Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Red Sonja
Between news that the new Red Sonja film has found a new writer and all the developments with Gormenghast and The Lord of the Rings television series, fantasy seems to be the hip trend at the moment. But as the saying goes, “all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.” The before period was that favorite era of cheese: the 1980s. As mentioned previously, the success of Star Wars led to a number of sci-fi films and sci-fi knockoffs like Starcrash. But following the success of Conan the Barbarian, a surge in fantasy films occurred as well. The reason for this is likely budgetary: it’s easier to put people in loincloths and give them swords than it is to design convincing space costumes and weapons. And thanks to the sword-and-sandal wave of the 1960s, Italian producers had access to a treasure trove of costumes, weapons and even standing sets with which to quickly produce their fantasy epics and turn a tidy profit. Conan proved there was a market in hulking he-men, voluptuous women in fur bikinis and dodgy-looking magic.
Curiously, Conan producer Dino De Laurentiis would only return to the fantasy well two more times. Once with Conan — in a movie we’ll talk about another day — and for the last time with this week’s film, Red Sonja.
Set sometime in the Hyborian Age of Conan, Sonja (Brigitte Nielsen) is the survivor of a vicious and ugly attack spearheaded by Queen Gedren (Sandahl Bergman). With her parents and brother slain, a regional goddess heals her and offers her the strength to be the best swordwielder of the age. Years later, her sister Varna (Janet Agren) participates in a ritual to destroy a powerful talisman supposedly used by the gods to create the world. The ritual fails as Gedren and her lieutenant Ikol (Ronald Lacey) choose that moment to attack and steal the talisman. Varna manages to escape and runs into Kalidor (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the High Lord of Hyrkania who was supposed to be present for the ceremony, but was waylaid — possibly by Gedren’s forces. Unfortunately, Varna took an arrow in the back and is dying.
Kalidor races to find Sonja and bring her back to Varna, who warns her that she has just 13 days before the power of the talisman will be too much for Gedren to control. At that point, it will rip the world apart with storms and earthquakes. To face Gedren, Sonja heads for Berkubane, the land of eternal night. To get there, she must cross Brytag’s Toll Road and face a number of challenges. Along the way, she picks up companions in the form of Tarn (Ernie Reyes Jr.), the spoiled prince of the ruined city of Hablock and his faithful bodyguard/servant Falkon (Paul L. Smith). She also eventually accepts the aid of Kalidor and her growing romantic attraction to him. But first, they must fight because she swore to only be “taken” by a man who can defeat her in combat.
And if the whole thing sounds like a first draft for a fantasy epic, that’s part of the charm. Red Sonja is composed of a lot of off-the-shelf fantasy parts; right down to the presence of Schwarzenegger. While it seemed tired in 1985, the generic elements are quaint and enjoyable in a cheesy sense today. The film also follows the well-worn fantasy hero’s revenge structure, with the interesting twist in that she never refuses the call to action, but refuses offers of aid. Well, at least initially. Nevertheless, the talisman never seems as Earth-shattering as claimed and its easy to assume Sonja’s mission is just her simple revenge against Gedren.
But this fairly simple story is played against a splendid backdrop of location shooting and the sets of frequent De Laurentiis production designer Danilo Donati. Donati also worked on Flash Gordon, and his passion for overly designed, expansive and red sets is on display again. Curiously, the Donati flourishes are a little more obvious in this film because of the sparseness of the Hyborian world depicted in these films. Unlike the Flash Gordon compositions filled with extras, insane costumes and weird details, Red Sonja scenes contain one major Donati feature — a shelter made of the bones of some sort of giant ox, for example — placed in an appealing composition in an otherwise empty landscape. His concept for Gedren’s castle will be reminiscent to those who have seen Flash Gordon and know Ming’s audience chamber. Like the shelter, or the sisterhood’s temple, the castle is sparsely populated; suggesting a fairly limited budget despite the insanity of Donati’s production design.
One place the money went to good use was the cast. Schwarzenegger, initially hired to reprise Conan in a cameo, effortlessly slides into the role of Kalidor, a more sarcastic take on his earlier fantasy character which presages the shift he would make to his own on-screen persona in the years to come. Apparently, he was surprised to learn he would be required for four weeks of work and grew to resent De Laurentiis. Nonetheless, he’s unequivocally charming here. But then again, he knows what this character is suppose to be. Nielsen, meanwhile, looks great as Sonja — except for that ill-chosen mullet, of course — but is the least effective performer of the heroic quartet. Well, at least where dialogue is concerned. In combat scenes, she looks like a credible fighter and a fairly convincing match for Schwarzenegger when they clash swords. Bergman is fantastic as Gedren … with the caveat that she skirts the line between good and bad acting. Smith is effortlessly great as the humble Falkon and Reyes Jr is extremely irritating as Tarn; but that is the point.
In fact, Tarn’s arc is one of the more surprisingly elements of the film. Director Richard Fleischer gives more time and care to the prince learning humility and self-sacrifice than he does to the romance between Sonja and Kalidor. If one wanted to be cynical, it suggests De Laurentiis instructed him to make more of a family flick than the Conan films. Indeed, Red Sonja features one shot of a topless woman which was easily removed when the film made its way to TV. Additionally, the film features surprisingly goreless beheadings achieved by welding shots of Sonja waving her sword in front of the camera to shots of an obvious model head flipping in mid-air. The beheadings are so sheepishly composed that they are completely unedited in TV versions of the film.
The end result is a film which feels far more innocent than many of its fantasy sistren. And that innocence may as much of the appeal as its dopey fantasy trappings. Red Sonja accomplishes its simple ambitions while delivering a passable and occasionally charming fantasy world. It also features a great score by Ennio Morricone which probably elevates the whole production by a letter grade. And thanks to Donati’s talents with production design, it is one of the better looking pieces of cheese you’ll watch this year.
Red Sonja is available for rent on the usual streaming platforms. It is also available on DVD.