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Devil's Sword, The

Mondo Macabro // Unrated // June 27, 2006
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by J. Doyle Wallis | posted July 13, 2006 | E-mail the Author
The Devil's Sword (1984) is a wonderful fever dream of Indonesian action-fantasy. As a kid in the 80's, one of the first rated R vhs rentals I managed to slip past my parents and fall in love with was Conan The Barbarian, a film which set the gold standard for modern pulp fantasy, medieval action films. I loved the genre and watched Hawk The Slayer, The Sword and The Sorcerer, Beastmaster, and even the horrid likes of Ator The Fighting Eagle countess times.

It wasn't until the mid 90's that I found a handful of Indonesian fantasy films from the same period. They were The Warrior films, all of which starred Barry Prima, and I realized I hadn't even broken the surface. I thought I'd seen some far out stuff. I was wrong.

In an Indonesian fantasy film, guys get slashed down, maybe do the geyser blood spurt thing like in most films of this ilk, but they also can get knocked back hundreds of yards into the air, or flat-out explode, not to mention, sometimes, someone's head, arm or leg can be severed from their body and the limb will still keep attacking. Yes, Indonesian fantasy film are populated by characters who seem to follow the credo of Monty Python and The Holy Grail's Black Night, ‟Its only a flesh wound.‟

Now, this is the kind of film with the most basic of stories. In conjuring the plot, they merely relied on tried and true conventions of ‟good guy versus bad guy‟ with a little cultural mythology slightly thrown in, just to make the bad guy instantly relatable to the Indonesian crowd. The story is barely even A-to-B simple, it's just A. Dialogue scenes are merely interjected to add some glue between action scenes. Character development is pretty much nil. This guy is good. This guy is bad. And, guess what? It largely works because the fantasy is so deliriously enjoyable.

The Crocodile Queen is a lusty sorceress who rules over an undersea kingdom, terrorizing surface dwellers by demanding they turn over their most strapping young men, whom she robs of their virility to keep herself eternally young. She's very common in Indonesian films. I figure she's either an actual cultural myth or a riff on a few myth's, kind of like the various woodland witches of European folklore. Her her minions include the crocodile men, minions dressed up in crocodile skin that are prone to jumping out of the ground and carrying huge spiked swords.

A village fails to fork over their manliest man because he was getting married, so the Crocodile Queen sends out evil swordsman Banyu-Jaga to trash the village. Now, this is an example of why the film is great. Banyu-Jaga's introduction is: we hear her summon him via voice over; we see a mountain which explodes, revealing Banyu-Jaga standing there all macho; he then kicks a slab of boulder into the air which he rides like a skybound surfboard into the town. Banyu-Jaga proceeds to kick ass all over the town, including one genius bit where he punts a guy up into a tall treetop and then kicks a spear into the poor guy, pinning him to the tree.

Luckily for the villagers, goody two-shoes wandering swordsman Mandala (Barry Prima) comes in to the scene and begins to stick up for them. It seems that he and Banyu-Jaga were both students of the same sword master and they took different paths, mandala for good, Banyu-Jaga for evil. After seeing the misdeeds of his former friend and the devastation the Crocodile Queen has wrought, Mandala goes to visit his master who has been attacked and poisoned. The master entrusts a sacred scroll to Mandala and tells him to go seek out The Devil's Sword, a mystical weapon that is hidden in- where else ?- The Mountain of Swords. Only with the Devil's Sword can Mandala defeat the poweful Crocodile Queen.

Again, very simple stuff. Set-up the villain. Set-up the hero and give him a quest. Mandala gets a tag-along in one of the village girls. The usual twists a turns, like Mandala and companion getting captured and bewitched, but the plot bails him out via his master sending him a telepathic deprograming and we get to the big throw down. This is the kind of film where Mandala sets out to go to the mystical mountain and the film cuts to a scene where three more or less random warriors at the mountain square off in a protracted fight scene that last about ten minutes. What does it have to do with anything? Not much, other than it is really cool and hammers home the point that in Indonesian fantasy, people are always fighting somewhere.

The Devil's Sword is great in how it appeals to the lowest common, goofball, child (and adult-child) appealing denominator: cheesy action, cheesy gore, rinse and reapeat, all with a good dose of imagination and energy and a paper mache Cyclops. Barry Prima just has to look cool, and do some high kicks, and broad sword slashes. When you star in a genre where Miles O'Keefe, Marc Singer, Lou Ferrigno, and the great Ah'nold are your biggest rivals, it is pretty easy to look good. Likewise for the rest of the cast. It is the film equivalent of cotton candy, of little substance, but for a brief time, under the right set of circumstances, exactly what you need, something devoid of any pretenses, just pure empty fun.

The DVD: Mondo Macabro

Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. The biggest problem with cult cinema is that well into the 90's, many countries operated by the old standard of making their money back via box office to be the main goal. So for many companies, keeping those prints nice and clean and preserved after their theatrical run was not a high priority. Obviously this leads to all sorts of hassles with damage, getting complete prints and makes restoration a tougher process.

Thankfully, we've got folks like Mondo Macabro, who really continue to improve their standards and put forth a good effort with their cult titles by giving them the loving care that major mainstream distributors would not. Now, I wont say this transfer is spotless, it shows its age and low budget, so the film is a bit rough around the edges; however, for a film of its type (age, budget, genre), the transfer looks stellar and is probably far better than any cult fan deserves. Sharpness is decent, most of the softness seems to be the fault of the actual photography. Contrast and color details also fare nicely. I didn't notice any severe technical glitches.

Sound: The packaging claims it is 2 Channel Stereo, but upon actually playing the film, it sounds like a common case of a mono track getting doubled into the right and left speakers. Limited but okay. The dialogue dubbing, sound fx, and cheesy synthesizer score are all low quality, a tad muffled and tinny. But, the limitations are fitting and add to the charm, like the great chances they took with dubbed lines. I reckon there are few other places where you'll get to hear the insult ‟polluted bitch-hound.‟

Extras: ‟About the Film‟ and ‟Heavenly Swords‟ Text Info by Pete Tombs. --- Barry Prima Bio. --- Trailer (plus more Mondo Macabro release trailers).--- ‟An Encounter with Barry Prima‟ Interview (19:39).

All of the essays are quite good. Though I understand it makes for extra packaging costs, I tend to prefer essays as inserts rather than reading material on my tv screen. The Barry Prima interview is a bit hit and miss. Prima is a bit bewildered at the attention, apparently unaware his films have been seen outside Indonesia, and he appears a little uneasy with the attention. Most answers are short and a little curt, killing any chance at follow-up, but he does slide into some bemusement and has some fun with the interviewer, like when he winkingly claims not to know of an actresses he both worked with and married. Technically the interview suffers from bad sound recording, it is outdoors at a hotel café so there is a lot of background noise, the interviewer is low on the recording, and English is not Prima's first language so some subs would have been nice. To be fair, an interview is only as good as its subject, so I understand why with Prima's attitude probably stifled any real depth to this extra.

Conclusion: If you have never seen an Indonesian fantasy film, you are in for a treat. The plotting and characters are transparently weak. The action is delirious. The fx is cheap (in a good way). Yet, in the best cult film way, it's lack of lucidity and unashamed wallowing in juvenile thrills makes for great entertainment. If you call yourself any kind of b-film connoisseur, The Devil's Sword is a must own DVD.

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