Joyously Bloody Neo-Exploitation Flick Mad Heidi Makes Cheese its MusePhotos via Madheidi.com Movies Reviews exploitation
There’s a level of effective genre parody in film, especially as it pertains to exploitation cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, that is rarely achieved by reverential directors hoping to strike a particular chord of appreciation. This isn’t for lack of trying—countless filmmakers attempt on a yearly basis to ape the same material that the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez tapped into for Grindhouse, and almost all of them fail. These failures largely come down to a combination of “lack of resources” and “lack of vision,” creating a sub-strata of well-intentioned parodies or tributes that are rarely worth the effort put into them. But every now and then, a film does peek above the refuse heap of its low-budget imitators to capture some spark of the divine, wielding the kind of reckless, exuberant abandon capable of making the audience guffaw, or at least smile. And Mad Heidi thankfully falls into that more exclusive club.
Granted, this is still a sliding scale, and Mad Heidi doesn’t quite achieve the brilliance of a razor sharp parody like Black Dynamite, or even the DIY spunk of a Kung Fury. The writing isn’t as sharp and consistently funny as those films, but what Mad Heidi has is some genuinely impressive production design, beautiful landscapes, solid performances and a setting that is fresh and novel for this kind of neo-exploitation angle. In a parody genre already inundated with cheese, basing an entire film around fascist dairy mongers is an inspired choice.
Mad Heidi bills itself as the first-ever “Swissploitation” film, a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of the iconic children’s novel first published in 1881 by Swiss author Johanna Spyri. The book documents a young girl’s adolescence in the pastoral beauty of the Swiss countryside, as she grows and learns about the world around her. The film, on the other hand, recasts Heidi as a sexy young freedom fighter, battling “cheese fascists” after the death of her lover and grandfather. Oh, and did we mention that the evil President of Switzerland is played by faded Starship Troopers star Casper Van Dien, continuously referred to by his underlings as “our very Swiss leader”? This is made all the more amusing by Van Dien’s totally inconsistent performance, which apes a cartoon German accent that arrives and departs at will, every other line. It’s hard to tell what is intentional, and what is Van Dien just not giving a fuck, but it all works.
Rest assured, Mad Heidi is completely and utterly indebted to Tarantino in particular, stealing little conventions like the “pause and splash a character’s name on screen when introducing them” cliche. It also touches on a lot of classic exploitation subgenres, especially the women-in-prison film, with slices of Female Prisoner Scorpion and Riki-Oh, but like many modern parodies it doesn’t fully commit to the same level of exploitation of its performers, afraid to objectify them to quite the same standard as the films it’s aping. This is understandable, as modern taste doesn’t accept quite the same degradation for a protagonist as the likes of Jack Hill could get away with in the early 1970s, and would rather reframe these films through the lens of empowerment, even if the sentiment is a little hollow. Regardless, in a film like this, it means you’ll still get some occasional nudity, but now it will be more tasteful and glancing nudity, at least when it comes to Heidi herself. Thus, star Alice Lucy (radiant, fierce) emerges with dignity intact.
Where Mad Heidi really does its best work is in building a setting, offering up a retro-futurist version of Switzerland in which the president’s cheese empire has completely overthrown society. Public service announcements drone over the airwaves, instructing the cowed citizenry to report their lactose intolerant friends and neighbors to the government, who rapidly round up such undesirables and exterminate them. An illicit cheese underground deals in black market goat’s milk, while the government’s secret police pour molten fondue over the faces of their enemies to make them talk, before killing them with a Toblerone down the throat. And in the shadows, a new danger lurks: An experimental, mind-altering new variety of “ultra Swiss” cheese that threatens to turn the population into mindless zombies.
These sequences are achieved with a flair for costuming, set design and production design that is often absent in the world of parody, and they endeavor to make Mad Heidi look considerably more expensive than it actually is. In general, the film is really quite nice to look at—the vistas of Switzerland get ample screen time, and although the film is somewhat lacking in big set pieces, its budgetary limitations rarely feel apparent. Any time things start to slow down, for instance, we’re typically gifted with another bit of hilariously gross gore effects, which push their arterial spray far past the bounds of “horror” and more in the direction of Peter Jackson-style absurdity. And for a premise like this, that’s absolutely the right call.
Mad Heidi is ultimately an impressive debut for the directorial team of Johannes Hartmann and Sandro Klopfstein, who first pitched this idea in the form of a Grindhouse-style fake trailer years back before raising the majority of the film’s budget through crowdfunding. Any team that manages to raise more than $2 million from strangers on the internet clearly has a strong, passionate drive behind it, and that cash is well spent in bringing the over-the-top bloodletting and cheesy Swiss setting to life, in a film that has already won a handful of awards at various European genre film festivals. They’re now trying to recoup at least some of the film’s budget in the most direct of manners—exhibiting it directly online (for rent) through their own website, effectively cutting out the middleman. Perhaps Mad Heidi will eventually see a wider digital release (Blu-rays drop in February), but in the meantime you can’t really begrudge the filmmakers trying to wring the maximum benefit from a project that has likely consumed years of their lives. And as the website’s hilarious shop makes abundantly clear, they’ve missed no opportunity for parallel merchandising—there’s even a Mad Heidi branded series of absinthes! Now that’s what I call a tie-in to Paste’s areas of interest.
One wonders if Mad Heidi will naturally play well in the U.S. despite its English language roots, if only because there’s relatively little awareness here of the Swiss novel and character that inspired it. The gonzo action movie lover, though, should find much here to appreciate—a film best seen with a crowd, for certain—while those versed in independent film production will likely find themselves admiring its technical soundness. Here’s hoping that Mad Heidi finds its way before the eyes of both.
Director: Johannes Hartmann, Sandro Klopfstein
Writer: Johannes Hartmann, Sandro Klopfstein, Gregory D. Widmer
Starring: Alice Lucy, Casper Van Dien, Max Rüdlinger, Kel Matsena, Pascal Ulli, David Schofield
Release Date: December 8, 2022 (online, www.madheidi.com)
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.