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Avalon (1988)
Director: Michael J. Murphy

review by Paul Higson

Have to admit, sword, sandal and sorcery fare never really excited me, what with all those clean conditioned locks, anachronistic fabrics (polyester tunics, anyone?), cagey dialogue, unacceptably bad optical effects and face muck out of a Max Factor range (less Avalon and more Avon), I was never going to be sold on the genre. A couple of try harder studios added an adult edge and some higher production values, but once bored with the genre, they left it to Roger Corman to embarrass himself as the only one still producing them. By the mid-1980s on video it was this or dredged-up dross from Alfonso Brescia. The Italians have the longer history in this pap. As a genre, like the western, it was too tied up in its clichés, the writers unable to think up and, quite frankly, not encouraged to put in, the details that might rescue the genre. Today, televised digs and Adam Hart-Davies fronted evidential archaeological rummaging and reconstructing throw up examples of the technological acumen of the ancients, the early genii and their prehistoric timepieces and, even the odd anno domini robot. The filmmakers settled for faux magic and swords. The viewer can settle for it too. Cheap and identical, just as the happy idiots like it!

Michael J. Murphy was no stranger to early history, Boys' Own adventure, as his first few films showed, from first feature Atlantis, the City of Sin, through Boudicea, Theseus and the Minotaur, and his first shot at Tristan And Isolde. For this 1980s' take, he appears to take his cue from the aforementioned Italian and New World bric-a-brac peplum and chick fantasies. It would appear Murphy noted the low standards, the gaudiness of the costumes, props and production design, and saw it as readily beatable; even with his usual spends of no more than a few grand. Murphy's films are never short of plot and pace but his 1988 film Avalon is difficult to enjoy. The story is mundane and without any real surprises. The production values are so adamantly stingy throughout that the only constancy is the amateurism. It might have the director's usual technical skills, it might have the naked female flesh and sex, it might have seven attractive witches, the astonishing sight of Merlin as a sex god, and a quadrille of zombie warriors, but it also has too much tinsel, foil, cardboard, Slimuk, polystyrene, plastic bags and plastic jewellery. The effect is the movie as a visual rubbish tip.

heroes line-up for Avalon
Stephen Harris is muscle-stepped Owen who starts the heroics rolling seconds in with the rescue of Clotilde (Abigail Blackmore) from over-zealous Druids. "I hate Druids," he declares, and so do I, especially the ones that use crimpers. Textbook cowardly thief Keiran (Rob Bartlett) tags along for the ride and they offer to help the lass to track down her lover Edwin (Craig Hiller). An aged man on the shore is actually Merlin the magician. I delight at the opportunity to employ an old similar here, as I mark that the old man make-up gives him a face like a potato with mange. Magically he dismisses the guise and it is Patrick Olliver, bearded and strong, and with a voice disturbingly like Cliff Michelmore. The trio travel to an isle and Keiron removes Golden Apples from a tree, the dry paint producing unplanned auras of dust as they are plucked from the branches. He sinks into a mire doomed by the weight of the golden apples, but is rescued by a cabbage-cyst creature which leaves him with a riddle, "He who kills my reflection will set me free." The cabbage-cyst creature vanishes again.

Clotilde is nabbed and enslaved by Morgana (Debbi Stevens). Morgana is hard-bodied and wears a very-nearly-not-there costume. The two heroes encounter zombies, seemingly modelled on the kind that might hang around a Cornish mine, and enter the villainess' compound in search of the missing Clotilde. They find her but she has no memory of them. They present themselves as warriors for the competition of armed combat, an installing of plotting from Enter The Dragon, and a lot of hacking and whacking ensues, a bit of gore, a bit of drink and a tad of celebratory tit. Elvina (June Bunday) and the other sorceresses of Morgana try to seduce our heroes. Elvina comes close to Keiron, only to have her familiar, a viper, chopped in half in a moment that has you worried for the guest serpent... I'm certain it was an effect... though it would be good for the Italian film market if it wasn't. Merlin does the mucky with the Lady of the Lake (Catherine Rowlands) and Owen gets so miffed with his deceiver that he rapes her. Morgana's henchmen, the pantomime Cerdic (Phil Lyndon) and Altar (Steve Longhurst), who are made up like kids that have just discovered their mum's make-up drawer, magically take the appearance of the heroic twosome and do battle with them, cue a lot of adventurous split-screen.

The swamp creature returns and invites them with the riddle, the answer realised he is stabbed by Keiron and bleeds Lenor conditioner. Everyone rescued, they flee together, come up against a stop-motion dragon (two frames per second, like the soup dragon made with foil) and find the grave of King Arthur, which brings about the final act. An incredible idea emerges here, lost in the dreadfulness of it all, and that is that this adventure signals an end to all real magic. It's a depressing note... on top of a sad film. It is an idea that may have been prompted by the finale twist to the contemporary Highlander, an end twist shat on completely in subsequent films and series, the idea of the prize being freedom from the fantastic and the magic. This production does accidentally log itself out as a Merlin Film and Video Production and not a Murlin film. Murphy takes on many of his usual alter egos to complete the crew in Michael Melsack and Carl Humphries, among others. A new name to me from the credits, and I have serious doubts that he exists, is camera assistant Dempster McBain (step forward please and identify yourself, or did Murphy assist himself?). Avalon did sell to the video market of other countries. Every scene has a failed effect and the destruction of the island is the worst. The usual determinedly classic camera angles fail to hide the poverty of the production. It is the least satisfying of Murphy's films. Too much was attempted on too little.
Stephen Harris as Owen in Avalon

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Debbi Stevens as Morgana in Avalon





Owen and Morgana in Avalon

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