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Hardware (1990)

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 past future of 2000 much of the world has been ravaged by rampant radiation, pollution and overpopulation. The Big One, an unspecified event of nuclear annihilation, has vaporized much of the world’s water. This is now known as The Zone - an inhospitable, misty wasteland cloaked by perennial red clouds and holocaustwinds - is 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.