Red Sonja (1985)

Red Sonja (1985)

Heroes of their time. For all time.

Sonja leads a peaceful life with her family until Queen Gedren and her army arrive in their village, slaughtering Sonja’s family and subjecting her to an arduous rape. Sonja is given extraordinary powers in a vision and joins a male-dominated fighting academy to hone her sword fighting skills, becoming the top pupil in the process. During this time, Queen Gedren’s ambition grows and she steals a powerful talisman. Sonja’s only surviving sister is one of the priestesses guarding the talisman and barely manages to escape the slaughter, seeking out Sonja and warning her of the enormous power of the talisman. Sonja swears revenge and sets off to find and kill Gedren, picking up some unlikely companions along the way.

 

I’m not a massive fan of the short-lived sword-and-sorcery genre from the 80s, spurred on by the success of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s superior Conan the Barbarian. By the mid 80s this flash-in-the-pan fad had almost all but faded away and left with it a legacy of such dire Conan wannabes as The Warrior and the Sorceress, Deathstalker and Barbarian Queen. Even the official sequel, Conan the Destroyer, was a far cry from the original. With their bizarre array of creatures and desert sets, the films often turned out more like deleted scenes from the Tattooine portions of Return of the Jedi.

When Dino De Laurentiis was unable to get a second sequel to Conan the Barbarian off the ground, he simply nabbed Schwarzenegger, changed the name of the character he was going to portray and film his own sword-and-sorcery flick based around Red Sonja, a character also penned by Robert E. Howard and who shared the same universe as Conan. The result is a film which, though Schwarzenegger himself described as the “worst film he ever starred in,” is definitely a film not without some merit and charm. I guess Schwarzenegger has purposely blocked out the memories of Jingle All the Way and Batman & Robin when he made his claim (though I’m unsure of the date it was attributed to him anyway).

It’s interesting to note that I’ve still yet to really discuss the title character, played by Brigitte Nielsen. Even though the film is about her character, the promotional work was all about Schwarzenegger and he gets top billing. Talk about trying to capture the Conan market. Casting wise, she certainly looks the part of a huge Amazonian-like warrior but she can’t act to save her life and her lines and delivery come off extremely wooden and monotone. Unfortunately the whole notion of her being a strong feminine symbol of power (and the film contains plenty of feminist thinking) is watered down by the fact she can’t do anything worthwhile without the help of a man: the Conan-in-all-but-name character of Kalidor. She is hardly able to best anyone in a sword fight and needs constant rescue. Its little coincidence that despite his relatively little screen time, Schwarzenegger dominates the film and completely overshadows his co-star.

Red Sonja hardly opens promisingly with a feeble flashback tale of what happened to Sonja which skirts over too much story within a matter of minutes. It’s not like they needed to shorten the running time or anything but we’re brought up to speed on what is going on rather too conveniently for my liking. From there it literally turns into a sporadic sequence of events where Sonja goes from place-to-place and bumps into a few people, usually the same characters it has to be said. To say that the film is rather short in length, not a great deal happens. There’s a lot of talking both of behalf of Sonja and her party and of Queen Gedren who spends most of the film sat on her throne moaning to her minions.

As Queen Gedren, Sandahl Bergman is atrocious and no doubt only cast to continue the links to the Conan franchise. It’s an embarrassing performance which is matched by that of the annoying comic relief duo of Ernie Reyes Jr (the little brat prince whose kingdom has just been destroyed) and his fat servant Falkon played by Paul L Smith. At least it throws up the film’s most hilarious scene in which the little prince is tied up and pulled between two horses. It’s wrong on so many levels. Only Ronald Lacey, one of the Nazis who famously got melted in Raiders of the Lost Ark, shows any self-awareness of just what he’s starring in with his throwaway role as Gedren’s right-hand man. But even he is too buried underneath a ridiculous over-sized hat to come off as anything more than slimy comic foil.

As you can probably tell by now, Red Sonja’s problems come from the gross mis-casting and the poor script which doesn’t really know what it is doing. But as far as the look of the film goes, Red Sonja is as impressive as any sword-and-sorcery film. The production design is top notch and really livens up the proceedings with an impressive array of temples, palaces and underground chambers. There are also some awesome matte shots, particularly of the skeletal bridge, although one would expect a fantasy film to convey such marvel and otherworldly trappings! The mechanical monster scene looks a little dated now and I’m guessing no one thought that making it a water-based beast was an ill-thought, rusty idea. But at least it keeps the mythical vibe flowing well. And for all of its problems, the film is rarely dull. Despite the plodding and meandering structure, the film is rarely too far away from some sword fighting or decent set piece.

 

Red Sonja is big budget trash, corny and hokey at times, appallingly acted out and focuses way too much on Schwarzenegger’s supporting character but at least it’s entertaining and there is hardly a dull moment. It’s got a timeless 80s vibe to it and is hard not to like for what it really is: escapist entertainment.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978)

Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978)

When the price of lust is death!

Susan Stevenson and her brother fly to New Guinea in search of her missing husband and enlist the services of an anthropologist to guide them into the dense rain forest. They set off into the jungle but find out that he was captured by a cannibal tribe and that the same fate awaits them.

 

Ah the Italian exploitation cannibal sub-genre. Such an trashy, graphic and repulsive genre that it’s even hard to want to call them films sometimes because they are so depraved and perverse – I mean who in their right mind comes up with these ideas? They went to lengths that no other films dared to go out of decency and, rightfully as was the case in a few extremes, were banned across the world on the whole, Cannibal Holocaust being the most infamous of the bunch.Unfortunately it’s a sub-genre which cannibalises itself so much that once you’ve seen one of these tropical terrors, then you’ve seen them all.

Although slightly less offensive than some of the other sub-genre, Mountain of the Cannibal God adheres to the basic cannibal story of a group of white explorers (and usually expendable guides) head off into the remote jungle in pursuit of some MacGuffin where they have some minor run-ins with other natives before stumbling upon the cannibal tribe and, in rather unsporting fashion, decide to eat their guests. The film looks more polished than the rest, clearly has a bigger budget and isn’t as nasty as its companions. Everything is done as tastefully as possible – if that is possible in itself, knowing how brutal these films can get. The bad taste is kept to a minimum and the animal violence has been toned down – those who have seen the uncut version of Cannibal Holocaust will attest to the disgraceful and sickening acts of wildlife masochism on display. It is still present however and seems to be a token inclusion in this sub-genre, reflective of the no holds barred raw brutality of nature but more used for shock and horror tactics to disgust the viewer rather than send out any primal messages. It has nothing to do with what is happening on screen which is a travesty.

Though on the surface it seems less offensive and more mainstream than its counterparts, make no mistake about it,Mountain of the Cannibal God does boast plenty of expected cannibalistic carnage. Dwarf cannibals are punted over cliffs to have their heads smashed on rocks below. Bear traps crush and maim the legs of those unlucky enough to be caught in them. Would-be rapists are castrated for their indiscretions. Stomachs are ripped open and intestines fed to the tribe. The quality of the make-up effects range from the ridiculous to the sublime.

The big difference with this one is the relatively high star power on display. Making the sub-genre a bit more accessible by casting big names, Mountain of the Cannibal God boasts Ursula Andress and Stacy Keach in the lead roles, a decent coup for such a low budget, obscure Italian film.Andress seems to need the role more, agreeing to doff her duds and go naked for an infamous scene in which she is painted head-to-toe and worshipped by the cannibals.Keach was at a career low at this point (no kidding!) and seems more bored than anything but no doubt a free holiday helped to gloss over that issue.

Despite the moments of gore and the decent cast, Mountain of the Cannibal God rarely gets going at any sort of pace. It takes the characters too long to make any sort of progress into the jungle and despite odd moments of non-speaking guides being killed off bydeadly fauna and flora, there’s not a great deal of stuff happening on-screen. Little more than a step-by-step link between set piece scenes, the narrative gears up towards a finale which never once looks like it will deliver anything short of a total dud. Despite all of the cannibal carnage on screen, the film never gives off any sort of realism vibe. You know you’re watching a film and not a snuff movie, though this may be down to the presence of ‘named’ actors instead of obscure ones.

 

Mountain of the Cannibal God merely goes through the usual Italian cannibal exploitation film motions, only this time with the bonus of a famous cast. More professionally made but lacking the raw, nihilistic punch of some of it’s counterparts, it’s neither the best of this sub-genre, nor the worst either.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Lesbian Vampire Killers (2009)

Lesbian Vampire Killers (2009)

Two no-hopers. One cursed village. One hell of a night!

Best friends Jimmy and Fletch decide to get over girlfriend and job worries by going camping to a place chosen at random. They arrive in Cragwich where they learn that a curse was put upon the village by the vampire Carmilla in which every girl there becomes a lesbian vampire when they turn eighteen. Directed to stay at a remote inn, the duo befriend a group of female tourists but soon they all fall prey to the lesbian vampires who roam the forest. Jimmy and Fletch must join forces with the local vicar when it turns out that Jimmy is a descendant of the lord who killed Carmilla in the first place.

 

In an era of ridiculously straightforwardly titled films which feature exactly what they promise in the title (no ambiguity here!), I’m guessing that someone thought of this title first and then came up with a plot to write around it. Lesbian Vampire Killers has exactly the sort of shock title that would draw anyone to it in much the same way that something like Zombie Strippers or Snakes on a Plane has. Though I’m guessing the more ‘lurid’ elements of this and the Zombie Strippers title are the main attractions to the majority of its clearly male-orientated fan base.

Lesbian Vampire Killers desperately wants to be Shaun of the Dead. Featuring a flavour-of-the-moment comedy duo from TV and pitching the film along similar not-so-serious comedy-horror veins, the film falls flat trying to be funny and never features anything remotely scary. I’m not an avid viewer of anything that James Corden and Matthew Horne have made on British TV so my opinions on them were unbiased going into this. I’ve heard of them but I rarely watch anything on TV nowadays so have never been exposed to the brand of comedy that Corden and Horne provide. I can’t say that I’m overly impressed. Horne comes off the better here, the more likeable of the duo whilst Corden is simply playing up the irritating fat man stereotype to perfection. Maybe with a better script I’d have found them funny but with the exception of a few throwaway lines here and there (“gay werewolves” springs to mind), the laughs are hard to come by. I guess if you’re a fan, then their brand of comedy would appeal to you. However I faced the same issue going into Shaun of the Dead, having never seen anything with Pegg and Frost, but that script was genuinely funny and didn’t rely on me ‘getting’ Pegg and Frost’s comedy shtick.

Lesbian Vampire Killers isn’t that bad in truth but that’s coming from a huge fan of the old Hammer horror films. From a technical standpoint, the film reeks of the same Gothic vibe that the late 60s and early 70s Karnstein trilogy films had and it’s like a modern day throwback. I think they lost a trick here as the film isn’t designed to be a deliberate parody or send-up of anything like Shaun of the Dead was for the zombie genre. Although there are a few weak references to the sub-genre, Lesbian Vampire Killers is played straight, well almost as straight as the barrage of schoolboy humour jokes will allow. There are some amusing moments but there’s nothing side-splitting and the most it’ll get out of you will be a smile or two. British comedy-horror has been getting a revival over the last few years with the lad’s mag culture being the target audience. The likes of this and Doghouse are clearly aimed at the ‘boozy geezer’ crowd where the idea is to get a bunch of mates around and watch in a group setting with a few cans and maybe a curry or burger afterwards. Crude, low brow humour where women are the focus of sexual innuendos and genitalia jokes is the name of the game here and whilst I’m up for a laugh and don’t mind a bit of this type of banter, the jokes soon outstay their welcome. Jokes about penile-shaped swords may be funny the first time but not the tenth time.

If you’re marking the film on what the title delivers then you’ll be disappointed. It’s got vampires in it. It’s got lesbians in it. But those expecting a gratuitous orgy of flesh and blood will be sorely disappointed. Nudity is almost non-existent so you’ll have to make do with the buxom ladies wearing revealing clothing for the most (a major crime considering how hot some of the girls are). And gore-wise, the film is hardly going to set tongues wagging. In fact the older Hammer films contained far more nudity and gore. But this is the underlying problem of Lesbian Vampire Killers – it never knows what it wants to be from the start and tries to do too many things and cover too many bases at once, never fully realising the potential of any of the directions it tries to take.

 

One can’t help but compare Lesbian Vampire Killers to the far superior Shaun of the Dead as two British TV comedy duos attempt to conquer the big screen in comedy-horror settings. Unfortunately, this one tries to hard to sell itself on its title alone and the end result is relatively poor false advertising: it never goes far enough with the laughs, the gore or the nudity and ends up turning into a safe but very lacklustre comedy-horror.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆