Outlaw of Gor/Gor ll (1988)

Outlaw of Gor (1988)‘I was cleaning and polishing the vibrations of the home stone.’

A college Professor is drawn back to the alien world of Gor, where he once fought the tyranny of a warlord. The kingdom is now at peace, but its future is under threat from the machinations of the new Queen and her high priest…

Visitors to bookshops in the 1980s couldn’t fail to be familiar with the name of author John Norman, even if they had never picked up one of his titles. The ‘Gor’ series was a minor publishing phenomenon of its time; a series of adventures set on a medieval alien world very much in the manner of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Only with added sex. Although popular, they proved controversial; mainly due to some questionable philosophy and dodgy gender politics that suggested women would enjoy a subservient role to men. Not surprisingly, when it came to the movie adaptations, all this subtext was excluded in favour of a more homogenous, commercial approach.

The first of these was ‘Gor’ (1987), a dreary, by the numbers mixture of bare-chested heroes, inept swordplay, Oliver Reed in a silly helmet and a generous assortment of tired and well-worn genre clichés. It was generic at best, and completely without any personality of its own. Not surprisingly, it was both a critical and commercial flop, barely registering at the box office at all. So why on earth release a sequel? Well, mainly because it was already in the can. Cannon Films had the two films shot concurrently to save money.

So, apart from Reed, all our old friends from the first film are back. There’s anonymous hero Tarl Cabot (Urbano Barbierini), his big-haired lover Princess Talena (Rebecca Ferrati), King Marlenus (Larry Taylor), Queen Lara (Donna Denton) and high priest Xenos (Hollywood legend Jack Palance!) The megaphone’s been handed over to John ‘Bud’ Cardos, who once did bit parts in Al Adamson films such as ‘Horror of the Blood Monsters’ (1970) and replaced Tobe Hooper as director on ‘The Dark’ (1979) when the producers decided at the last minute to make the psychotic villain into an extra-terrestrial who could shoot laser beams out of his eyes.

We begin with (the somewhat unlikely) Professor Barbierini hanging out at a bar and looking down in the dumps, obviously having realised that marking term papers is a bit of a comedown after saving a kingdom by swinging a plastic sword. What makes things far worse is that he’s been saddled with motormouth ‘comedy’ sidekick Whatney (Russell Savadier). Within a minute, the audience is praying that he won’t be along for the ride on Barbierini’s inevitable return to Gor. Unfortunately, he is. On the plus side, he pretty much vanishes after the first 20 minutes of the film, which actually proves to be the best thing about the entire project!

From there, we’re treated to the usual run of captures, escapes, unconvincing fights, even less convincing swordplay and a climax so rushed and lame that it relegates our hero to the role of a pointless spectator. Palance was only in the last couple of minutes of the first film (presumably to get his name on it) and does little more here than wear a very silly hat and hang about a bit at the back looking pissed off. Sure, he gets to mix a few liquids in test tubes (very medieval) and snarl a few lines of dialogue, but he’s just playing second banana to Denton’s evil queen. There’s little sign of the enthusiasm that he brought to his similar role in seminal sword and sorcery crapfest ‘Hawk The Slayer’ (1980). It’s Denton who is chewing the scenery here, but her truly heroic efforts to liven things up are killed stone dead by the snail’s pace and predictable plot development.

Outlaw of Gor (1988)

‘Mark my words, I’ll win that Oscar one day…’

lt’s amazing to think that Palance picked up an Academy Award just three years after this, for his performance in ‘City Slickers’ (1991). Even that did little to revive his moribund career; his only other project of note being ‘City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly’s Gold’ (1994) before his death in 2006. It’s a real shame as he was an actor with real power and proven screen presence who deserved much better.

But I actually feel sorrier for the palace guards here. They seem to have a very full job description. Duties include ‘Take Him Away’, ‘Seize Him’, ‘Bring Him’ and ‘Take Him To The Cells’. And they get shouted at an awful lot. Which is not very nice.

A wretched, feeble enterprise. ls it worse than the first film? Yes, it is. It really is. I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1968)

Strange_Case_of_Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde_(1968)‘Suppose this potion of yours did work? Suppose it did split the nature of man right down the middle? Might it not produce…a monster?’

Mild-tempered Dr Jekyll faces ridicule from the medical fraternity when he proposes his theories about the duality of man. Determined to prove the doubters wrong, he begins using chemicals to separate the good and bad sides in man. Unfortunately, he chooses to experiment on himself…

It’s fair to say that, although filmed countless times, there has never been a definitive version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic cautionary tale. Yes, Frederic March won an Oscar for playing the role(s) in 1931, and both makeup and SFX were impressive (for their time) but the rest of the film is creaky and stilted at best. The big budget MGM remake a decade later may have looked the part but suffered from the terrible miscasting of Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman. Subsequently, there’s been dramatic versions, re-imaginings, comedies, a TV musical with Kirk Douglas (yes, it’s bad) and Hammer even gave us a transgender take with ‘Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde’ (1971) (surprisingly rather good). We’ve had Christopher Lee, Michael Caine, Oliver Reed, John Barrymore, Anthony Andrews, Bernard Bresslaw, Boris Karloff, John Malkovich and even David Hasselhoff!  The list goes on. But no definitive version.

TV producer Dan Curtis had hit the big time by creating horror-soap ‘Dark Shadows’ which first hit the small screen in 1966, ran for over 1,000 episodes and has been revived several times since, including Tim Burton’s big budget remake with Johnny Depp. During the show’s original 6 year run, Curtis began developing other projects, the first of which was this serious adaptation of the classic horror story. Filming began with Jason Robards in the title roles but was halted due to industrial action. When it resumed, Robards was no longer available, so Curtis re-cast, his surprising choice being Jack Palance, mostly known for playing villains in cinema Westerns. It’s reasonable to assume that a modern audience’s expectations for a studio bound 2 hour television production from the late 1960s starring that old cowboy geezer from ‘City Slickers’ (1991) would not be high. Obviously, there were budgetary and technical limitations with such an endeavour that have not stood the test of time too well, but what it does have in its favour easily outweighs such considerations.

First, we have what is quite probably the most literate, intelligent and fine adaptation of Stevenson’s novel ever to be filmed. The original work is a fairly short piece and screenwriters are usually obliged to embellish and add elements, usually Hyde’s dalliance with a prostitute and a tiresome love interest for Jekyll in the form of a fiancee from high society. Instead, Ian McLellan Hunter takes the main elements of the story and comes up with his own version of how events develop. These are completely in tune with the spirit of the original text and open out the story perfectly. There’s a superb opening scene where Jekyll is ridiculed by his peers which provides motivation for his reckless experimentation, a shady chemist (Oscar Homolka) who provides the doctor with the necessary chemicals, and Billie Whitelaw as the good time girl abused by Hyde, who rather foolishly sets her sights on Jekyll. Purists might complain at the changes but I don’t think anyone could argue that the novel needs serious adaptation for filming purposes and Hunter makes a good a job as could be imagined, even retaining the critical subtext about Victorian society and the evils of repression in general.

Strange_Case_of_Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde_(1968)

His latest batch of home-brew was not a success.

A fine cast of respected British actors talent provides excellent support, including Denholm Elliott, Leo Genn, Torin Thatcher (the nasty magician in ‘The 7th Voyage of Sinbad’ (1958)), Duncan Lamont, and music hall star Tessie O’Shea. Although only making a brief appearance, O’Shea won an Emmy for this, which is a little puzzling. Rather amusingly, Billie Whitelaw gets an ‘introducing’ credit, despite first appearing on British TV 16 years before. Probably she was unknown to American audiences.

But the revelation here is Palance. Of course, he’d played plenty of psychotic villains in the past, but his Hyde is truly out of control; homicidal tendencies always lurking just below the surface, ready to be indulged at the slightest whim. Initially, the makeup may seem a little corny with the heavy monobrow, but, by the climax, the power of the performance transcends these limitations. Likewise the star gives us one of the best screen Jekyll’s; slowly seduced by the dark passions of his alter-ego, he becomes more assertive in his own life but ultimately cannot control his urges. It’s an excellent reading of the character, all the more remarkable when you consider the actor was a late replacement.

Of course, there are some problems. Director Charles Jarrott struggles to get any atmosphere out of the cheap, and tatty stages sets, with actor’s heavy footsteps often betraying the nature of their temporary construction. Also the camera work is uninspired, and features some unfortunate rapid ‘zooms’ which look pretty shaky. Producer Curtis and star Palance went onto collaborate on a version of ‘Dracula’ (1973), which is also well regarded in some quarters.

Definitive? Maybe not, but on balance, this is probably the best version of the tale filmed to date, and anyone looking to mount a new production could do a lot worse than look for pointers in Hunter’s excellent script.

Well worth seeking out.

Gor (1987)

Gor_(1987)‘Hey, isn’t there an easier way to get to the realm of…um, where are we going?’

A mild American college professor is transported to the savage fantasy world of Gor by a ring that his father left him when his car hits a tree. He arrives in the middle of a massacre, carried out by the warriors of Sarn on a peaceful village. Throwing in his lot with some of the survivors, they travel in search of the ‘Homestone’ that Sarn has stolen, the only thing that can return the professor to his own world.

John Norman’s sword and sorcery epics (33 volumes and counting!) were all over bookstores in the 1980s. A mixture of Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy with philosophical discussion (apparently!), they were much criticised at the time for their gender politics. Norman (real name John Frederick Lange, Jr) was a devotee of Nietzche and believed in individual prowess rather than collective co~operation. He also felt that a woman’s place was to be subservient to her man, and would ‘find herself’ in such a role and actively come to enjoy it. So, not a great feminist then! Publishers Ballantine Books were apparently quite happy to rake in the proceeds from this minor literary phenomenon but, perhaps fearing more controversy, did not approve of them being filmed. But author Norman found a legal ‘work around’ and the first film adaptation went into production in the mid-1980s.

So what is it like? Do we have an edgy, thoughtful meditation on the roles and relations of the sexes that provokes debate and disgust in equal measures? Err…no, not really. What we get instead is a cheap, generic, by the numbers, sword (no sorcery) adventure that is about as mystical and deep as a wet weekend in Rochdale. The plot is a collection of clichés that you’d hoped you would never see again; the hopeless hero who takes 5 minutes to become a master bowman and an expert with a sword, the comedy relief dwarf who saves the day, the big bully in the tavern fight sequence, the slave rebellion led by our hero, the best friend’s heroic sacrifice, etc, etc.

The acting doesn’t help much either with Urbano Barberini bland in the lead role and Oliver Reed hamming it up in a silly metal headpiece as the villain. Hollywood veteran Jack Palance is also along for the ride, seven years after he chewed up the scenery on seminal fantasy crapfest ‘Hawk The Slayer’ (1980). Four years after this Palance won an Oscar for ‘City Slickers’ (1991), but even that didn’t give his career too much of a shot in the arm. Perhaps producers had simply seen him involved with too many projects like this. There’s another familiar face in the scenes on Earth: Arnold Vosloo, who took over from Liam Neeson as ‘Darkman’ and later starred in the title role of ‘The Mummy’ (1999).

Gor_(1987)

Ollie had taken ‘Dress Down Friday’ a bit too far…

But there’s plenty of combat, right? And that’s what we’re here for, isn’t it? Sword fights, fisticuffs, stunt work? Well, yes, there is plenty of swordplay, but it’s laughably inept. Perhaps the filmmakers were going for a clumsy kind of realism that you might get in real life when handling heavy weapons? Hmmmm….maybe. But it simply looks as if the participants have almost no idea what they’re doing and are trying very hard not to hurt each other by mistake. Early on Barberini slays Reed’s son, but all we see is a shot of a stuntman falling from a horse and Barberini standing there with a bloody sword, looking slightly puzzled. Join the club, mate.

And what’s all that stuff about our hero’s father and that mystical ring? And how can the Homestone send him back to Earth? Haven’t a clue, and neither had the filmmakers apparently.

Rather incredibly, a sequel followed, ‘Outlaw of Gor’ (1988), but I suspect it was actually shot back to back with this one, and crawled out later. Perhaps when the producers thought that everyone had forgotten about this. Why do I think that? Well, Palance only turns up for the last 5 minutes here, and his appearance is a blatant set up for a sequel. There was a different director, but most of the surviving cast returned.

What’s it like? I don’t know, I haven’t seen it yet, but apparently it’s even worse than this. Wow.