Reviewed by MattFini
Starring Dylan McDermott, Stacey Travis, John Lynch, William Hootkins, Iggy Pop
Directed by Richard Stanley
Distributed by Severin Films
For a while, it looked like Richard Stanley’s Hardware had been banished to the wasteland from which its antagonistic robot is rescued from. Despite numerous DVD announcements over the years, it looked like it would be one of those movies doomed to live out its days atop bootleg tables at conventions, constantly shucked onto younger viewers who might not remember the considerable buzz this one accrued during its brief and limited theatrical release.
Over the years, Hardware has remained a favorite amongst post-apocalyptic fans – presumably because of the stylish and philosophical way it dresses its “killer robot on the loose” premise. Admittedly, it all sounds a little thin if you choose to overlook some of its superfluous ideas, but writer/director Richard Stanley is so determined to create a palpable vision of dystopia that, even if the sociological and religious undertones don’t always figure into the underlying concept, it’s these details that help give it much distinction amongst many films of its ilk.
Like the original Mad Max we’re presented with a grim vision of a nuclear ravaged future, although the film never really tells us what happened or why. And more like Mad Max, society is desperately trying to cling to the last vestiges of its former self. The lucky ones have locked themselves away in well secured skyscraper apartments, ignoring the steadily mounting problems of severe over-population, starvation, violence and radiation disease that have become characteristics intrinsic of day-to-day life.
One way to earn a respectable living is through scavenging – which is how Mo (Dylan McDermott) and Shades (John Lynch) survive the harsh realities of modern living. Shades has designs on looting New York City (which has been overrun by mutated rats) while Mo has designs on figuring out how he can stay closer to his girlfriend, Jill (Stacey Travis) – one of the aforementioned tower dwellers. Mo returns to Jill with the remnants of the M.A.R.K. 13, a prototype military cyborg built for military pacification. Unluckily for them, not only does the M.A.R.K. 13 have the ability to rebuild itself (convenient since all that remains is its severed head), but it cannot distinguish between friend and foe, either. This becomes the crux of the film as the killer cyborg sets its sights on Jill.
The “evils of technology” message is practically a mainstay of the sci-fi genre so it’s no surprise to see it alive and well here. What’s interesting, though, is how director Stanley wraps religion around these oft-used themes which, when considered, lends the film a more compelling angle. Opening with a biblical quote (“no flesh shall be spared”) from Mark 13, Stanley’s M.A.R.K. 13 is a manufactured version of the predicted plague, complimenting the bible passage’s underlying ideal that things will get worse before they get better.
It can be a little heavy-handed, but the fact that the film lines its carnage with ideas gives Hardware some appreciated substance. It’s also very fun. The M.A.R.K. 13 is a really cool ‘creature’ design and Stanley gets a lot of mileage out of an obvious limited budget with creative camera work and solid editing. Atmospheric lighting right out of Italian horror is coupled with nightmarish imagery (especially in one key death sequence!) to give the film some heavy horrific ambiance and what little gore there is helps make this robotic bloodbath a blast!
I also really dug the perverse sexual element going on here, highlighted in the depraved, voyeuristic neighbor, Link (William Hootkins). Hootkins delivers some amiably vile dialogue as he watches Jill and Mo have sex, and Stanley does a brilliant job of editing this stuff together. Coupled with the prophetic idea of technology being used strictly to fulfill our most wicked desires, it’s an inspired idea carried out with aplomb.
Hardware isn’t quite the masterpiece that some its most ardent fans have claimed, but it’s an excellent piece of low-budget filmmaking from an era when low-budget wasn’t synonymous with camcorder crap. A simple premise dressed in many well-worn genre themes and ideas, and carried out with an impressive visual eye, it’s only the sluggish pacing and occasional overacting that chops this down a notch or two. Everything else leaves a lasting impression. Twenty years after its release, there hasn’t been anything quite like this since. It’s a shame Richard Stanley’s feature film career has stalled for so long and, watching this, it makes me yearn for a comeback.
Severin Films are relatively new to the DVD game and even newer to Blu-ray. I’ve been rooting for these guys and I’m happy to report that their high definition release of Hardware looks absolutely fantastic. Inconsistent smatterings of dirt are found on the print, but detail is very strong and rich. Black levels are rich and textured, with only the occasional stock footage looking grossly out of place. Severin’s Blu-ray has strong colors and rich contrast all around, which makes this the way to go if you’re going to be picking this one up.
And while I’ve got nothing but praises on the video front, I’ll admit I was a little disappointed by their decision to include a lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track for the audio. We’re a few years into the Blu-ray format now and I’ve come to expect uncompressed audio from every release – not just the major studios. That said, Severin are new at this and I’m sure it was a budgetary decision. Even better is that the 5.1 surround track is a rock solid one – considering it’s a lossy track. Dialogue levels are strong and the frequent use of music sounds far more textured than expected. Rear channels are alive with music and sound effects, which envelops home theater users in the film’s grimy ambiance. So even if this isn’t a lossless track, it’s still a top notch presentation.
It took me all weekend to wade through these extra features – by and large a satisfying collection. First up is the commentary track by director Richard Stanley. An informative listen which offers fans an honest dissection of the film’s production and ideas, Stanley holds his own on this solo track – one of the best I’ve listened to lately. The No Flesh Shall be Spared documentary runs an hour and is insanely comprehensive. Featuring exhausting interviews with the entire cast (sans McDermott who apparently was not interested in reminiscing about this production) and crew, this is a great production for fans of the film. Also included are two early Stanley short films which are of VHS quality, but worth checking out for fans of the director. We also get a 2006 short film from Stanley, which is a groovy little effort (another reason I want this guy back in the feature film game). There’s twenty minutes of deleted scenes (also of VHS quality) – nothing too amazing, but it’s probably the Holy Grail for Stanley devotees. Stanley also muses about a Hardware 2 – which I’d really like to see. It’s a cool little feature and Stanley is refreshingly honest about its possibility.
This is one of the best genre releases of the year. A HUGE collection of extras is just the icing on a delicious cake as Severin has gone to great lengths to make this look and sound terrific. Give this one a chance, it seems to be of the “love it” or “leave it” type, but, either way, I can guarantee that you probably won’t forget it.
4 out of 5
4 1/2 out of 5
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