Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Thieves, Wizards, and Destroyers

Conan the Destroyer, the 1984 sequel to Conan the Barbarian, is a dramatically better film in almost every way than its predecessor. For this I mainly credit director Richard Fleischer and cinematographer Jack Cardiff. There's a huge difference in quality just from the fact that second film successfully chains shots together--we have many things one takes for granted in most movies, such as tying close-up reaction shots with point of view shots, as well as effectively linked shots of action.

Arnold Schwarzenegger still doesn't come off as an effective swordsman by any means, though there is something that works about him, a combination of physical presence and guilelessness. Indeed, within the first twenty minutes of Destroyer I felt like I'd gotten to know the character much better than I had in Barbarian. Mind you, I've never read the books.

But regardless, Conan the Destroyer has a memorable cast of characters. It's significant I remember all of them from when I last saw the movie as a kid and I can barely remember what Conan was even supposed to be doing in the first film, which I watched a couple weeks ago.

Tracey Walter delivers a strange performance as Conan's companion thief Malak--he's oddly blank, almost like a wind up toy. A very young Olivia d'Abo plays a virginal princess--one of the best things about high fantasy is that its one of the few contexts where barely any clothes can somehow imply innocence.

Mako returns, being, after Conan and possibly Max von Sydow's cameo, one of the only memorable characters from the first film, though he's given a much better role here. And Grace Jones is fascinating as a staff wielding bandit.

These characters make up an effective, traditional fantasy adventuring party, one of my favourite tropes. With each character established quickly and solidly early in the film, I found myself eager to see them playing off one another.

There's a lot of beautiful photography as well as a large number of extraordinarily effective optical effects shots. There are establishing shots of castles and huge statues that fool the eye far more thoroughly than modern cgi shots. Maybe it's no surprise since Cardiff had been shooting process shots since the 1940s.

There's a rather inventive use of split screen in the wizard's ice castle, as we see the characters moving first up the stairs on the right and then across the bridge on the left;

One of the prettiest interiors is when the characters first enter the castle and I recognised Cardiff's familiar softly contrasting warm and cold colours, here used to lightly burnish the ice walls;

The scene where Conan fights the mirror monster really freaked me out as a kid, partly because one senses a secret logic to the hidden robed figures, creating an anxiety as I tried to grasp hold of what was taking place but failed. And visually it's threatening, with the monochrome, pale tasselled curtains contrasting with the blood red robes.

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