Olinka Berova is as sexy as Ursula Andress, but even with a new woman producer Hammer’s She sequel doesn’t give her new She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed much of a chance — the story just sits there and the kingdom of Kuma is woefully under-produced. Good photography and acting help, but one doesn’t earn high marks for the Boys from Bray.
The Vengeance of She
1968 / Color / 1:66 widescreen / 101 min. / Street Date February 26, 2019 / 29.99
Starring: Olinka Berova (Olga Schoberová), John Richardson, Edward Judd, Colin Blakely, Jill Melford, George Sewell, André Morell, Noel Willman, Derek Godfrey, Danièle Noël, Gerald Lawson, Zohra Sehgal, Christine Pockett, Dervis Ward.
Cinematography: Wolfgang Suschitzky
Film Editor: Raymond Poulton
Original Music: Mario Nascimbene
Written by Peter O’Donnell based on characters created by H. Rider Haggard
Produced by Aida Young
Directed by Cliff Owen
Aida Young took her first full producing credit for Hammer on 1968’s The Vengeance of She; she’d been around in various capacities since the 1950s and helped steer the company into the 1970s. Hammer was still producing remakes; before their re-imaginings of Universal’s horror and fantasy classics they began with feature versions of popular TV shows. Hammer’s 1966 remake One Million Years B.C. and 1965 remake She performed exceedingly well, boosting the careers of their female stars Raquel Welch and Ursula Andress.
H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 book She: A History of Adventure has never fully faded from the public consciousness. Haggard’s supernatural myth connects our world to long-lost civilizations that possessed occult powers of magic: the immortal white queen Ayesha rules over a savage tribe and seeks the reincarnation of her lost love. Noted silent film versions of She were followed by RKO’s lavish 1935 version produced by Merian C. Cooper, starring Helen Gahagan.
In Hammer’s remake Ursula Andress’s Queen Ayesha successfully compelled the ex-soldier Leo Vincey (John Richardson) to trek to her lost empire of Kuma. She-With-Perfect-Posture convinced Leo that his destiny was to take his place by her side, as the reincarnation of Kallikrates, who she had foolishly murdered a millennium ago. The magical content centers on a flame of immortality, that only periodically burns blue-cold instead of yellow-hot; passing through the flame makes one immortal. the first She ends with Ayesha destroyed and Vincey/Kallikrates, now immortal, doomed to spend eternity alone. Hammer boosted its budget for the Ursula Andress picture, constructing some large sets and shooting in Color and CinemaScope. Both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing had featured roles, and James Bernard contributed an eerie, romantic music theme, one of his best.
The Vengeance of She hoped that the imported actress Olga Schoberová would prove a major ‘discovery.’ Already the star of a number of Czech films, she can be seen at her best in the delightful Czech comedy Who Wants to Kill Jessie?, about a comic-book heroine who becomes flesh-and-blood real. Her role in Vengeance is much less demanding. To take the part, Schoberová adopted an unlikely stage name, Olinka Berova.
A disoriented Scandinavian named Carol (Olinka Berova) drifts to the South of France, compelled by a psychic remote control that insists she is ‘Ayesha’ and compels her to continue Southward to Africa. A truck driver (Dervis Ward) is mysteriously killed when he tries to rape her. Carol hitches a ride on the yacht of millionaire George (Colin Blakeley), which gets her to Africa but at the cost of his life as well. George’s psychiatrist friend Philip (Edward Judd) falls in love with Carol; when she breaks free and heads alone into the desert, Philip and the yacht captain Harry (George Sewell) pursue her. North African wise man Kassim (André Morell) tries to free Carol from the spell that forces her onward, but the magic forces are too strong.
In Kuma (which appears to be walkable from the Mediterranean), Kallikrates (John Richardson again) eagerly awaits Carol, who his head shaman Men-Hari (Derek Godfrey) says is the reincarnation of Ayesha. The stars will align again very soon, and Kallikrates is keen for both Carol and Men-Hari to pass through the flame of immorality. But the deposed shaman Za-Tor (Noel Willman) knows that Men-Hari is lying about Carol. He’s chosen her only for her physical resemblance; his real aim is to go through the flame because it will enable him to become ruler of the world.
When the travelers arrive, Philip is imprisoned and Carol is further prepared for passage through the flame. The only thing that can stop Men-hari is a revolt, fomented by Za-Tor and aided by Sharna (Danièle Noël), a servant who wants Kallikrates for herself.
A vintage fantasy like She needs special qualities to snare our imagination, which The Vengeance of She really doesn’t provide. By the beginning of the 20th century the last few ‘lost’ corners of the world had at least been visited, and mysteries can be extended only so long. The ‘unknown region in Central Asia’ in Lost Horizon’s is insultingly Eurocentric — how much of history is told through stories saying that already-populated places were ‘discovered’ only when white men arrived?
Kuma wasn’t particularly convincing in Hammer’s first She and even less of an attempt is made to explain the city’s survival to the year 1967. This new Kuma just seems a collection of stone rooms without windows, with perhaps ten guards marching about in adapted Roman costumes. We need to be impressed by something for the story to work, but all we see are a couple of so-so matte shots of a green valley. Besides the spear-carriers, the city of Kuma has been reduced to a few handmaidens, a dancer, and a flock of silent priests. The only really relevant conflict is between Kuma’s holy men, who seem to have no clue about the outside world. Why does Men-hari want to conquer something he knows nothing about? What advantage could becoming immortal possibly give him?
Although the dialogue is rather good at times, the story suffers from severe Hammer-itis. Within ten minutes we know that Carol IS being drawn to Kuma by magic, so most of what happens George’s yacht and in the desert is inconsequential padding. The time and concern expended on George, Harry, his wife Sheila (Jill Melford) and Kassim feels squandered. The movie is more than half over before Carol and Philip get to Kuma, and something important can happen. Until the concluding welter of action in the chamber with the flame of immortality, all we get is a lot of talk. In other words, the show is almost all preliminaries and no content.
Cliff Owen’s direction is never more than adequate. The dream-vision montages that pull Carol forward like a tractor beam are not particularly impressive — we don’t get the idea that everyday reality has been invaded by the supernatural. The desert section immediately becomes risible: Harry and Philip race their jeep across the rough roads, guaranteeing a breakdown. They bring no food or water, not even hats. When his canteen is empty, Harry throws it away, fulfilling the oldest dumb desert cliché on the books. It seems absurd when Philip helps Carol discard her white go-go boots — she already has no protection from the sun and the rough rocks, and now she walks the rest of the way barefoot. I hope that the crew laid down a path of soft sand for Ms. Berova.
The actors do very well in these distressed circumstances. The Hammer stalwarts Willman and Morell somehow retain their dignity, and even though Derek Godfrey exhibits a permanent glower as the villain, we never catch him chewing scenery. Colin Blakely and Edward Judd manage despite their wafer-thin characters. We are a little disheartened to see Judd looking so soft and puffy just a few seasons after The Day the Earth Caught Fire and First Men in the Moon — he was reportedly once a contender to play James Bond 007. When George Sewell’s hearty pal exits the proceedings we feel cheated — discarding characters for no good reason does not build up audience involvement.
The gorgeous star Olinka Berova comes off well visually, even though she’s given precious little to do. Berova goes through the entire film as a coiffed and never-mussed starlet, despite being half-drowned, force-marched in the desert, and tossed this way and that. Ms. Berova appears to be dubbed, which further robs her of a personality — we understand that John Richardson has been re-voiced as well. Carol boards the boat by swimming in her underwear, which is not played in a particularly exploitative way; although the posters emphasize sexy costumes, the show was rated ‘G.’ Once Carol arrives in Kuma, the handmaidens dress her in a gown more sheer than a nightgown, with a plunging neckline more revealing than anything Ursula Andress wore. Since she’s has not yet become the imperious Ayesha, the killer-diller costume doesn’t seem appropriate (although Kallikrates seems suitably pleased).
Remember the tableauxs vivants in the movie Circus of Horrors, with its reminder that theatrical nudity was permitted in England, if the models on display stood still, as in a painting? Berova’s plunging cleavage would be too much in a more naturalistic context, but as Ayesha she moves mostly like a piece of formal statuary. The effect is beautiful, but not particularly sensual. I think this ‘rule’ also applies to Pamela Franklin’s screen-filling nude shot in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: Franklin is so still, she might be a painting. When I saw Jean Brodie in 1969, old ladies gasped, but then clucked in approval at the ‘tasteful’ display. I fear that in The Vengeance of She, we’re more likely to be staring at Berova to find out what jiggles and what doesn’t. If Carol had a real personality, she’d be saying, “Hey, I’m up HERE.”
Berova’s stylized ‘Jessie’ in her Czech film had a delightful warmth and sense of humor, despite being a one-dimensional cartoon character. Carol/Ayesha remains in a fog throughout Vengeance, so we don’t really become attached to her. Edward Judd’s Philip at least has an emotional arc — his concern for the mysterious Carol motivates a rash chase into the desert, so we do care about his feelings a little.
The under-developed Vengeance obediently replays a few scenes from the first picture without ever measuring up. We’re given a one-matte-painting tour of downtown Kuma, we see a dance, but nothing much happens. Olinka Berova’s non-assertive Carol gets none of the strong scenes that had been granted Ursula Andress. Her Ayesha was effective when cruel and a compelling dream vision when seducing Leo Vincey. The hero has no buddies, the priests are nowhere near as interesting, and the jealous ‘other woman’ character is less than a footnote. The ending with our lovers walking hand-in-hand is supposed to be happy, despite their being lost and helpless in a desert wilderness. I’m assured that this isn’t among Hammer’s worst movies, but it’s recommended only for completists and Hammer-glamour girl watchers.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of The Vengeance of She is an attractive encoding of the handsomely shot picture. Everything else may be deficient but cinematographer Wolf Suschitzky always keeps Olinka Berova looking good. The shipboard scenes seem cold, as if filmed in bad weather; the locations in Spain’s Almeria are familiar from Italian westerns and especially The Valley of Gwangi. Mario Nascimbene’s okay music can’t touch James Bernard’s evocative original; I’m surprised that Hammer didn’t re-use the earlier score, or adapt it. Nascimbene is credited with ‘music and special musical effects.’
The first extra up is a fan-fun commentary by Matt Weinhold, Shawn Sheridan, Larry Strothe and James Gonis, hosts of the ‘Monster Party Podcast.’ If you’re a lonely horror fan in need of the camaraderie of wacked-out pals riffing and joking about a movie as it unspools, this might be the perfect accompaniment. Otherwise, the hosts spout off like the a.m. radio announcers in Groundhog Day — shouting and laughing. I listened to the first twenty minutes, and they’re definitely giving out some coherent information, but the track often resembles a low-grade MST3K session.
Scream has found three Vengeance crew members willing to talk about the picture. In his four-minute piece assistant director Terence Clegg tells us who was and who wasn’t popular on the set. Art and effects artisan Joy Cuff talks about the items she sculpted and explains how some of the special effects were done. Clapper/loader Trevor Coop fills us in on what it was like to be an underpaid crewperson working for a director nobody liked!
The creaky World of Hammer TV shows haven’t gotten any better over the years, and this Lands Before Time episode is yet another random collection of scenes with a lazy narration by Oliver Reed. The film’s original trailer looks good and tries hard to sell the show. The TV spots included don’t impress but Hammer and Fox’s poster artists really pushed the cheesecake angle with their trashy artwork renderings of the scantily clad Ayesha.
I’ll soon be reviewing Scream’s new disc of an older Universal-International picture which is also about an ALUK (Ancient Lost Underground Kingdom). Dull and cheap as it is, The Mole People still shows more smarts than Hammer’s effort: it has an interesting fantasy premise, reasonably likable characters and fun monsters.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Vengeance of She
Movie: Fair +
Supplements: Interviews with three crewpeople, World of Hammer episode, trailer, still and poster gallery.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 16, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson