From Here to Obscurity: The Vindicator (1986)

PLEASE NOTE: The movies reviewed in From Here to Obscurity have either never been given an official VHS or DVD release, have been released on VHS but are long out of print and very hard to find, or are readily available in some form but have generally gone unnoticed by most of the general public.

Most seeing The Vindicator for the very first time today would probably be quick to dismiss the film as a knock-off of Robocop or Darkman. If one were pitching this movie today to your typical unimaginative Hollywood studio executive then calling it “Robocop meets Darkman” would be a perfect description. One thing: The Vindicator predates both of those films by a few years.

This 1986 Canadian production was originally entitled Frankenstein ’88, a truly awful title that doesn’t even make much sense since it was, as already pointed out, made in 1986, but thanks to a certain film called The Terminator, Frankenstein ’88 was re-dubbed, rather fittingly, The Vindicator. Written by the duo that previously penned the script to the cult favorite Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, helmed by the director of the rather mean-spirited slasher Visiting Hours, and boasting a decent cast that’ll have you saying, “I’ve seen them in something before but I don’t remember what,” The Vindicator melds sci-fi and horror into a film that’s often quite cheesy and has a tinge of a nasty streak running through its veins yet is still for the most part a surprisingly well made B-movie that’s far more entertaining than it really has any right being.

The Vindicator was intended to be a high tech retelling of Frankenstein that fused elements of science fiction and horror, and keep in mind that movies about cyborgs weren’t nearly as old hat 20 years ago as they are today. Personally, I feel the movie owes less to Frankenstein and more to Swamp Thing.

Dr. Carl Lehman is a brilliant scientist working for a high tech firm called ARC. From what we’re shown, ARC’s main projects consist of designing a state-of-the-art spacesuit to be used by the first astronauts on Mars and some type of weird remote control belt buckle thingamajig that I think is supposed to allow one to control the person wearing it but has a rather sizable defect. Namely, it causes the wearer to lose complete control and fly into a murderous rage when touched. It’s really quite preposterous and I’ve never really understood the logistics behind it other than it being a necessary plot device for what’s to come.

Dr. Lehman is furious with his boss, Dr. Whyte, because inexplicable budget cuts are hindering the completion of the project he’s working on. For reasons that are a bit on the murky side, Whyte has another ARC scientist sabotage one of Carl’s experiments leading to a fatal explosion. Following the funeral, Whyte gathers a group of Carl’s fellow scientists together, reveals that he is still in possession of Carl’s charred corpse, and proposes that they all combine their scientific know-how to bring Alex back from the dead as a cyborg using the high tech spacesuit and that remote control thingamajig. That’s precisely what they do but when FrankenCarl fails to immediately rise in response to Whyte’s vocal commands, the Canadian Dean Devlin look-a-like proceeds to throw a massive temper tantrum and storms out, but not before ordering the other scientists to reverse engineer their experiment to try and figure out where they went wrong.

All the other scientists seemingly knock off for the evening save for the one responsible for that belt device thingy. She removes the remote control part that prevents the wearer from losing control at the slightest contact; a move that proves fatal after a disoriented Carl awakens and power shoves her across the room causing her to make impact with the door mechanism that opens all the research lab monkey cages, allowing them to get loose and extract vengeance upon the scientist lady who has wronged their species for far too long. I don’t know why she needed to strap that belt around a monkey’s waist to experiment with it earlier because these chimps already appear to be stark raving psycho. The psycho apes even pounce on the security guards the moment they enter the room; a hilarious scene where it is quite obvious that someone off-camera tossed a chimp onto the poor actor.

Carl escapes the lab inside a garbage truck that’s next stop just happens to be the incinerator. This leads to a wonderfully staged shot of Carl smashing down the incinerator doors and standing there with massive flames shooting behind him, having already burned away the golden NASA-style flight suit exterior revealing his true cyborg form to the audience for the first time.

The Vindicator costume is very reminiscent of the later Robocop design; you could almost describe it as the Robocop beta test. Whereas the Robocop design only exposed the chin, the suit has a visor only allowing us to see Carl’s eyes. It isn’t nearly as sleek or streamlined as the Robocop design or most other movie cyborg designs of recent past. Little charred bits of the golden flight suit remain, adding to the overall effect of him being a prototype in much the same way that the Frankenstein monster was a physically imperfect creation himself. The overall design has always struck me as looking like some sort of robotic paratrooper. The movie very much hinders on the look of its title character and, once again Stan Winston, who designed the suit, proves why he’s one of the very best in his field.

Shortly after the big reveal, a truly great scene takes place that again brings to mind Darkman and Swamp Thing more than Frankenstein, in which Carl sees his reflection for the very first time in a store window that just happens to have a Halloween display. The monster masks in the window play nicely into the moment he first realizes that he’s had his humanity stripped away from him. Needless to say, glass gets shattered. This is followed up on later when Carl is finally able to remove the face plate so that he can get a look at what’s left of his face under the suit and finally realizes that there is no possible way he can ever go back to having a normal life.

Now the big twist involving Carl’s transformation has to do with that device thingamajig that the lady scientist turned monkey chew toy had removed the main control panel of. This will cause the suit to violently protect itself, so to speak ,when made contact with. In other words, touch him and he’ll kill you; Carl is powerless to stop himself from doing so. He learns of his automatic kill factor during an early encounter with some punks that still try to rob him even after getting a good look at him, thinking he’s just a guy in a Halloween costume. The very concept of this automatic kill factor is really silly but the movie makes it work rather effectively by taking a page from the book of Piranha. Remember how the cheesy effects of the piranhas attacking people were accompanied by that sort of hyper fluttering noise? When Carl is touched and his lethal defense mechanism goes off an alarm is triggered that’s volume and tempo increases with every second until he returns to normal mode; sort of like Ultraman when his power is running out, only Ultraman didn’t fly into an uncontrollable rage and crush people to death. I know a beeping sound effect doesn’t sound like much but its a little touch like that which can make or break a concept such as this.

Some of the scientists responsible, some of whom are remorseful for both what they’ve taken part in and the unintentional path of carnage Carl has left in his wake, set out to help capture him, only to get themselves killed in the process. Those knowingly responsible for Carl’s murder really get what’s coming to them even though Carl doesn’t deliberately set out to kill them. You’d think these supposedly brilliant scientists would know that if the superhuman cyborg in front of them will turn into an uncontrollable killing machine if made contact with then shooting it with a gun and ramming it with a car probably aren’t the soundest strategies by which to deal with the situation.

Whyte eventually calls in his own personal henchwoman, Hunter. I don’t know if Hunter is supposed to be her name or job description, but she’s played by blacksploitation icon Pam Grier. Sadly, the Hunter role proves to be a waste of Grier’s natural on-screen aggressiveness, especially since she’s portrayed as being scared of Carl and has to constantly sound like a cold-blooded killer, something that isn’t terribly believable when you’re constantly referring to the lead character as “spaceman” and repeating the line, “I’ll blow her brains out.” Hunter ultimately proves to be completely worthless, willing to blow her own brains out rather than square off again with the android that scares the bejeezus out of her.

Carl soon heads home and begins communicating with his pregnant wife by beaming his voice through the synthesizer in their living room. She turns to his best friend and fellow scientist Burt, but, ultimately, even he proves to be in on it all, sets up Carl to be (only briefly) captured, and then, in a particularly unpleasant scene that feels a bit out of place here, attempts to rape and murder Lauren.

This is about the point when the film takes a turn for the cheesy. It’s still quite entertaining, such as when Hunter and her goons chase Carl through the sewer with guns that shoot vaporized acid, a concept brought to life through inconsistent special effects that make them look like he’s being drenched by super soaker squirt guns in one scene and zapped by a poorly animated laser ray of red liquid in another, or her ability to crash a jeep through the armed checkpoint at the ARC complex and charge through the front doors brandishing the acid gun with only a single security guard to confront her. There’s also the truck that explodes before it even goes over the cliff and the annoyingly repetitious Cassio keyboard score that plagues much of the movie.

The Vindicator’s third act is 100% pure cheese. The climax is set inside the lab where Carl underwent his transformation into a mechanical Frankenstein where two of his former colleagues, both of whom he killed, are now on slabs having been given the cyborg treatment. How Whyte was able to single handedly perform the same complex surgical and engineering procedure to them that previously required a team of six to do is never explained, not that it matters since the film is about to commit a total cheat by having Whyte emerge as one himself. Actually, it’s never made clear if Whyte is a full fledged cyborg or just wearing the mechanical spacesuit, but the fact that he now boasts the same level of superhuman strength as Carl seems to indicate the former. The two engage in some full on rock’em sock’em robots action with Carl eventually dispatching with Whyte in a suitably inventive fashion. All the while, pregnant Lauren fights off the other awakening Frankenstein’s, completely ignoring that gunshot wound to the arm she received mere minutes earlier.

In the end, that’s what makes The Vindicator so much fun; Much of it is well done, a lot of it is still amusingly schlocky, and combined you get a terrific sci-fi horror blend of comic book pulp. If a movie studio can deem Ghost in the Machine and Lawnmower Man 2: Jobe’s War worthy of a DVD release then there’s no justifiable reason why The Vindicator still sits in obscurity.

3 ½ out of 5

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Jon Condit

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