Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Review: The Norseman

Once in a great while, a motion picture comes along that reminds you of why you watch movies of its type—a transformative cinematic experience that leaves you wondering why it took you so long to get around to seeing it. Such a film is 1978's The Norseman; not since Citizen Kane have I seen a film that left me feeling this way—and that it lacks a Wikipedia page seems a travesty to me now.

Why, you ask?

  • The Norseman was written, produced, and directed by Boggy Creek II: …And the Legend Continues auteur Charles B. Pierce. And it shows.
  • It was distributed by American International Pictures. And it shows.
  • Among The Norseman's supporting cast are younger versions of Boggy Creek alumni Jimmy Clem ("Crenshaw") and Pierce's son Chuck ("Whisper-Thin Lad"). In The Norseman Pierce Sr. had the good sense to not give Clem any lines (and use "his tongue was cut out" as an excuse), but his son occasionally says things, and the accent is unmistakable.
  • The hunchbacked wizard in The Norseman is Jack Elam, who played the sexual predator in The Girl in Lover's Lane. His only powers here are making vague pronouncements, inspiring mockery from his Viking crewmates, and sending his trained raptor to claw out the eyes of enemies. (Revenge, I guess.)
  • The central conflict is Vikings vs. Indians, and not one of the latter looks remotely Native American. Indeed, the obligatory Attractive Girl Indian Who Betrays Her Own Kind to Help the White People looks more like she's from India—which might explain why she wants to get on the boat with the Vikings.
  • It's also got the actress who played The Penguin in The Blues Brothers, and here she plays…wait for it…one of the Indians. Still kind of a nun, though.
  • A couple of the Vikings are former NFL players. Which reminds me, I've gotta see Thing with Two Heads one of these days.
  • Our protagonist is Lee Majors as the Least Convincing Viking Ever, wearing a set of armor that makes him look like a Byzantine Zorro. He can't even pronounce "norseman" correctly, and as he's one of the film's financial backers, I expect no one dared to correct him. (Somebody hook this guy up with Mark Borchardt.)
  • And oh yes, the Viking helmets do indeed have horns.

In light of all that, then, you can understand my delight. At the end of The Norseman, my face and chest hurt from laughter, which doesn't happen to me often.

Our story begins with an opening crawl asserting historical legitimacy (*snort*) followed by a long rowing sequence to either convey the hugeness of the Atlantic or to allow the pointless voice-over to do its thing. See, these Vikings are on their way to a dangerous and distant land (called "Vineland") in search of some kidnapped fellow Vikings, who spend the whole movie in a cave looking listless while their savage captors carouse outside. If that sounds familiar, it's because it's the exact plot of Roger Corman's Viking Women and the Sea Serpent. I'd think this was a remake of it if there were Viking women or a sea serpent.

The Norseman is also Corman-like in its cheapness. Watch closely during the combat sequences for several Viking shields to bend suspiciously. Don't watch closely during any of the Indian village or prisoner scenes; you'll just get depressed. The dull and maddeningly repetitive score sounds like it was recycled from some late-'50s American International Picture, or maybe a Hercules movie. Yet somehow, this Charles B. Pierce production got its hands on a full-size Viking longship replica. I can only assume this is owed to Fawcett-Majors Productions, co-credited as The Norseman's production company. To think that a single nipple paid for all this.

As for Mr. Fawcett-Majors, he's clearly meant to be our great hero, and he has a couple of not-terrible moments. Too bad he looks like a complete tool running around the swamp in that getup. More distractingly, his oily swagger makes me wonder if Majors was part of the basis for the character of Zapp Brannigan.

I would be remiss if I didn't comment on the trademark Charles B. Pierce style. Here, he restrains (though not completely) his flashback habit and his Terrence Malick-like love of natural vistas, but he does use a Terrence Malick-like overabundance of slo-mo, especially during the combat scenes. The slo-mo works only occasionally and incidentally; the rest of time, it's just padding. (But don't miss Majors' flying kick "technique"; maybe he's supposed to be an Ibero-Byzantine Viking Ninja.) And the film's finale is so devoid of context that you almost wonder if you just didn't get it—see also: Terrence Malick. I'm just glad there was no romance between Majors and the Indian girl, otherwise I would've had to accuse Malick of plagiarism for The New World.

One of the most lovably inexplicable moments of The Norseman is near the end, when the Viking heroes are racing back to their ship. Multiple times, the camera cuts to Jack Elam's character waiting on board, whose facial expression and body language don't so much say "Hooray, our crew has survived" as "I am being eaten by a shark." (I felt bad for Jack for being in this movie. I worry Pierce put him in the black robe and the hump to make him look that much more like Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein.)

This may be the most strongly riffable film I've reviewed thus far on this blog. I'd recommend it unreservedly were it not for the fact that it goes on about forty minutes longer than it should, and like so many cheapies of its type, becomes stultifyingly boring. (Viking Women and the Sea Serpent is a much more competent film.) Nevertheless, it's a must-see for MST3K completionists.

Star Score: 1.5 out of 5

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