Jarv’s Schlock Vault: Red Sonja
“You must learn to like men, they are not all evil”
I’m struggling to think of where to begin with this one- as I’ve been nothing but rude about it in the past. I’m doing it because of the imminent remake and the fact that Disturbance traumatised me quite badly and put me off watching anything more challenging than endless Friends repeats. It’s a good antidote if you’re in that kind of funk.
Red Sonja is clearly schlock, but it really shouldn’t be. It’s glossy, obviously had a budget, Arnold is in it as Conan (I don’t give a fuck if they call him Kalidor- he’s Conan), the production design is excellent, it’s got a Morricone score and it has a great pedigree. Having said all that, it’s cheesy as hell, Brigitte Neilsen as the eponymous character fails to act on any level, the special effects score a massive fail (more on this later), it’s grossly exploitative and plumbs the depths of stupidity. It screams cash-in, but seems like it was made by people lacking even a basic understanding of the source material.
Plot-wise, this is little more than a Sword and Sorcery tale by numbers- but I’m going to go into detail with it as it is very funny. The film opens with a strange and cack-handed montage explaining the background: Evil Lesbian Witch Queen, Gedren, wants Sonja for herself, and when Sonja refuses, Gedren slaughters her family and has Sonja raped. Obviously, this is to explain why Sonja is now a frigid barbarian hell bent on vengeance. Fast forward a few years (Sonja is given super powers by a crap special effect in the meantime) and Conan Kalidor is traveling to see a mystical talisman destroyed by a bizarre lesbian nun crew.
Unfortunately for the Sapphic sisterhood, he’s late.
Gedren’s forces lay waste to the temple and steal the Talisman. This is a big deal because, apparently, this thing created the world and could quite easily destroy it. Sonja’s sister escapes but is mortally wounded, Arnold pitches up too late, takes Sonja to her and after an utterly emotionless death scene Sonja goes on a quest for revenge. Phew.
This is where the film “proper” starts. Sonja traipses around Hyborea in an attempt to get to Gedren, runs into a horribly annoying child and his faithful servant, Arnold attempts to nail her, they fight a big metal fish, bust into the evil witch queen’s palace, kill everybody and save the day. It’s strange, but describing the background takes ages and the rest of the film is easy to summarise. This is typical of its unevenness.
Anyhow, what’s good about this nonsense? Well, it moves along at a cracking pace, Arnold is good as Conan Kalidor, but he really should be by now, and evil dyke queen Gedren is quite amusing in a sado-masochistic sort of way. The score is excellent, and as I’ve said above the design (with one key exception) is quite good.
Now for the bad: Brigitte Neilsen is fucking terrible. I accept that you need a big Viking wench for the part, and she certainly qualifies, but she just can’t act. She also is just not attractive, in that she looks more like a man in drag than a woman. I find it frankly mystifying that so many people seem to want to fuck her, is there mass blindness in Hyborea? Prince Tarn (the horrible brat)and his servant are shoe-horned into the plot as attempted comic relief, but it’s so utterly devoid of humour and he’s such a shrill little bastard that I wince every time they’re on screen. Gedren, who comes complete with Phantom of the Opera face mask, is wooden, but I forgive her because I find her strangely arousing (to paraphrase Roger Ebert “You can never argue about what gives someone a hard on. So fuck off”). The costume design is staggeringly stupid. If you have a central character defined by a feature (in this case, Sonja’s bad ginger dye job) surely you dress the other characters in a way to make it stand out more. Not here, they don’t. Every “good” character is dressed in various shades of red, and it kind of nullifies her visual impact. I’m still debating whether this is a good or a bad thing- it’s certainly a stupid thing. To cap it all, the film doesn’t feel like a film- it’s like a series of vignettes loosely linked together- hopping from set piece to set piece with nary a thought to any of the requirements of narrative and thus it feels, well, incomplete.
So, now for THE AWESOME- awesomely stupid or hilariously bad. Both are fine for me.
The film is laced with continuity errors- seriously, there’s fucking hundreds of them, and this incompetence makes it hysterical- corpses vanish, zip lines reappear, wire is obviously visible, weapons repair themselves, stunt doubles are obvious, time is completely ignored, and locations are inconsistent- it’s a medley of fuck ups. I’m certain there’s an epic drinking game to be fashioned from this.
The special effects are absolutely piss poor, and as a consequence, awesome. The Talisman is a giant glowing rock (I shit you not- see above) that makes men that touch it disappear. Gedren has a giant Spider that looks like it’s straight from Fraggle Rock as a pet, not to mention her robot fish thing that eats people (this is the high point of the film- Arnold wrestles it.) Sonja is given her strength by a big blob of fog, there’s a magic mirror that has as a naked belly dancer for it’s screensaver, and so forth.
Script-wise, it has a good stab at the Conan style dialogue, but just isn’t up to it and as a result Brigitte Nielsen’s obvious difficulty in her second language is turned up to 11. She could have done with some help, but instead she gets to deliver atrocious lines like “Surely, grand master, we judge based on our own experience”, or “Suppose I don’t. Suppose, instead, I open up that great, fat belly of yours?” that much better actresses in their natural language would struggle with. It doesn’t seem fair. Mind you, Arnold also gets some right fucking humdingers so it’s at least an equal opportunity shitbag.
Finally, I have to mention the costume design and subtext. Neither of these are subtle or good, but both fit clearly under awesome (if you ignore that idiocy with the over use of red). Whoever did the costumes was clearly told that the idea was to show as much leg as possible, and dress men in as much as he can get away with. This is good- hence the strange nun cult are scantily clad, Sonja wears a skirt that barely covers her ass and so forth. It’s a master class in exploitative tits and ass without showing any actual tits and ass (aside from the screensaver- which I think might be a bloke, but I’m not sure). The subtext of obvious lesbianism that runs through this film is blazingly unsubtle. There’s a tree in South Africa with a fruit that elephants love (bear with me on this). The bull elephant will eat as much of this fruit as he can, then doze off in the sun. While he’s asleep the fruit ferments in his stomach. He wakes up pissed and angry and goes looking for something to eat, something to fuck and something to fight (in that order). This film is as subtle as that enraged, horny, drunken elephant. Gedren noticeably winces with some of her lines, and even Sonja looks vaguely embarrassed (especially during the foreplay fight with Conan Kalidor). It’s the perfect example of how not to give your film layers.
So, would I recommend this? Yes, but with the caveat that it’s much better with beer, and I have to say that the remake is an excellent idea. It could be an actually good film, rather than a mess. I quite enjoyed it, and there’s plenty of chuckles to be had, but I do understand when people say it sucks ferociously. The nicest thing you can say about it is that it isn’t the worst Conan film.