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Plot: sculptress and soldier defend themselves from homicidal cyborg.

Richard Stanley’s feature debut arrived with quite a bit of buzz in the advance press. “Ferocious, stylish, and hallucinatory,” wrote Clive Barker. “As terrifying as Alien,” gushed US Magazine and Fangoria boldly claimed it was, “the best science-fiction horror film of the year.Hardware also scored big at the festivals and scooped up several awards, notably it won the 1991 Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival award for best special effects, as well as the Silver Raven award on the Brussels International Festival Of Fantasy 1991, and the Fantasporto 1991 International Fantasy Film Award for Best Director where it was nominated for Best Film as well. None too shabby for a little indie The Terminator (1984) knock-off shot on a modest budget (just a million and a half) by a hungry no-name music video director. While it’s true to an extent that Hardware is all style and little substance, it’s also bursting at the seams with untapped potential of what director Richard Stanley could do on a big budget. Unfortunately the Hollywood machine would mercilessly chew and spit him out at the first sight of trouble.

Stanley was born in Fishhook, South Africa and raised in England. In 1983 he directed his first short and two years later lensed the bleak Incidents in an Expanding Universe (1985). Another two years later, in 1987, he began directing music videos and in that capacity he worked with Fields of the Nephilim, Public Image Limited, and Renegade Soundwave. Hardware forms, together with Dust Devil (1992), a conceptual duo that would launch Stanley into the prestigious big budget directorial gig that was The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996), a production fraught with problems, to say the least. To say that Hardware looks impressive would be an understatement if there ever was one. It absolutely takes no prisoners, is relentless in its pessimism, and hellbent in making something, anything, from what by all accounts was very little. Does it ever succeed. Hardware knows what it is, and it will make sure that the audience knows too…

In the bleak post-apocalyptic future past of 2000 much of the world has been ravaged by rampant radiation, pollution and overpopulation. An unspecified event of nuclear annihilation has vaporized much of the world’s water. This now known as The Zone, an inhospitable, misty wasteland cloaked by perennial red clouds and holocaustwinds used by the government to test military hardware. What little pockets of humanity are left live in high-security automated apartments in fortified, semi-militarized cities under a totalitarian, war-mongering government that controls every aspect of life. Citizens are encouraged to undergo sterilization and legislation forbids them from having more than two children. Mutation and cancer are omnipresent. It is under these circumstances that off-duty grizzled space marine Moses Baxter (Dylan McDermott) arrives at a trading post in New York with his friend Shades (John Lynch) in tow. Baxter hopes to pick up a Christmas present for his unemployed, metalworker artist girlfriend Jill Grakowski (Stacey Travis) to make up for time in between deployments. He buys the remains of a decommissioned cyborg from The Zone dwelling Nomad (Carl McCoy) keeping the head to himself and selling the parts that do not interest him to junkyard dealer Alvy (Mark Northover, with the voice of Marc Smith). When Moses arrives at Jill’s apartment she isn’t exactly overjoyed to see him, but things improve.

Jill has problems of her own. Refugees have taken in every inch of the fortified building and the situation with her creepy voyeuristic neighbor Lincoln Wineberg, Jr. (William Hootkins) is steadily escalating. From every angle cynical W.A.R. Radio Channel DJ Angry Bob (Iggy Pop) pollutes the airwaves with his constant barrage of profanities and obscenities. Jill’s happy enough with Moses’ gift painting an Union Jack on the skull and welding it to her latest installation. A power surge activates the cyborg head and the damaged battle unit starts to reassemble itself from parts of Jill’s metal art pieces and household appliances. What Jill and Moses don’t realize is that the reconstituted cyborg is a dismantled Mark 13 autonomous combat unit prototype that was discarded due to a fault in its programming. However the new and improved Mark 13 line is on the verge of mass production and is scheduled to be deployed as a means of population control once sufficient amounts have come in rotation. By the time Moses comes into that vital bit of information by way of Alvy he’s halfway across town and his friend Shades is too stoned to be of any help. Not only will Jill have to fend off the advances of the squalid Lincoln who has come in response to all the ruckus but also the homicidal infiltration unit that lies waiting in the shadows of her apartment. Meanwhile Moses rushes to her rescue with a ragtag team of gun-toting mercenaries, but can they stop Mark 13?

Early in his career Simon Boswell composed scores for films by Italian horror directors Dario Argento, Lamberto Bava, and Michele Soavi, as well as Mexican avant-gardist Alejandro Jodorowsky. He also worked with Clive Barker, and Danny Boyle, as well as Spanish cult filmmaker Álex de la Iglesia. Our personal exposure to Boswell’s music came with the all but forgotten 1994 CD-i cyberpunk/neo-noir videogame Burn:Cycle. That exactly somone like Boswell would end up composing the score seems only right in hindsight. Whether it’s twangy, bluesy guitars, ambient New Age synthesizers (that in some parts remind of Brad Fiedel), or ‘Stabat Mater’ from Gioachino Rossini in a new arrangement, Boswell’s score fits Hardware perfectly. Also featured are songs from Fields Of The Nephilim (‘Power’), Public Image Ltd. (‘The Order Of Death’), Ministry (‘Stigmata’), Iggy Pop (‘Bad Life’), and Motörhead (‘Ace Of Spades’) with clips from GWAR and Einsturzende Neubauten (‘1/2 Mensch’) seen briefly in passing.

Hardware is a combination of two things. First and foremost the human aspect of the story is a reimagining of Richard Stanley’s earlier Incidents in an Expanding Universe (1985) wherein a grizzled space marine and a sculptress try to maintain a meaningful relationship in a bleak totalitarian society ravaged by radiation, overpopulation, and a war-mongering government. The cyborg element was liberally borrowed from the Fleetway Publications short story “SHOK! Walter's Robo-Tale” written by Steve MacManus (as Ian Rogan) and drawn by Kevin O'Neill that was published in the Judge Dredd Annual 1981, a derivate of the British weekly anthology comic 2000 AD. In the graphic novel a space marine buys his artist girlfriend a Shok cyborg head. The cyborg reactivates, and starts to reassemble itself. It culminates in both the space marine and the girlfriend coming to a gruesome end as the cyborg goes on a killing spree. The comic was reprinted in 2000 AD prog 612 and later in colorised form in issue #35 of the US format Judge Dredd series from Quality Comics. Understandably MacManus and O’Neill sued for their rightful share and a court case was decided in their favor. Legal wrangles aside, Hardware is just a very effective piece of low-budget filmmaking.

And then there are the overwhelming, claustrophobic visuals that seem to draw from any number of influences. The abstract lighting is very much reminiscent of Mario Bava and prime Dario Argento, judging from the angular interiors Stanley probably saw Blade Runner (1982) or The Giant Of Metropolis (1961). The stark minimalism and oppressive industrial feel recall both Eraserhead (1977) and Tetsuo: the Iron Man (1989) in varying degrees while the psychedelia takes a page or two from the acid/LSD flicks following the success of Easy Rider (1969) or the more broadly philosophical (and underappreciated) Altered States (1980). The action scenes breathe Hong Kong although they are not nearly as kinetic or as over-the-top. Hardware packs a lot of punch, and it was evident that Richard Stanley could be the next great action director. Unfortunately he was saddled with a big budget monstrosity that had disaster written all over it from the onset. Not even an experienced director (John Frankenheimer) could salvage the mess that The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) was turning into, so it’s unjust that the blame was cast on Stanley – and even less so was his subsequent exiling from Hollywood. Thankfully he has recently redeemed himself in sight of critics and detractors alike with the H.P. Lovecraft adaptation Color Out of Space (2019). It makes you wonder what Stanley could have done with a Nemesis (1992) sequel and it’s incomprehensible how he was never given the opportunity to direct an action movie in, say, Hong Kong or the Philippines.

Plot: two friends reconnect and engage in a passionate, steamy affair.

Historically there are two ways for directors to get their foot in the door. That’s either by doing a horror (typically a slasher because of how cost efficient they tend to be) or a raunchy comedy. Miguel Chávez chose the latter for his debut and My Cousin the Sexologist (released domestically as Mi Prima La Sexòloga) marketed itself as “erotic comedy” while nothing comedic ever actually transpires. To nobody’s surprise it was critically savaged and subject of some controversy back at home in Bolivia because of its crude depiction of sexuality and relationships. Both the director and lead star drew the ire of various domestic women’s interests groups and feminist organizations. My Cousin the Sexologist is frustratingly episodic and completely uneventful, and when it’s not it frequently forgets what it is supposed, or promises, to be. Despite all that it was somehow deemed commercially viable enough to secure a domestic theatrical release. The controversy was strong enough to generate interest outside of Bolivia and allegedly at some point there were talks for an American spin-off. It has found its way onto various on-demand and streaming services around the world since. If nothing else, it’s custodian to the urban hit song 'Dale No Pares' by MaJeLo (for which Chávez directed the music video, with Stephanie Herela co-starring). Not bad for a cheap shot-on-video drama resembling a 90-minute pilot to an unproduced telenovella.

Chávez had earlier directed the controversial “100% cuero” ad campaign for Corimexo furniture that lasted (and continues to last) several years. The ads featured popular domestic models Maricruz Rivera (2007), Gabriela Catoira (2009), Pamela Justiniano (2012), and Daniela Lopez (2012) cavorting and lounging around in skimpy lingerie or sometimes even less. The most famous model to appear in said campaign was Stephanie Herela. Herela participated in the 2014 Miss Bolivian Tropic beauty pageant, underwent liposuction and breast enlargement either sometime before or after, and from there parlayed her newfound fame into a lucrative career as brand ambassador, corporate hostess, social media influencer, television personality, dancer, and all-around internet babe. As the Bolivian Stormi Maya or Fernanda Urrejola (with all the curves but without any of the talent) it was all but inevitable that la Stephanie would take up acting. Not only would she star in Chávez’ debut feature, but she would also do her own make-up and provide her own wardrobe. In return Chávez bombarded her to executive producer position as a bonus. Likewise is Kimberly Aguilera also a popular Instagram model but she not nearly has the same clout as Herela has.

Manuel (Andrès Salvatierra) is a bachelor living in the province of Beni who for the past several days has been receiving persistent anonymous calls on his cell phone. His roommate and best friend Marco (Majelo Quiroz) suggests he answer the next call to see what all the fuzz is about. Before long his cell is ringing again and on the other end he hears the sensual voice of Maria Helena or Malena (Stephanie Herela), the girl who he had been carrying a torch for and who he hasn’t seen in over a decade, informing him that she’s now a “well-known and popular” sexologist in Buenos Aires, Argentina and that she will be returning to her old stomping grounds in Santa Cruz for a two-week vacation. Malena invites Manuel over to her studio so they can have a few laughs, some drinks, and catch up on old times and each other’s lives. On the first night the two exchange the usual formalities and there’s electricity in the air. Malena who brings up the idea to meet again as much as they can over the next two weeks. Malena is struggling to apply her studies in a way that her family can understand, and what better subject than her good friend Manuel? Manuel, bewildered that an attractive woman like Malena would be interested in him, is so distracted that he completely forgets about the dinner date he agreed to with his ex-girlfriend Verónica (Kimberly Aguilera) which understandably leads to some friction between the two. Over the next two weeks Manuel continues to see Malena and the two engage in a passionate affair. Manuel and Malena go shopping in company of his son Manuelito (Thiago Ribera) and Malena introduces him to her metro/homosexual best friend Francesco (Joaquín Machado Foianini) who, of course, makes a pass on him. Will Malena follow her heart and be with Manuel or follow the money and prioritize her career as a sexologist?

What started as a pithless exercise in comedy that makes the Gloria Guida canon look like that of Laura Antonelli suddenly and without warning explodes into a instructional feature. My Cousin the Sexologist devotes most of its second act to Herela explaining (in easily manageable 5-10 minute vignettes, ideal for classroom usage) half a dozen sexuality - and psychology-related concepts in a pseudo-scientific manner. Which, by all means, is a good thing since sexual education in Latin America differs greatly from country to country, and is non-existent wherever religious institutions are the arbiters of morality. This, after all, is not a shameless “exposé” on the School Girl Report (1970) model but an instructional feature for which there was a widespread and specialized market in the forties and fifties before the advent of television. After that brief detour My Cousin the Sexologist regains its composure and awkwardly limps to the conclusion. It will make you wish for the humid sleaze of Eleven Days Eleven Nights (1987) and Top Model (1988), the playfulness of the average Gloria Guida romp, the zaniness of an Edwige Fenech bedroom farçe, or the sensual scabbiness of an Isabel Sarli flick. None of which My Cousin the Sexologist has. At least there’s Stephanie Herela and her pneumatically enhanced and frequently disrobed form. Not even that is enough to save My Cousin the Sexologist from feeling directionless and on the wrong side of cheap.

The screenplay was written over a two-month period in late 2015 and early 2016. Production was scheduled for eight weeks from March into April that year with a skeleton cast and crew consisting largely of enthusiastic volunteers and first-timers in front as well as behind the camera. Post-release Herela found herself in hot water for appearing in the Corimexo ad campaign that had her lounging around furniture in the nude. This, understandably, generated criticism from women’s interests groups and feminist organizations. One such group Mujeres Creando filed a formal complaint against executives of Corimexo and director Miguel Chávez for psychological and media violence. Protests erupted both on social media and on a grass roots level with the collective outrage effecting the removal of the ad from various platforms and Corimexo censoring the advertisement for their special collection of sofas and leather chairs. Miguel Chávez hasn’t directed anything since, and in 2017 Herela produced/starred in a web mini-series called El Sexo Según Stephanie (or Sex According to Stephanie) and has continued to prosper as both a model and as an influencer on social media.

Which sort of brings up our second point of contention: how can a Bolivian production not exploit the palm trees, sunny beaches, and cultural hotspots to its advantage? Herela’s bikini pictures are the stuff of legend - and not once is she seen sporting one. My Cousin the Sexologist takes place in beautiful Santa Cruz yet is almost exclusively set in a featureless condominium complex and one street that could be literally anywhere. This is a problem that could have easily been solved by the inclusion of royalty-free stock footage or a bout of guerrilla filmmaking. Cine-S classic The Hot Girl Juliet (1981) (with Eva Lyberten, Andrea Albani, and Vicky Palmas) was at least as dirt cheap – and even they took to the beaches and to the streets in between the bedroom scenes. The Room (2003) has higher production values, as does the median Emanuelly Raquel , Lorena Brink, or Reya Reign video for that matter. Hell, even Neil Breen is not nearly as cheap as this. On the plus side, if you want to learn the ins and outs of Bolivian Spanish allegedly the enunciation here is very clear. Supposedly My Cousin the Sexologist provides excellent examples of speech, sayings and slang for adult Spanish learners. When that’s not the case Herela’s wiggling her huge plump ass, or Salvatierra is taking his shirt off.

It’s bad enough when a comedy isn’t funny and it’s even worse when a soft erotic romp isn’t sexy. My Cousin the Sexologist fails miserably on both counts. No wonder then that la Herela has quietly shelved whatever acting aspirations she had. What has become of Miguel Chávez is presently unclear. It would be entirely plausible that he quit the film business altogether after this debacle and returned to the world of advertising. Either that, or he has been brooding on a new project in the years since. What is clear is that Stephanie Herela could be so much more than just a model and influencer, if somebody would only hire her in a feature that played up to her strengths. Here’s hoping that Benjamin Combes, Pedring A. Lopez, or Ernesto Díaz Espinoza will see it fit to bring Herela out of retirement for a proposed sequel to Commando Ninja (2018), Maria (2019), or Bring Me the Head Of the Machine Gun Woman (2012). Either that or Rene Perez should consider her (and Kimberly Aguilera, for that matter) for the next episode in his ongoing Playing with Dolls and/or Cabal (2020) sagas. If Christina Lindberg, Gloria Guida, and Andrea Albani could have careers, why not Stephanie?