Do you remember the early 80s cartoon Thundarr the Barbarian? It ran two seasons and it took place in the distant future after some apocalyptic event that broke the moon and shattered civilization, in it the heroes battled evil wizards who combined magical spells with reanimated technologies from the pre-catastrophe world, but what does a decades-old cartoon have to do with Cirio H. Santiago’s late 80s Mad Max rip-off you ask? Well unlike most of the post-apocalyptic he produced and directed this one has people using swords, women with strange powers, and many people trying to reclaim the technology of the past, and as The Sisterhood was released in 1988 one has to wonder if Santiago was a fan of that Thundarr as well.
Once again we are given narration explaining how the “final war” leveled the old world to the ground, and how warlords now rule the land with iron fists, but amongst this chaos, a band of gifted women roams the outlands pledged to the sacred duty to restore peace and equality, they were called…
We see a band of men that have just returned from The Western Wars hanging around a rocky hillside like some kind of medieval speed-trap. Most of them are outfitted in your typical Road Warrior garb; black leather and black painted football pads though they are strangely armed with swords and shields, not guns as one would expect to see in a Mad Max rip-off. The leader of the group is Mikal (Chuck Wagner) and he stands out from the group because he is the one dressed more appropriately for sword wielding.
The group spot two riders approaching and quickly identify them as being members of The Sisterhood, and because Mikal really hates the Sisterhood they attack. Mikal is one of the more interesting characters to ever pop up in this genre, at first he just comes across as a colossal dirtbag who wants to see the downfall of The Sisterhood for no good reason (we later learn he has a reason though it’s not a good one), but later we almost get a bit of sympathy for him, and he does on occasion show compassion. Unfortunately for him, his merry little band is no match for even just two Sisters as they all possess “gifts” of some form or another.
Yes, she has friggin laser beams coming out of her eyes. That is Alee (Rebecca Holden) who we later find out has telekinesis and can move small objects with her mind. I’m not sure how telekinesis translates into killer eye beams but I’m cool with it. Just as Mikal is getting the upper hand in a duel with Alee she uses her powers to start a small rockslide, distracted by the falling rocks he is easily disarmed by Alee. Meanwhile, her partner Vera (Barbara Hooper), whose magic power is healing, managed to dispatch a couple of Mikal’s men, and thus are two women are victorious. Alee spares Mikal saying, “We have nothing worth dying for. Go in peace.” You kind of get the impression that The Sisterhood are like Jedi Knights working as guardians of peace, but Mikal is what one would call a sore loser for as they ride off he swears, “I’ll have your heads on my pike one day!”
The story then cuts to an outpost run by a Lord Neufield, one of the many warlords that make this an unsafe world for women, and in this particular outpost we meet Marya (Lynn- Holly Johnson) who is harassed by the residents for being a witch. Seems she has the ability to talk to her hawk, which she named Lady Shree, and instead of this earning her respect it gets the local asshats throwing stones at her. She tries to tell some of the men that Lady Shree has spotted raiders in the vicinity but she is just insulted and chased off. We do learn that Lord Neufield kept her around because of her gift so why in the hell would he lets his men treat her like shit?
Marya’s little brother wants to run away saying, “Lady Shree will keep us safe,” but Marya isn’t down with that idea as she tells him that she would be, “Enslaved by the first man who found me.” So I guess The Sisterhood’s feminist army hasn’t been all that successful. The kid even suggests she join The Sisterhood, but there are a couple of problems with that; one being that they are considered by most to be just a myth and the second is that even if they were real, and not just some made up legend, then her little brother would not be allowed to join this all-girls club. She tells her brother to stop living in dreams that, “No woman can travel the world without a man to defend her.”
Well, the problem of what to do with her little brother if she ever did join this mythical Sisterhood is solved when the raiders attack and Mikal kills the kid. (Note: Mikal actually seems upset when he discovers he’s killed a kid which is a really nice touch here) With her latest home sacked, her family was forced to leave their previous home in the Western Kingdom because her powers freaked people out and that is how they ended up with Lord Neufield, she decides to hit the road. But how will she survive in a world where woman are nothing more than chattel?
A little later at a nearby tavern, Alee and Vera are enjoying some backroom delight in a medieval Jacuzzi while over in the main room of “Dynamite Willy’s” we find Marya trying to eat some food without being noticed by all the raiders drinking and carousing around her. When she tries to sneak out the owner grabs her and claims her for himself, but before he can get too far Alee and Vera enter the room and asks if Marla is claiming the protection of The Sisterhood. She does and after Alee sends a well-aimed telekinetically thrown bottle into the owner’s head, which sets off a bar fight, they escape into the night.
At first, Alee and Vera were going to drop Marya off at a town known for being nicer to women, but when they learn that Marya can psychically communicate with her bird they decide she has what it takes to be a Sister. Unbeknownst to them Mikal was at the tavern and he witnessed the whole thing, and so he and his men track the girls until one night they are able to sneak up and abduct Vera. This is made possible by the fact that though Vera is a good fighter her superpower is healing and not an effective tool when jumped from behind. Mikal tells his men, “Now The Sisterhood will have to deal with me, and they will wish they never crossed me.” He and his men try to join up with a slaver caravan run by Lord Barak (Robert Dyer) for added protection, but when some of Barak’s men try to rape the bound Vera Mikal runs to her aid and fights off the villains.
Lord Barak does not like fights among his people so he politely asks Mikal to leave. Unfortunately, this means that when Alee and Marya attack the caravan later that night they find out that they’ve just missed Mikal and his cronies. In the hopes of catching up with their friend’s kidnappers, Alee decides to takes a shortcut through the Forbidden Zone, an area known for being inhabited by mutant cannibals, and mere minutes into this shortcut they are ambushed by said cannibals.
We are then “treated” to a long and drawn out running battle through the woods. It’s dark, you can’t see what’s going on, and the mutants never seem that much of a threat. Marla falls down a hole but instead of it turning out to be some pit trap it is revealed to be an entrance to a series of underground caverns. At least now we can see what’s going on as the lichen in the cave glows nicely. They continue to fight off mutants as they make their way through caves until they come to a large door with an electronic keypad. Alee is able to make the keypad work, I’m assuming she used her powers but it’s really not made clear, and they enter an abandoned military bunker.
They explore the facility and discover a cache of weapons and a garage that contains a “War Wagon” (actually its Cadillac-Gage V-150 Commando light armored vehicle) which should certainly give them an advantage when it comes to rescuing poor Vera. How these two manages to get such vehicle running (the gas would have evaporated and the batteries would be long dead) let alone know how to drive it and use its armaments is the true mystery here.
Meanwhile, Mikal has joined up with another paramilitary group led by eyepatch-wearing Lord Jak (Anthony East) but is running into the same problem, having one of The Sisterhood as prisoners cause much unrest among the soldiers. Mikal tells Jak not to relax, that he and his men are moving out and that they are taking her to the Hall of the Sisterhood, “We are going to confront those witches face to face.” Jak points out one small problem that being Mikal has only three men.
Seems Mikal isn’t afraid of the witches, he doesn’t believe in their “so-called magic” claiming they “use our fear to defeat us” and that “they can’t stop men with no fear.” Did Mikal get knocked on the head and forget about the whole telekinesis-eye laser thing? Hell, even if he is right and the magic of The Sisterhood is just an elaborate mind game he’s still pitting four men against an army of sword-wielding Amazons. Magic or not he and his men would get their asses kicked rather smartly. Sadly we never get to the Hall of the Sisterhood to see how this tactical genius would have handled himself because as was regaling Lord Jak with his brilliance Alee and Marya arrived.
Lord Jak wants to hand Vera over to the Sisters but Mikal responds, “Are you crazy?” So Mikal has clearly stepped into Captain Ahab obsessing over his white whale, but just what does he have against The Sisterhood? Well, it turns out his older sister developed powers and she was forced to flee the persecution of her people and join The Sisterhood. Somehow Mikal translated that into “They took my sister prisoner” and he is hell-bent on getting her back or at least getting a heaping helping of revenge.
So Mikal feels remorse after killing a child, defends his enemy from rape, and has a complicated if completely skewed backstory. This makes the character of Mikal one of the most nuanced characters I’ve seen in the genre, and Chuck Wagner gives a really nice performance.
After a few failed mortar barrages Lord Jak and his men tale flight their vehicles and hightail it towards the safety of the city of Calcarra. Earlier we learned from Alee that this is the place that Lord Kragg (Kenneth Peerless) is holding a group of Amazons that were captured during the battle of the Twelve Trees. Cirio H. Santiago certainly went to town on world building with this movie; you actually get a sense of history without the need of endless narration or flashbacks, characters name drop events and places without going into detail explanations, and that’s cool because we really don’t need to know. It’s to see a low budget action film crediting its audience with a little intelligence.
During the chase to Calcarra Alee and Marya shelled the shit out of Lord Jak’s caravan, strangely unconcerned that Vera was in one of the vehicles, but during the chaos, Vera was able to escape and make it back to her friends. A discouraged Mikal headed to Calcarra with his men where we find Lord Jak warning Lord Kragg about the three witches in pursuit. Lord Kragg laughs at the danger of There Witches and gives Jaks a tour of his dungeons and the bevy of Sisters he has chained up there. He boasts of his awesome power in capturing so many of these witches.
Note: Maybe some of this movie’s world building could have spent a little more time explaining how this nutbar pulled that off.
Under the cover of darkness Alee, Vera and Marya scale the walls of Calcarra and sneak into a courtyard where they find several of The Sisterhood chained up. Of course, it’s a trap. Searchlights snap on and the trio is completely surrounded by armed men. Alee uses her powers to take out the searchlight, plunging the courtyard into darkness. What follows is a thrilling battle as the group fight their way through the streets and corridors of Calcarra. Armed with M-16s the Sisters just mow down any and all opposition.
When Marya shoots and wounds Mikal, the man who killed her brother, she can’t find it in herself to finish him off. She doesn’t say a thing to him. She just stares down the barrel of her gun at him, she slides the guns shoulder strap off and lets it drop to the ground, and she walks away. Now as an actress Lynn-Holly Johnson is one hell of a figure skater, and really all the women in this movie are pretty bad in the acting category, but this scene where she lets Mikal live was actually pretty powerful.
Our merry little band isn’t out of the woods yet. They fight their way down to the dungeons to find the rest of their Sisters, but once barricaded inside they realize it’s only a matter of time before Lord Kragg and his men bash their way inside. Then faster than you can say “deus ex machina” a glow fills the prison and The Reverend Mother and spiritual leader of the Sisterhood materializes. She then proceeds to give them shit for using guns, “Sisters, have you lost faith? Why do you resort to the old ways and take up arms? Do you no longer trust in me?”
All the half-naked chained up sisters all smile as if they just had an orgasm and then The Reverend Mother asks them to cast down their weapons telling them that they do not need them at all, “Use your latent gifts, use your faith. Trust in me and I will deliver you from all this. Rise Sisters, you are free.” All the chains holding the women and just as Kragg’s men batter the door down all of the Sisters vanish in a blinding light, leaving the men staring at an empty cell.
The movie then ends with the War Wagon exploding and us seeing the Sisters walking along the ridgeline, Mikal drives up on his bike and stares up at them as the four lead girls all look down at him with strange half smiles. Are those smiles of sadness and regret, or possibly of forgiveness? This is one of the ambivalent endings that actually works. What the audience takes away from it is really up to them. Mikal at the end has realized that the magic is real and they are the hope for the future.
This was a more ambitious film than what you typically get with the genre, and if they had managed to hire actresses instead of ice skaters and supermodels it really could have been something. For the most part, the action is solid and the low budget locals harmed the film not one iota. Could the film have spent a little more time explaining the powers of The Sisterhood? Sure it could have, but it really didn’t bother me much as I went along with the loopiness…well right up until The Reverent Mother showed up then it kind of lost me. Her “You’ve had the power all along” schtick is just as lame when Glinda the Good Witch of the North used it in The Wizard of Oz. That she’s against modern weapons because they destroyed the world makes total sense. Not using these amazing powers to kick that shit out of all those women hating warlords less so, but overall I had a blast with this film, gratuitous nudity, poor production value and all.
Check out more post-apocalyptic movie reviews here: Road Warrior Rip-Offs: Guns, Babes and Dwarves in a World Gone Mad.
The Sisterhood (1988)
With The Sisterhood producer/director Cirio H. Santiago tries to make an action message picture and if that message is a little unclear at times it doesn’t stop this from being one of the better Mad Max rip-offs.