Severin Films // 1990 // 93 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // October 28th, 2009
No flesh shall be spared
Having previously directed a few music videos for such goth luminaries as Fields of Nephilim, Richard Stanley (Dust Devil) shocked the world with Hardware, which nearly garnered an X-rating for its dark tone and brutal violence. A surprise hit upon its release, Stanley's combination of post-apocalyptic setting and slasher horror, unfortunately found little support with home video distribution, and until now has remained largely unseen. Finally on DVD thanks to Severin Films, can Hardware stand up to my glowing memories?
Moses Baxter (Dylan McDermott, In the Line of Fire) -- former soldier and now a scavenger of the apocalyptic wasteland -- gets his hands on a cache of metal that he brings to his sculptor wife, Jill (Stacey Travis, Ghost World), as a Christmas present. Unfortunately, the gift contains parts from a robot known as M.A.R.K. 13, a self-sustaining, partially sentient, combat droid. The head soon awakens, rebuilds itself, and resumes its singular mission: to kill whatever warm body stands in its way. With Jill alone in her apartment, M.A.R.K. 13 knows its target and will stop at nothing to complete its directive.
The threat of an X-rating for Hardware seemed unwarranted in 1990, and the film is even less shocking today. However, Richard Stanley's dark and violent affair takes nods from multiple genres, and emerges as one of the finest sci-fi horror films ever made. M.A.R.K. 13, named after the book and chapter of the Bible that contains the above line about sparing flesh, is a great villain. With its mechanized body and organic brain, the robot has the kind of faceless invincibility we love in characters like Friday the 13th's Jason Voorhees. A killer droid isn't all that scary on its own, but Stanley injects just enough personality to make it menacing and perversely funny. The droid gets a sexual thrill out of the kill -- which is especially true of his phallus drill used in the often criticized robot rape scene -- but it's not always so over the top. M.A.R.K. 13 appears to smile in ecstasy, as he injects his victims with a poison that sends them into a psychotropic death spin. This sick, funny charisma makes the robot a very appealing monster.
Hardware builds slowly to the point were M.A.R.K. 13 awakens, and when that finally happens the action comes fast and furious. Before this lays a plodding intro that may bore some, but is very important for building the setting and atmosphere. As we drink in the scenery, through slow pans across the desert, we can see the devastation that has occurred to the world (though there's never a clear explanation of what actually occurred). As we come into the city, we see the sadly realistic dystopian future. Cameras are everywhere, watching everything, in an attempt to stem crime. Those fortunate few with money live isolated from the scum in sealed apartments that are functional, secure, and filled with entertainment designed to make the dweller forget about the radiation, the crime, and all the trouble on the street below. Those caught in the middle, such as Moses and his best friend Shades (John Lynch, In the Name of the Father) live the hardest, struggling to survive while trying to maintain a shred of humanity. The bleak, grey cityscape that Stanley presents contrasts nicely with the building interiors where the rich folk live. Bathed in deep reds and blues, a style taken directly from the candy-colored nightmares of Italian horror masters Mario Bava and Dario Argento, these are oppressive dwellings still under full surveillance. If not for the protection from radiation and riff-raff, there's little evidence it's any easier to lead a meaningful existence inside them. These varied stylistic approaches keep the film fresh, without feeling confused or forced. While Stanley was only twenty-four when the film was released, he displays a sure hand and a clear vision, one he was able to achieve on a very small budget.
All of these parts are tied together nicely by Simon Boswell's (Demons 2) tense score. A veteran of the horror genre, his work with Italian directors clearly shows its influence here, with heavily dissonant strings and smatterings of industrial metal which are more effective than pop music. Ministry's "Stigmata" is used brilliantly to underscore Jill's art piece construction, put together as a montage of twisted metal and a GWAR video. While far from subtle, but long before there's any real threat, we can sense the trouble in using the robot head. Cameos from Lemmy of Motorhead, Carl McCoy of Fields of Nephilim, and Iggy Pop narrating as radio DJ "Angry Bob" are silly fun. While the performances are a mixed bag, the mostly young talent has some less-than-stellar dialogue to work with. The film shines more in atmosphere than in the plot or the script. When the action starts, however, many of those problems are quickly forgotten.
Fans of Hardware are in for a treat with this two-disc limited edition set. Severin has put a lot of work into their transfers of some pretty obscure genre films, but this might be their best yet. It's the perfect time to toss out those stretched out VHS tapes, because the image for this low budget film neglected for nearly two decades looks nearly flawless. Colors are bold and bright, while blacks are solid. No matter how saturated the colors get, there is no bleeding whatsoever. There is strong detail throughout the image and very little aging at all. The sound, mixed into Dolby 5.1 Surround, is equally good. Clear dialogue, detailed separation in each speaker, and a full array of music and effects in the rear channels make this mix quite impressive.
Fans will love the special features, as well. The first disc contains the audio commentary, a scene-specific question and answer session with Stanley covering every aspect of the production. Plus, he gives his oddball opinions on supposed projects to build real-life combat droids. The rest of the supplements come on the second disc, and it's a full slate. A documentary covers much of the same material as the commentary, but with input from almost everybody in the cast and crew, save for McDermott, who is conspicuously absent. Next, we have deleted and extended scenes, all of which would have been valuable to the final cut, but would have also slowed down the film's already deliberate pacing. Three short films from Stanley round out the set, including an early Super-8 version of Hardware and a charming, recent sci-fi short which proves Stanley still has something to offer the genre. The only knock on this release is the complete lack of subtitles, both for alternate languages and English SDH. There's no reason for this omission.
Hardware isn't a perfect film by any means, but its cult following is justified. With a dark and moody atmosphere, a strong villain, and enough gore for a couple of films, the film should find a new audience in this generation courtesy of a top notch set. I couldn't ask for more from Severin.
While the flesh may be in danger, this release is spared. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Severin Films
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Short Films