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Retro Review: SHE (1984)


(Italy - 1984; US release 1985)

Written and directed by Avi Nesher. Cast: Sandahl Bergman, David Goss, Quin Kessler, Harrison Muller, Elena Wiedermann, Gordon Mitchell, Laurie Sherman, Andrew McLeay, Cyrus Elias, David Brandon, Susan Adler, Gregory Snegoff, Mary D'Antin, Mario Pedone, Donald Hodson, Maria Quasimodo, David Traylor. (Unrated, 105 mins)

Loosely--and that can't be stressed enough--based on the classic 1886 adventure novel by King Solomon's Mines author H. Rider Haggard, 1984's SHE is either the worst movie ever made or visionary work of next-level postmodernism that constantly walks the fine line between genius and insanity. Flip a coin. Previously filmed in 1935 with Helen Gahagan and most famously by Hammer Films in 1965 with Ursula Andress (which led to the inferior 1968 sequel THE VENGEANCE OF SHE with Olinka Berova), this version of SHE was headlined by Sandahl Bergman, a dancer who logged time as a member of the "Golddiggers" on Dean Martin's NBC variety show before being discovered by Bob Fosse. Her first significant notice came when she was featured in a memorable production number in the mercurial choreographer's 1979 film ALL THAT JAZZ, but it wasn't Fosse and it wasn't Bergman's dancing abilities that got her the SHE gig. It was the 1982 hit CONAN THE BARBARIAN, where she turned heads and won a Golden Globe for New Star of the Year-Female (she was the final recipient, as the New Star category was discontinued after the 1983 ceremony) as the fierce and seductive warrior Valeria, joining Arnold Schwarzenegger in battle and in bed in his big-screen breakout.

While CONAN led to stardom and THE TERMINATOR for Schwarzenegger, all Bergman got was SHE, a mind-boggling Italian mash-up of the barbarian and post-nuke actioners that were being cranked out with wild abandon by Italian exploitation producers not just as a result of CONAN, but also in to cash in on THE ROAD WARRIOR. But SHE is something else entirely, a virtual spoof of the Italian post-nuke craze that doesn't even try to make any logical sense, instead throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. SHE was available in every video store in the '80s and was in semi-regular rotation on late night cable during that same period. For whatever reason, I never pulled the trigger on it until, like a lot of obscure Eurocult titles, it turned up on Netflix streaming in its infancy prior to the company rebranding itself as an original content producer. And I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Was I hallucinating this film? Or was it really this bonkers? And why wasn't I aware of just how bugfuck insane this thing was?

In a post-apocalyptic "Year 23 - After the Cancellation," three siblings, Tom (David Goss), Dick (Harrison Muller, from the Italian post-nukes 2020: TEXAS GLADIATORS and THE FINAL EXECUTIONER), and their younger sister Hari (Elena Wiedermann), are venturing through the wasteland and come upon a vendors market called "Heaven's Gate," where the merchandise includes 7-Up and various boxes of Kellogg's cereals. The market is attacked by Hector (former '60s peplum fixture Gordon Mitchell), the leader of the army of the Nork. Hari is taken away by Hector's goons, who wear football helmets and padding adorned with swastikas, sending Tom and Dick on a quest to rescue her. That takes a while, since they first end up in the realm of the goddess She (Bergman), who commands an army of female warriors and is worshiped by men who endlessly bow and chant "She!" in what appears to be a decaying mansion out of a Luchino Visconti film (SHE was somehow shot at the fabled Cinecitta in Rome). An unholy alliance is eventually formed, as Tom and Dick are joined by She and her trusted second-in-command Shanda (Quin Kessler), the four venturing--together and often separated by circumstance--to the Nork city to find and rescue Hari. This involves a series of sequences including but not limited to:

  • She going into a cavernous storage area filled with upright crates that collapse to reveal armor-wearing swordsmen who we must assume were just there patiently waiting for her eventual arrival.
  • She attacked by a lumbering, cyborg Frankenstein monster whose head explodes when she bites the bolt out of its neck.
  • a run-in with mutant leader Kram (Cyrus Elias) and his chainsaw-wielding disciples in the same abandoned factory that's in almost every Italian post-nuke. 
  • some toga-wearing Caligula cosplayers led by siblings Pretty Boy (David Brandon, in perhaps some inside joke casting as he'd just starred in Joe D'Amato's CALIGULA ripoff CALIGULA: THE UNTOLD STORY) and Pretty Girl (Susan Adler), who turn out to a coven of werewolves. 
  • a telepathic despot named Godan (Gregory Snegoff) with glowing green eyes who leads a cult of communist monks
  • Rudolph (Mario Pedone), a brutish ogre in a tutu who becomes an unlikely ally
  • a foppish mad doctor (Donald Hodson) who dresses like an extra from BARRY LYNDON and holds them captive behind clear plastic shower curtains with the intent of using them in his bizarre human/plant experiments. 
  • Xenon (David Traylor, a mime later known as "robot comedian"Mr. Zed), the wacky guard of the bridge leading to the Nork fortress, who acts like Robin Williams on a talk show, sings the GREEN ACRES theme song, does impressions of James Cagney, Popeye, and the Cowardly Lion, and has the ability to clone himself from his own severed limbs.
  • getting in the Nork fortress, where the masked Nork overlord (voiced by the familiar mellifluous tones of veteran dubber Anthony La Penna) puts them in a fight-to-the-death arena showdown with his warriors where the victors get Hari. 
  • (note: the above list makes even less sense in context)

Believe it or not, Israeli-born SHE writer/director Avi Nesher is an award-winning filmmaker of sterling repute in his home country. His serious, art-house fare is rarely shown outside of Israel (2017's PAST LIFE got a limited US release), but he spent much of the '80s and '90s paying the bills with video store genre fare like the 1991 Michael Biehn sci-fi outing TIMEBOMB, the 1993 Drew Barrymore thriller DOPPELGANGER and by directing (SAVAGE, MERCENARY) or producing (AUTOMATIC, MARS, MERCENARY 2: THICK AND THIN) several Olivier Gruner actioners. SHE certainly falls under the "genre fare" category, and we can only assume that Israeli cineastes who admire Nesher's auteur works like RAGE AND GLORY and TURN LEFT AT THE END OF THE WORLD haven't been privy to the sight of Sandahl Bergman battling a cyborg Frankenstein. SHE was recently released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber (because physical media is dead) and has a Nesher interview as an extra. He talks about his distinctly different genre and art film careers and jokes that it's hard to imagine his serious films winning awards in Israel when watching something like SHE. He also tells a great story about shooting at Cinecitta and blasting loud heavy metal to get the actors psyched up between takes until an assistant to Federico Fellini, who was on an adjacent soundstage shooting 1983's AND THE SHIP SAILS ON, came over and asked him to turn it down. This led to an appreciative Fellini taking Nesher to lunch and asking "What are you making over there?" to which the young director replied "I'm not quite sure yet." 

Featuring a soundtrack composed by former and future Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman (!), with contributions from Moody Blues frontman Justin Hayward (!!), Motorhead (!!!), and Bastard (?), SHE ended up getting a virtually non-existent US release in 1985 and did nothing to capitalize on Bergman's fleeting bit of CONAN THE BARBARIAN and Golden Globes fame. She reunited with Schwarzenegger and got a Worst Supporting Actress Razzie nod as a result when she was cast as the villain Queen Gedren in 1985's RED SONJA. In the years that followed, she found steady work with TV guest spots on shows like CHEERS and DESIGNING WOMEN, and B-movies like the 1987 strip club drama KANDYLAND, the 1987 TERMINATOR knockoff PROGRAMMED TO KILL, and the 1988 Roddy Piper cult classic HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN. Bergman became one of many celebrities to hop on the post-Jane Fonda workout bandwagon, and became a regular in the '90s straight-to-video erotic thriller explosion, appearing in unrated gems like BODY OF INFLUENCE (a title in no way inspired by BODY OF EVIDENCE), LIPSTICK CAMERA, POSSESSED BY THE NIGHT (a Shannon Tweed vehicle that's almost as batshit crazy as SHE), INNER SANCTUM 2, and SORCERESS II: THE TEMPTRESS. Now 68, Bergman has been offscreen since a brief appearance as a dancer in the 2003 Robert Downey, Jr. comedy musical noir THE SINGING DETECTIVE, but these days, she stays busy on the convention circuit, her place in film history secured with her work in CONAN THE BARBARIAN. And while it's been shown some love at a handful of Alamo Drafthouse screenings, it's definitely time that more people experience the indescribable midnight movie nirvana that is SHE. 

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