MAD HEIDI Review: A Mostly Fun, Sometimes Icky Journey Through Exploitation Subgenres
Mad Heidi is clearly in love with the vast history of exploitation and grindhouse films. That’s never more on display than during a sequence in which we watch the titular Heidi (Alice Lucy) go through a Kung-Fu film inspired training montage with katanas as weapons, nuns as teachers, and a rousing Spaghetti Western-style score as backing track.
That montage is indicative of the film’s commitment to check off as many subgenre boxes as it can, which sometimes works in its favor -- that sequence is hilarious because of its disjointed parts -- and sometimes does not. There are some moments, particularly early in the film, that feel as though the creators’ understanding of the provocation in exploitation films ended at pushing a button that shouldn’t be pushed instead of using that button-pushing to productively make people uncomfortable about the world in which they live.
There are brief but memorable images of a racist caricature of a Black character and of nude prisoners being hosed down with a power hose that don’t land as anything more than edgy “oh we’re so bad” ideas from the filmmakers. These images are made all the more uncomfortable because they are in the context of a film where the evil authoritarian government is stylized like Nazis. Invoking real racism and Holocaust imagery in a movie where the joke is that there are cheese Nazis (more on that in a moment) breaks the fun of the heightened world and instead gives a queasy feeling about the creators, not their villains.
Overall, though, that heightened world is fun to spend time in. Early in the film we’re introduced to an alternate Switzerland where President Meili (Casper Van Dien, an American with Dutch heritage referred to in the film as “our very Swiss leader”) has seized control of the government and cheese production. The nation has outlawed the making of any cheeses that are not produced by Meili’s company and seeks to rid the nation of any lactose intolerant individuals, as I said: cheese Nazis.
Heidi grows up in this society and lives a good life, but when her boyfriend is murdered by the state for trafficking goat cheese, she swears vengeance. Before she's able to take them on, though, she’s sent to a state prison where the film can play with the 'women in prison' subgenre and throw out references like an inexplicably Japanese character having 701 as their prison number. And while she’s there, government scientists cook up a new cheese that turns people into hyper-obedient zombies; again, the film is deeply committed to including as many grindhouse subgenres as it can.
Those zombies help the film meet its necessary gore quota as a 21st century riff on exploitation film and the effects team does a phenomenal job of creating delightfully splattery practical gore that frequently paints the lens with gooey blood. Albeit, the movie saves most of that gorey goodness for its finale, opting instead to allow nudity, obscenity, and various forms of cruelty to carry along its requisite titillation for the first two-thirds. Those include many, many cheese jokes, including a genuinely disturbing scene of a man being tortured by having hot fondue poured over his face, and other not exactly creative but obscene uses of Swiss food classics, like a sausage with mustard going into someone’s body, but not through their mouth.
The cheese jokes are funny throughout and they’re helped by an onslaught of visual gags. The film opens on an aggressively saturated and hyperreal image of the Alps, characters’ battle costumes are made of giant Swiss cowbells and sexed up traditional clothing, and Heidi’s personalized long ax has an edelweiss flower forged into it.
To further add to the humor, this heightened world is filled with an absolutely ridiculous variety of accents. Van Dien alternates between a poorly put-on Swiss accent and his natural American accent while actors from Austria, Switzerland, and the UK all change their natural accents to be, well, something. One puts on an American accent, another urges her natural Austrian German accent into something that can’t be pinpointed and can barely be understood, and several land closer to a Scandinavian accent than anything continental.
All of this silliness makes the film a joy for fans of exploitation films. Which makes it all the more disappointing that there’s some unnecessary racial ickiness included as well.