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

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Sandahl Bergman's SHE (1984) comes to Blu-ray, Swingin'


Finally the great "SHE" starring Sandahl Bergman comes to Blu-ray in a flawless edition from Kino, released the other week. The Image and Sound are sublime, it's never looked better, and with a great interview given for the disc by director/writer Ari Nesher (yes that Aris Nesher), its pedigree as a cult rock-and-roll intellectually distaff comic book adventure can at last loom as medium large as it deserves. Finally we can examine the film in the light of what it is, a wildly imaginative, comic book-style adventure mixing all sorts of genres together to form an idea of what a post-apocalyptic renaissance faire might look like if its inhabitants roamed around and infiltrated other early 80s genre movies. It's a land where boxes of cereal are sold as antiques and one can wander from an underground mutant kingdom to a rich young werewolf pool party dinner/dance orgy in a few connecting woodsy shots, only to later be captured by a bewigged 18th century naturalist in lipstick and a batter's helmet and his tutu-wearing flunky; an insane, reincarnating/multiplying bridge guard who looks like a blonde Paul Thomas in an eyepatch and fringe-covered sailor suit and hat who talks in a constant stream of impressions (Groucho, Mortimer Snerd, Hitler, Popeye, Cagney, Cary Grant, etc. often all at the same time); leftover WW2 surplus canons, a war-torn city run by vicious warlords with funky helmets; a boiler room kingdom run by mummy lepers with Brooklyn accents; an inquisition-style god telekinetic with really hair arms whose eyes glow bright green when he levitates people, and so forth. There's a kinky edge, to be sure, with Bergman's goddess "She" and her right hand warrior woman enduring whippings and other torture, and all sorts of wildly imaginative Alex Raymond-style violence buried in its satiric weirdness and regular visits to the Conan / Escape from New York / Road Warrior well, but feminism always looms larger than sex (there is none). I kind of like that, as in the end, sisterhood wins out. Nesher wanted to make sure women weren't objectified, but man do we become thankfully acquainted with Bergman's incredibly lithe dancer legs. Symbols of great strength as well as grace and beguilement. She does all her own fights and stunts and knows her angles better than she did in Conan, but is just as physical, confident, and committed in her performance, leaping onto the backs of giant knights and driving daggers into the cracks of their armor with a sublime mix of raw fury and the joy of movement. 

Validating its worth as a great cult film, a kind of cross between Alphaville and Flash Gordon (1980) in style, there's an extra interview with Nesher, an Israeli film critic-turned-director/writer who made this in his 20s once out of his obligatory military service. Turns out he's an intellectual Cahiers du CinĂ©ma type who went on to a distinguished career making 'serious' films in Israel like Rage and Glory, but also enjoying keeping his hand in with American genre junk like Doppelganger and Timebomb. -A handsome well-spoken guy who shot the extra while in New York for a retrospective of his Israeli films at (I'm guessing) Lincoln Center, the fact that he spoke so highly of his time making the film (a great anecdote his lunch with Fellini, who was shooting a film one soundstage over and had complained about the constant blaring heavy metal they were playing) speaks to his confidence in his art (i.e. he doesn't look back and cringe at the 80s rock excesses of his youth, the way an artsy American might).


This is what it looked like before the Blu - murky.

Nesher says Bergman spurred her stunt men opponents to use real swords and cutting it real close, getting physical like she trained for in Conan.  Nesher says he loved working with Bergman, and we believe him. Apparently it did well enough the producers wanted him to do a sequel, which is odd since I, a Bergman fan, never heard of this She until a chance catch on Netflix back in 2012 (which I tied in with Meet John Doe here). One issue perhaps is the name. There are just too many adaptions of the H. Rider Haggard novel, and only this one is really any good, but who would think to look for it under that title? 

In its past incarnations this She looked kind of cheap and rundown but now, on this solid Blu-ray transfer the witty genius of the film can really be felt. Bits like Sandahl's being startled into drawn sword-out readiness by the squeak from stepping on a stray rubber duck by the werewolf elite's swimming pool; David Brandon as the glitter-flecked gorgeous Sebastian Venable / Dorian Grey style aesthete; Sandahl's crazy all-in half-naked and bleeding brawl with various huge guys in knightly armor who come bursting out of big cardboard crates and attack her on the way to her deep-cavern bathing pool of immortality. Those fights are something else - unlike those as in Xena or Buffy, where they cut to Zoe Bell or Amy Johnston with hair in their face whirling and kicking, then back to the lead actress with her firsts up, these have the mighty Bergman lunging, parrying and sticking the knives deep, all in long take medium shots and with a unique mix of dancer presence (Every limb is in constant motion). Though lack of stunt men can mean terribly choreographed faux battling (i.e. in Ator, The Fighting Eagle), here, because of Bergman's experience on Conan, the strategy makes the fights seem more real, vivid- there's seldom any doubt it's Bergman doing the swinging, and there's always the possibility in her eyes that she may lose, or get really hurt, or not be able to get to the magic pool to heal her many cuts in time to stop herself bleeding out. If you love girl action heroes like I do, you know how rare that kind of palpable uncertain outcome reality is. Only Lady Bloodfight really comes close.

It's all very well paced, relentlessly entertaining and packed with Rick Wakeman's bass-heavy crazy rock anthems, reflecting the bombastic style of European rock, when prog and metal was taking the edge to the limit and avoiding the slick empty synth sounds the AOR guys in the States were convinced every artist needed to have at the time Similarly, the much bigger-budgeted groupthink-bespoiled Red Sonja (where Bergman made the fatal [for the movie] decision to play the villain instead of the lead seems to have, alongside the sequel Conan the Destroyer derailed the Conan train (thanks be to hack director Richard Fleischer-and his PG-minded producers). If only SHE had been freely avail when I was a smitten-by-Sandahl Conan worshipper back in the day, but as far as I know this never made it to the rental store... or other... 'til now. As Anita Pallenberg says in Barbarella, "Crime."

Blu-ray of the year!

Runners-up:  HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (Kino), THE PSYCHIC (Scorpion) and PORT OF SHADOWS (Kino) and PAGANINI HORROR (Severin).

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