Friday, August 25, 2006

M.A.R.K. in the Dust: or why you should be watching Richard Stanley more often

I have this nasty habit.

A friend of mine likes giving me DVD's. I like giving him DVD's too, but being a po' boy I do it far less. I'm a bastard, but he seems to forgive me. But what he should be mad at me for is which disks I actually watch first. There's usually something retarded I lunge at first - a hacked-together D'amato film or a lame Bava giallo or censored tentacle porn - and I end up not watching the actual GOOD films for weeks, sometimes months at a time. The worst example of this was when he gave me Oldboy: I had the DVD, watched about 20 minutes, had to do something else and put it back on the shelf. I literally waited about 6 months before going "oh, crap... I need to finish that. It looked good."

Good? OLDBOY was a fucking masterpiece, and I could have watched the bastard... at which point I immediately watched Chanwook's SYMPATHY FOR MISTER VENGANCE the next night. Ironic, since Oldboy is the follow-up in his revenge trilogy, but whatever. The fact remains that sometimes, I get sidetracked, and that side-tracking sometimes gets in the way of me wanking off to excellent films.

While a lot of things in my life - work, moving and all - have kept me from enjoying movies on a regular basis, those days appear gone. For a while at least. And I can finally catch up on the stuff I ignored for far too long... and after the dissapointing KAIRO crapfest, it was with a little bit of hesitation that I picked up my copy of M.A.R.K 13, released in the states edited as HARDWARE. Directed by a one Richard Stanley, a bastard who was fired off of his own version of THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU through little to no fault of his own. A man who's fans worship him... so screw it, enough with the fanfare. Time to watch one of them.

Do you hear that sound, my friend? It's me kicking myself in the ass. Pure and simple, both M.A.R.K 13 and DUST DEVIL, films from 1990 and '92 respectively, are masterpieces. They're difficult to categorize, and almost impossible to explain or describe accurately, but I'll try my best anyhow.

M.A.R.K 13 is, at it's basest level, a "Robot Gone Haywire" movie. One that literally rips imagery from popular 80's Sci-Fi movies - Mad Max, Terminator, Blade Runner, Predator, hell even 2001: A Space Odyssey serves as templates for the action that unfolds in this post-apocalyptic future in which politicians are working to eradicate normal human birth due to dehibilitating radiation induced birth defects. Among the survivors in this crummy existance are Moses; a soldier for the intergalactic army of an unnamed country, his girlfriend Jill who builds pieces of art from scraps of the old world, his tripping soul-searching buddy Shades and other likable, unique, and only slightly stereotypical characters running around in the radioactive deserts or living in their dark and cramped appartments with brutal news footage and music video's assaulting what little numbed senses remain to them. The fun begins when, selling scrap to a local junk dealer, Moses buys parts of a broken down robot... a robot that turns out to be a prototype for a secret government project.

Based on a comic book, the film begins as almsot typical B-movie schlock and raises above it's clearly low budget status quickly with no small amount of visual style, layers of religious symbolism (the title "Mark 13" also refers to a biblical quote; look it up you heidonistic bastards!), and a lot of clever know-how going on just behind camera. While the film will never be mistaken for a multi-million dollar epic, it manages to be GOOD Science Fiction, something that rarely happens in today's world where the future and all of it's wonderous inventions is yours to pre-order using Paypal you got for selling useless crap on eBay, where you can molest fat old men pretending to be children and have mayonaise coated pizza delivered with little more than a click of a few buttons. The future is now, and short of the part where the government starts intalling chips in to our heads, there isn't much to look to the future for anymore. This doesn't stop the occasional film maker from creating something wild and unexpected in a Sci-Fi mold (see MEATBALL MACHINE), but far and wide, Sci-Fi is either epic fantasy with lightsabers instead of swords or re-hashed ideas written out in the 1950's. While M.A.R.K 13 isn't original per se - I already mentioned 5 films it's borrowed concepts from, and I didn't even bring up the Suspiria inspired lighting scheme! - it uses each of those concepts as only a piece of it's bigger puzzle, leading to one of the funniest/most depressing bits delivered by none other than Iggy Pop that I can remember.

Did I not mention that punk legend Iggy Pop and Lemmy from the proto-metal band MOROTHEAD are in the film? Shame on me then. But really, their inclusion is well hidden, for lack of a better explanation: Iggy appears in voice only, and Lemmy as the music loving cab driver is a small role when all is said and done. Their inclusion will make losers like me cheer, but their cameo's are both helpful to the story and paced as if they were cast by a totally random character; in short, they're cameo's used responsibly, and that Lemmy's scene doesn't even let "Ace of Spades" play out proves that Stanley's not just a fanboy exploiting oppurtunities to use gods of the music I'm assuming he loves. Well, not over-exploiting them anyway.

What's equally important though, is that even when the film stops trying to be an exciting game of cat and mouse, it's got some great surreal and clearly intentional moments of surrealism going for it. Not only does the post-industrial appartment complex with locking doors and red lights inspire images of a sort of hellish hair band music video left-overs, but it works much to the film's positive attribute in that... hang on:

SPOILERS BELOW!!!!!!!!!!!! it?

...while Moses is "alive", he exists in a world of red light, a literal living hell. It's only when he's poisoned by M.A.R.K 13's poison and seees the hunched skeletal robot sitting at a computer concole that the film allows the first rays of beautiful blue light to streak down on to the dark walls and beyond. M.A.R.K 13 is a killer, an unstoppable machine without remorse or care... but he's bringing the dying race of man to a better place. The literal post-industrial image of the Grim Reaper, his presence pushes the image of cheesy 80's veneer away to leave the world as the cold, dead, emotionless wreck that it is. Perhaps this is my simple hatred for the majority of the superficially retarded and homosexual 1980's kicking in, but I truly believe that M.A.R.K 13, while an enemy of man, is nothing more than a messanger of God bringing the damned to let their inevitable suffering end once and for all. This may not have been Stanley's intent whatsoever, but it's one I find intriguing as all hell if true.

Unfortunately, actually watching M.A.R.K 13 is in and of itself something of a torture test. With the only DVD available being the pan-scan release from Laser Paradise, a German studio known for it's bargain-bin quality DVD's, the print they used for the disc was clearly a none-too-pretty laserdisc who's overblown colors turn the red lighting, which may have looked fantastic on 35mm film, in to a crawling and fuzzy mess where you literally can't tell what the hell's going on half the time. That the transfer was pan-scanned certainly doesn't help. At least the original 2.0 English track (as well as a new 5.1 mix) was included, and it's the fully uncensored version as opposed to the trimmed R-Rated print. Thank crap for small favors though, right? Pan-scan and fuzzy M.A.R.K 13 is certainly better than no M.A.R.K 13 at all.

What makes M.A.R.K 13 so damned good? I'm not 100% sure. It might be the way that a story that could easily have become a goofy B-movie for the ages is taken seriously all the way through, and absolutely nothing is treated as a throw-away sequence or concept. The film is, in and of itself, a masterpiece of low budget origins, something there are suprisingly few of in the world. The film shows us a few of Stanley's personal fetishes - particularly that of spirritualism in the form of Shades, a man who despite being out of his head on radioactive mushrooms is still meditating and seeking enlightment of... one sort or another - and a generally Easterh aesthetic, with a lovely Chinese style dining room thrown in for no obvious reason than it looks amazingly cool bathed in the red light of choice. If there was anything to complain of, it might well be the titular robot, who though he looks awesome in design - the American Flag skull is a less than subtle symbol of the film's general politics, and while he is basically a robotic chicken he carries himself with a sense of badass mutha' that's matched only by the Terminator's chrome endoskeleton - is castrated somewhat by the film's lack of budget, which turns him in to a mostly static puppet with limited motion. They try to hide the limitations as best they can, but M.A.R.K 13 as a force of destruction suffers only slightly for it. Those red focusing lens-eyes alone are creepy enough signature to make the Angel of Death work as a scary bastard.

So, I was suprised enough by the awesome-ness of Stanley's film that I decided to watch his follow-up DUST DEVIL very shortly thereafter. Let it be said that on September 26th, a 4 DVD/CD Soundtrack Ultimate Edition of Dust Devil is coming out for a mere $30 (which is about $21 at Amazon). If you have any faith in me, any at all, you will buy that set. Or else a demon will kick your ass and cut off your fingers. Seriously.

So what the hell is Dust Devil about? Well, in Namibia, an American drifter is hitch-hiking through the desert. He keeps finding pretty young women to give him rides. He seduces them... and once he's through, kills them, mutilates their bodies, and leaves voodoo spells on the walls of their home/hotel room before he burns it to the ground and continues on his merry way. A local cop who's lost everything else (his son having died in a liberating war 15 years ago, his wife having left him once her precious son left this world) investigates what he assumes was a simple crazy murder case, and after seeing the voodoo themed slaying with his own eyes, he enlists a local shaman for help... meanwhile, a woman who's sick of her overbearing husband leaves South Africa on a journey of self discovery, only to wind up with a charming American in her passengar's seat...

Saying too much more about Dust Devil would almost be doing the film a great disservice. Much like, say, the Japanese horror film RING(U), it walks the line between horror and drama very swiftly, only offering moments of time that make us unsure if Hitch, the lovable drifter psycho killer, is anything more than a man with some deep rooted issues until well in to the film's runtime. The first time we see him at night in the flash of headlights, he's a bestial, inhuman monster... but the shot literally only lasts for a second, and then he's the handsome bastard we're used to thus far once again. Is Hitch really a monster? Is it just in Wendy's head? Or does the shaman Saarke know far more than our jaded officer Joe believes? Half of what makes Dust Devil amazing is slowly learning what is and isn't the real deal, the intense pace of the 107 minute flick flying by like it was nothing. It's hard to really put Dust Devil in to a single genre; there are elements of Horror, of Drama, of Surrealism, of Spirritualism, and even of old school Spaghetti Western's for good measure in the final reel. While it would be almost too easy saying the film is inspired by the legendary EL TOPO, it's hard to not bring it up; both films take what are tried and true genre's and turn them upside down, giving the flavors of the western genre a surreal and unique experience that can't literally be described as anything else I can think of. Truth be told, M.A.R.K 13 is closer to El Topo than this film is, if only because Dust Devil exists in the "real world" of Namibia's 1980's. IZO is closer to El Topo... but Izo's another matter entirely, and the last thing I need to do is bring up Miike when I'm trying to lick Stanley's balls.

Dust Devil was never cut specifically for the MPAA, but Miramax - who also held the rights to HARDWARE upon it's R-rated release - decided that a 107 minute film was just too long to maximize profits at the box office, and thus trimmed the US theatrical version to no less than 87 minutes. That's right, 20 minutes of story and explanation just... gone. Mercifully, the German DVD - though transfered in PAL speed, making it run closer to 103 minutes - is indeed Richard Stanley's "Final Cut". It also looks worlds better than the M.A.R.K 13 DVD, even though both were taken from PAL Laserdiscs; the transfer is letterboxed to 1.85:1, has a sharp and naturally grainy look to it, and has bright bold colors; if a bit over-cranked on the contrast, resulting in white robes and clouds having a sort of odd neon-glow appearance. Compared to M.A.R.K 13 the Laser Paradise DVD of Dust Devil is positively breath-taking, but I don't for a moment believe that it'll be so much as a fart in the wind once the Subversive Cinema Ultimate Edition comes out this September.

It's a shame that what would have been the follow-up to Dust Devil, THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU, turned in to a clusterfuck the likes of which I've rarely even imagined could exist; after perfecting his script for 4 long years, he was fired after a mere 3 days between a horrendous shooting schedule putting him right in the middle of the rainy season, Marlon Brando's failing health and Val Kilmer's douchebaggery having put the poor bastard in such a bad spot that he didn't really have a chance at convincing studios that the film was going to work. It's a shame; I remember the film being an interesting disaster of awesome special effects and shoddy acting the likes of which I'd not really seen before. And I made that judgement at about the age of 15. Richard Stanley, like most wonderfully insane film makers, is willing to put his neck on the block to get something that must be made, made. Unfortunately his adaptation of a story he truly loved blew up in his face and damaged his reputation with "big" movie studios to a point where he's instead been creating documentaries on spirituality, the holy grail, and nazi's. Yep', Stanley's an all around awesome guy, and I can't wait to see some of those documentaries on the big Dust Devil set.

So, there you have it; Richard Stanley is a fucking god, and I'm a moron for hot having watched his films for so long. Same thing happened to poor Park Chan-wook, and it's something I really, really need to stop doing.*

*I actually watched these films and wrote this article about a week ago. Internet troubles suck, don't they?

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