The exploitation films of the ‘70s and early ‘80s might be the most beloved style of film out there. How do I know this? Because we’ve gotten about 40,000 love letters to that kind of movie over the last twenty years. Filmmakers and audiences alike yearn for a return to a time when movies were grimy and cheesy, and sweaty and sleazy.
Despite the sheer volume of old-school tributes out there, very few seem to capture the spirit of that revered period of cinema.
But every now and then someone comes along and shows us how to do it right. Every now and then some posse of Swiss lunatics will emerge from the darkness and unleash an absolute monster of a movie.
Mad Heidi is our newest monster.
Heidi (Alice Lucy) is a young woman enjoying the simple life in the Swiss countryside. She tends to her farm and engages in free love with her boyfriend Goat Peter (Kel Matsena). Despite the protestations of her grandfather, Alpöhi (David Schofield), she knows what makes her happy and is determined to live life on her own terms. Her idyllic life is thrown into turmoil when Goat Peter’s illicit cheese smuggling operation draws the ire of the occupying cheese fascists. Both Goat Peter and Grandfather are publicly executed, and Heidi is sentenced to hard labor in the women’s prison.
Beaten and tortured at the hands of both the guards and the inmates, Heidi finds herself nearly defeated. But even when all hope seems to be lost, Heidi refuses to die. She insists on taking back what is hers, on taking revenge against her oppressors. She will fight to bring back the motherland, but to do so, she must first go a little mad.
Writer/director combo Johannes Hartmann and Sandro Klopfstein absolutely nail the balance in tone needed for a movie like this. Too often, there’s a temptation to wink at the audience, to let everyone know that we’re all in on the joke. Everyone knows that the whole idea of the story is wildly stupid. So, the inclination of the creative team is to lean into that and play it for laughs as if they’re better than the source material.
The other option is to take the story too seriously. To sap all the fun out of the proceedings. Hartmann and Klopfstein pull the strings just right. They know when to play it straight. Likewise, they know when to be funny. Mad Heidi is wildly funny, but it’s funny by way of good writing and creativity, not through ironic self-ridicule.
At the heart of the story is Heidi herself. Everything hinges upon her, and the role demands a strong performance to stick the landing. Alice Lucy performs incredibly. Through her whole journey, from simple farm-girl, to prisoner, to veritable bad-ass, Lucy consistently brings the character to life with charm and believability.
Of course, what good is a hero without an equally impressive villain? Casper Van Dien likewise brings his absolute best in his role as President Meili. The inclination of a lesser actor would be to play him as a wild caricature, but Van Dien keeps it under control. There are a good number of moments where he deliberately chews the scenery, but in context it works. When it’s needed, it’s hilarious. When he needs to be more restrained and genuinely evil, he does exactly that.
Everyone’s performance throughout the movie is wonderfully straight-faced. The occasional one-liner and ridiculous reading get through, but only when it’s appropriate for the moment. Throughout the story, everyone plays their part as if they’re real people. That’s the piece that’s missing in most of the modern exploitation-worship in the last few years. There’s genuine effort being put into Mad Heidi. It’s easy to make a bad movie. The hard task is making a good movie out of a bad idea. Hartmann, Klopfstein, and company took the hard path and made a fantastic movie out of an absurd idea.
If one weakness can be found, it would be in moments of violence. There’s a tendency to avoid the moment of impact. We see a weapon raised. We see the awesomely bloody aftermath. The in-between moment, however, tends to be left to our imagination. It’s a minor nitpick to be had, but for a movie otherwise unafraid to be so egregiously bloody, it sticks out as odd to consistently miss the moment of impact.
But don’t let that fool you. The aftermath is on full display. The other downfall of the retro-exploitation film is the unwillingness to be an exploitation film. Again, this seems to stem from a sense of superiority to the source material. There’s a desire to enjoy bloody, excessive, nudity-laden filth, but at the same time the creative team doesn’t want to be that type of movie. It wants to be better than that.
Mad Heidi has no such qualms. It’s not just wanting to be an exploitation film. It wants to be all the exploitation films. There’s a little bit of everything in this bad boy. We’ve got exploitation, nazisploitation, and nunsploitation. There’s women-in-prison and women’s wrestling. There’s gore, gratuitous nudity, and Kung Fu. This movie has it all.
There’s so much going on in Mad Heidi that it frustrates one to try to pin it down into one genre. It’s kinda Action, kinda Comedy, kinda Revenge, kinda Spaghetti Western. Kinda a little bit of everything. In the end, we’ll just have to trust the filmmakers to describe what kind of movie this is: Swissploitation.
Mad Heidi is everything I want to see in a movie. It’s bloody, creative, over-the-top, and best of all, it’s fun. Give Mad Heidi a watch and support some truly independent cinema.