Hardware: Special Edition (US - BD)
Gabe thrills at finally getting his hands on Richard Stanley's first motion picture
My familiarity with director Richard Stanley’s work was reserved to wildly conflicting rumours of quality for years. Thanks to distribution issues of one type or another I had to wait most of my adult life to actually see Dust Devil, the director’s most celebrated narrative feature film. The rumours were mostly accurate. Dust Devil is an undeniable artistic achievement, awash with gorgeous photography, and steeped in metaphorical imagery, but it’s also painfully humourless and self-important. Regardless of the effect, I was interested enough in the explicitly intelligent filmmaker to seek out his one other major release, Dust Devil’s sci-fi/horror predecessor, Hardware, a film largely considered more accessibly entertaining by the director’s fan base (not to mention Fangoria Magazine).
Hardware defies my best attempts at a real plot synopsis. The story concerns a doomed couple of dystopian residents of a dystopian world. Moe (Dylan McDermott) is a drifter that trades scrap metal for cash, and his girlfriend Jill (Stacey Travis) is an industrial artist. Moe picks up a robot skull and gives it to Jill, who attaches it to a sculpture. After the couple has sex the robot skull reactivates and attacks. The rest of the film is a violent slice of never ending climatic energy, and clearly not as thoughtful or steeped in analogy as Dust Devil. It’s a victim of a limited budget that lacks the scope it probably deserves (it’s less ‘killer robot on a rampage’, more ‘killer robot inconveniences woman in her apartment’), but is still mostly entertaining thanks to an incredibly bright colour pallet that would make Mario Bava blush, rich production design that compensates for the limited locations, kinetic, music video inspired editing, and joyful spikes of graphic, but not vomit inducingly grotesque bloodshed. The unusually solid cast certainly helps as well, and covers the lack of development with an excess of personality. Simply state the film is, as Stanley himself puts it, an Italian influenced slasher movie with a science fiction slant.
Those viewers willing to let the film exist on a less than perfect level should be satisfied with the reflexively stimulating effect. Like a Lucio Fulci’s supernatural zombie opus, or a John Woo’s pistol opera, Hardware works as a series of lurid images, and runs on such a basic story structure the plot doesn’t really count for anything. We have to let it go. The larger problem is found in the fact that Hardware is clearly an elongated short subject, with a lot of padding, and a lot of repetitive action. Stanley acknowledges the ‘elongated climax’ aspect in his commentary rather unapologetically, and apparently found inspiration in the practice. In turn, much of the film’s more overtly oblique and pointedly artsy moments will likely rub exploitation fans a bit raw, but I firmly believe this wouldn’t be as big a problem had the padding not suggested further reading beneath the surface. The mercilessly longwinded final 30 or so minutes are the most telling example. The vague religious implications, and lack of clear-cut character fate is admittedly frustrating. Despite an apparently completed and sold script much of the film was clearly created on set and in the moment (the Biblical aspects, that found their way into the tag line, were apparently brought up by Dylan McDermott after being hired). The staged and planned elements are the strongest, and had Stanley taken more time to stew on the right wavelength he might’ve had a great looking and well acted movie with a good story to seal the deal.
At the very least Stanley introduced a whole lot of cyber-punk imagery to live action film, and though he doesn’t mention anime or manga as a specific inspiration (he mentions European comics, E.C. Comics and Heavy Metal Magazine), Hardware introduces some indelible anime-like images a solid eight years before Stephen Norrington broke into the American mainstream with Blade. More interesting, however (and sadly kind of irrelevant to this review), is Norrington’s pre- Blade film, 1994’s Death Machine. Death Machine also features a violent, multi-bladed robot fighting cyber punks in a dystopian future, and is also a largely referential piece of low-budget cinema (characters are actually named after famous sci-fi and horror directors). Both films are also overlong. Norrington came out of a special effects background, so his film is a little more energetic, but Stanley’s auteur eye and music video background makes for the more visually interesting movie. Death Machine features the superior script, and Brad Dourif, so a battle royale between the films would prove a bit hard to call. At the very least Stanley beat Norrington to the well by four years (and Norrington knows this, as he worked as a ‘special robotic technician’ for Stanley on Hardware).
Anyway, Stanley clearly has no allusions concerning originality, and is completely open in admitting his various filmic inspirations (he lists a novel’s worth on the commentary track). He calls it a ‘scratch and sniff assembly’ of science fiction and horror movies. The most obvious homage is paid directly to Ridley Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner (McDermott’s costume and Travis’ smoking in particular), James Cameron Terminator and Aliens, and to George Miller’s Mad Max series. Even laymen and passing cineastes can readily recognize these nicked bits, but the film is more interesting for the not so obvious inspirations. Stanley also mentions, among dozens of one-off references, Kingdom of the Spiders, Saturn 3, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and all manners of Dario Argento and Sergio Leone flicks as playing major roles in the film’s look and structure. Personally I found it rather satisfying to hear a filmmaker actually refer to Italian horror as a major inspiration in crystal clear words, because as a fan I often suspect I’m hoping to see something that isn’t really there.
Stanley doesn’t mention Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo the Iron Man, but the two films are so conceptually similar they might as well be siblings. Tetsuo was released only a year before Hardware, so it’s more than just possible that the two filmmakers were entirely unaware of each other. Other similar features not expressly discussed, but which might have served some kind of minor inspiration, and which might entice fans of Hardware include Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, George Elanjian’s Syngenor, and Aaron Lipstadt’s Android.
Severin Films is quickly developing an A-plus streak of Blu-ray transfers, that per-capita beats Blue Underground, but doesn’t quite add up to the impossible clarity of the recent New York Ripper release. Why would you want to buy some forgotten British B-Sci-Fi flick in hi-def? Because Stanley is nothing if not a gluten for colour, and his cinematographer Steven Chivers, a popular music video man, his happy to oblige. Absolutely nothing about Hardware is subtle, and the lighting schemes are among the least subtle live-action schemes I’ve ever seen outside of Argento’s Suspiria, Romero’s Creepshow, and Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive. Some scenes are so intensely red that there aren’t any midtones are hightlights on screen, just pure red and pure black.
The colours are (for the most part) impressively free of overt compression, with the scenes in the apartment lit solely with red gels acting as a major standout. A standard definition transfer would surely erupt into blocks of low-level noise given such pure and bright reds. Yet, the pure reds don’t keep other primary highlights from fulfilling their own purity. When the monster finally meets his end in the normally lit bathroom the natural colours are almost startling. There is plenty of textured skin and layered production design to be absorbed under both real and stylized lighting. The age and general wear is obvious enough at some points, specifically during the opening credit scene, which features the most noticeable artefacts on the entire transfer. Grain is consistently present, but pretty thin, and acts as texture more than a distraction. It’s had to decide what on the print could be counted as edge-enhancement or over-sharpening because of key lighting, but there is surely at least a few minor problems throughout.
For some reason Severin has so far chosen not to present any of their Blu-ray discs in lossless audio, but this 5.1 Dolby Digital track is nothing to cry about. The original Dolby Surround track is also available for comparison’s sake, and I’m happy with the overall remix, which is true to the 2.0 track with a more discrete center channel, a more aggressive LFE, and a little rear channel musical action. The more abstract sound design, such as the echoing voices during the hallucinatory poisoning scene, finds its way into the surround channels, but mostly the non-musical elements are relatively centered on the track. The sound clarity is surprisingly natural, only falling short when struggling to maintain a true centeredness. There are some moments where the Blade Runner inspired electronic score (which is occasionally spiked with massively operatic choral elements) overwhelms the relatively even track with possibly unintended volume levels. The music was composed by Simon Boswell, who Stanley picked up from Italian horror like Argento’s Phenomena and Michelle Soavi’s Stage Fright. Stanley would use Boswell again for the more dreamy Dust Devil, but here the composer is clearly coming off those early Italian films, where he was clearly inspired by Goblin. Also in keeping with those late ‘80s Italian horror flicks, the soundtrack features recognizable pop and metal acts like Public Image LTD., Ministry, Iggy Pop, and Motorhead.
This release marks Severin’s first truly great special edition collection (no offense to their other releases implied), and the included special features rival many of the company’s most obvious competitors. The extras begin with a Richard Stanley commentary track. The moderator is cut off at the top of the track when stating his name, and Stanley soils the mood by immediately stating he doesn’t ‘believe’ in commentaries. If he doesn’t believe, he has a funny way of showing it. This is a fantastically information packed track. The facts of the case are quite interesting, despite the director’s hesitance. Details of the behind the scenes process are coupled with some of the director’s personal beliefs, and most importantly, his inspirations. There’s even a bit of real life science to be learned. Stanley talks so quickly I’m going to have to listen to the track again to absorb the whole thing, as listening to the track while writing makes the full on absorption almost impossible. Considering I hadn’t ever seen the film until this point it’s also good to know what was originally cut for the R-rating (this is the uncut release version, but Stanley wasn’t able to reassembling a director’s cut).
‘No Flesh Shall Be Spared’ (54:00, HD) is a full-bodied, fact-filled documentary that covers the making of the film, starting from Stanley’s Super-8, music video, and war documentary roots, without repeating too much of the already info-packed commentary. Various cast and crew members discuss the film’s inception, the history of the Scala Cinema, which led into Palace Pictures video (famous for releasing The Evil Dead in the UK), production and art design, budgetary constraints, bringing the Weinstein Brothers into the fold, casting, Dylan McDermott’s discovery of the Biblical quote that became the film’s opening quote, inspiration, cinematography, actual production, special effects, filming in Morocco, the musical soundtrack, editing and censorship, and Stanley’s basic world view.
Next up is Incidents in an Expanding Universe (1985, 44:00, HD), Stanley’s first Super-8 shot at some of the basics of Hardware. It’s clearly an amateur production, and a little plodding, but Stanley’s artistic streak shines through. Despite the nothing budget and rough film quality the production values are surprisingly solid, including some surprisingly adept model work, and props nearly as complete as those found in the proper theatrical version of the story. The short actually features a larger scope, encompassing actual events from the war alluded to during Hardware, and generally more plot, though the narrative execution is definitely awkward. Those with imaginations could view the short as a prequel. The footage is presented in 1080i, which is clearly beyond Super-8 capabilities, and not exactly important considering the footage’s condition, which is next to bad. The overall quality is enough that we can mostly tell what’s going on, but the colours are washed out, the blacks are pretty brown, and whites are blown out. The audio quality is pretty dismal as well, including lots of pops and crackles, and some less than smooth transitions (Stanley uses some of the same library music George Romero used for Night of the Living Dead). The sync is off as well. Still, in any condition the footage is a valuable edition to the disc.
Two other Super-8 shorts are included. Owners of this and the five disc Dust Devil collector’s edition now basically own all of the director’s film, it seems. The image and sound quality of these shorts are similar to Incidents in an Expanding Universe. Rites of Passage (1983, 10:00, HD) is a kind of Kurt Vonnegut look at the diary of an immortal man set to images of a caveman type wandering the South African countryside (played by Stanley himself), and a modern man preparing for suicide. The Sea of Perdition (2006, 8:33, HD) is a dreamy, widescreen look at one female astronaut’s journey across what appears to be Mars. It appears that Stanley discovered a sense of humour.
The disc is wrapped up with footage of Stanley discussing the Hardware 2 script (7:40, HD), a deleted and extended scenes reel (25:00, HD) presented from a VHS source copy with temp audio (elongated sex scene, more character interaction, a little more girl on robot action, and raw robot killing fat guy footage), a vintage video EPK (3:30, HD), and a German trailer.
Hardware is far from perfect, but visually appealing thanks to an intense colour scheme and wonderfully layered production design that covers a limited production budget. The soundtrack is pretty great too, and the solid performances make up for the lack of plot. Despite the slightly shaky quality of the film itself, the disc is nearly perfect. This is how you re-introduce a long lost cult classic to modern audiences – with a standup commentary, a well produced retrospective documentary, three pertinent short films, and deleted and extended scenes. The awesome remastered high definition video doesn’t hurt either. Severin is now officially giving Blue Underground a run for their money.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 13th October 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby 2.0 English
Extras: Director Commentary, No Flesh Shall Be Spared, Incidence in an Expanding Universe, The Sea of Perdition, Rites of Passage, Richard Stanley on Hardware 2, Deleted and Extended Scenes, Trailer, Vintage Promo Video
Easter Egg: No
Director: Richard Stanley
Cast: Dylan McDermott, Stacey Travis
Genre: Horror and Sci-Fi
Length: 93 minutes
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