Hardware

Directed by Richard Stanley, 1990

Hardware They say all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun. But if you've got a girl and a killer robot, then you're really onto something. One of the joys of low-budget horror movies is that the stakes are low enough that filmmakers can get away with a lot of crazy shit, and there's crazy shit aplenty in Hardware, the post-apocalyptic SF/horror feature debut of South African director Richard Stanley. The film takes its visual and thematic cues from Alien and Blade Runner, with a few ideas from The Terminator and Demon Seed thrown into the mix. But when you boil it down, Hardware is just a gritty, crudely fashioned cyberpunk monster movie. If that sounds like your idea of a good time, boy do you need to see this.

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Richard Stanley may not be a genius, but he's a born filmmaker -- even if his expansive visual imagination is restricted by financial realities. Like Blade Runner, Hardware is a movie about man and machine and the increasing difficulty in telling the two apart. And like Alien, its scary adversary represents a military-industrial complex run amok. Remember that in Alien, the behind-the-scenes villain was The Company, which had sent an "expendable" blue-collar spaceship crew to incubate and return to earth a biological killing machine for weapons-research purposes. But the weaponizable killing machine in Stanley's film is already here. It's manufactured by human governments, and its remnants are recovered by a scavenger in the radioactive desert outside city limits that urban dwellers call "the zone."

Hardware One artifact — a skull-shaped robot head with blank, round eyes — eventually falls into the hands of wandering soldier Moses (Dylan McDermott!), who presents it as a peace offering to his artsy girlfriend, Jill (Stacey Travis), who spends her time holed up in a studio apartment where she makes abstract art pieces out of chunks of scrap metal. It's a nice piece, and Jill's artistic impulse is to paint an American flag across its metal dome. Another bit of the creature, its still-twitching hand, winds up with a scrap dealer who starts hacking into the robot's programming to investigate its provenance.

Turns out the robot is called the "M.A.R.K. 13" and has been created as a population-control safeguard. When the junk dealer learns that the M.A.R.K. 13 was originally designed to deploy a "cell-destroying toxin" against human targets, he mutters to himself, "I remember -- smells like apple pie." What nobody realizes until it's too late is that the robot was designed with autonomous individual pieces. That the hand can come back to life and skitter around of its own accord is predictably bad news for the junkman. And the head's ability to power itself back up and actually watch Jill enthusiastically screw Moses from across the room? Well, that's one of the great creepy-robot moments in sci-fi history.

Through force of will, the robot eventually becomes ambulatory, reassembling itself from the more useful hunks of junk littering Jill's studio and finally taking on the role of slasher-movie heavy. The resulting action melodrama, largely confined to that apartment set, is nutty, gory, and generally ludicrous. That's what makes it so much fun. The images are grimy and the filmmaking B-movie efficient, with occasional flashes of playful style — as when Moses' buddy Shades, stoned out of his mind, has to coordinate his jump through Jill's jagged-toothed security door, which is jerking open and slamming violently shut like the opening maw of Hell itself. And is that meant to be a mechanical phallus the robot is brandishing at the film's climax? In other words, is the creepy, physical attack on Jill by an out-of-control military robot wearing a Stars-and-Stripes skullcap meant to read as a rape scene? Maybe it is. Probably it is. The none-too-subtle contention is that U.S. military policy violates us all.

Hardware At the very least, Stanley sees us all becoming robotic, more inhuman with the passage of time, and the film is full of those symbols. "The workmanship is beautiful," Jill enthuses as she sets her hands upon the robot's head. And then, turning her gaze to Moses, she continues, "And you don't look so bad yourself." Moses already has one robot hand (it's never explained), which we first notice in a shower scene, where it stands out in stark relief against bare skin as he caresses Jill. The film opens on a shot of Jill's eyes. Later, there's a cut from the robot's hand to Jill's hand as she's sleeping, and repeated shots of her eyes in extreme close-up echo Stanley's earlier, lingering shot of those impassive robot eyes. When she pulls on a welder's mask to work on an art project, she starts to look like a machine herself — and the mask even has little round doohickeys (lights?) on either side that look like a pair of machine eyes again.

After the sex scene that casts the killer robot as voyeur, Stanley switches gears to show us another voyeur, Jill's doughy, sweaty neighbor who peers at her through a massive telephoto camera lens that looks almost like a weapon and serves as a mechanical extension of his own eyeball. There's even a lift of the famous shot from Psycho comparing the eye of a slasher victim to a shower head. The sheer quantity of the references to human eyes strongly echoes Blade Runner, so obsessed as that film is with the idea of eyes as the gateway to the human — and perhaps the robot — soul.

I wish I could say all these elements coalesce into a disturbing and devastating whole, but Stanley never really establishes control of the material. There are some throwaway jokes that buzz with sardonic humor. For example, we hear a snippet of a broadcast about the establishment of emergency sterilization centers to curb population growth that includes a quote from the U.S. President, who says citizens are ready to make "a clean break with procreation." I appreciated the presence of Iggy Pop as "Angry Bob," a high-strung DJ who rips into the end-of-days zeitgeist like a hungry hyena tearing into raw meat. But he drops out of the movie entirely for a long stretch, which throws the film even farther off balance when his voice reappears at the very end. The movie never really manages a seamless mix of the horror stuff with the more irreverent, satirical tone that Stanley was clearly striving for, which throws it off balance.

But Stanley gets more mileage out of fleeting rock-and-roll touches, like a special cameo by Lemmy as a taxi driver who blasts "Ace of Spades" for his fare, or the selection of "Stigmata" by Ministry as the signature soundtrack tune ("My favorite weapon/Is the look in your eyes," Al Jourgenson wails). And I very much like the fact that, when the buzzsaw hits the copper pipe, McDermott is almost totally useless, leaving Jill to kick ass of her own accord. What this stuff is, is potent.

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The gore effects aren't plentiful, but they are fairly hardcore. They earned Hardware an X rating from the MPAA, which meant that it wasn't released theatrically (in the U.S., anyway) in a complete version. But what made it to the screen, as produced by the Weinsteins, never quite jibed with Stanley's vision anyway. In the interview excerpted (here , Stanley talks about ways the film was changed in the script process and in the casting, and they sound mostly bad. Good ideas were taken out, like the fact that Moses is a junkie, a revelation that would lend some weight to what happens to him near the end of the film, or the notion that Jill made an art project of covering his cyborg body in tattoos. (Stanley claims Miramax nixed the tattoos because the 1981 Bruce Dern/Maud Adams movie Tattoo was a flop, which is a ridiculous enough non sequitur that it must be true.) And surely no one would be surprised to learn that McDermott was not Stanley's first casting choice. The resulting film is brutal and weird — Hardware is not a craftsman's film, and not really a crowd pleaser, but it is about something. Several things, actually. And it is, more or less, unique.

For many years, the best version of Hardware in circulation was an out-of-print Japanese laserdisc. Then, finally, there was a dodgy German DVD release (I picked it up at the late, lamented Kim's Underground in New York) that left a lot to be desired but was quite a bit better than nothing. The new Blu-ray Disc from genre-movie specialists Severin Films puts all those releases in the rear-view mirror. The HD image isn't great — frankly, it looks too smeary-smooth and processed for such a shoestring-budgeted film — but although a noisier transfer would have been truer to the material the result isn't exactly a disaster. I wasn't able to compare it to the DVD, but I have no doubt the Blu-ray is distinctly superior. The orange/reds and blues that dominate the color palette were murder on both VHS and laserdisc, and the artifact-riddled German DVD was barely an improvement, so this is one giant leap for the state of the art in cheap mechanical mayhem. The Blu-ray has two different soundtracks — the 448 kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 track is nothing special, but it's a fairly inoffensive effort at translating the film's original two-channel Dolby surround into a multichannel mix. I compared it several times with the included 256 kbps 2.0 Dolby track, and found no real reason to prefer the latter, despite my generally purist inclinations.

And extra material is plentiful. There's an audio commentary running the length of the movie, and some "deleted and extended scenes" that are apparently sourced from a battered VHS videotape copy of a workprint. Much of it is skippable, but it does offer a record of one spot where Stanley nodded in the direction of good taste — at some point during the post-production process, he nixed the idea of intercutting the film's sex scene with snippets of Holocaust footage. (The implication here and elsewhere in the completed film is that the robot not only learns about sex from watching the two go at it, but that he learns a thing or two about brutality from watching documentary footage on the television.) There's a nearly-one-hour-long feature with contemporary cast-and-crew interviews, No Flesh Shall Be Spared: The Making of Hardware. Richard Stanley kicks things off by opining that growing up in South Africa during the Reagan era was a little like living in post 9/11 America. "America was experiencing a period of peace under Reagan, but all the little wars were being fought offshore," he explains. "I guess to some extent Hardware simply ups the ante by making the First World behave a bit like the Third World." (And he notes that the majority of the crew walked off the set in protest as he shot the robot-rape scene with his actress and his DP.)

Incidents In An Expanding Universe, the Super 8 labor of love that was Stanley's dry run for Hardware is included in its entirety, as his his early short "Rites of Passage" and the more recent "The Sea of Perdition," an aggressively odd, impressively atmospheric short set on the surface of Mars. (Stanley fans, do not miss this one.) The package is rounded out with a segment in which Stanley talks about the film that Hardware 2 might have been. In all, this is an outstanding presentation. Combined with the recent Subversive Cinema release of the director's later Dust Devil, it puts Stanley's too-brief career as a feature-film director in the light it deserves. Posted by Bryant Frazer on October 13, 2009 9:26 PM

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