Come with me, my friends, for a trip down memory lane. The year is 1982 and a little fantasy film called The Beastmaster is released. It does poorly at the box office but then cable stations like HBO and TBS pick it up and run it incessantly over the next few years. The Beastmaster is not a good film. In every conceivable way, it is a bad film. Yet there is something charming about it. It stars a loincloth-wearing Marc Singer battling S&M dungeon master-looking bad guys by telepathically talking to animals. I watched that film probably a couple of dozen times growing up. Even then, I knew it wasn’t very good, but it wasn’t so bad as to make me turn it off. It's the sort of film that I’d find while flipping channels and if nothing else good was on I’d stop and watch it. It didn't hurt that it also starred Tanya Roberts in a loincloth.
Mario Bava’s 1966 swords and sandals epic Knives of the Avenger reminds me a lot of The Beastmaster. Not so much in plot but in that same sort of quality that make me find it charming even though it's not at all good. Bava came to it late in the game as the original director was fired well into production. Bava then threw out most of the footage, rewrote the script, and shot the entire thing in about six days. It has the look and the feel of a troubled movie that was rewrote and reshot in six days.
The plot is complicated and confusing so bear with me a moment as I try to sum it up. After her husband, Arald (Jack Stuart), becomes lost at sea and presumably dies, Karin (Elissa Pichelli) and her son Moki (Luciano Pollentin) flee into hiding. She is pursued by Hagen (Fausto Tozzi), a rival warlord who ousted her husband and wants to make her his queen. When a mysterious wanderer named Helmut (frequent Bava collaborator Cameron Mitchell) shows up asking for food and drink, she wants nothing to do with him, but after he saves her from some of Hagen’s men, she changes her mind.
In a flashback, we learn that during Karin and Arald’s wedding Hagen showed up with the heads of Rurik’s wife and child. Rurik is the leader of a rival tribe and Hagen figured the heads of his family would make a good wedding present. What Hagen didn’t know was that the king had made peace with his enemy Rurik and this “gift” would now create war. The king then banishes Hagen from the kingdom. Not knowing that Hagen didn’t have the king’s blessing to murder his family, Rurik then sacks the village, kills the king, and rapes Karin.
In another flashback, we learn that Rurik immediately felt bad about all that raping and murdering for vengeance's sake, stepped down as leader of his tribe, and began wandering the countryside under the name Helmut (surprise!). Somehow neither Helmut or Karin seem to remember each other even though he’s the guy who killed her father and raped her, but the two form a pretty cozy relationship while she's in hiding. Helmut even gets close to her son who might just be his son also, the progeny of that rape. Eventually the missing husband shows back up, creating a nifty little love triangle, but this is pretty overshadowed by both men's need to avenge themselves upon Hagen.
I told you it was complicated. I won’t even promise that I got the details right. Honestly, I had to look at several other reviews just to piece it all together. Not that any of it really matters as the real interest in this sort of story is the fight sequences and with a name life Knives of the Avenger one experts plenty of fighting.
Plenty is what you get, old Helmut/Rurik is pretty quick with a knife throw, taking out dozens of men with a flick of a wrist and a seemingly endless supply of knives. He’s also pretty good at hand-to-hand combat, jumping about like a pro wrestler in a cage match. None of it is staged all that well, and it contains few of the hallmarks fans of Bava have come to expect. Bava himself seems to have recognized this as he took his name off the film and created the pseudonym John Hold.
There’s just enough action and romance to hold your attention, but not nearly enough to make me recommend the film. If I happen to be flipping channels or more likely in this day and age, clicking through a streaming service, and stumble across Knives of the Avenger, I might just stop and watch for awhile. Perhaps I'll make it a double feature with The Beastmaster someday.
Kino Lorber isn’t giving any details about this transfer, but it looks about as decent as one would expect from a low budget Italian Viking flick that was shot in six days. They’ve cleaned it up pretty well from scratches and debris, but rarely do we get any of those evocative images Mario Bava is known for. Extras include trailers, both Italian and English language tracks, and a very informative audio commentary from Bava scholar Tim Lucas whose enthusiasm for this clearly inferior Bava film is pretty amusing.
If you are a Bava die-hard or a fan of sword and sandal flicks, or perhaps love you some Beastmaster, then Knives of the Avenger is well worth a shot.