Monday, September 28, 2009

Steel and Lace (1991): or, Die, Yuppie Scum!

If there's one tragic flaw in the standard Mad Scientist make-up that is sure to cause him trouble down the line--I mean apart from the whole "Meddling in Things Man was Not Meant to Know" deal--it's the unfortunate tendency to always deliver more than the job requires. It wasn't enough for Victor Frankenstein to prove he could keep a heart beating indefinitely or demonstrate brainwave activity in a cerebrum that'd been dead only hours before--no, he had to slap that heart and brain in a nine-foot-tall behemoth, yank the starter and let that sucker go. Similarly, Henry Jekyll could not be satisfied with showing the separation of positive and negative impulses via lab rats or guinea pigs in controlled experimental conditions; he had to tie one off, slap up a vein and go for broke. Time and time again, this over-achieving streak has hastened the ruin of many a man of SCIENCE.

Sadly, in Ernest D. Farino's 1991 cyborg-revenge flick Steel and Lace, Dr. Albert Morton (Bruce Davison) is a modern standard-bearer for this worrisome if storied tradition. When his sister Galetea "Gaily" Morton (Clare Wren) is brutally raped by a gang of ruthless yuppie real-estate moguls (seriously) who cheat justice by corroborating each others' alibis and thus drive the sensitive Claire to suicide, Albert does what any red-blooded, NASA-employed robotics and artificial-intelligence specialist would do: he builds an android version of his sister packed to the teeth with hi-tech weaponry in order to exact his bloody revenge on her attackers. But like his forebears, Albert can't let "good enough" be good enough, which predictably leads to his ultimate downfall.

This mullet was thrown out of court due to insufficient muscle-car ownership.

After a frankly awesome credit sequence in which the title is carved out of steel by a frikkin' LASER BEAM (I'm a sucker fo that kind of shit), we join the rape trial of Danny Emerson (Michael Cerveris) already in progress. We can tell we're in the late 80s/early 90s by the preponderance of moussed hair, mullets, and owl-glasses in the courtroom. One spectator who wears her owl glasses better than most is sketch artist Alison (raging Vicar-crush Stacy Haiduk, she of the legendary Luther the Geek love scene), assigned to make pretty drawings of the heart-wrenching drama for TV news broadcast. The wardrobe and make-up artists do their best to make Haiduk look mousy and ordinary, but one flash of those startling blue eyes and you can see the rampant hawtness underneath.

After the yuppie scum gets off (AGAIN), Gaily and Albert go to the rooftops to escape the press. Gaily--perhaps understandably NOT living up to her name--tells her brother, "There's only one safe place now!" and over the side she goes! The look in Albert's eyes tells you that he's not one to let this stand, so he retires from his NASA gig and heads off to a remote mansion in suburban Los Angeles to work on his fiendish plot for revenge.

Five years later, Alison is an up-and-comer in the Hollywood art scene, and together with her agent Duncan (an excellent and understated Nick Tate) cooks up the idea to take her old courtroom sketches to construct a "then-and-now" book, contrasting modern portraits of the subjects with how they looked back at the most trying times of their lives. For help on this she looks up her old flame Detective Clifford Dunn (David Naughton, still trying to find another American Werewolf-level role...and failing), who just happens to be investigating the mysterious murder of one of the Emerson Realty gang in a seedy hotel. (We've already seen what befell the mulleted miscreant--suffice to say it involved a mirrored ceiling and spinning boob-blades.) Having a strong memory of the Morton Trial, Alison takes an interest in the case.

The horrifying aftermath of one too many Mai Tais.

This worries the LAPD brass, because they're working with an FBI team setting up a sting on Emerson Realty for interstate douchbaggery, and are worried that if Alison spooks them, the surviving villains will all go underground and foul up the case. As a result, the chief assigns Dunn to keep an eye on his ex-girlfriend, which of course involves rekindling those old flames and making sweaty love under a huge comforter. (Sadly, Haiduk is not as "open" and "up-front" in this role as she was in Luther the Geek--all the more reason that DVD is a treasure in any collection.) Unfortunately Dunn's much better at pillow talk than he is at detective work, as Alison and Duncan easily elude him at every turn, tailing the suspects and breaking into their offices in an attempt to figure out why they seem to be getting rather deadish all of a sudden.

Alison thinks the culprit is Danny Emerson himself, and in fact labors under this delusion for most of the movie--but we know of course the real culprit is Albert Morton, who has somehow got hold of millions of dollars's worth of state-of-the-art android-building equipment, installed it in his suburban home, and produced Gailey 2, an extremely versatile killing machine with a seemingly endless array of features. These include extreme facial feature malleability and variable boob inflation (the better to disguise itself and lure yuppie scum to their deaths), the aforementioned boob blades, lasers, flame-throwers, radio-controlled visual recording and digital playback, and madd player piano skillz. And that's just scratching the surface. (Which you're advised not to do--the glowing LED lights and sizzling circuitry just under her skin is a dead giveaway.)

Stacy waits impatiently for the Vicar to call.

However, Dr. Albert couldn't just build himself a Terminator-style cyborg and let it go at that. No, he had to go that one step beyond and give the bot a personality--specifically, his SISTER'S personality, which he somehow recreates and encapsulates in a plastic sphere full of glowing green goo. As a result, the Lady Killbot starts asking questions about the morality of her mission, and whether the real Gaily would have approved. This forces Albert to resort to manual override to force her to kill a couple of her targets, which of course doesn't do much to build cyber-sibling trust. It comes back to haunt him when after his revenge is complete he orders Gaily 2 to kill Alison in order to tie up the loose ends, leading to a simultaneous monster/creator demise that may be predictable but is nonetheless satisfying.

I was very entertained by Steel and Lace, despite its slight plot and appalling lack of Haiduk-centric nekkidity. One technological terror requirement that the flick more than delivers on is the creative and moderately gruesome kill scenes. The opening seduction/boob-blade kill sets the tone, and the subsequent kills never fail to live up. One yuppie is simultaneously strangled and decapitated; another (Henry Winkler lookalike Brian Backer) is lifted into a helicopter's rotor and has his head chopped Dawn of the Dead Zombie-style! But the best kill belongs to ultra-skeezy alcoholic yuppie Oscar (played wonderfully slimy by Paul Lieber, alum of the Andy Milligan opus Guru, the Mad Monk), who is seduced by the chameleon-like killbot and learns in the most horrifying way possible how much sex with a machine can SUCK.

Totally worth it.

The acting is hit-and-miss, but a few of the principals stand out. Bruce Davison brings a quiet, wounded intensity to his role as the revenge-hungry scientist; one scene where he obsessively watches and rewatches Gaily 2's video of her kills (basically yuppie snuff flicks), with a little bit too much obvious pleasure, establishes his grief-wracked insanity better than even the traditional mad scientist histrionics could have. Lieber makes an impression in his role, as previously noted, and Michael Cerveris is effectively hate-worthy as the two-dimensional dirtbag Emerson. Naughton is kind of a non-entity here--not only is he given remarkably little to do (Haiduk's investigation makes up the bulk of the plot, with Naughton popping up now and then just to remind us he's there), but when he is onscreen he's the same likable but bland hero-type he's always been in his non-AWIL roles. Memorable supporting parts include Nick Tate as the Alfred to Stacy Haiduk's Batman, and David L. "Squiggy" Lander as a forensics agent with a hilarious appreciation for the killer's style. Claire Wren as the Gailys is suitably blank and droid-like, which may or may not be a function of her acting chops.

But the heavy lifting is all done by Stacy Haiduk, and she does an excellent job. Despite having completely the wrong idea about the killer's identity nearly throughout, her obsession and go-getter spirit is affecting, and I was genuinely interested not only in what she was doing, but why she was doing it. Of course I'm also desperately in love with Ms. Haiduk, so my opinion may be biased. (Fully 40 percent of my viewing notes are variations of the phrases "Gosh, she's lovely," and "OMG HAWT!") And though I prefer her dark-haired, pale-skinned look in Luther the Geek--not least for the amount of said skin on display--she really does wear the red hair color well, it has to be said.

"For the last time, Vicar, I'm *not* impressed. Now please put the chicken down."

In the final analysis, even though there was nothing particularly innovative or surprising about Steel and Lace, for me it hit all the right notes and delivered an entertaining hour and a half. Fair acting, good kills, murderous robots and Mad SCIENCE to boot--what's not to like? 2.25 thumbs. Give it a shot, and remember: always work within the scope of your tech specs. Anything extra is just asking for trouble.

A few more images from Steel and Lace (1991):

"But I didn't order an Ecclesiastical Stripper-Gram!"

Hide it under a bushel? No.

The Producers write the Vicar a check for his birthday...

...and he spends the money on a sofa-size print of THIS.

Just a little off the top.

"I got the chills...they're multipyin'..."



Anonymous said...

Okay, Vicar, I know I’ve said here before that in my opinion the Golden Age of MmmmMovies was the ‘70s, and that by the ‘90s, the MmmMadness had dissipated to a mere MmmMild Psychosis. But you make a good argument with your reviews of both “Steel and Lace”, and “Luther the Geek” (and if that’s not a double feature to roast your eyeballs then there’s no help for you in this world, my friend) that MmmMadness was alive and well in the closing years of the Millennium.
One significant difference in the decades’ fare, though:
In the 70’s, story was for the most part superfluous -- an afterthought if it occurred at all. Recall the works of the titans of the era -- the Francos, the Rollins, the Luigi Batzellas. With the exception of the singular “Burly Bard”, Mr. Paul Naschy, story was usually subservient to the stream of whacked-out and titillating images.
But in the 90’s, story became king. Consider the following: Take “Luther” and “Steel” and write a logline for each. I offer my beggarly attempts below as examples…
LtG: Callously spurned by Ruth Buzzy shortly after his release from a mental ward, Luther, a semi-professional geek sidelined by said unfortunate incarceration, goes on a murderous rampage, finally paying the ultimate price for his propensity to poultry.
SaL: Alison, aspiring L.A. artist, makes a whopper of a mistake when she goes sleuthing after the killer of a gang of yuppie rapists -- a killer she believes to be the gang's own leader -- not knowing the real villain to be the uber-deadly fem-bot fashioned by the mulleted brother of one of the gang's victims.
I’m struck by the implied journey in each narrative, by the probing exploration of cultural values, by the assertive demand in each for the viewer’s emotional commitment. And finally, I’m overwhelmed by the inevitability of the heroes’ fate -- their seeming pre-destiny -- but a fate in fact skillfully crafted by the knowing screenwriters.
You’ve blessed me with a new appreciation, dear Vicar. And I thank you.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Geo--You make excellent, salient points about the differences between the 70s and 90s...and your loglines had me LOLing. Bravo!

Sadly, you're right about the MMMMMild Psychosis of much of the 90s (a phrase I'm hereby stealing whole cloth), and the examples like Luther and S&L are few and far between. However, to be fair, at least 90 percent of everything is crap. It's my life's work to dig in the trash piles of cinematic history and do my best to separate the tasty truffles from the turds. ;)

In conclusion: Stacy Haiduk is smokin' hawt.

Thanks for playing!

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