Saturday, October 24, 2009
DVD Review: HARDWARE (Severin Films)
Richard Stanley’s HARDWARE finally makes its debut on DVD (as well as Blu-Ray) after a decade or more of legal entanglements have kept in video limbo. Though it may have been a long time in coming, the wait is well worth it. Severin has pulled together a generous amount of supplemental material and has remastered the picture itself to perfection. HARDWARE is a cacophonous and kaleidoscopic apocalypse thriller which veers from flesh-ripping gore to dreamy idyll with disturbing ease. Set in a bleak future made terminal not by a single holocaust but by many and varied Armageddons, Stanley’s film depicts the struggles of two primary characters, Mo (Dylan McDermott) and Jill (Stacy Travis) to connect with each other amidst the rubble. Making this connection ever more complicated is the android killing machine that Mo, a post-industrial scrap-metal scavenger, has brought home in pieces as a Xmas present for Jill, a post-industrial scrap-metal sculptor. Unbeknownst to either of them, this killbot (officially known as MARK 13) is actually still operational, and what’s more, has a rather precocious talent for rebuilding itself. You can see where this is going I’m sure. Add in healthy doses of hallucinatory drugs, slimy voyeurs, nosy dwarfs, GWAR concert footage, lots of saws and drills and therefore also barrelfuls of blood and you have the makings of an exhilarating if not always coherent film explosion.
But coherency is not really what Stanley is after here. Delirium is the standing order of the day, and a fractal sort of sensory reaction to all the bloodspurting and metal-crawling. Highly influenced by Dario Argento and other Italian horror directors, Stanley is aiming after the same kind of disorienting effects those maestros so effortlessly achieve. He is drowning you is visceral details, loud music and vivid neon color schemes to plunge you into a heightened and fugue-like state of mind. He’s trying to alter the chemicals in your brain, and he does a damn fine job of it. The movie doesn’t work as well as a simple exercise in sci-fi or horror. Structurally, it’s quite messy. Before you know it, you’re smack dab in the middle of the violent climax of the film less than an hour into it, which then lasts the rest of the running time (in the audio commentary Stanley remarks that this is deliberate and an homage to a similar structure used in TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2). This explodes the three-act structure and its inherent means of generating suspense giving you no choice but to experience the movie in very different frame of mind. The film works more as a hallucinatory experience than a standard thriller. HARDWARE is as much a drug as it is a film. It tosses around your perceptions wildly, from moody synth soundscapes over red-tinted desert skies to flesh-ripping animated mechanical debris and clutter scored to Ministry songs, from evoking Hindu gods and New Testament apocalypses to paranoid musings on what terrors the Military-Industrial complex may hold in store for us.
But there is a point to all this, all this shredding and screaming and brutal android-human interface: HARDWARE is all about humanity’s death wish. About those suicidal drives which collectively embroil us in wars, which make us disregard the ecological effects of our lifestyles or which treat other human beings as nothing but playthings for our own shallow pleasures. A plot thread running almost underneath the events of the picture involves a government population control program meant to sterilize people in order to bring a halt to deformities and mutations. Mo and Jill themselves struggle over whether or not to have children and whether or not there is some justification for this eugenics program. As Stanley points out in the interview in this set, the HARDWARE world is one where extreme right wing elements have taken over, but with the total complicity of the population. In this vision of the future, everyone is in on the End of the World, not just some faceless masters. MARK 13 is the physical, mechanical embodiement of these suicidal drives, an insectile murder machine crowned by a literal death’s head. While Mo may not have known consciously what he was bringing home to Jill and while she may not have understood why she was so attracted to it, their own suicidal drives are in full operation here, making them as much a part of the horror that follows as the makers of the deathdroid. “This is what you want/ this is what you get.”
As stated above, it’s taken HARDWARE awhile to become available in the DVD era. Its digital debut makes quite the splash however, easily besting any previous home video incarnations. It is presented uncut for the first time ever in these here United States in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio that is just spot on. The transfer is gorgeous and it’s all “flagged for progressive playback” and whatever. It looks great, it’s all here and that’s all you really need to know about that. Now on to the extras! While not quite as comprehensive or exhaustive as Subversive’s 5-disc version of Stanley’s masterpiece DUST DEVIL, Severin has given us an incredible selection of bonus features which make this 2-discer easily one of the best releases of the year. On disc one in addition to the marvelous feature itself there’s a highly informative audio commentary with Richard Stanley hosted by DVD producer Norm Hill. It covers the background of the film, where the ideas came from and various minutia involved in the production. Stanley seems a little reticent on the commentary, basically saying in fact that he doesn’t enjoy such things, and so often his commentary seems a little stilted or self-conscious. No matter, it’s a must-listen for fans of the film. Expanding on this is an impressive and very thorough (though oddly McDermott is not involved) ‘making-of’ featurette boasting brand new interviews with producers, cast and crew. It seems Mr. Stanley was only 22 when he made this movie and to make it the producers had to coax him out of Afghanistan where he was fighting the Russians with the Mujahedeen! Incredible! A side interview with just Stanley illuminates the question of an aborted sequel to HARDWARE and these features are rounded out with a German trailer, a vintage promotional video featuring brief interviews with Stanley, McDermott and Travis as well as a selection of rare extended and deleted scenes. It’s all great stuff.
But really we’re just getting started with the special features! Severin have included three short films to sweeten the deal, and they are all well worth a watch. RITES OF PASSAGE is an 8mm short made while Stanley was only a teenager in South Africa. While as crude and primitive as you might expect it to be, it also contains strong indications of the visionary film-maker he would soon become. A tale of reincarnation, suicide and consciousness expansion RITES mostly follows a pre-historic man on a hunting expedition. Great use of desolate African locations and local wildlife give it a radical verite. The young director builds a bizarre, almost mystic atmosphere and winds things up with a healthy dollop of gore. At the other end of this spectrum is his most recent fiction production: a short, poetic sci-fi called SEA OF PERDITION, which involves a female astronaut exploring an alien world with psychedelic consequences. Made on digital video, it looks wonderful and has great production values, although I must admit I’m rather prejudiced and think it would have looked much better if it had been made on film. But then I’m a relic of the 20th century living in the 21st. Another 8mm film INCIDENTS IN AN EXPANDING UNIVERSE gives a useful peek at the origins of HARDWARE in its earliest, most crude form. What these short films prove, beyond a doubt, is that Richard Stanley is natural born film-maker and one of the few contemporary directors to possess anything like a real artistic vision.
This DVD set is absolutely aces and well deserving of your hard-earned cash. It’s also out on Blu-Ray so if you incline to that format, that’s probably the way to go. But the movie and the set are not perfect however. The movie’s faults can mostly be attributed to Stanley’s novice status as a screenwriter, as some of the dialog, especially early on, is a little akward. A few cheesy moments here and there also break up the magick somewhat. In a scene featuring a cameo appearance from Motorhead’s Lemmy, the grizzled metal legend entertains the main character by playing him a quick sample of “Ace of Spades” by Motorhead! Really? And as far as the DVD presentation, a little more information or interviews about the short films would be useful to put them in the wider context of Stanley’s career. But these are only minor quibbles for what is otherwise an astonishing film and a revelatory digital presentation. No sci-fi, horror, cult or international cinema fan should be without this release in whatever format they can get their hands on.