The mid ’90s were a strange place for celluloid feminism, especially if you dipped your toes in the still-murkier waters of B-movie horror and sci-fi. Misogyny was still the main order of the day. And though some titles faired better than others at making their strong women smart and capable (hello Rachel Talalay’s exuberant Tank Girl), the majority – including Barb Wire – floundered.
Based on a series from Dark Horse Comics, David Hogan’s film promised a teenage boy’s (wet) dream come true, with Baywatch and Playboy icon Pamela Anderson starring as a busty, take-no-prisoners nightclub owner, caught amid a fascist society in post-apocalyptic America circa 2017. Barb “Don’t call me Babe” Wire is the movie’s very own Rick Blain; a self-serving neutral figure moonlighting as a mercenary, who is ultimately coerced into taking a definitive stance when old flame Axel Hood (Temuera Morrison) rolls into her hometown of Steel Harbor seeking a favour. Cue lots of McGuffiney waffle about funky contact lenses.
I’m not about to try and hit 1,000 words on why Barb Wire is a great movie or even a misunderstood classic. It’s neither of those things. It doesn’t even hold much currency as an accidentally-prescient film, even if the USA of 2017 was typified by a political divide entrenched in the country’s dire racism and a rise in high-profile Nazism. It’s too dippy for that. No. Anyone who has seen Barb Wire knows exactly what it is. To me, it’s a delightfully silly throwback to an era of defiantly lurid creative choices.
Maybe Hollywood’s heroes feel more homogeneous these days. Perhaps focus groups and the weightless, sexless sheen of CGI have softened studio resolve, but boldly strange or outright horny humdingers like Barb Wire happen rarely in the mainstream now. Back in the mid ’90s it was a different story, as this mid-budget hodgepodge of exploitation, scrapyard sci-fi and Casablanca attests.
Anderson – credited here as Pamela Anderson Lee – never was a particularly good actress, and her filmography is spotty and strange, often intersecting with the similarly under-qualified Carmen Electra in a string of embarrassing parody pieces. As nominal as her movie career turned out to be, Barb Wire is her most iconic credit. For all its seemingly self-serious intent, Hogan’s film is incredibly campy, and not above openly embracing this aspect. Hogan seems to enjoy the limitations of his lead, and Anderson at least seems to be in on the joke, too. There’s a sense of knowing in the delivery. With a variety of wildly inappropriate and fetishistic outfits, Barb Wire makes no bones of indulging the desired objectification of silicone-enhanced Pam’s comic book panel silhouette.
Hogan surrounds her with an entertainingly (ahem) stacked cast. Character actor gold comes in the trifecta of stalwarts Steve Railsback, Xander Berkeley and the GOAT himself, Udo Kier. Railsback twirls an invisible moustache as the local goose-stepping commandant Col. Pryzer. Berkeley is his world-weary underling Willis; sympathetic to the resistance, taking up the Claude Rains role. Kier, meanwhile, slaps down plenty of ham as Barb’s Alfred-esque butler, Curly.
The movie’s assault on good taste begins early. It’s not long after the title sequence – which plays like it’s own mini video centrefold, suggested by Anderson based on a dream she had – that we’re invited to witness the nefarious intelligence gathering techniques used by Pryzer and his cronies. To wit, a resistance member electrocuted to death via genital shocks. Not the last time the movie will literally take its violence straight to the crotch. Later, Barb’s own trusty dog Camille clamps onto quite a mouthful.
In a manner now deemed gauche or heavy-handed, the camerawork leans hard into the aesthetics of a comic book panel with a variety of Dutch angles, complimented by a lighting rig that furthers the sense of a Sin City aesthetic written in full living colour a whole decade ahead of said crossover hit. I say full; the palette of the picture retains an almost ’80s MTV preference for chrome and midnight blues, with hints of dry ice pluming around the edges (something that contrasts nicely with the orangey hues of its Street Trash-adjacent finale).
When watching something like Barb Wire – or the aforementioned Tank Girl, also based on a Dark Horse Comics series – this viewer finds the past reconfigured, and lifts new pleasures from the material, irrespective of its limitations. These are adaptations that pre-date the later templates for their kind, drawing literally from the source inks, or scrabbling a little blindly for cinematic language to latch on to. In keeping with it’s blatant plagiarism of Casablanca, Barb Wire advertises an appreciation for film noir. Or, at least, a Playboy Pictorial approximation of film noir…
25 years ago, comic books were still synonymous with the goofball and the arch. These are the tonal tics that Barb Wire embraces, and that’s something I get more enjoyment out of every time I go back. Undoubtedly that’s a matter of taste. For example I’d rather revisit Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever than any of the Nolan entries, so go figure.* There’s something appealing about such bravura vulgarity. A boldness – even a misguided boldness – that at least evidences a creative decision. Some brassy gumption.
With Craig Gillespie’s salacious mini-series Pam & Tommy now unveiled on Disney+, it’s not an immaterial time to look back on the sensational celebrity of Pamela Anderson in the mid ’90s. She was, for better or worse, one of the last of her peculiar brand of superstars. Barb Wire sits in the absolute epicentre of this craze for pneumatic beauty. Tussled hair, lip gloss and knee-high boots a-go-go.
And whose to say there isn’t something to champion in the bazooka-boobed feminist bravado of Barb? That we can’t link it back to Tura Satana in Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (one of my all-time favourite movies), at least in spirit? Isn’t Barb similarly belted, buckled and booted? I think Meyer would have gotten a kick out of David Hogan’s film, brimming as it is with bodily admiration and feminine gusto. The leering camera might let it down, but is it any less lecherous than Meyer’s eye?
Whatever. This is feather-weight ’90s cinematic cheese at it’s gloopiest. I don’t subscribe to the term ‘guilty’ pleasure. It’s a term based in contempt. Barb Wire is a pleasure. Just an extremely tacky one.
*Even I’m not ready yet to throw my hand in for Batman & Robin though. I have my limits.