Thursday, August 11, 2016

Death Machine (1994)

Written by: Stephen Norrington
Directed by: Stephen Norrington
Brad Dourif as Jack Dante
Ely Pouget as Hayden Cale
John Sharian as Raimi
William Hootkins as Carpenter

Everyone wants to be a director. The actors, the producers, the writers, the grips and gaffers and doughnut runners from craft services; everyone thinks they can make a movie. Special effects artists are no different. Most of the directorial efforts by special effects artists tend to suggest that they're probably very good at designing special effects. Only a small handful of them have turned out to be really great: Pumpkinhead; Tom Savini's Night of the Living Dead remake; To Catch A Yeti. Okay, maybe not that last one, but you get my point. It's a short list, and among those honorable few is tonight's movie.

Stephen Norrington worked on the creature effects for quite an astonishing array of great movies, including Aliens, Alien3, Hardware, Young Sherlock Holmes, and one of my personal favorite movies ever, Split Second. After tonight's feature, he went on to direct the first Blade, and, unfortunately, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which seems to have ended his directing career. Which is a damn shame, because he showed a tremendous amount of promise as a filmmaker.

The Chaank Corporation, which specializes in military hardware and defense contracting, has been having difficulties keeping their shareholders happy lately. Stock prices keep dropping, despite the rollout of an exciting new project called Hard Man. Hard Man is one of those super-soldier programs wherein war vets who have sustained catastrophic brain damage have their memories wiped and are placed into powered armor exo-skeletons. The project has, however, gone over about as well as New Coke because the test subjects keep breaking out of the lab, causing enormous amounts of property damage, and killing innocent civilians.

Along with the public outcry over the Hard Man disasters, Chaank has also been experiencing a great deal of tumult within the company. Hard Man has been headed up by Chaank's resident mad scientist, Jack Dante, and every time someone confronts him about the project's failure, they've wound up scattered all over Chaank HQ in little pieces. Rumor has it he's been working on another project deep within the lowest levels of the R&D department, where he also lives in his weird little cyberpunk lair. It's something called a “frontline morale destroyer”, and the top brass have a feeling he's been letting it loose in the building after hours. They've brought in a corporate investigator named Hayden Cale to look into both the Hard Man failures as well as the internal killings. They're all too afraid to address the problem themselves, so they figure someone from the outside might be able to get the job done and save all their skins for them.

Cale calls for full public disclosure and the immediate termination of Dante. She goes about trying to lock him out of all the company's systems at the same time a group of activists break into the building to steal all of Chaank's private files and expose them. The group, led by Sam Raimi (yes, this is one of those movies, but it's at least a little bit clever about it – more on that later), take everyone hostage at first. It's not long before Dante escapes into his lab and sets the Warbeast loose, and their only hope for survival may be the very thing the activists came to put an end to: the malfunctioning Hard Man armor.

As I said before, this is one of those movies where all the characters are named after cult horror icons who influenced or inspired the filmmakers. However, Norrington actually makes clever use of some of his nudge-winkery. There's a scene late in the movie when Raimi fires a missile at the Warbeast, and the camera follows along hot on the projectile's exhaust trail in a shot very reminiscent of the POV shots of the evil in Evil Dead. The script is generally quite clever and blackly funny. There's some solid corporate satire stuff that manages to stand on its own two feet and not just feel like a poor man's Robo-Cop, and in the extended version currently available on YouTube, Cale gets some extra back story that her husband left her because she was giving their baby a bath in the sink and accidentally ground its arm off in the garbage disposal. Horrifying, I know, but it almost feels like it's being played for appalled laughter rather than straight up shock.

The performances are excellent across the board. Hammy where appropriate, but in a controlled and intentional way that adds to the humor. When Raimi gets strapped into the Hard Man unit and it takes control of his brain, he begins screaming all of his dialog at the top of his lungs and it's an amusing touch that they took what should be the big badass hero of the movie and made him an over-the-top shouty doofus instead. It's not surprising, considering this flick has quite the roster of character actors. Raimi is played by John Sharian, who had small parts in lots of big movies like Fifth Element and Saving Private Ryan, but he's most recognizable to us Smeg Heads as alternate Lister in the Red Dwarf episode “Back to Reality.” John Carpenter is played by the delightfully named William Hootkins, who also appeared in lots of big movies like Batman and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It also features Richard Brake, who played the ambulance driver who says, “Fuck” about five hundred times before dying in Rob Zombie's Halloween 2, and is currently the Night King on Game of Thrones, as well as being the first feature film appearance of Rachel Weisz.

Of course, the real star of the show is Brad Dourif, who is in full-on cranked-up-to-11 crazy mode here and absolutely owns every frame he appears in. I'd rather meet him in a dark alley as Charles Lee Ray than Jack Dante, honestly. Dude is bonkers.

Death Machine was a UK/Japanese co-production, and even though the only connection seems to be monetary and there's nary a Japanese name in the crew, the miniature effects shots and indeed the whole aesthetic of the movie is a lot like a Japanese sci-fi movie from the late 80's/early 90's like Gunhed or Zeiram. The Warbeast itself is awesome. It's sort of a giant metal dinosaur with Cuisinarts for hands and a three-foot hydraulic powered bear trap for a head.

This one is definitely worth your time to check out. It's a great action/horror/sci-fi genre blender and comes highly recommended by yours gruesomely. Sadly it hasn't gotten the Blu ray special edition treatment yet (and I'll damn well be the first in the checkout line when it does), but the extended cut on YouTube isn't bad as VHS rips go and hey, it won't cost you anything.


  1. Hard Man is one of those super-soldier programs wherein war vets who have sustained catastrophic brain damage have their memories wiped and are placed into powered armor exo-skeletons.

    As you do.

    There's something really charming about the assumption that brainwashed-cyborg-super-soldier programs are just a thing that people do.

  2. You watch enough of these things and that becomes a pretty safe assumption. If we're not doing it for real already, it's only because the technology to interface a human brain directly with a computer isn't there yet.