Before anything more is written let us be clear: Red Sonja is a bad movie. It has a few saving graces, but not many, and this from someone who is a lifelong fan of swords and sorcery films of all types, and would happily run for president of the Hawk the Slayer Fan Club if there were one. But from the laughable dialogue to the confused tone, and of course the pretty vile homophobia, it is the perfect example of a sloppy fantasy feature that gave the genre such a bad name for many years. However, Studiocanal have brought us the Blu-ray that the silent minority were clearly yearning for. Have they done enough to justify it?
It’s a tall order. Panned on its release, time and contemporary reviews continue to be unkind to the film. Set in the same universe as Conan the Barbarian and its sequel Conan the Destroyer – a movie also directed by Red Sonja’s director Richard Fleischer – it lacks the raw energy of the first movie, and sadly relies too much on the campy glitz that Fleischer brought to the second.
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The then 21 year old Brigitte Nielsen looks amazing as the title character, but then she starts having to act and it all goes desperately wrong. Alongside her is Arnold Schwarzenegger as Lord Kalidor, a character who is absolutely not intended to be mistaken for Conan in any way. The pair form a motley crew with Prince Tarn – a child prince and a thoroughly unlikeable character, played by Ernie Reyes, Jr. – and his long suffering personal slave Falkon, the comic relief character brought to life by a not too bad Paul L. Smith.
Together they must save the world from Sandahl Bergman’s evil Queen Gedren. Bergman had previously appeared in Conan the Barbarian as the heroic Valeria, and was originally offered the role of Sonja. In another universe she said yes, and this review would likely be about a very different movie. As it is, she turned it down, instead opting for the part of Sonja’s nemesis. It’s important to address the issues her character Gedren creates. The Blu-ray starts with a warning that the movie represents views that were of its time; however, the portrayal of homosexuality being part of her intrisic ‘evilness’ sticks in the craw, and feels vile even for the mid-80s. Also, there’s a weird, clockwork monster for some reason.
On top of that we have a thoroughly by-the-numbers story of revenge and world saving that will be all too familiar to anyone who’s run around a playground pretending to be a fantasy hero. Occasionally we’re treated to Albert Whitlock’s masterful matte paintings; a now defunct art which created worlds of glorious imagination before the digital age we now enjoy. Costume designer Danilo Donati does have a strong vision, yet it all feels rather over the top, like a gay pride event in Westeros. Fortunately he also served as production designer, and here what he was trying to create is able to really take off.
The sets are phenomenal – as I child I always wondered who had to light all the candles in Gedren’s chamber, and now, as an adult, I feel very sorry for them – and his spectacular work helps transport us to a world separate and distinct from ours. As does Ennio Morricone’s score. The man was a master of his art and, though here he never quite delivers greatness, it is an enjoyable enough work that has a rather triumphant march running throughout. However, for whatever reason, as the film progresses we hear it less and less. A sad loss and a bad choice. Finally, Giuseppe Rotunno’s cinematography is gorgeous, managing to turn rural Italy into a land of wonder and magic.
Unfortunately, the digital transfer rather lets poor Rotunno down. Sometimes there are arguments for not having a crystal clear clean up, but this is a swords and sorcery epic, and the money certainly wasn’t spent on acting coaches. Though the restoration isn’t the worst, what we’ve been given is certainly a let down.
But what of the special features? There are three documentaries, with two of them – the 16 minute ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger: The Man Who Raised Hollywood’ and 13 minute ‘Red Sonja Vs. Kalidor: The Making of a Misunderstanding’ (mistitled in the menu as Making of: Red Sonja vs. Kalidor) – appearing on the 2010 release. The Schwarzenegger documentary is a bunch of talking heads, with directors discussing his career. So far, so dull.
The second documentary features Michel Ferry, son of the producer Christan Ferry, and Assistant Director on the film, talking about his memories and experiences. Fairly standard fair until the last two minutes, when it suddenly turns into an almost existential deconstruction of the movie and the effect it had on Neilson. Watch it. The third documentary, ‘Renato Casaro – The Last Movie Painter’, is a 2020 celebration of the famous film poster artist, who Studiocanal commissioned to create new art for this release. It’s a good documentary, and probably the strongest justification for spending money on this almost 40 year old film, which probably isn’t a good sign. Additionally, there is also a gallery of Casaro’s work, and a couple of trailers.
But there is no commentary, a lacklustre restoration, and – other than the previously mentioned art – nothing specifically created for this release. Which begs the question: why bother? Unless this is a fondly remembered movie from your youth, it’s unlikely you’ll enjoy the film, and without anything new being brought to the table, this is a hard release to recommend. If you like it, buy the Blu-ray. But really, when trying to describe this movie and this release, one thing Michael Ferry said keeps springing to mind: The whole thing was a bit soulless.