Wednesday, July 3, 2013


“In the universe there are things man cannot hope to understand.
Powers he cannot hope to possess.
Forces he cannot hope to control.
The Four Crowns are such things.
Yet the search has begun. A Soldier of Fortune takes the first step.
He seeks a key that will unlock the power of The Four Crowns
and unleash a world where good and evil collide.”  
So decrees the Star Wars scroll opening of Treasure of the Four Crowns, just before it hits you with the scariest things the movie has to offer:  
Cannon Film Group.
A Golan-Globus Production.
Cue mind-shattering terror. 
I kid. I kid because I love. 
As soon as the titles are done rushing out at you, screaming “3-fucking-D!”, we are introduced to our hero, J.T. Striker, clad in his red satin jacket, lighting a cigarette against the wind, standing in front of a grand forced-perspective castle. Possibly Spanish. So far, we appear to be on an adventure with That ‘70s Show’s Bob Pinciotti, adventurer, outfitted by Jackie Chan’s Asian Hawk.  
Minutes later, he’s inside the castle, its interior transformed into a live-action Scooby-Doo set, and he’s immediately beset by vultures and rubber pterodactyls. Spears stab out of the walls, tunnel doors slam shut behind him. Ropes dangle over obvious trapdoors. A boa constructor lowers towards him. He grimaces in fear as it slithers over him. A guard dog chases him across crumbling edifaces, where it is joined by more friendly German Shepherds, tails wagging. He leaps through a glass window, runs past a bubbling volcanic cauldron, drops through a skylight, rolls down a tunnel, which conveniently explodes allowing him to do a daring flip over a pile of wood. While a skeleton and a suit of armor point at him courtesy of wires attached by phone linemen, he blows up an entombment and finally retrieves a key from inside a brass scepter. This, took, launches more booby traps, and wonks out the soundtrack, speeding up and slowing down ominous voices that bubble up from a dry ice cabinet. Nearly killed by a thrice-repeated shot of a fired spear, he’s then shot at by some laughing pottery and manages to dodge a spiked rolling pin swinging from the ceiling. And then come the fireballs (!), one of which he tries to catch. Finally comes the obligatory burning boulders—about the size of hefty pumpkins—that chase him around the room. The message here is to not concern yourself with all this precious archaeology.  During rape and pillage, temples have a way of shutting that all down.
Obviously, this is a very important key. Once he gets back to whatever he calls home, he stoically yells at his friend and partner, Ed, for not telling him how dangerous the place can be. As it turns out, the key fits one of the “legendary” four golden crowns forged by the Visigoths in the 6th Century, some time after their conquest of Spain. Inside they find a little scroll that says, basically, “The very existence of this scroll supports the legend.” Or, “The legend is true because I, the scroll, say so. QED.”
Now for the tricky part. Stryker is hired to put together a team to find the rest of the crowns, which lie deep within the bowels of The City of Love and Unity and the Temple of the Crowns. It’s the sorta-secret lair of “Brother Jonas” (aka Leo Green, from Brooklyn, who served a goodly amount of time in Sing Sing) who has begun his own religion. Has his own pig-mask-wearing Indoctrination Squad to round up willing (or not) Apostles and stuff them into his heavily-guarded mountain retreat. Brother Jonas says things like, “I want you to see what I see. Be what I am. And if you will not, then go to Hell!”
Edmond whips out a brilliant scale-model of of the fortress to plan the job. “For Jonas, the crowns are a source of destructive power. Weapons of fear. But I want to preserve that power for the future of mankind. They are part of an incredible legacy.” Only JT Stryker can pull off a job like this. So of course he refuses.
Until the very next scene where he and Edmond are shown recruiting a team. Let’s go to Video Junkie for a summary: “His team consists of an alcoholic electronics expert Rick (Jerry Lazarus), an over the hill circus strongman Socrates (Francisco Rabal), and his nimble and nubile daughter Liz (Ana Obregon). Also, Edmond (Gene Quintano), the operation’s liaison insists on tagging along to keep an eye on things and generally be a pain in the ass.” (“Scribbled” by Thomas T. Sueyres.) Rick describes them as “A tired old man, an inexperienced female and me, a guy with 90 proof courage.”
Mr. Sueyers also describes the Crowns’ potential: “They are believed to contain secrets of unimaginable power. So unimaginable that the five credited writers couldn’t come up with anything.” And let’s not forget to mention the very power of the stupid key! Without warning, the crazy thing will shoot out of Stryker’s hands, blow up crockery, knock over furniture and explode windows, letting all the snow in. The key can also create unmotivated red light. While it jiggles in JT’s hands, the others are attacked by lens flares.
As to be expected, the Crowns are protected by state-of-the-art technology and heavily-armed guards. Pressure-sensitive floors and walls, laser eye alarms, an intricate matrix of security the likes of which won’t be seen again until all the parodies of Mission: Impossible
Skipping the rest of anything resembling a second act, our insipid—sorry, intrepid—team has been air dropped onto the Citadel of Silliness. For the next twenty minutes, we’re actually treated to an actually tense and non-silly sequence involving the team rappelling across the ceiling beams, trapezing over the laser beams, electric fences and the pressurized floor. Sequence involves the occasional guard popping in for a spot-check during lots of dangling and trying to be quiet. The acrobatics in this sequence are actually worth your time.   
To break that up, we go behind-the-scenes with Brother Jonas as he collects chunks of Apostle hair to burn and help the Crowns heal a diseased “lost lamb” and bring her back into the fold. Part of the healing process has the masked guards rattle tambourines in the faces of the other cult members. Curiously, once the chanting and hysterics have passed, the little “lost lamb” winks at Brother Jonas and starts to peel off her facial wounds. Don’t get hung up on this as it’s never addressed again and the producers really wish you’d all stop bringing it up. 
Now, normally I wouldn’t do this, but I will now reveal to you the ending. Just the same, I promise you that I’m not giving anything away because, like the preceeding scenes, it doesn’t make a damned bit of sense. Swinging down from the beams, J.T. mounts this ugly blob of an idol--“Here I come, you magical son of a bitch.”—and uses the key to unlock the Crowns just as Brother Jonas and his guards burst in to spray bullets in random directions. The second he touches them, his head spins around like a malfunctioning Linda Blair doll and when it comes to rest, JT’s face is covered in lizard scales, cloudy eyes, and an even dopier expression than he’d worn at any previous point. He also becomes a subhuman flame thrower, spewing fire from the crystals he’d taken from the crowns and setting ablaze Jonas, his acolytes, his minions, his grunions and also his onions. Being special, Brother Jonas doesn’t just catch fire, but his skin falls off of his skull in little chunks at a time. Stryker is only changed back by Liz’s screams and sobs, which seem to be her specialty. Triumphantly, and with only the majority of his team dead, JT claims the Crowns, having more or less saved the day from evil. Or perhaps good. It’s hard to tell.
In in a final coda, a thrice-repeated shot of a snake-head bursting forth from a pulsing lump of goo, never glimpsed before in the film. Or since.
The best and most accurate review I’ve ever read of The Treasure of the Four Crowns comes from the wonderful website, KinderTrauma, and it goes like this: “[…] it’s mostly not boring.” And it’s impossible to argue with that assessment. If anything, the blessed few slow parts allow the viewer time to attempt comprehension of what he just witnessed. Please bear in mind that I have not come here to trash Treasure of the Four Crowns, for to do that would be like booing the Special Olympics. Honestly, this movie just doesn’t know any better.   
The team behind Treasure were more or less responsible for kicking off the brief 3-D boom of the early eighties with the reasonably enjoyable Spaghetti Western, Comin’ At Ya!. This golden era came to a head in 1983 with a Summer glut of poke-a-vision like Jaws 3D, Amityville 3D, Steve Guttenberg as The Man Who Wasn’t There, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, and Metalstorm: The [Non-] Destruction of Jared-Syn. (God, what a wonderful summer that was!) Because of the success of Comin’ At Ya!, Treasure was rushed into production by Canon using the same team of Tony Anthony, Gene Quintano and director Ferdinando Baldi. Conceived as a blatant rip-off of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the most Treasure had to boast was a score by none-other than Ennio Morricone who, judging by the laconic orchestration, must have done the composing at gun point.   
At the time of Comin’ At Ya!, Anthony (best-known to his schoolyard chums as Roger Pettito) was a familiar face to Spaghetti Western fans, largely due to his coincidental presence in Europe at the time of Sergio Leone’s world-wide success with the Dollars trilogy. Anthony starred as “The Stranger”, a shotgun-weilding anti-hero, in the moderately-successful A Stranger In Town, The Stranger Returns and The Silent Stranger, as well as a Zatoichi rip-off titled Blindman, which also starred Ringo Starr as a Mexican bandito. 
More interesting than the films themselves is the fact that Anthony achieved this by partnering with MGM stockholder and record producer Alan Klein. Klein is a notorious personality in ‘70s entertainment history for a number of reasons. For one, he re-negotiated a contract between The Beatles and EMI, garnering them higher royalties per records sold ($.69) and assisted George Harrison’s Apple Records financially by basically turning the company into a factory, complete with time clocks and an on-site kitchen, cancelling take-out meals and personal charge-accounts for the Beatles’ many hangers-on. He also assisted in the finishing of one of the most uncomfortable documentaries ever made, Let It Be, with help from future-murderer Phil Spector. In the end, as McCartney and Lennon chose to dissolve The Beatles (McCartney in particular disliked the producer and felt that the his cutthroat business methods were diminishing The Beatles’ legacy), Klein more or less successfully sued the band in what he called a “divorce”.
Perhaps more notatble, Klein was personally responsible for the long 30-year period of unavailabilty of Alejandro Jodorowski’s esoteric masterpieces, El Topo and The Holy Mountain. Persuaded by John Lennon to buy the rights to El Topo and bankroll Mountain, Klein intended to partner with Jodorowsky’s next film as well. Instead, after witnessing the financial success of “art pornography” like The Devil in Miss Jones and the infamous Deep Throat, he tried to persuade the avante guarde director to direct an adaptation of Pauline Réage's S&M bestseller The Story Of O. To Klein’s surprise (if no one else’s), Jodorowsky refused. Klein’s revenge was to withdraw all prints of El Topo and Holy Mountain from US distribution, denied all film festival requests for screening and reportedly flipped off the posters every morning before work (I may have made that last part up). This led to Jodorowsky’s public endorsement of any and all bootlegs of his films. It wasn’t until Klein gracefully died in 2009, that the director reconciled with the Klein heirs that the films were finally released to the eager public at Cannes and on gorgeous Blu-Ray.
But I digress. 
The point is, despite looking like the first guy to be rubbed out in any given gangster movie, and even after the world-wide failure of his final “Stranger” film, Get Mean in 1976, Tony Anthony’s star was still hovering above the horizon in the ‘80s thanks to Comin’ At Ya! But have no fear, Treasure of the Four Crowns put an end to all of that. But not for lack of trying.
As Roger Ebert wrote at the time: “It's fun to find a 3-D movie that doesn't beat around the bush. Within 60 seconds after Treasure of the Four Crowns begins, the movie is throwing things at the audience. This is, of course, in the great tradition of 3-D movies that began in 1953 with Bwana Devil" a horrible movie that made a lot of money by throwing stones, spears and elephants at the audience. You want to get your money's worth. […] In fact, with its cheerful high energy, Treasure of the Four Crowns may not only be the first of the 1983 3-D wave but one of the best.”
The sad fact of the matter is that, while Treasure was not a failure financially and went on to become an HBO staple (in 2D of course) for more than a year after, it suffered from the timing of its release. As popcorn movies go, it probably was a high point during that ridiculous summer. But when you get down to it, it was a gimmick movie, and a rip-off gimmick movie at that. By August, audiences had grown weary of having their eyes poked at, actors picking up tools for the sheer purpose of having things emerge from the screen (Treasure was particularly guilty of this, with more than one instance of one character handing a magnifying glass and the like to  another by waving it back and forth in front of the lens like SCTV’s Count Floyd), not to mention the intense migraines that came from having their rods and cones batted around for 90 minutes. 
The 3D “craze” continued sporadically through the summers of ’84 and ’85, the animated Starchaser: The Legend of Orin one of the final straws and then disappeared to obscurity. With no demand, Anthony and Baldi saw the cancelation of their own science-fiction follow-up (hinted at by Treasure’s non-sequiter coda), alternately known as Escape from Beyond and Seeing is Beliving. Baldi returned to Italy but Treasure basically marked the end of Anthony’s career, at least as far as acting goes. He did produce the Zalman King-directed Wild Orchid with Mickey Roarke, but mostly he concentrated on running an optics company, specializing in lenses that worked with the so-called “over-and-under” 3D technique. In 2009, he oversaw the transfer of Comin’ At Ya! to digital 3D and has hinted at giving similar attention to Treasure of the Four Crowns
Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is in the crossed-eyes of the beholder, but the timing seems perfect. What with the “immersion” use of 3D in modern-day blockbusters, it might actually be a nice change to have spears jump out at us once again, even if the wires do come with them.

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