Adamantium Bullet

Cult Blender #19: RED SONJA

CULT BLENDER spotlights the good, the bad, and the ugly of the cult film world. Direct-to-video, b-movies, drive-in classics, Hollywood flops, and misunderstood gems are all here, awaiting rediscovery or to be seen for the first time.

RED SONJA (1985)

PLOT: Brigitte Nielsen stars as warrior woman Sonja, who unites with a couple of standard fantasy tagalongs (including Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ernie Reyes Jr) to overthrow the evil queen Gedren (Sandahl Bergman) bent on world domination and avenge the deaths of Sonja's family.

THE RUNDOWN: Legend has it that RED SONJA originally began life as a pseudo-sequel spin-off to CONAN THE DESTROYER. Producer Dino DeLaurentiis, realizing that DESTROYER had underperformed at the box office but had made enough to warrant a follow-up, optioned another one of Robert E. Howard’s barbarian characters and decided to set the whole thing in Hyboria. That way, Conan could appear in the film (bringing with him the audience he’d built up over the two CONAN flicks) and the movie would serve as a starting point for a new franchise. A new franchise built around a tough-as-nails redhead with vengeance in her heart and a penchant for violence. In other words, a female Conan.

I’ll be the first one to admit that this probably made sense at the time. The CONAN series had run its course at this point but there will still money to be made with the property. A spin-off was basically the only viable option. Unfortunately, DeLaurentiis either ignored or didn’t know about the last film that tried this trick: SUPERGIRL which had been released one year earlier to little fanfare. Yes, I realize the two films are as different as night and day, but they basically kick-started a trend that continues today. Ever notice how female-based spin-offs never work? Remember how ELEKTRA tanked after DAREDEVIL did so well? Or how about the Halle Berry CATWOMAN pic that barely made a fraction of what BATMAN BEGINS made? Yeah, those flicks share the same DNA as SUPERGIRL and RED SONJA which is to say don’t ever create a spin-off a successful male-centric film franchise and center it around a woman. Sexist? Yes. Truth? Definitely.

Of course, the problems with RED SONJA stretch far beyond peculiar box office stats and figures. The first issue with this flick, probably the one that sunk the entire thing, is that Conan isn’t actually in this movie. That’s right, this is Conan spin-off that doesn’t even feature the titular barbarian. Dino might’ve been down for another Conan pic, but Universal wasn’t. Since Universal technically owned the rights to the character that meant that Dino and SONJA had to forge ahead without their big draw. Well, sort of. Conan might not be here, but Arnold Schwarzenegger is as Lord Kalidor-- a burly warrior who’s good with a sword, quick with a quip and definitely NOT a barbarian. The big difference between the two is that Kalidor wears armor and Conan does not. What a world of difference some armor makes...haha.

You see, Dino needed Arnold for this flick-- didn’t matter if played Conan or not. Arnie was fresh off the one-two punch of the original CONAN and THE TERMINATOR (CONAN THE DESTROYER was only a mild success) and was guaranteed box office gold. And since SONJA is primarily populated with unknowns (Brigitte Nielsen and Ernie Reyes Jr), reliable character actors (Ronald Lacey and Paul Smith) and one massive over-actor (Sandahl Bergman), it needed a star of Arnie’s magnitude in order be bankable…or that was the thought.

Dino knew that if he was going to get another pic or two out of his big star, he needed to act fast and make sure he’d have time to fit it into his schedule. That’s why Kalidor is basically an extended cameo (just like Conan would’ve been), but the role is substantial enough that Arnie’s name and face could be plastered all over the marketing materials. Classic bait-and-switch stuff really. Lure the audience in with the promise of more Conan, reveal that it really isn’t Conan and then deliver a new character that will hopefully make you forget the fact that this isn’t really a Conan movie at all.

As you probably guess already, it didn’t work. At all. Audiences caught on pretty quick and rightfully rejected the movie. Don’t really blame them. Nobody wants to see a faux-Conan play second fiddle to some Amazonian unknown who couldn’t act her way out of a wet paper bag. Does that make sense? Probably not.

The real reason that I haven’t spent much time talking about the actual film is because RED SONJA just isn’t really worth the effort. Brigitte Nielsen’s performance as Sonja is just painful. Yeah, she can swing a sword, but that’s about it. Every line she utters, every quip she drops and every time she attempt to emote will make you want to jam pencils into your eardrums. So bad. Legendarily so. And don’t even get me started on her flaming red mullet hairdo…I can’t imagine who thought that was a good idea.

And Bergman, my god. What happened? She was sooo good in CONAN THE BARBARIAN as Valeria. But here, amongst all the lesbonic overtones of SONJA, she’s epically wretched. It’s almost as if she’s delivering every one of her lines to the cheap seats. Maybe someone needed to tell her that this was a movie and not some cheap play in a sh*tty theater with bad acoustics.

The biggest problem I have with this flick is how abruptly it begins. It’s almost as if we’ve (the audience) stepped into the film about twenty minutes in and didn’t realize it. The film opens AFTER Sonja’s family has been massacred by Gedren. Sonja has been raped by a dozen guards, her family slaughtered and her home burnt to the ground. The implication is…I kid you not…that all this happened because Sonja rejected the advances of Gedren. All interesting, if standard for the genre, stuff. Unfortunately, this film doesn’t show any of it to you. Instead it opens after the fact with Sonja lying on the ground and being resurrected by some woodland spirit thing that grants her magical powers or something. I’m not totally sure.

What I am sure about is that keeping the audience in the dark about the traumatic event that kicked off our heroine’s journey is never a good idea. We need to be told what happened and why. We need to be shown it. That’s why CONAN THE BARBARIAN worked so well. You understood the violence and anger of the character because you witnessed what happened to Conan’s family and people. This allowed the audience to accept that this would be a bloody journey and that it was okay that he was a little unhinged. In SONJA, by keeping the massacre and rape off-screen (and thus insuring a PG-13 rating), the audience is blind. All we see is some crazy woman hacking her way through Hyboria and constantly reminding us that no man shall ever have her. Nothing like creating an unlikable pseudo-lesbian ginger in order to achieve box office glory. What were they thinking?

BODY COUNT: 70 (!). 12 high priestesses are murdered by Gedren’s men, 10 of Gedren’s men are murdered by high priestesses, 1 guard is vaporized by the talisman, 2 priestesses are thrown down a Sparta hole, 6 guards are slashed, one is beheaded, 1 priestess is shot in the back with an arrow, Brytag is stabbed in the heart, 12 of Brytag’s men are cut down by Sonja, 3 thugs are gutted, one thug is back-stabbed, a sea demon is face-stabbed, 12 more Gedren guards are hacked to death, one guard has his arm lopped off, another guard is chest-stabbed, an evil wizard is decapitated, that Nazi guy from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is crushed by a giant stone door and Gedren falls to her death.

NAKEDNESS: Arnie remains clothed for the entire film. Sorry ladies. The dudes in the audience get an almost immediate nip-slip from Sonja and some solid cleavage throughout the entire film. A random dancing girl goes topless late in the picture. Like to see that happen in a PG-13 film nowadays.

SIGNATURE MOMENT: As wonky as the “Woodland Spirit grants Sonja magical powers” bit is, it kinda works in a bizarre way. Sets up the tone of the picture pretty decent. Moment basically says “Hey, this is cheap, Italian-made CONAN knock-off. It’s not going to be very good or original, but there might be some decent action and maybe a tit or two later on. Hope you enjoy.”.

IDIOT MOMENT: Sonja constantly rebuffs Kalidor and his advances, saying that she has no need for people tagging along on her road to revenge. Yet she takes on annoying little Prince Tarn (Ernie Reyes Jr) and Falkon (Paul Smith) and keeps them with her till the end. Gal doesn’t want faux-Conan with her, but is okay with a little punk brat and a comedy relief sidekick. Um…okay?

VERDICT: RED SONJA is a waste of time. Don’t bother with it. The movie isn’t very good and the few elements that are decent (Arnie delivers a solid performance, the score by Ennio Morricone is pretty sweet and the set design is quite nice) aren’t enough to warrant checking it out. Check this out only if you have absolutely no other choices. If you’re in the mood for some solid female-centric barbarian action, might I suggest BARBARIAN QUEEN or SHE.

TRIVIA: The original theatrical trailer of this movie contains cutting room-floor footage of scenes glimpsed only briefly in the film's prologue: Sonja, left to perish in her burning home, is saved by her dying brother Barlok; Gedren, prior to her disfigurement, addresses her soldiers and slaves.

The name of Ronald Lacey's character, "Ikol," spelled backwards is "Loki." Loki, in Nordic mythology, was the God of Evil and Corruption, infamous for being a jealousy-prone troublemaker, and plays a pivotal role in the End of the World.

Arnold Schwarzenegger himself eschews this movie as one of his worst, yet he (laughingly) claims that it's an excellent disciplinary tool for his children: "I tell them, if they get on my bad side, they'll be forced to watch Red Sonja ten times in a row. Consequently, none of my kids has ever given me much trouble."

Maria Shriver said in a TV interview that at the premiere of Red Sonja she remarked to her husband, "If this doesn't kill your career, nothing will".

Sandahl Bergman was initially cast as the title character, but decided on portraying "Queen Gedren" instead, to help avoid typecasting.

Posted by J. Bryant

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