She (1983) She (1983/1984) -***

     Title notwithstanding, Avi Nesher’s She doesn’t claim to be based on H. Rider Haggard’s. It merely claims to have been “inspired” by it, and I can think of no starker illustration of the difference between the two states. Haggard fans coming to this She will look in vain for stiff-upper-lipped English adventurers, colonialist visions of Darkest Africa, forgotten holdovers of ancient civilizations, or even fires of immortality. Instead, they’ll find a mad amalgam of post-Conan the Barbarian sword-and-sorcery and post-Road Warrior apocalyptic dystopia. About the only thing the two Shes have in common is an arrogant blonde ruling over a degenerate empire of half-bright savages who worship her as a goddess.

     As usual for the early 80’s, the end of the world came in the form of a nuclear war. We know this because there are tribes of mutants living alongside the human survivors, and because the latter disparagingly refer to the former as “nukes.” As for the war itself, folks call it “the Cancellation” nowadays— “nowadays,” by the way, being pegged with unexpected specificity as 23 years later. It seems like an awfully short time in which to see such a complete restructuring of the world take place. Forget about rebuilding as much of the old order as can be salvaged from the rubble, like the inhabitants of Bartertown. These survivors have gone full Hyborian Age, splitting up into tiny tribes with scrupulously on-brand monocultures, each ruled over by a so-called god. Into this realm of squabbling theocracies one day stride a trio of traveling traders called (are you ready for this?) Tom (David Goss), Dick (Harrison Muller, from Throne of Fire and The Final Executioner), and Hari (Elena Wiedermann, of Caged Women and Thor the Conqueror). They have the foul luck to arrive at the bustling market settlement of Heaven’s Gate on a day when it is raided by a war party from Nork Valley. The Norks kill or capture everyone they can lay hands on, and their leader, Hector (Gordon Mitchell, from 2+5 Mission Hydra and Evil Spawn), personally rides off with Hari after his men leave Tom and Dick for dead.

     The guys are alive, however, if not precisely well, and as soon as they recover sufficiently, they head off in search of their lost companion. Their quest leads them into the territory ruled by a goddess known only as She (Sandahl Bergman, of Conan the Barbarian and Stewardess School), who unbeknownst to Tom and Dick is an avid collector of great, strapping studs like them. Or like Tom, anyway; Dick might actually be a little stringy for her taste. Alas, the first person the men meet in She’s domain— a seductive blonde called Taphir (Laurie Sherman, from Dark Universe and Mind Twister)— is aware of the goddess’s proclivities. She invites the newcomers back to her home, serves them a drugged meal, and then sells Tom to She.

     The thing about goddesses is that they tend to be accustomed to people doing what they’re told, and Tom isn’t very good at that. I mean, he’s better at it than Dick, but still not half equal to godly standards for ass-kissing. She hasn’t had Tom in her possession for an hour before deciding that he’s completely unacceptable, at which point She orders her right-hand woman, Shanda (Quin Kessler), to have the insolent slave “walk the Path.” That may sound fairly innocuous as divine wrath goes, but it turns out that the Path is an avenue of broadswords set into the ground points-up, and that walking it done blindfolded and with hands tied, while Shanda and her Amazon soldiers take potshots from the sidelines. So pretty strenuous, really. In fact, Tom’s walk on the Path ends with him being left for dead again, and this time he requires someone else to find him and to nurse him back to health. That would be a reclusive not-very-wise man who calls himself Tark (Andrew McLeay), incidentally. Tark does at least know enough to identify the marauders who abducted Hari, and to name for Tom the one person in these parts who would know the way to Nork Valley. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the person whose guidance Tom requires is She. I suppose that can be a problem for after Tom returns to Taphir’s place to rescue Dick from captivity, however.

     Meanwhile, the goddess herself is undergoing a curious series of trials. Beneath her palace is a cave, and within that cave is a warehouse full of crated-up monsters and warriors. Once She has defeated some arbitrary number of the latter, a loony old lady (Maria Quasimodo, from All the Colors of the Dark and Sisters of Satan) allows her access to some kind of pool or spring or something, in which She bathes to “renew” herself for “another cycle.” It’s the only slightly She-like thing that happens in She, so enjoy it while it lasts. Immediately after her soak in the Hot Tub of Immortality, however, She is waylaid by Tom and Dick, who ride off with her on her own horses, intent on forcing her to guide them to Nork Valley.

     From this point on, She devolves into a nigh-shapeless parade of One Damn Thing After Another. I believe the polite term is “picaresque.” Tom, Dick, and She fall successively into the clutches of no fewer than four different groups of freakoids en route to their showdown with the Norks, being variously separated and reunited at each step of the way. First come Kram (Cyrus Elias, of Nothing Underneath and Hercules, Samson & Ulysses) and his tribe of detachable-limbed mutants, who subject the trio to a budget version of the Star Wars trash compactor scene. Then there’s the tribe of werewolves who lounge around a garden all day reciting poetry to each other like a bunch of decadent Roman aristocrats, and party all night dancing to salvaged rock-and-roll records. Next come the Stalinist torture monks whose god, Godan (Gregory Snegoff!), has psychic powers which make him a tad more credibly godlike than most of his ilk. And bringing up the rear are a foppy Ancien Regime mad scientist called Rabel (Donald Hodson, from Ghoulies II and Sinbad of the Seven Seas) and his hulking, tutu-clad henchman, Rudolph (Mario Pedone, of Blue Island and Urban Animals). Meanwhile, Shanda rides in pursuit with a squadron of Amazon cavalry, but ultimately gets roped into accompanying her mistress as She accompanies Tom and Dick. If you’re looking for a reason why the goddess is suddenly so amenable to being kidnapped, I’d advise you to stop before you hurt yourself. The final obstacle to be overcome before the rescue mission for Hari can get down to business at last is Xenon (Alien Exorcism’s David Traylor), the regenerative and self-cloning madman who guards the last bridge into Nork Valley. Then it’s just a simple little matter of finding the girl, springing her from the clutches of the Norks’ god, and getting away despite the best efforts of Hector and the entire Nork army. Piece of cake, right?

     To be perfectly honest with you, I have no idea how She could possibly have happened. Avi Nesher isn’t just some schmuck, you see. Ever since The Band, his initially much-reviled but now cult-classic 1978 debut, Nesher has been one of the most significant independent players in the Israeli motion picture industry. In this century, his movies have won festival awards hand over fist. Rage and Glory, the film he made right after She, touched off an international firestorm of controversy with its sympathetic depiction of Jewish terrorists fighting against British colonial authorities in what was not yet Israel in the 1940’s. That film so impressed Dino De Laurentiis that he lured Nesher to Hollywood, where he turned out to be an exceedingly poor fit. Still, his handful of American-made movies were by most accounts competent if offbeat productions, and at least one was a modest cult success. Yet somehow, in the middle of all that, there sits She, one of the screwiest, most misbegotten, most nonsensical examples of both its dual genres that you’re ever likely to encounter— and any cursory survey of either will reveal that to be a rather tall boast!

     It isn’t that there’s much going on in She that you haven’t seen before. Rather, it’s that Nesher seems to be trying to cram in everything you’ve ever seen, even when that requires doubling and tripling up in ridiculous ways. Like, barbarian movies might have nests of seemingly welcoming people who are secretly monsters, and post-apocalypse movies love a good rock-and-roll cargo cult, and sci-fi of all stripes can rarely resist a nice bogus Rome— so here’s a tribe of Fauxman werewolves who are also a rock-and-roll cargo cult. Similarly, dystopia craves totalitarianism, Medieval fantasy is crawling with depraved monks, and the post-Carrie vogue for psychic powers still wasn’t going away in 1983— so here’s a totalitarian order of depraved monks ruled over by a psychic dictator. The Norks are like Toecutter’s nomad bikers, the Lord Humongous’s army, and every enemy gang in The Warriors, all rolled up into one. There’s even a prophecy hanging over She’s head, although I didn’t bring that up before because nothing significant ever comes of it. None of this stuff is combined with any apparent thought or care. Nesher just packs it in wherever it can be made to fit, heedless of the effect that has on the movie’s pace, narrative integrity, or even basic intelligibility. And speaking of lack of heed— my God, the editing in this picture! It gets a little less frenetic as the film wears on, but for the first half-hour or so, the rapid and seemingly random cutting among different people, places, and events makes it a real challenge to follow the action.

     That said, if you enjoy a lousy, cheap fantasy-action flick on approximately the Italian model, She has plenty to recommend it. Everything I’ve just complained about can also be deemed a selling point from a certain point of view. Even She’s most excruciating forays into anti-comedy (every second of Xenon’s screen time, for example) can be enjoyed for their sheer gonzo improbability. The jokes may not be funny, but the fact that somebody thought they were is. Finally, I always get a kick out of seeing prolific voice actors in onscreen roles, so She was worth it to me just for the chance to match a face to Gregory Snegoff’s voice. You may not consciously know who he is, but if you’ve watched half as much anime, fourth-generation kaiju eiga, or 1980’s Italian gore-horror as I have, you’ve definitely heard him speak. To see him play Jim Jones by way of Joseph Stalin by way of Carrie White, of all things, puts a hell of a lot of icing on that cake, too.

 

 

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