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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

HARDWARE -- DVD review by porfle

The last time I watched HARDWARE (1990) was almost twenty years ago, and it was a washed-out, edited, pan-and-scan VHS version that, not surprisingly, didn't make much of an impression on me. Now, this hard-to-find gem has been lovingly restored and can be appreciated for the thrilling, visually-stimulating cyberpunk classic that it is.

Director Richard Stanley's sci-fi thriller has an incredibly simple story with gobs of dystopian goodness layered onto it. In a scorched world where civilization is in shambles and limited nuclear warfare has spread destruction and radiation over the land, a beautiful young artist named Jill (Stacey Travis) ekes out a living making junk-sculptures in her spacious apartment. Her on-again, off-again boyfriend Mo (Dylan McDermott), an ex-military scavenger with a mechanical hand, runs across the scattered pieces of a strange robotic device and brings them to Jill for use in her artwork. But when this prototype MARK 13 war-droid reassembles itself and goes on the attack, Jill and Mo and everyone else within killing distance are in for a really rough night.

Looking much more opulent that its budget (less than one and a half million dollars) would suggest, HARDWARE's harsh world is very well-realized and convincing. Some location shooting in Morocco bookends the film with some great desert exteriors, while the interiors are a triumph of production design. Jill's apartment in particular is endlessly interesting to look at and the retro-modern computer gadgetry that can be found everywhere has a clunky, jury-rigged quality. While much of the film's color scheme is red, black, and rust, the lighting within the apartment is as rich and varied as in Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA or the color comics in an old Warren horror magazine.

Refreshingly free of digital technology (there's even an old-fashioned glass matte in one shot), the effects for HARDWARE prove how entertaining and satisfying it is to see real things really happening in front of the camera. Imaginative editing and camera angles give us just enough of an idea of the MARK 13's movements and general appearance while maintaining its mystery. Stunts, fire gags, and other assorted mayhem keep the excitement level high, especially with Stacey Travis doing most of the physical stuff herself.

Old-school gore effects are on the menu as well, most of which are seen here for the first time in the restored edition. This includes a nifty bisection as one character is cut clean in half by an errant safety door. Another hapless victim, Jill's lecherous peeping-tom neighbor Lincoln (William Hootkins), has a face-to-face encounter with the MARK 13 in which he literally goes to pieces. Hootkins, whose long list of memorable characters includes Porkins in STAR WARS and slimeball cop Eckhardt in Tim Burton's BATMAN, almost steals the show as the bloated pervert who drools over Jill through a telescope and later forces himself into her apartment. His jaunty rendition of "The Wibbly-Wobbly Song" is a delightful lead-up to his horrible demise.

As mentioned above, much of HARDWARE's look seems inspired by Dario Argento and other Italian directors (SUSPIRIA in particular comes to mind during several scenes), while Stanley himself mentions such influences as ROBOCOP, TERMINATOR, THE EVIL DEAD, SOYLENT GREEN, WESTWORLD, and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE II. His camera is beautifully mobile and the barebones story is merely an excuse to indulge in loads of colorful stylistic fun.

Stanley really seems to enjoy shooting the expressive Travis in imaginative ways as she brings all the intensity and physicality she can muster to her role (her two nude scenes are filmed with particular flair). Hardly an indestructible super-heroine, Jill runs the gamut of panic, terror, and despair while suffering as much physical abuse as DIE HARD's John McLane, until finally she gets mad enough to fight back with everything she's got.

Dylan McDermott's "Mo" (short for "Moses", we discover) is a stalwart but believable flawed hero. John Lynch is very good as his friend "Shades", a space shuttle maintenance worker who secretly carries a torch for Jill and must come to her aid even though he's just dropped a tab of some really intense acid. Iggy Pop can be heard as radio D.J. "Angry Bob" while Motorhead's Lemmy appears briefly as a motorboat taxi driver. The rest of the cast is well-chosen right down to the smallest roles.

The evocative original score by Italian-film veteran Simon Boswell (PHENOMENA, DEMONS 2), which sounds alternately prog, New Age, and metal, is augmented by some great songs by Iggy Pop, Ministry, Motorhead, and especially Public Image, Ltd.'s "The Order of Death" ("This is what you want, this is what you get"). Rossini's "Stabat Mater" accompanies a particularly psychedelic death-by-injection sequence.

Severin Films has done a really nice job with this 2-disc DVD. In 1.85:1 widescreen with Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 surround sound, the picture and sound quality are very good. Director Stanley does an informative commentary track with the nudging of interviewer Norman Hill. "No Flesh Shall Be Spared" is a lengthy documentary with all-new cast and crew interviews which covers the history of the film in detail, including why it's been so criminally neglected over the years. Stanley also discusses the aborted HARDWARE 2 in an eight-minute segment. "Incidents in an Expanding Universe" is a 43-minute early Super 8mm version of HARDWARE which, while boring, is interesting to take a run through. The same goes for two more of Stanley's shorts, "Rites of Passage" and 2006's "The Sea of Perdition." Deleted and extended scenes round out the second disc.

Alternately suspenseful, horrific, tragic, satirical, noirish, and downright funny (Jill inadvertently morphs into a bat-wielding martial arts character in one scene), HARDWARE is a real treasure for sci-fi and action fans which has finally been unearthed and restored to full power. It's high time for this exhilarating cinematic joyride to take its rightful place among the genuine gonzo classics of the genre.

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