Despite their self-appointed pedigree as "The Criterion of Smut," Severin Films has carved a comfortable niche for themselves over the past few years as a reliable distributor of cult classics and obscure, overlooked gems. Unquestionably, their highest-profile release to date was a domestic DVD (and later Blu-ray) for Enzo Castellari's Inglorious Bastards, which inspired Tarantino's film of the same name (albeit different spelling). But they've released and reissued a number of terrific, highly-anticipated movies, almost all of which appeal to a unique and specific audience, even if they don't always register to mainstream viewers with the same excitement or awareness.
All of which brings us to Hardware, one of the company's latest releases. Though I hadn't seen it since it was first released on home video in the early 1990s, Richard Stanley's science fiction-horror film has been celebrated over the last two-plus decades as a modest masterpiece and a true cult classic, thanks in no small part to its small budget, even smaller distribution and minuscule but fervent fan base. Unfortunately, with mainstream "cult" movies like Paranormal Activity and District 9 occupying the head-space of contemporary genre fans, not to mention a great wealth of superior films throughout movie history that explore the same ideas, Hardware is a worthy film to revisit primarily to see how well it fueled our feverish imaginations before it fell to the wayside.
Starring Dylan McDermott and Stacy Travis, Stanley's film follows a scavenger (McDermott) in a post-apocalyptic world who brings home an electronic "artifact" to his artist girlfriend (Travis) only to discover that it's actually a homicidal robot hell-bent on killing humans. Inside the couple's futuristic apartment, an epic battle erupts, not only pitting the creature against a band of scruffy soldiers, but ultimately revealing a government conspiracy that holds the fate of humankind itself in the balance.
In other words, the film builds out (barely) from a literal chamber piece where a female heroine squares off against a futuristic Terminator-like robot. What's a little sad about the movie in retrospect is that it really isn't more complex (or even complicated) than that: in the same fashion as Cameron's original Terminator and Paul Verhoeven's Robocop, social commentary and (supposedly) riveting action come together, but this film followed both of those, and failed to build on anything new or different, unless a direct line of inspiration from Blade Runner counts. That said, with Iggy Pop's Angry Bob offering a tough, tongue-in-cheek commentary and context for all of the physical action and its potential meaning, Hardware had the potential to be something satisfying, even if it wasn't ever going to be special, but the logistical and logical problems kill any sort of dramatic momentum or intellectual energy that the movie may have had.
For example, much of the story hinges – quite literally – on the doorway to our poor victim's apartment, which is mechanically-operated and shuts down multiple times to prevent her from escaping. While this is vaguely explained by the robot's ability to absorb and integrate machinery into itself, the rest of the film's ideas aren't sufficiently developed to make this kind of leap forgivable: on multiple occasions, characters wander off alone, ignoring the imminent danger of a creature that has proven to be deadly; later, they perform the classic horror-movie move of turning their back on the robot after they think they've killed it; and most egregiously, the filmmakers forget how big, dexterous or effective the robot is, allowing it to perch tenuously on a balcony, negotiate hallways and crevasses it's too big for, and hide behind mini-blinds in order to surprise people who don't know that a human-sized robot is hiding there.
Ironically, this release classically fortifies fans' longstanding affection for Stanley's film, not only offering superlative presentation but a wealth of bonus materials to provide context and analysis for its conception. And further, it's this kind of Blu-ray – not unlike the abundance of obscure and oddball horror movies making their way onto the format – that both reinforce and challenge the prevailing wisdom about certain genre's depths of artistic or even entertainment value: some of these movies are legitimate classics, other, undeservedly dismissed, while still others are just plain overhyped, but having them available with the best presentation and bonus content possible afford a clear-eyed view of each of their merits, creating a more substantial discussion about their longevity and impact.
In which case, Hardware is a worth purchase for folks who are already fans of the film, but it's probably best obtained as a rental for the rest of its potential viewers. At worst, if you really like it then you've substantively supported the film twice when you watch and then later buy the Blu-ray; at best, you suffer through the sci-fi opus once and learn never to look at it again. But in spite of the problems I pointed out above, Hardware is something that I really think that genre fans should see, either again or for the first time, because it won't merely allow you to learn whether you like it, but examine why you like movies like it at all.