Late at night, when the lights go out, film lovers secretly give a prayer of thanks for movies like Sheena. They’re so bad – so epically, fundamentally wrong-headed – that their very existence on-screen constitutes a minor miracle. We condemn them with every breath we can muster, but in our heart of hearts, we’re glad they are so awful. Not only can their awfulness be fantastically entertaining in and of itself, but cinema’s most notorious stink piles provide a marvelous perspective on just how bad the movies can get. “Oh, you think The Amazing Spider-Man 2 sucked? You’re adorable. Please let us show you what REAL sucking looks like.”
Ladies, and gentlemen, I give you Sheena, an earnest mid-80s attempt to bring a comic-book heroine to life in ways that make Halle Berry’s Catwoman look like Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman. The heroine is a busty blonde firebrand in a leopard-skin one-piece, a co-creation of the legendary Will Eisner and the first female character to headline her own comic. (Wonder Woman got her stand-alone title just a couple of months later.) She seemed like a good candidate for the big-screen treatment: a modern-day fantasy figure with plenty of animal friends for the children and a nice set of boobs for the children above drinking age.
So what went wrong? It might be easier to explain what went right, for so vast and complete were the producers’ copious fuck-ups that we can note the positives far more quickly:
Beyond that, I got nothing. The remainder of Sheena distills crappy filmmaking to its blindingly pure essence, a big-budget extravaganza that looks like Roger Corman shot it on the cheap over a long weekend. It’s tempting to blame star Tanya Roberts, who looks the part and has the comparative presence to rock an animal print, but whose thespian skills extend no farther than perennially vacuous confusion. Pointing the finger at her implies that things would be better if they got someone else: that casting a more talented actress could somehow halt the wave of diarrhetic horse flop barreling down upon the audience with tsunami-like intensity.
No, the real fault lies in typical Hollywood over-handling. The project began over a decade before its release, then bounced back and forth between directors and studios like a hot potato. Screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. – still riding the goodwill from the Adam West Batman show – came on to finalize the script, but director John Guillermin lacked the requisite sense of camp to make the scenario work. The two had previously collaborated on the disastrous 1976 King Kong, and promptly set themselves up for a hideous curtain call.
The story coughs up lazy nonsense about an African tribe in the way of a strip-mining company and the evil mercenaries sent in to wipe them out. Sheena, raised in the jungle from an early age and possessing various mystical abilities learned from THOSE BLACK PEOPLE, stands in their way. She’s joined by an enterprising journalist (Ted Wass) and a gaggle of local fauna ready to take down any bad guys in trampling distance.
You can sense the campiness trying hard to get out, and even though it can’t, it still constitutes the film’s saving grace. It delivers the best kind of badness, the kind that lets you snicker and giggle at the ineptness onscreen and thus derive some back-handed entertainment value in exchange for your precious time. The casual racism, the silly mining plot, the routine insistence that everything going on is a matter of life and death… so disastrous is its presentation that you just can’t take any of it seriously. Guillermin shot the movie entirely in Kenya, which is surprising because it all looks like a Culver City back lot. No amount of money can erase this type of cheapness. It goes straight to the bone, appearing in every botched effects shot and risible line of dialogue. Sheena seems almost proud of those qualities, and shares them with the other grand gobblers of cinema: the Battlefield Earths and Batman and Robins that started with bad ideas and got much, much worse from there.
Film criticism at its best needs to be constructive, and point out those places where and how (in the reviewer’s opinion) things could have worked better. NOTHING could improve an effort like this: no script rewrite, casting decision or change in course could make this… effort worthwhile. They needed to burn it all down and start again, something impossible to do once the production train starts rolling. And I’m not sure that’s even advisable. A reborn production might have been okay, but something this bad truly lingers in the memory: reminding us every time we dare to watch it that the next movie we see will almost certainly be better. You need to know how low the bar goes to appreciate how much higher it can rise. And you won’t find them much lower than a movie like Sheena.