Saturday, April 18, 2015
This week on Mystery Island (1977), we get “Fate’s Just a Dirty Trick,” episode number eight, another in a series of generally atrocious stories.
Specifically, Dr. Strange has managed to awaken both the fugitives and his own minions from the cave of the “sentinels of time.”
But Chuck and Krieg have switched bodies upon awaking.
Yes, Chuck is now in Krieg’s body (though with Chuck’s voice), and Krieg is in Chuck’s body (but with Krieg’s voice).
Of course, this makes no sense whatsoever. Why would your voice change if you hopped into somebody else’s body?
The human voice emanates from a physical source (not a spiritual one, like the soul), in this case, the larynx.
Once more, we get a lot of running around in this episode, some dumb quips, and little else.
Here, the ending makes no sense whatsoever. Strange’s minions and the fugitives are all standing together in a clearing. Chuck and Krieg suddenly switch back into their normal bodies, but Chuck pretends to be Krieg and engineers an escape for his friends.
But Krieg is standing right there, back in his own body, and he doesn’t object, or interfere with Chuck’s plan!
Then, the episode ends with the three humans and P.O.P.s. jumping onto a raft and sailing downstream, towards a waterfall while a strange being watches from behind some bushes. I will say this, the series' primary strength is its outdoor photography. The scenes with the raft boast a nice, adventurous quality, true to the pulp origins of the series.
This is the last Mystery Island installment available on YouTube at the moment, so I hope the last few weeks have given you at least a flavor of this 1977 Saturday morning series. As I’ve noted before, I have watched many Saturday morning programs from the seventies, but none have been as consistently horrible as this one. Not even Big John, Little John.
Next week, I start Valley of the Dinosaurs (1974),
In “Scuba Duba,” a high school student, Steve (Brian Byers) is demonstrating impulsive, careless and even reckless behavior.
First, he repels down a mountainside precipice at Rocky’s Point to photograph an eagle’s nest.
Then, he ignores all of instructor Rick Mason’s advice and goes scuba diving alone, without his partner Nancy (Eileen Chesis) at his side.
On his swim, Steve gets caught between two rocks underwater, his air is low, and things look grim.
Fortunately, Isis (Joanna Cameron) has been keeping an eye on him. She sees Steve’s struggle in the gem of her magical amulet, and races to the rescue…
Another wayward young student learns a valuable life lesson in this episode of Isis (1975 – 1976).
The show’s consistent and repetitive modus operandi? Learn from your mistakes!
In most stories of this Filmation Saturday morning series, a student commits a grievous (and life threatening) error, and then does it a second time.
That second time is the charm, however, and it scares the student straight. In both cases, Isis is around to prevent death, and pave the way for a moral reckoning. Here, we get the message: “Thanks to Isis, Stevv is still with us.”
“Scuba Duba” is unique primarily in terms of the venue it selects. This is the first episode in which we see the superhero operating underwater. Ingeniously (though not invisibly...) some shots consist of stock footage. We see Isis flying, but a blue filter and bubbles have been superimposed over the footage to suggest she is cruising deep beneath the waves.
And yes, this is also the episode in which we see Joanna Cameron…wet.
Isis’s powers continue to be a bit inconsistent, episode-to-episode. Sometimes her magical Egyptian amulet can reveal problems in the future. Sometimes it can rewind to the past. Here, it reveals Fred trapped underwater concurrently, and Isis arrives in time to rescue him.
Basically, this amulet can do anything that Isis -- or series writers -- require of it.
Also in this episode, Isis summons “Sister, Goddess of the Wind” to return a broken rope to her position during the mountain climbing interlude.
Once the rope obliges, Isis asks “strands of rope which were undone, come together now as one.” The rope automatically fits back together!
Next week: "Dreams of Flight."
Friday, April 17, 2015
Final Prayer (2015) -- formerly The Borderlands -- is hands-down the scariest found-footage movie I’ve screened recently.
Every time I begin to worry that the format is played out (see: The Houses that October Built ), a new film emerges that renews my faith in the sub-genre’s durability and potential.
And “faith,” oddly enough, is an appropriate starting point for a discussion of this particular film.
Final Prayer is a movie, in some ways, about misplaced faith, or misplaced belief. The characters in the film believe a certain set of principles, both rational (scientific) and irrational (religious), and find both sets wanting.
In fact, every bit of “learning” accomplished by these characters -- and by the human race in the last thousand years, at least -- is left in question by the time of the film’s terrifying climax.
The big critical slam against found footage horror movies is typically that characters are but shadows of real people, ciphers who do little but around like chickens with their heads cut off, only with a camera attached to their hips.
Final Prayer seems to recognize this problem or cliché and has one character derisively state upon getting a camera that he has been “promoted to tripod.”
But that character, Deacon (Gordon Kennedy) is ever so much more than that description entails, and his spiritual (or perhaps, existential) journey is a crucial aspect of the film
One of the real joys in Final Prayer is watching this character -- A Vatican investigator searching for a hoax -- interact with the technical guru of his team, Gray (Rubin Hill). The relationship they share makes the movie more than a run-around, and grants the audience the opportunity to invest in the film’s horrific denouement, which is telegraphed, appropriately enough, by another line of dialogue from early in the film: “That’s nature for you. Big stuff eating little stuff.”
Final Prayer is set in mostly three locations: a cabin, away from the action, a creepy old hill-top church built in 1260 AD, and the rocky, nightmarish catacombs underneath the church. Demonstrating patience, restraint, and judicious use of jump scares, director Elliot Goldner keeps mining these locations for increasing tension and anxiety, and to escalate a vibe of throat-tightening, amorphous dread.
By the time you reach the film’s final, harrowing final sequence, you’ll feel positively unraveled. Now, I’m an old hand at movies like this, but the film’s final dive into the twin terrors of Claustrophobia and Phagophobia (the fear of being eaten alive or swallowed) may take you a while to fully process. I always state that a horror movie has really worked on me when, later in the night, memories of it trouble my slumber.
Final Prayer troubled my slumber.
In short, the film features appealing characters facing the truth that reality is not as they believed or imagined it, and ends with the expert mining of more than one commonly-held human fear.
The result, I believe, is one of the found-footage format’s brightest lights, and a film that legitimately earns comparisons to greats like The Blair Witch Project (1999), and REC (2007).
“Some people think they are doing the Church a favor, when in fact they are just sending us back to the dark ages.”
A Vatican investigative team, consisting of Deacon (Kennedy), tech wiz Gray (Hill), and Mark (Aidan McArdle) visits an old, rural church in remote, pastoral England. There, young Father Crellick (Luke Neal) believes that he has observed God’s miracles. He even videotaped one -- during a baptism -- that resulted in object moving on the altar, apparently of its own volition.
Deacon’s job is to prove that Father Crellick is orchestrating a hoax, or, alternatively, find evidence of his veracity. As Deacon delves into the history of the Church, he learns that it has been closed since 1880, and that the last priest to live there opened up an orphanage nearby, claiming that he had found a different “master” than the Christian God.
Father Crellick appears to commit suicide after Deacon assesses his miracle a fraud, but later Deacon begins to find evidence that there is a dark power working in the Church. The Christianity of the place is, actually, merely a “painted façade,” a place housing a much older, much darker spirit or being.
Soon, Deacon finds a hidden staircase leading deep into the Earth -- and into the hill – and he summons an elderly priest, Calvino (Patrick Godfrey) to exorcise the Church.
But during the exorcism, Mark vanishes -- presumably down the staircase -- and Deacon and Gray make a terrifying descent into the underworld.
“I may have a new master now.”
In the course of Final Prayer, Deacon tells Gray a story about Vatican investigators, including a Cardinal, who traveled to Brazil and were tasked with discovering the truth about a supposed miracle in a Church there.
What the team witnessed in Brazil, he says, might have been “the Face of God.” Regardless of what exactly the team saw, the members died afterwards, and one man cut his own eyes out with a knife because he couldn’t live with what he saw…what he learned.
Final Prayer very much concerns Deacon’s similar reckoning; his awakening. There’s a strong Lovecraftian aspect to the film as Deacon and Gray explore the history of the Church and the region, and learn that long before the Church existed, pagan rituals occurred there, pagan rituals involving a dark, malevolent God, and the sacrifice of human babies.
Without giving anything else away, Final Prayer concerns the idea that there is more in Heaven and Earth than is dreamed of by man’s philosophy, science, or religion. Gray, a non-believer who nonetheless desires an answer to the “Great What If” of human existence, relies on scientific tools to chart “the three-dimensional” space inside the church, seeking clues.
Deacon meanwhile, wants to punch holes in Crellick’s miracle, so that his faith, in essence, can be re-affirmed. God would not create a miracle in this place, for this rookie priest, he believes. He is a cynic, having seen -- far too many times -- how hoaxes harm people.
But the point is that both characters must reckon with an order outside their belief systems, a much older order than the ones to which they subscribe. There’s a great scene here, in a pub, in which Deacon and Gray debate, in broad strokes, the history of religion and worship. They discuss how, long ago, believers worshiped things they could see, like the Sun, whereas modern religions rely on a belief in something not physically present, something invisible. Which is the more powerful God?
The thing that you have no evidence of and imagine? Or the thing that is actually present, staring you in the face?
This conversation is of significance, given the comment (by the church’s last priest) that he has a new master.
It’s more apt to say he has discovered a very, very old one. It’s clear that this priest converted from Christianity when he met a deity -- or a devil -- in the flesh.
Final Prayer succeeds as a horror film because it follows so carefully and so intelligently Deacon and Gray as they discuss the mystery, their world views, and their experiences. When they relate to one another, they do so with wit, humor and cleverness. The repartee is so intriguing, cerebral and attention-holding that the jump scares -- particularly one involving a dog -- carry real impact. Like every other aspect of the film, these periodic jump scares are superbly rendered and wholly unexpected.
But the third act of Final Prayer is in a class by itself in terms of suspense and horror, as revelations come hot and heavy, one atop another, in the catacombs of that creepy church. Only a fool -- or perhaps a person determined to know the truth -- would head down there, into those dark, increasingly cramped tunnels. I am bothered a lot by claustrophobia, and Final Prayer pushes that button further than any film I’ve seen since The Descent (2006), and even further than the great As Above, So Below (2014).
There comes a point, here, where you want to turn away and not see anymore, especially as the final reckoning unfolds in the most disgusting and grim way imaginable.
You may not like (or frankly, enjoy) how the movie ends, especially if you have become invested in the characters and their journeys of discovery. But as I told my son when I recounted the events of this movie (he loves to be told scary stories), the great thing about found footage movies is that nothing but the footage itself needs to endure the experience. The only survivor we, as an audience, requires, is the storage medium: the film, the disc, the videotape, what-have-you.
Final Prayer remembers that aspect of the format, and grants Deacon’s spiritual and existential journey the kind of grim, uncompromising punctuation that will leave audiences reeling.
Say your prayers...your slumber shall be troubled.
Thursday, April 16, 2015
“It’s interesting what becomes valuable to us when almost everything is taken away,” one character muses in The Ultimate Warrior (1975), a violent action film that heavily forecasts The Road Warrior (1982), Cyborg (1989) and other films of the post-apocalyptic sub-genre.
In this case, it is Yul Brynner rather than Mel Gibson or Jean Claude Van Damme who plays a warrior of the wasteland, one who must protect the remnants -- and indeed the future -- of human civilization.
As in the case of the other films name-checked above, there’s a powerful Western vibe or overlay to The Ultimate Warrior. This is the story of a Clint Eastwood-like stranger who arrives at the City, and either saves it from injustice, or induces it to experience a rebirth.
It’s fascinating how the hero/stranger in such tales is always an outsider to the community or village at large, isn’t it?
The myth of the hero on a white horse arriving to clean up town -- and then leave it for the better -- is a deeply entrenched one in American culture. So much so that it still exists today in political campaigns. Everyone (on both sides of the aisle) wants to be cast as the heroic outsider riding into corrupt/failed Washington D.C. to clean it up.
The Ultimate Warrior -- directed by Robert Clouse -- certainly puts an interesting spin on this old archetype, recognizing in this case that the City will fall, but that mankind can survive nonetheless. The hero’s responsibility is not, then, to the City, in this case, but to the very future of the species. The film uses as symbols for that future both plant seeds, and a human fetus, carried in the abdomen of quite possibly the world’s last mother.
The future world of 2012 (!) as depicted viscerally in The Ultimate Warrior is one of starvation and desperation, scarcity and shortages. There is no gasoline, no medicine, and no hope. The Baron’s (Max Von Sydow) community suffers from a plague of “fatalism,” according to the film’s dialogue.
In terms of historical context, it is easy to see why the apocalypse takes this form. The film arises, like No Blade of Grass (1970) or Z.P.G. (Zero Population Growth) (1972) from an age in which resource shortages, pollution and over-population looked like the trifecta of impending doomsdays, the three-headed bullet that had our name on it. Similarly, the country was still careening from the morale-sucking failures of the Vietnam War and fall-out from the Watergate Scandal. “Fatalism,” in those days, wasn’t the purview of only sci-fi films.
The film’s great virtue is its sense that mankind will endure. That fatalism can be outlived. The final scene -- set outside the confines of the de-humanized City -- promises a re-birth of hope, and an end to the fatalism that reduced man to selfish barbarian.
But of course, such catharsis can only arise after a particular brutal confrontation between Brynner and William Smith -- local warlord -- in a subway car.
That’s as it should be, however, since this is an action film. The Ultimate Warrior is vastly underrated in terms of its action, story, and value to the genre, but even worse, it often gets no credit for imagining the savagery of the post-apocalyptic world that filmmakers and critics would later associate with the Mad Max saga. It’s a film that deserves a second look, even forty years later.
In the year 2012, the civilized world has collapsed into anarchy due to famine. The Baron (Max Von Sydow) -- the leader of small community of survivors in New York City --realizes that his people will not survive long when faced with vile scavengers like the evil Carrot (William Smith) and his men.
Thus, the Baron recruits a soldier of fortune named Carson (Yul Brynner) to act as guardian to his people.
But the Baron has another motive for bringing the warrior into the fold. He recognizes the inevitable; that there is no future in city life. Specifically, The Baron wants to send his pregnant daughter, Melinda (Joanna Miles) to safety in North Carolina along with a batch of specially-engineered seeds that can grow despite the famine, and re-start the cycle of life.
The Baron tasks Carson with the care of his daughter and the seeds during the journey, but Carrot does everything in his power to stop the mission.
The Baron’s people are none-too-happy either, to learn that their leader has determined that their lives and futures are expendable.
The Ultimate Warrior’s depiction of its dark future world remains quite powerful. The city looks like a vast junkyard, and the Baron’s community lives on a city block barricaded on all sides. The entrance is accessible only through a parked-bus, and inside the community we see small gardens, wind mills (for energy production), and a community pantry running very low on provisions.
Impressively, The Ultimate Warrior considers that in a new world order like this one, new laws will be necessary, and the film reveals how even the best society’s -- like the one established by the Baron -- must operate on draconian law. There’s nothing to waste, nothing to squander, and yet the laws are so harsh that some essential sense of humanity is sacrificed.
For example, one citizen in the compound is accused of stealing a tomato, and forced to endure cruel justice. The Baron declares “Give him to the street people” and the offender is cast-out into the urban jungle. The Baron pays for his own trespasses as well. After sending away his daughter, Carson, and the seeds, he stays behind, and his own people beat him to death for selling them out. This sequence seems indicative of the proverb that those who live by the sword shall die by the sword. The Baron showed no mercy to offenders, and is, finally, shown no mercy, himself.
A real sense of human savagery permeates The Ultimate Warrior, and one sequence involves the desperate mother and father of a small baby venturing out into the “wilderness” of New York to acquire powdered milk for their infant. A less frank, less honest film would have had them survive; would have had the hero rescue them. In this case, Carson is too late to help the family, and barely escapes with his own life. The fate of the baby is pretty grim too, an indication that the City is running out of tomorrows.
The Ultimate Warriors’ last act leaves behind the terror of the City, as Melinda and Carson (carrying the seeds), flee the metropolis through the subway system, Carrot and his men in pursuit. In this section of the film, the tension is especially high because The Baron -- Melinda’s father -- has actually given explicit instructions that Carson is to consider the fate of the seeds ahead of the fate of Melinda and her child.
That’s how desperate things have gotten for the human race. Family ties are now less important that a life-giving crop. When Melinda goes into labor, with Carrot’s men in pursuit, the film reaches its pinnacle of anxiety, since one wonders what decision Carson will ultimately make. It’s a tough choice, and one I don’t envy.
Carson chooses the morality of the old world, interestingly, and stays with the pregnant mother. He thus risks everything, but maintains his soul. It’s a fair trade, given the film’s outcome. As the titular “ultimate warrior,” Carson dispatches Carrot and his men with great aplomb, violence and blood-shed. The final set-piece in the subway (wherein Carson must chop off his own hand to kill Carrot) is gruesome in the extreme, but the final shots of Carson, Melinda and her baby reaching the picturesque beaches of North Carolina provide the film its final punctuation, a visual and emotional catharsis that makes the whole journey worthwhile.
For my money, the cutthroat No Blade of Grass still takes the cake as the bluntest, nastiest slice of post-apocalyptic life in the 1970s cinema, but The Ultimate Warrior absolutely points the way to the genre’s future. The film re-purposes old Western myths and tropes but doesn’t candy-coat the grim realities its characters encounter. While it is not, perhaps the “ultimate” post-apocalyptic film, The Ultimate Warrior is nonetheless a really fine piece of work, and the grandfather, perhaps, of The Road Warrior.
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
“Don’t Tell Mama:” The Harvest (2015)
By Jonas Schwartz
Like director John McNaughton’s first film Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990), The Harvest is a methodical study of insanity, as grief turns parents into monsters. Samantha Morton haunts as Dr. Katherine Young, an unstable mother driven insane by her need to save her dying son.
Prone to violent mood swings and cold irrationality, she makes the audience nervous during her quiet moments, and frazzled when she attacks. Just as unnerving is Michael Shannon as Katherine’s enabling husband, who knows she has crossed the line but allows her to continue her outrageous mission.
Orphan Maryann (Natasha Calis) moves in with her grandparents (Peter Fonda and Leslie Lyles), decent people who nonetheless mistaken her for a problem child, one who seeks attention. In reality, Maryann is a sensitive girl, courageous and curious. She meets her neighbor, Andy (Charlie Tahan), an invalid, lonely boy, and they become immediate friends.
Andy had been in isolation most of his life with only his odd parents as company. Mother Katherine at first tolerates Maryann but she eventually forbids the girl from visiting. Maryann refuses to take no for an answer, particularly when it’s obvious Andy needs the camaraderie.
Each visit discovered by Katherine causes more havoc as the doctor becomes further exasperated by the young visitor. Maryann discovers the secret Andy’s parents have been hiding, but her grandparents assume she’s acting out, making up stories. Maryann has been abandoned by the adults and only she can protect her young, defenseless friend from his own mother.
Though The Harvest has been marketed as a horror thriller, this is a slow burn film, one heightened by Morton’s character’s mood swings. Part Mommie Dearest (1980) part Misery (1990), Katherine Young is a basket case, one driven to the edge by her eternal love for her son and her terror that he will die. Katherine is never presented as evil, just utterly sick. Morton’s performance heightens that unbalance, leaving the audience terrified of her irrational, eventually violent, behavior.
As the henpecked husband, Michael Shannon has never appeared so frail. Usually a manic, hulking beast in Bug, Revolutionary Road and Take Shelter, he here plays someone so used to bowing to his wife, he has lost his moral center. This tragic being wants to do the right thing, but has no power over his wife.
Both Calis and Tahan are endearing child actors. They relay youthful vulnerability and a sense of bravery.
Director McNaughton doesn’t rely on tricks (the one twist is blatantly obvious) or gore to hook his viewers. He allows the actors to control the tension with penetrating results. The Harvest is a minor work but one worth discovering.
Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonasat the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
In the first part of the two-part episode “The Keeper,” a regal, powerful alien (Michael Rennie) arrives on the Robinsons’ planet on an expedition to collect two of every form of animal.
The Keeper uses a strange staff to control the animals, and bend them to his will, and the trick works on Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) as well.
While the Robinsons attempt to determine the nature of their alien visitor, Smith plots a plan to steal the Keeper’s ship and return to Earth.
Soon, the Keeper decides he wants to take Will (Bill Mumy) and Penny (Angela Cartwright) as two of his human specimens, but his plans are waylaid when Smith releases all the animals on his ship from their cages…
“The Keeper” (Part I) is, in many significant ways, a template for the future of Lost in Space. Several episodes repeat the formula seen here.
It’s a development of the “Invaders from the Fifth Dimension”-type story, and goes something like this:
An alien personality with some amazing power, distinguishing feature or weapon (in this case a staff “made of weightless matter” and “powered by cosmic energy"), attempts to separate the family members, wishing to take one or more (often the children) back to another planet for some dark purpose.
Here, Will and Penny are jeopardized, to be exhibits in a menagerie, but in “Invaders from the Fifth Dimension,” it was Will who was to be taken away, to power an alien navigational computer.
Then, in this type of story, the Robinsons demonstrate some human quality (irrational emotions like love in “Fifth Dimension,” and self-sacrifice in “The Keeper” Part II), and the alien -- recognizing their intelligence/nobility/humanity/uselessness for their purpose -- leaves in defeat.
Meanwhile, Smith -- in all these stories -- is up to no good, and often negotiates a way for the aliens to take one of the Robinsons instead of him.
As an early variation on this tale, “The Keeper” (Part I) doesn’t yet feel like it has been done to death. Accordingly, it's an engaging episode.
And Michael Rennie makes for an inscrutable alien, bringing a sense of both dignity and menace to his role. Lacking human emotions, the character of the Keeper is cold, but not without a sense of morality. He's not just a monster, and he isn't pure "evil." But he does have an agenda he is unwilling to leave unfulfilled. So he is dangerous.
The Keeper's logic isn’t always strong, however.
Don (Mark Goddard) and Judy (Marta Kristen) would make far better specimens in his collection than would Will and Penny because they are of breeding age, and, since not related, capable of producing healthy off-spring.
The Keeper shows a rudimentary interest in Don and Judy here, but then settles on the kids instead, presumably because they will live longer. Yet if specimen longevity is the goal, then Don and Judy, again, are a superior catch. They can have many children, ones who will live longer than Will and Penny might.
A very strong scene in the episode, actually, involves Don and Judy. They share a scene together in which they relate in a more romantic, adult way. They show attraction and affection for one another, and this angle is too often shorted on Lost in Space.
The end of “The Keeper” is intriguing, because it reveals all the alien life-forms seen thus far on the series steam-rolling out of the Keeper’s ship. I love the horror movie imagery utilized here. From a low angle (expressing menace and size), we see the monsters stagger forward. It's a nightmarish moment.
We see the Bush People of “The Raft,” the weird night bat of “The Oasis,” the Cyclops of “There Were Giants in the Earth” (though he is not a giant here…), a variation of the horned, furry monster of “One of Our Dogs is Missing,” and even the faceless alien of “Wish Upon a Star.”
Amusingly, the episode keeps cutting to the same four or five monsters staggering down the exit ramp, shot from different expressionistic angles to suggest the presence of dozens of beasts, instead of just half-a-dozen or so.
The Bush People, the Cyclops and the Giant Bat belong on this list of denizens. They seem to be natives of the planet, legitimately. We know from “Wish Upon a Star,” however, that the faceless alien crashed on the planet in a spaceship.
In terms of recycling costumes, or props in this case, the alien “brain” control panel from “The Derelict” gets hauled out of mothballs for the interior of The Keeper’s ship.
By contrast, the Keeper’s ship is gorgeously wrought here, as you can see from the imagery below. It looks great, doesn't it?
Again, it's a demonstration that, in some sense, Lost in Space had a deeper visual imagination (and better production values) than its more famous and beloved contemporary, Star Trek.
Next week: “The Keeper” (Part II).
Welcome to the post-apocalyptic future as it was imagined in the late 1980s. If it looks familiar to you, all the better. There can be little doubt that Cyborg is heavily inspired by the success and artistry of George Miller’s The Road Warrior (1981), a film that generated a slew of imitators in the Decade of Reagan.
Cyborg’s (1989) anarchic world is one of mullets and shoulder pads, not to mention roving gangs and the total breakdown of law-and-order. Jean-Claude Van Damme plays Gibson Rickenbacker, a taciturn, Clint-Eastwood-like outsider known as a “slinger” whose tragic personal past is explored in the film through a series of flashbacks.
The Clint Eastwood connection is important not only because Van Damme play a man of few words, but because Cyborg can easily be parsed as a transplanted Spaghetti Western. There’s a Sergio Leone-vibe to the film’s visual presentation. To wit, action is frequently punctuated by close-ups of creepy, physically unusual characters, like the film’s gold-toothed, glow-eyed villain, Tremolo (Vincent Klyn).
Produced for just 500,000 dollars, Cyborg was the final theatrical release under the Golan and Globus Cannon banner. The low-budget film might be deemed somewhat silly-looking by today’s standards, since its evil gang is so two-dimensional and stereotypically villainous, and because the fashions reflect the late eighties to an alarming degree. Similarly, it’s not difficult to discern that the filmmakers take any excuse whatsoever to have Van Damme inflict his van-damage while shirtless.
Yet Cyborg still works hard to earn a degree of respectability.
It does so primarily through crisp, cleanly-directed fight scenes that don’t hide the stunt-work or rely on quick-cutting or herky-jerky cameras. At least two fight scenes -- one set in a Southern marsh, and one set in the pounding rain -- are unforgettably crafted.
Similarly, the film’s quiet moments (which don’t require Van Damme to speak or emote much…) are oddly affecting. These moments are abundantly simple -- almost more like sketches, or memories half-visualized than full-fledged movie scenes -- and they add to the sense of a fractured, fallen world, and a half-remembered, past. There’s a dream-like, hazy feeling here that works in Cyborg’s favor.
Cyborg operates on two parallel narrative tracks for most of its duration, telling one story in flashback, and another one in the present. The commendable quality about this structure is that the stories connect in a meaningful way, and each story helps to generate interest in the other. For instance, the flashbacks reveal Gibson’s sad history, thus explaining his anti-social nature in the present. Similarly, his deliverance, in the final act, hinges on the (surprise) re-appearance of a character from his past. It’s not like you go to see a movie like Cyborg for the character touches, I realize, but the film actually offers more of value than just a series of increasingly picturesque kickboxing tournaments.
Cyborg may not be a great film, but it features neo-classical touches worth noting. And since so many post-apocalyptic movies of the 1980s are outright terrible (like Warrior of the Lost World , or 1990: The Bronx (1982), Cyborg’s general competence, thrills and visual legerdemain qualify it, at the very least, as a better-than-average example of the then-popular post-apocalypse sub-genre.
“Just get us out of the City!”
In the not-too distant future, civilization has collapsed and a plague -- the living death -- has decimated the human race. Savage gangs now rule the cities, raping and pillaging wherever they go.
A female cyborg from Atlanta and the CDC, named Pearl (Dayle Haddon), has discovered a cure to the plague, but gang leader Tremolo wants it for himself. Indeed, he plans to take Pearl back to Atlanta, and control the cure himself.
A loner and “slinger,” Gibson (Van Damme), who has a shared history with Tremolo, shadows Pearl’s journey with an unwanted sidekick, Nady (Deborah Richter). They brave many dangers together, and along the journey, Gibson recalls the family he lost because of Tremolo, and the pain he has suffered.
Before long, Gibson and Nady must confront Tremolo, and get Pearl safely back to Atlanta.
“I Like Death. I Like Misery. I Like this World.”
In several significant ways, Cyborg mirrors an underrated and unheralded post-apocalyptic film from the 1970s: The Ultimate Warrior.
In that film, Yul Brynner played a loner and fighter who -- at the behest of Max Von Sydow’s character -- had to transport one woman from NYC to North Carolina.
In both cases and in both films, the hero must contend with a villainous gang, and risk emotional connection so as to save the future itself.
And in both films, of course, the journey takes the lead characters from the dangerous “city” (the Big Apple) to the South. And in both cases, that woman holds the key to the re-birth of the human race. Cyborg isn’t quite as good as The Ultimate Warrior, frankly, but it is not unimpressive.
As noted above, the Pyun film is pretty low-budget, and yet it features two matter terrific paintings of the future world (NYC, and Atlanta) that go a long way towards selling the End of the World as a reality.
Another scene, also cheaply-produced, sells that reality in another, more intimate way. Pyun’s camera pans across a series of wagons at a bazaar, and at one point, the audience sees the gruesome imagery of one person being treated for the plague. The patient screams in agony, but is largely unnoticed by others.
The moment is not big and epic, for certain, but the economical imagery sells the reality of this world in a way that is both memorable and economical.
Suffice it to say, you wouldn’t want to live here.
If one is inclined, one can also gaze at the film as a kind of extended Jesus Christ metaphor. After losing his earthly connections -- his family -- Gibson wanders the wastelands and cities, an outcast. At one point, he is crucified by his enemies, literally, but then resurrected, stronger than before.
In his new, fierce fighting form, post-crucifixion, Gibson battles not for personal happiness, but for the future of the planet itself. He fights to save Pearl (a Pearl of great price), and bring a cure to suffering mankind.
The Christ comparison is telegraphed in an early fight scene in which we see Van Damme beside a graffiti cross, and then fulfilled, at least, during the character’s crucifixion on the wetlands.
In fact, if you go back and watch the first frames of the film (following the matte painting), you'll notice, even, a crucifix in a kind of urban junk-yard setting.
Although Cyborg raises some questions about its post-apocalyptic world (which features both barbarians and high-tech cyborgs…), and relies on clichés occasionally (like the sting-in-the-tail/tale ending), it really goes for broke with its careful and evocative imagery. The Christ metaphor is valid, certainly (and has been used before, in the post-apocalyptic arena, in The Omega Man ), but other visuals remain just as powerful.
For instance, in one scene, we see a traditional wedding cake topping burn and melt, a sign forecasting the end of civilization, and more specifically, the end of Gibson’s happy “marriage” because of Tremolo. Two worlds (ours, and Gibson’s) burn down.
The film’s fight scenes, similarly, make the most of their locations. The scene leading up to the marsh fight -- a pitched chase after a run through the sewers -- gets the adrenaline pumping.
And it indeed feels like real (if post-apocalyptic) justice, when Gibson finally takes down the film’s villain in a cleansing, cathartic rainfall.
So Cyborg may not be great, it’s true. The film’s opening scenes -- with the ridiculous over-use of slow-motion photography and the mood of a bad Italian action movie -- portend bad movie disaster.
But Cyborg avoids that fight with its dedication to trenchant imagery, and a nice focus on humanity.
Gibson’s memories -- like gauzy and diffuse photos from another era -- make us feel for him, and understand his refusal to be drawn back into battle. He’s lost everything, and wants nothing from the world.
Commendably, the film allows him to pull back from that point of nihilism and re-join the war in a noble way. Sure, it’s been done before (see: The Mad Max movies!), but Cyborg is so crisply shot and lean in presentation that the film succeeds on an artistic basis: as a straight-forward transplantation of the Spaghetti Western to the science-fiction genre.
A cyborg is a being who is part machine and part human. The nice thing about Cyborg perhaps, is that the film’s focus lands more on the human and less on the machine side of that equation than one might rightly expect from a low-budget post-apocalyptic movie of late-eighties vintage.