In last year’s fascinating film industry documentary Lost Soul, director Richard Stanley is made out to be something of a madman auteur. Over the course of the film Stanley watches his first major Hollywood production crumble both from behind the camera and as a masked extra snuck back onset after being unceremoniously removed from the project for his supposed ineptitude & lack of mental stability. It’s unclear whether or not Stanley’s very particular vision for The Island of Dr. Moreau would’ve been any more successful than the madhouse delivered after hothead actors Val Kilmer & Marlon Brando hijacked & derailed the production. It’s certainly true that Stanley did have a specific vision, though, and it was one steeped in his upbringing bent on his mother’s fascination with both anthropology & the occult. I can’t speak for the finalized version of The Island of Dr. Moreau eventually directed by John Frankenheimer, but looking through the documents of the film’s production throughout Lost Soul, I couldn’t help but be spooked by what was happening onset, as if I were witnessing a real life account of black magic gone horribly wrong, a verifiable case of a malicious curse backfiring.
I mention all this because it feels like it was a window into understanding the power of Richard Stanley’s debut feature, Hardware. Existing galaxies outside the typical live action comic book adaptation as we currently understand it, Hardware is far less interested in telling a story than it is in exploring its own Luddite philosophy as a source for horror. This is a film born of the same late 80s technophobia that made the rise of industrial rock & noise music such an era-specific success. Its plot is thin. The characters’ motivations can be unclear. However, this is undeniably powerful filmmaking that can chill & shatter your bones if you allow yourself to lock onto its wavelength. I can’t explain how, but Hardware seemingly casts a spell on its audience, a sentiment I mean quite literally.
If you’re going into Hardware expecting the black cinemagic I just promised you’re likely to be confused for at least the first fifteen minutes. In its opening jaunt of uneven worldbuilding the film feels like a dirt cheap amalgamation of Mad Max & The Terminator (and a boring one at that). Dylan McDermott stars as some kind of futuristic hardware scavenger that combs the desert either in search of roboparts or a site for the first Burning Man festival. I’m not entirely sure. He ends up returning to his longtime, distant girlfriend, having moved on somewhat emotionally, forming a newfound domesticity with their shared bestie/80s sidekick, Shades. Shades trips out on meditation & future-drugs as the couple attempt to rekindle their relationship (by boning). If you can’t tell by my flippant attitude, none of this matters in the least.
What is important is what happens after Dylan McDermott hits the road, somewhat romantically spurned. While smoking legal future-weed, his kinda-girlfriend works on her found object sculpture art and, after including a scavenged piece of robotics brought to her as a gift before the ceremonial boning, she mistakenly gives birth to an evil arachnid droid with a helmet in the shape of a human scull & a thirst for more, more, more blood & gore. This is when Richard Stanley’s evil spell takes hold. The onslaught of roboviolence that dominates the final 2/3rds of Hardware is a chilling glimpse into Cronenberg’s America. Hardware‘s basics are very simple: a damsel in distress is trapped by a scary monster (robot) and any attempt to rescue her leads to more bloodshed. As trashy & campy as these genre films can be, however, Stanley manages to make them uniquely terrifying & unnerving. Hardware is both exactly just like every other creature feature I’ve ever seen before & not at all like any of them. I don’t know what to say about the film’s particular brand of horror other than it subliminally dialed into a part of my mind I prefer to leave locked up & hidden away. Stanley’s debut feature is both a schlocky horror trifle & an unholy incantation that puts the ugliest aspects of modernity to disturbing, downright evil use.
A lot of Hardware is difficult to decipher as either a cliche or a trendsetter. The film’s monochromatic desertscape isn’t an exactly unique vision of the future, which tricks a modern audience into thinking it’s got the film figured out before it really gets rolling. All I know is that once you’re locked in that surveillance state fish tank apartment with that robotic spider monster the results are transcendent. If it weren’t for the trashiness of everything that surrounds that central quest for robosurvival, the film could almost match the fear of the unknowable mastered in John Carpenter’s The Thing. That’s not too shabby for a debut filmmaker the industry tossed off as disorganized & mentally unstable. Richard Stanley has very few feature films attached to his name, but with Hardware alone he deserves to be recognized as a powerful, destructive force. I enjoyed laughing at the film’s sillier flourishes just as much as I did being terrorized by its technological paranoia. This is well calibrated schlock and it’s a shame we don’t have more of it.