Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Sandahl Bergman vs. the Helots: SHE (1984)

I don't care what the haters say, BATTLESHIP (2012) is awesome. Maybe it's because I stayed home sick the day I saw it, so was both more relaxed and delirious than usual, or because I had a tolerance for the awesomely named Taylor Kitsch but I haven't seen a junk film with a greater sense of how to rock this cocktiquely since GI JOE: RISE OF THE COBRA (my praise here). But I didn't come to talk about expensive board game-based sci-fi cinema. I'm here to talk about SHE. No, friend, not the 1935 SHE starring Randolph Scott as a dull Arctic explorer resisting the alleged charms of snooty Helen Gahagan and I don't mean the 1965 Hammer SHE starring a genuinely charm-packed Ursula Andress dealing with a flock of snooty Brits. I mean the Italian 1984 SHE, the one you've probably drifted past a dozen times on Netflix's streaming list, with poor Sandahl looking up from a dingy corner of the cover, sword ready, waiting to be helicoptered into your field of  vision. Well, drift past no more! The helicopter stops here. This is the SHE for me.

You would think it's based on the H. Rider Haggard novel, but this trip follows its own drummer the way BATTLESHIP follows theirs, and only touches on the Milton Bradley source. Here we have post-apocalyptic post-modern meltdown world full of every prop they could scrounge: leftover World War Two ordinance, plastic fangs, and feathers and the feeling a lot of this was shot in the producer's back yard and orgy room section of his mansion. Anachronistic sights include: a bunch of youthful aesthetes listening to an old-fashioned gramophone and having a big Roman orgy before waking up in the middle of the night with plastic fangs to eat their guests; a swimming pool with unattended beach balls; girls with swords; goth rockers operating like Humongous times Caligula; a giant dude in a tutu and feather boa who keeps people trapped in bird cages; flagellants; fog machines; tuxedos, gladiatorial combat arenas, guns.... And there is great dialogue:

Shandra: "This doesn't make sense"
Aisha: "Shandra, this has nothing to do with sense."

I know I'm not alone in my "appreciation" for SHE. On the trenchant, DF Dresden says: "Like me, you’ll be wondering how much LSD was dropped during the writing of this cheap, crazy post apocalyptic production.’" I didn't have to wonder, lurple. I just knew.

Indeed, for in addition to its borrowings from just about every corner of the prop department, SHE has a countercultural vibe that recalls another post-apocalyptic sci-fi film, GAS-S-S-S (1971). The last thing Roger Corman directed before he left AIP to form New World, which later produced a bucketload of films like SHE in the wake of CONAN's success, it's got GAS-S-S's nicely deadpan hip anachronistic tone (after the bomb, there is no more linear progress, so all centuries of fashion are fair game). Both are full of "wait, did he really just say that?" kind of moments, perfect to share with real or invisible Robotripper friends. And there's hot chicks from the era before plastic 'enhancements' turned every New World rack the same, if you'll forgive the expression. SHE's a trip, all right!

What SHE of course lacks that GAS-S-s-S had in spades are long stretches of music by Country Joe and the Fish, but that's a good thing. Instead there's Motörhead and lots of fuzzed-out Rick Wakeman synths. Much "better".  Still, GAS-S-s-S would make a good double bill with SHE, though, and Godard's WEEKEND (1967). All three have that episodic anachronistic structure, where heroes wander the post-apocalyptic landscape encountering various seriocomic factions and anachronistic historical characters they must battle or get held prisoner by, or fall in love with, terrorized or tortured by, or lectured to by... about communism.


The thing is, we know Corman's funny, clever, hip and Godard is all those things and more, but the makers of SHE are an unknown quantity. GAS-S-S-S had Edgar Allen Poe on a chopper; MONTY PYTHON had a limbless black knight still game for a squabble; SHE has a sailor-suit wearing bridge guard who looks like Paul Tomas (yes, that Paul Thomas) with an eye patch, yellow bandana, and the word 'Texas' written on his forehead, doing impressions of (I wrote them all down, impressed and aghast): Groucho Marx, W.C. Fields, Popeye, Mortimer Snerd, Adolph Hitler, Walter Winchell, Jackie Mason, Harry Von Zell, Senator Cleghorn (from the Fred Allen Show!), James Cagney, the Black Knight (from Monty Python and the Holy Grail!), in that order. He also becomes a whole chorus line, because he keeps multiplying. Oh yeah, and he sings a snatch of the theme from "Green Acres."

"Great" as all that is, without Bergman, wearing an array of sexy and cool costumes, showing off all the sword skills she learned for CONAN and generally making you sometimes believe she's in a better movie, it would be one hell of shitshow. But as I wrote in my praise of CONAN, Sandahl was the love of my adolescent life, and if you were like me--a Bergman fan who made super 8mm CONAN-inspired movies very similar in found object aesthetic to SHE--then it's SHE you I will. (That's a Yoda impression--hey where are you going?!)

SHE came out in Italy the same year as CONAN did, which on its own shows you 1) no one makes imitations of successful films faster than the Italians, and 2) There's no real 'market' for excellent dancers in genre movies unless post-modern peplum sashays back into popularity, and 3) Bergman's typecasting as a sword and sandal type served her in rapidly diminishing returns. But even diminished she shines. Heroines like Xena, Buffy, and Beatrix Kiddo today just get stunt woman Zoe Bell to do their more dangerous work (once you notice their hair is always in their face for the high kicks, it's hard to notice anything else -- so don't), but Bergman did all her own fighting in CONAN, and it makes a huge difference; seeing her size up two opponents with her scimitar, for example, you know from her look she's got the strength to wield it, that it's not some plastic wavy little shard; she's amazingly toned, and when she swings into action her hair's not in her face; we see the fury and dancer's tolerance for muscle tension in her eyes. She snakes through the whole film with such a lithe grace that we get mighty, mighty mad when she's killed. The vengeance is sweet in the way it seldom is in the more staid and formulaic revenge excuse scenarios. We genuinely wanted her in the picture longer, we wanted more scenes. And so to see her so quickly typecast and forgotten as someone who doesn't really have a future outside of the Conan cultist realm or in little dance parts here or there (ala XANADU) hurts us like a Thulsa Doom asp. Oh Sandahl, why why WHY did you choose to play the boring villainess Queen Gedren instead of the (also boring, but more active) lead in RED SONJA? Was this your version of Lugosi refusing to do FRANKENSTEIN and thus forever marking him in producer's secret ledgers as 'obstinate' and ensuring a long downward spiral of crappy parts in crappy pictures? Was it because your features didn't work with red hair? We would have been find with a SANDY BLONDE SONJA I assure you. Either way You left that movie like a snake without a head.

On the other hand, SHE is world's better than RED SONJA, no matter which role Bergman would have played. SHE's sense of agape jaw aesthetic arrest is helped, not hurt like so many claim, by the backyard junk post-apocalypse post -modern cheapness. The relatively big budgeted ($18M) Richard Fleischer-directed RED SONJA on the other hand is a dud no matter how sick you are while staying home from work. Believe me, I've tried.

For example, consider the helot. I'm referring of course to Frank Capra's MEET JOHN DOE and Walter Brennan's rant about the helots when trying to convince Gary Cooper to give away the fifty dollar bill he's received. As you read the upcoming quote (spoken with great gumption by old Walter), imagine he's talking about the freedom of making a low budget no-CGI early 80s Brechtian free-for-all like SHE vs. enduring the producer interference and studio pressures that come with all the millions it takes to craft bigger budgeted junk action movies out today, like THE AVENGERS (the BBC one) or CONAN THE DESTROYER:
"All right. You're walking along, not a nickel in your jeans, your free as the wind, nobody bothers ya. Hundreds of people pass you by in every line of business: shoes, hats, automobiles, radios, everything, and there all nice lovable people and they lets you alone, is that right? Then you get a hold of some dough and what happens, all those nice sweet lovable people become helots, a lotta heels. They begin to creep up on ya, trying to sell ya something: they get long claws and they get a stranglehold on ya, and you squirm and you duck and you holler and you try to push them away but you haven't got the chance. They gots ya. First thing ya know you own things, a car for instance, now your whole life is messed up with a lot more stuff: you get license fees and number plates and gas and oil and taxes and insurance and identification cards and letters and bills and flat tires and dents and traffic tickets and motorcycle cops and tickets and courtrooms and lawyers and fines and... a million and one other things. What happens? You're not the free and happy guy you used to be. You need to have money to pay for all those things, so you go after what the other fellas got. There you are, you're a helot yourself."
Were SHE made today it would no doubt have endless CGI dragons and some fresh-out-of-helot-school rich man's son producer who would insist director Avi Nesher pick an aesthetic - make it ancient or post-apocalyptic, but not this weird limbo where WW2, hippy counterculture, the Inquisition, and ancient Rome all live side by side. But it was made 1982 (the height of my own post-apocalyptic barbarian moviemaking career) and so the tactile delights of using actual props and monster makeup are just baller enough to steer SHE into the timeless, anti-establishment, no-CGI forbidden zone where films which kill careers and get no love anywhere are suddenly aged into anti-helot relevance. With an American star, Israeli director and mostly Italian crew, SHE is one of those rare international productions that turns its tower of Babel culture-drain into an advantage. When your movie is going in six different directions at once, don't reign it all in, shoot for twelve more!

On that note you might make an all night anti-helot Netflix stream festival with Nesher's SHE as the middle feature between GAS-S-S-S and the amazing Caroline Munro-starring sci fi (Italian Star Wars ripoff) STARCRASH (1979), and top it all off with a GHOSTS OF MARS or THE WARRIORS chaser, and at last you will know that the aesthetic of super 8mm backyard cinema lives on, as Big Daddy Mars, or a Baseball Fury, or a Joe Spinell, or a Texas-branded Paul Thomas clone impressionist, or any other kind of gaudy patter-spewing, scary make-up sporting gunsel... so don't fuck around with us Nork, and keep your pecker dry and the world will turn... into a post-modern/apocalyptic thrift store prop wasteland... where Sandahl lives.


  1. I've always wanted to see this one, but never got around to it, the cover for it reminded me of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome for some reason, but yeah, Bergman's great.

    I think Arnold made Red Sonja just to make out with Bridgiette Nielsen and mess with Stallone ha ha, but thats just my theory. I kind of enjoy Red Sonja in a bad movie kind of way.

    I will be watching this one soon and reviewing it after halloween, where I will be conducting a cheesy movie month sort of thing, it looks like this one will fit the bill perfectly.

  2. eddie lydecker14 June, 2013

    "And top it all off with a GHOSTS OF MARS or THE WARRIORS chaser", great turn of phrase my old mate.

  3. jimmie t. murakami14 June, 2013

    It is odd why a film like "Battleship" should fail so badly at the box office because its the kind of movie that sums up what cinema at its best should be all about, namely: spectacle, imagination, complete unpretentiousness, and stunning entertainment value for the audience.


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