The end credits of The Sword and the Sorcerer promised that the saga would be continued in Tales of an Ancient Empire. This never emerged and for many years most assumed that this would be something akin to Buckaroo Banzai vs the World Crime League, the third season of The Tripods (1984-6) or other long-awaited projects such as George Lucass Star Wars prequels, Mad Max 4, Land of the Dead (2005) and Dario Argentos Mother of Tears: The Third Mother (2007) where the promise dragged out so long that most assumed it would never ever emerge. Now, 28 years after The Sword and the Sorcerer premiered, Tales of an Ancient Empire makes it to dvd screens. There was 46 years between The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Return to Oz (1985) but Tales of an Ancient Empire may hold the record for the longest period between an original and a sequel still involving the people from the first film, just beating out Tron Legacy (2010) and Tron (1982) by several months.
Clearly, what has inspired the revival of Tales of an Ancient Empire is the sudden interest in epic fantasy on the big screen following the hits of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia. This is appropriate as The Sword and the Sorcerer was born out of the original sword and sorcery/epic fantasy trend of the 1980s as created by films like Conan the Barbarian and Excalibur (1981) and similarly its sequel emerges out of the revival of interest in epic fantasy/sword and sorcery in the 00s. The other fad that Tales of an Ancient Empire seems to be trying to tap is that of the craze for vampire films following the success of Twilight (2008) and tvs True Blood (2008 ). The mixture of sword and sorcery with the vampire film seems awkward, as though the sword and sorcery milieu is being bent out of shape in order to make vampires fit into it. The question that was foremost in my mind was would there be an army of fans of the original The Sword and the Sorcerer enough to make Tales from an Ancient Empire into a success? Judging from the lack of budget lavished on the film, not that many other people thought so either.
Tales of an Ancient Empire has only been granted an impoverished and cheap budget. This is particularly noticeable during the early scenes with the overthrow of the kingdom of Abelar where the massed vampire onslaught seems to consist of no more than the sound effects of fighting taking place off screen as the camera looks down a hallway and occasional shots of people having their throats bitten that give the impression they were shot in closeup in front of a set of drapes. There are some incredibly cheap digital effects, notably the vampire transformations and digital gore effects and in particular the shots of the sailing ship departing to sea, which are so two-dimensional that you wonder if it is not meant as a stylistic caricature. On the other hand, when the party venture out into the wider world, Albert Pyun does a passable job at depicting various village streets, inns and the like with the texture and colour that you usually get in fantasy cinema. These only make the Abelar scenes look even more impoverished by comparison it was a poor choice to open the film on something that looks so cheap as it only puts audiences critical hackles up for the film that is to follow. Another bizarrely funny effect is the vampire teeth, which leaves the actors in question talking as though they have their mouths full.
In the cast line-up, Albert Pyun has obtained some cameos from some barely known actors like Ralf Moeller and Xavier Declie, as well as a return performance from Lee Horsley, the lead from the original. The most well-known name is that of Kevin Sorbo, who has a strong association with fantasy as the lead in tvs Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1994-9) and in another sword and sorcery film Kull the Conqueror (1997). Sorbo goes for the same cocky, flip modern wit that carried him through Hercules, one that shows he is not taking the show terribly seriously. Even though it grates and seems out of place in a film that is otherwise taking itself seriously, Sorbos cocky wit gives Tales of an Ancient Empire a much needed injection of life. The rest of the cast are all unknowns. One positive face among the newcomers is Melissa Ordway who demonstrates an undeniable kickass lethality when it comes to the action scenes. (On the other hand, Albert Pyun shoots the fight scenes in frequent closeup so it is often hard to tell). Unlike Kevin Sorbo, Melissa Ordway at least plays the part with complete seriousness.
The main problem with Tales of an Ancient Empire is that there are so many characters running around that is often difficult to tell one good-looking girl with a sword or vampire teeth from another or how they are connected. The plot eventually transpires as a sword-and-sorcery variation on The Seven Samurai (1954)/The Magnificent Seven (1960), although the novelty here is that almost all of the mercenaries gathered together are women. To justify the tales aspect of the title, the film has been divided into several chapter headings that give us the impression we are seeing multiple tales as you might get with say a book of Robert E. Howard stories or one of Fritz Leibers Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser tales. Unfortunately, most of these chapters seem randomly placed and never hold enough substance to stand on their own as tales.
The biggest downer about Tales of an Ancient Empire is the ending where it is revealed that this is not a complete film but that the saga is to be continued in Tales of an Ancient Empire: Red Moon. Despite an 85 minute running time, the film ends after the 70-minute point. The other 15 minutes are taken up by a trailer for Red Moon and the credits some of which are repeated three times over. You are not sure whether Albert Pyun has set out to create an epic multi-story fantasy in the same way that The Lord of the Rings and a number of other films that followed did, or else has simply cut a long film in two. Whatever the case, the Tales of an Ancient Empire saga is unlikely to attain the stature of Lord of the Rings or any of its ilk. For one, the story here is so cluttered (it does not even end with all of the Seven Samurai characters gathered or Lee Horsley, the only connection to the original, having joined the party). Moreover, it is an irresolute ending and lacks any sense of an epic cliffhanger that would want to make one come back for the next instalment. No announcement has yet been made of Red Moons release and one cannot sneakingly wonder if we are going to have to wait a further 28 years until sometime around 2038 to see this.
(Winner in this sites Worst Films of 2010 list).
Albert Pyuns other genre films include: Radioactive Dreams (1986), Vicious Lips/Pleasure Planet (1987), Alien from L.A. (1988), the uncredited Journey to the Center of the Earth (1988), Cyborg (1989), Deceit (1989), Captain America (1990), Dollman (1990), Brain Smasher: A Love Story (1993), Knights (1993), Nemesis (1993), Arcade (1994), Hong Kong 1997 (1994), Heatseeker (1995), Nemesis 2: Nebula (1995), Nemesis 3: Timelapse (1995), Nemesis 4: Death Angel (1995), Adrenalin: Fear the Rush (1996), Omega Doom (1996), Postmortem (1997), Ticker (2001), Infection (2005), Cool Air (2006), Bulletface (2007) and Left for Dead (2007).