8/4/10

The Devil's Sword (Ratno Timoer, 1984)

The first movie that I ever special ordered from Borders was the Mondo Macabro dvd for The Devil’s Sword, which I bought in July of 2008. That was the year that I learned of Indonesian cinema, after seeing stills from The Warrior, Mystery of 8 Pendekar, and others popping up on forums that I read with eyes larger than (among other things) my wallet.
Indonesia’s premier studio during the 80’s, Rapi Films, had a winning strategy similar to that of the Italians and Roger Corman: take a popular genre film from another country, add a bit of local flavor, et voila, an exploitation classic. But for as much as they tried to court international distribution with movies like Lady Terminator (H. Tjut Djalil, 1988), the really interesting films are the ones that are uniquely regional. The previously mentioned The Warrior (original title: Jaka Sembung) was based on a comic book in which the hero, Jaka Sembung, regularly foils the plans of Dutch interlopers, and spawned a whole wave of Indonesian martial arts movies that pilfered more from Hong Kong kung fu movies than from anything produced in the west. Thankfully, Asian people beating the shit out of each other have long made for popular cinema regardless of the location in which it’s set, filmed or shown. Quite a few of these movies were dubbed and distributed, if not in theaters, than at least on video.

I only say all this because I’m tired reading that The Devil’s Sword is an Indonesian Conan the Barbarian. One might say that it is similar in that it is heroic fantasy or swords and sorcery from Indonesia, but The Devil’s Sword does less to actively mimic Conan than most of the movies made by the Italians and Roger Corman (natch). The story -- travelling swordsman/adventurer Mandala aids a bride-to-be in her attempts to rescue her fiancé from the Crocodile Queen, a man-eating, demonic local deity, while her servant and former cohort of Mandala, Banyu Jaga, teams up with other evil martial artists and magicians to find the Devil’s Sword, a magical weapon forged from a meteor, which will give them unmatched power -- is similar only in the sense that it’s fantastical and that it was put to film in the eighties. The comparison is dull.

But the film sure as hell isn’t. This is one of those perfectly stupid and indescribably funny movies that plays best after a few drinks and (not that I’m advocating) some sort of illicit substance abuse. There’s so much poker-faced lunacy that making fun of it is pointless; the fun makes itself. In the very first major scene, Banyu Jaga literally explodes into the frame, kicks a boulder into the air, rides said boulder into the village where he is going to capture the Crocodile Queen’s next man-whore-slave, and leaps off the boulder, which continues to travel and crushes a man against a tree. You know the rule about not starting on a show stopper? That’s not the weirdest scene in The Devil’s Sword, which has crocodile men getting gutted and decapitated, a villain with a flying guillotine, lasers shot from palms, cannibalism, exploding mushrooms, paper mache cycloptic rock monsters, and Barry Prima, king of the 1980’s Indonesian action scene, rockin’ a sweet mullet.
The dubbing also includes some of the most bizarre lines I’ve heard since Nine Demons. “You polluted bitch!” is one of the funniest.

There are telling things in this film. The fear of female sexuality sounds loud and clear, and leads to some of the funniest sex scenes in cinema history. Other Indonesian films include more graphic nudity (although they were shown locally with a glowing effect to hide nipples), and perhaps it was an attempt to avoid censorship that led to the Crocodile Queen’s orgy looking like a lot of nervous cuddling (some of the male extras look like they’re afraid to touch actress Gudi Sintara). Banyu Jaga, played by Barry Prima’s usual opponent, Advent Bangung, has an even more ludicrous, sub-aquatic sex scene with the Crocodile Queen, in which she turns into a crocodile whilst in the throes of passion.

Freud believed that anxiety over repressed desires manifests itself as nightmares. Is this relevant to The Devil’s Sword? I think it is. Nightmarish is probably the best way to describe this film without superlatives regarding its generally poor quality and foreign weirdness. Or rather, it manages to express those and other qualities. Between the senseless dialog, inexplicable fantasy elements, unusually bloody martial arts set pieces, ugly sets, bad editing and cheap special effects, The Devil’s Sword at least manages to be consistently bizarre and startling with its imagery. The boat ride with death is so unforgettable that it verges on cinematic genius.

Director Ratno Timoer made only a handful of films after this one. Particularly interesting is Blind Warrior, which I’ve mentioned before (and will probably mention again soon). None of his other films seem to be available, meaning that The Devil’s Sword is probably the penultimate example of bizarre Indonesian exploitation. This is one of my favorite bad movies. I’ve watched it with Pilgrim, who sat wide eyed, confused, and accepting of its lunacy. Film isn’t about story, narrative, or even visual quality. Film is about images. And Hay-Soos, does this movie have those.

Note: Mondo Macabro is one of the best cult film labels ever. If you want to see this movie, please support them. This isn’t some bootleg VCD operation out of Thailand. The MM DVD for The Devil’s Sword has one of the cleanest transfers I’ve seen from a movie of such origin and vintage and is packed with special features, including an amazingly incoherent interview with Barry Prima (rightly dubbed “an encounter”). Respect. Support Pete Tombes.

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