Low Budget Conan
There are good movies, there are bad movies, and then there are Roger Corman movies. That's a gross generalization to be sure as there are plenty of movies of Corman's caliber that Corman himself neither directed nor produced. But the prodigious producer create a ton of cheap, low-budget, no-frills movies that steadily flooded theaters (and direct-to-video) for over 60 years. Were his films good? Generally no, although there were a few diamonds to be found in the general morass. But the man knew how to produce, cranking out well north of a hundred films during his long career. And when you think of "A Roger Corman Film", you absolutely should already know what you're getting into.
Barbarian Queen, produced in 1985, was meant to capitalize on the success of Conan the Barbarian and the burgeoning "Robert E. Howard 'verse" that Dino De Laurentis was producing. Corman saw this and though, "hey, we can do this cheaper and quicker down in Argentina" (because Corman was producing a series of films in Argentina at the time). Thus, a ramshackle barbarian epic was put together, one that could look "just close enough" to what De Laurentis was doing, without anywhere near the same amount of money spent. Did it work? Well, Barbarian Queen is certainly a movie... but that's about as kind as we can be about this tragic little film.
The movie stars Lana Clarkson as Queen Amethea, the titular "barbarian queen". On the day of her wedding, to beefcake Prince Argan (Frank Zagarino), a battalion led by Lord Arrakur (Arman Chapman) invades the small barbarian village, slaughtering the men and kidnapping the women. This includes Amethea's own sister, Taramis (Dawn Dunlap), who the men first brutally attack (and yes, sexually as well) before binding her up and dragging her off. Amethea is presumed dead in the attack, but she's not, and she quickly grabs up her sword to go off and fight the evil lord. Joined by two other survivors of the attack, Estrild (Katt Shea) and Tiniara (Susana Traverso), the three head out to put right this vicious injustice.
And, well, that's really about it for the story. The initial 20 minutes sets up the whole quest, and from there it's just random wandering around on horseback until the ladies reach the evil lord's keep. Then the faff around for a bit before, finally, there's a (less than) climactic fight for the fate of the countryside. It's all very expected and, frankly, feels just as padded as most of Conan's adventures (and Red Sonja as well). The key difference here being this adventure is just so boring.
I have nothing against the concept of this film. I'm all for a powerful female warrior going out and kicking ass. Lana Clarkson does a commendable job with what she's give and even if she's not up to the stunt work required for playing a barbarian (which we'll get to in a bit), she does have the commanding presence as Amethea to at least make you feel like she's a barbarian queen. In a better directed film, Amethea could have been a hero worthy of standing next to Conan and the other great barbarian legends. This is not that film.
A key issue with the movie is that it's just so cheap. This is the Corman model, of course -- produced cheaply, reuse as much as could be reused from previous films, slap it all together, and then hope for the best -- but it really does no favors to this movie. We're supposed to believe that Amethea is a great queen, but she lives in a rinky-dink village even the Ewoks would have called "a fixer upper". Lord Arrakur is supposed to be a great king, but his castle is little more than a single arena set and some back-lot rooms. There's no sense of scale, of a big world that these two are warring over. The film couldn't convey that scale because there just wasn't a budget for it.
Likewise, there wasn't a budget for good stunt coordination. The film has a lot of action sequences, with plenty of sword fights, but none of them are good fights. More often than not a defender will put their sword up in advance of an attacker swinging down on them, and then they'll swing back with their foe likewise leading the attack. Every sword fight goes this way because the actors clearly weren't given more than basic sword fight training. I'm not even very good with a sword and I could see how staged these sword fights were. There's absolutely no thrill to seeing a fight like this at all.
The lack of a real story doesn't help either. At 70 minutes, this is barely long enough to be considered a film. It's basically two acts, with a lot of padding in the middle to get it anywhere near theatrical length, and that padding basically amounts to people wandering around for long sequences, not really doing much other than wasting time. This is a threadbare bit of storytelling, stretched out long enough that the audience quickly loses interest until the next bit of T&A comes up.
That, in fact, is the one reason you'll likely never see this film show up on Mystery Science Theater 3000First aired on the independent TV network KTMA, Mystery Science Theater 3000 grew in popularity when it moved to Comedy Central. Spoofing bad movies, the gang on the show watch the flicks and make jokes about them, entertaining its audience with the same kind of shtick many movies watchers provided on their own (just usually not as funny as the MST3K guys could provide). It became an indelible part of the entertainment landscape from there, and lives on today on Netflix., despite the number of other Corman productions that the TV series has covered. There's a lot of nudity in this film, clearly pitching to what the low-budget film viewers liked, and while that might have helped to sell copies of the film at the time, it does mean that the most popular way to re-watch Corman's films, MST3K, will never touch this movie. There's so much T&A in this film that if you tried to cut it all out you'd lose key plot points in the movie. Plus, you'd only have about 55 minutes of usable material in the end, and that's too short even for a MST3K episode.
Is there anything nice that can be said about this film? Well, it's a credit to Corman and his team that they managed to crank this sucker out. And, frankly, if you go in knowing you're watching a Roger Corman production then you already know exactly what to expect. This film delivers exactly that, no more and no less. It's cheap, it's shoddy, and it barely manages to entertain at all, but it does neatly come in just at theatrical length, and gives a generous amount of boobs and butts in the process. That's likely enough for some people, especially those that really like bad movies.
What's most interesting, though, is how this film managed to have it's own little legacy. It sold well enough to warrant a sequel, Barbarian Queen II: The Empress Strikes Back, and the character of Amethea did appear again in Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II (which MST3K did cover), although arguably Clarkson's Amathea there was a totally different character. Amusingly, that film also liberally reused the sets, and even footage, from Barbarian Queen. Gotta credit Corman and his ability to keep his films cheap.
Overall, though, this is just a bad movie. I watched it because it was there, and I have a feeling anyone else that picks up this movie would for the same reason. It exists, and sometimes that's enough to make a movie worth popping on for a few minutes. But that's as much credit as I can give to this crappy little film.