only occasionally feels like an A to B to C progression, displaying their strength and fortitude at every opportunity along the way. There a couple of elements thrown in to keep things from being totally bog-standard, though. Ator himself is presented as as much a scientist and healer as a warrior, though he has precious few opportunities to actually demonstrate these skills. There’s also quite a bit of Asian cultural influence sprinkled into the world, from Ator wielding a pair of Samurai swords instead of the typical broadsword, to Thong (yes, Thong. No really, that’s his name) and the Asian villain. Of course, it’s a superficial affectation at best, and outright appropriation at worst. But let’s keep things in perspective – it’s a low-rent Italian barbarian movie from the 1980s. If you really want to get angry about Asian cultural appropriation in this case, go nuts, but first think good and hard if this is a hill you want to die on.
Most of the movies we’ve talked about so far this month have been fairly “riffable,” lending themselves easily to the amateur MST3K treatment, but Blademaster is the first film we’ve looked at that should really only be watched with this in mind. Sword and the Sorcerer, Dragonslayer, and Conquest all had something that made them viable candidates to watch on your own, quietly and in a clear state of mind, even if that something was only marginally successful attempts at artistry. Blademaster, conversely, is the kind of thing that should only be watched under very specific circumstances: times that involve comedy, greasy food and some form of alcohol. There’s not enough to make it interesting (like a neat effect, some clever writing, or even just a weird, hazy atmosphere) to promise you’ll get much more out of it than the enjoyment of watching something objectively awful with some friends and having a good laugh at it (which in many ways makes it more typical of the swords and sorcery/barbarian genre than even The Sword and the Sorceror), but remember that what we’ve looked at so far have been the oddities, the stand-outs, the ones with something remarkable to make them distinctive among their genre. Blademaster has no such hook, or at least not enough of one, so call some friends up, order a pizza, grab some drinks, and put on Blademaster (with perhaps a few others of its ilk in reserve for later) – then you’ll be in the right circumstances to get the maximum amount of enjoyment out of it.