Monday, October 19, 2009

DVD Review: HARDWARE (1990)

I must admit that the first time I watched Richard Stanley's HARDWARE (1990), on VHS during my undergrad 3-movies a night college days, I didn't really see what the big deal was. I thought it had a few good images, a couple of okay ideas, and the cameo appearances by GWAR and Motörhead's Lemmy on the "plus" side of the equation. I also remembered there being a fairly hawt sex scene between principals Stacey Travis and then-unknown Dylan McDermott, but that was about it for me. Everything else faded into the cinematic junkheap of my memory.

In the years since, of course, the movie's cult cachet has grown by leaps and bounds, aided in part by the flick's relative rarity--after that initial VHS release, the movie all but disappeared in a swamp of rights issues and bootlegs. By the time Severin Films released their super-special 2-disc edition a month or so back, anticipation among horror and sci-fi fans was at a fever pitch. And thanks to the good folks at Severin and their consideration in sending your ever-lovin' Vicar a review copy, I was able to go back and look at the flick anew, to see if age and experience would make me more appreciative of this artifact of post-apocalyptic cinema.

Vacation in Sunny New Jersey!

First the good news--which should come as no surprise to those who've championed the flick over its near two-decades of obscurity--it's actually a pretty neat little flick with several things going for it. While I still have some issues with it as a movie (more on that in a moment), I do like it more as a thirty-something, cosmopolitan adult than I did as a fresh-faced college kid in Arkansas.

The net is absolutely infested with reviews of the movie thanks to the deserved attention Severin's release is getting, so I won't go point-for-point here. Quick plot summary: in a post-nuclear-war future, American society keeps limping along, with the government ruling nearly all aspects of the citizenry's daily lives. Thanks to the war, high levels of radioactivity have emptied many of the larger cities (New York is posited as a vast junkyard ripe for salvage), forcing most people to live either underground or in fortress-like apartment complexes. Mutations are rampant, as is cancer and widespread ugliness.

"She's a maniac, maniac, oh no..."

The ugliness hasn't touched main character Jill (Travis), however, an implied-agoraphobe artist who stays sequestered in her high-security apartment, smoking legalized weed and making sculpture out of the junk her on-again/off-again lover Moses (McDermott) periodically brings her. Moses--or "Mo"--makes his living picking junk from the nuclear wastes and selling it to dwarf salvage specialist Alvy (Mark Northover). Things take a turn for the Terminator when Mo unearths a Mark 13 experimental killbot, selling part of it to Alvy and taking the rest back to Jill for artistic reinterpretation. Of course the Mark 13 is artificially intelligent, self-repairing, and badly malfunctioning, so it's only a matter of time before it wakes up and starts rampaging around Jill's apartment, waiting for bit characters to come visit so it can chop them to bits and inject them with nerve toxin. It does have one weakness however, a weakness that fans of The Wizard of Oz and M. Night Shamalamalookylou's Signs will be all too familiar with.

So first the good stuff: one thing that resonated with me a lot more this time than it did back in my yout' was Stanley's fully-realized and very believable vision of the future. Even without the nuclear apocalypse that was much more front-and-center in 1990 than it is today (one would hope), the idea of a future society living off the trash and leavings of previous fallen generations is one I found intriguing. I can totally see a future in which we are overwhelmed by the garbage of those who came before, and build our lives on it--literally, not just in the figurative sense in which that ALWAYS happens. Thus the vision here doesn't seem too far off.

Mo never regretted springing for the Digi-Thruster 3000's "extra" attachments.

Stanley's eye is impressive here too--the orange, red, and brown color scheme he creates along with cinematographer Steven Chivers gives the flick a unique look, both horrible and beautiful at the same time. Much has also been made of the musical tie-ins here: along with Lemmy as a water-cab driver (who plays a "golden oldie" for Mo and his friend Shades during the trip, which is of course "Ace of Spades"), Iggy Pop makes a voice-only appearance as Angry Bob the radio madman, and Carl McCoy of Fields of the Nephilim plays the mysterious Walking Man who brings the Mark 13 into the picture in the first place. And then there's GWAR, the perfect band to play on TV in a post-apocalyptic future (though the music that accompanies their image is in fact Ministry--still, it works surprisingly well). So there's all that.

I didn't quite become a full-fledged member of the Hardware cult thanks to this viewing, however. I found the performances by leads so flat as to be near Keanu-esque, particularly Travis's Jill, who can't work up the slightest hysteria, even after a Killbot appears out of nowhere and buzzsaws her mattress for her. Some might say she's jaded as everyone in the future would be, not caring if she lives or dies, but I still didn't find her the plucky strong heroine Stanley praises her as being. I had trouble with the script as well--a lot of religious and political imagery is thrown in, which is fine by me and works to a degree, but it does come across as rather ham-fisted at its worst. When McDermott mouths lines like "It's gonna get a lot worse before it gets better...Survival of the fittest, baby!" within seconds of one another...well, it won't win any prizes for dialog. And I wanted to the Mark 13 to be a little more badass than it was--I mean, it spends nearly an hour in Jill's apartment and barely manages to wound her, or kill anyone who doesn't walk right up to it and stand there. It's Tetsuo-drill dick is doubtless there to make some kind of point about sexual power struggles, but seemed gratuitous to me; I mean, sure Jill's hawt (and the sex scene still gets full marks), but is she hot enough to make a pile of scrap metal want to do her? I'm not so sure.

"I'll Facebook you."

One performance that does stand out, however, is that of William Hootkins as Lincoln Wineberg Jr., Jill's super-slimey, voyeuristic neighbor who helpfully comes over to harass her and then get killed by the Mark 13. There are few movie characters I've seen quite as disturbingly pervy as Lincoln, and his trademark song, "The Wibberly-Wobberly Walk," has been in my head for a week now.

While I have issues with the movie, one thing no one can take issue with is the excellent DVD package Severin has put together for the flick. The movie looks great, and the commentary by Stanley is a treat for fans. The second disc contains a wealth of goodies, the big one being an near-hour-long documentary, "No Flesh Shall Be Spared," about the production. Long interviews with nearly all of the actors (minus McDermott, who apparently doesn't like to talk about the flick for some reason), a history of the indie cinema scene in Britain at the time, and interesting anecdotes about their shooting travails in Morocco are just a few of the cool things here. (Question: has Lemmy EVER been interviewed while NOT a. leaning against a bar and b. wearing a German dress uniform hat?) We also get several of Stanley's super-8 short films, including the 45-minute Incidents in an Expanding Universe, on which Hardware was based. Finally, Stanley talks for about 10 minutes about why Hardware was so hard to see for so long, why his planned sequel never came to fruition, and what that film might have been like. If you're a fan of the movie, it's all wonderful stuff; even if not, it's pretty interesting.

It was then that all those years watching The Three Stooges finally paid off.

(Stanley, it must be said, is quite a character. Very unassuming and geeky-sounding, he nonchalantly mentions how in 1989 he became disgusted with the movie industry and went to the Middle East to join a guerilla group fighting against the Russians. Dude, make THAT movie!)

In conclusion, this is a great DVD release for a film lots of smart people love, so good job Severin! Even if the flick itself is not entirely my cup of tea, it's definitely a 2.5 thumb-worthy package all together. Because whether you like Full Scale Animatronic killbots or not, one thing is for certain: we all do the Wibberly-Wobberly walk.

"Oh, what a world! What a world!"


Anonymous said...

I think the guys at eatmybrains summed it up best - Richard Stanley is a director who's always in danger of disappearing up his own arse, but he also has enough (visual) talent to (almost) make up for it.

Knarf Black XIV said...

The movie has really grown on me ever since I dug up a German bootleg to do a post about it. *Cough*ShamelessSelfPromotion*Cough*

I just picked up the Blu-ray, and while it's pretty mediocre for HD, it blows the old 4:3 German DVD out of the water, then slices it up into little pieces and makes terrifying, unnatural love to said pieces.

In the end, the movie is so charmingly unhinged that I think it is easier to appreciate without prior knowledge. This is not to say that it is good in the traditional sense. It's just so strangely (some might say "poorly") written and strung together that many of its elements (the pervy neighbor, the 15 minute trip-out) are genuinely surprising.

Jay Clarke said...

I picked up the Blu-ray of this and am really looking forward to watching it. I'm hoping the really dark patches of the VHS version have been cleaned up a bit, so you can actually see what the hell's going on in the last half.

This is what you want, this is what you get!

Information Review said...

I am excited to here that this is available on DVD and Blu-ray. I saw this movie decades ago on VHF. a well-crafted film that was ahead of its time.

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