Tom Jolliffe offers up a selection of low-budget B-movie gems and the theme of the day is man vs. machine…
What’s going to wipe out humanity? Good question, thanks for asking. It’s going to be one of a few possibilities including alien invasion, mother nature, human stupidity (we are a world where you can buy scented windscreen de-icer after all, for some unfathomable reason), cat rebellion (mine is looking at me funny as we speak) or the most likely option? Yes, a machine uprising.
In our quest to make life ever-easier and shift control and industry away from humans to machines, we will inevitably lose too much control. We’ll abuse the power and the machines will rise up. It will start simple, with Alexa telling you to “get to soddery” when you ask her to check the weather.
Literature ran with this fascination long ago and cinema came along and did the same with iconic sci-fi classics like Metropolis, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and The Terminator all foretelling our demise against cyborgs, AI, androids, robots or a fusion of all. The point is, it rarely works out for the best in cinema.
Now I could offer up a list of well-established, iconic classics, but let’s face it, you humanoids know these already. So today I’m delving into the dark dusty corners of a Blockbuster Video that I’ve time travelled (we’ll cover time travel another time) to, just before its closing to peruse the bottom shelf B movie selections. Some cult, some not so cult, but all with machines causing chaos.
It’s man versus machine, with 10 essential B movies well worth watching. Time to boot up, log in, plug in and eat your baby food…
Loosely based on Philip K Dick’s Second Variety, this undervalued low-budget classic was also co-written by Dan O’Bannon (Alien). Peter Weller leads a military team on the way to brokering a peace deal, but they quickly run afoul of robots previously sent to kill the enemy, which have become sentient. Weller and crew hunker down in a bunker but the screamers soon manage to infiltrate, with an ability to mimic the humans.
haWeller is always an engaging and charismatic leading man. Despite the budget, the visual effects, though rough in places, have some effective practical work and director Christian Duguay maintains enough tension that the confined setting doesn’t become a hindrance. Screamers is great and more people should have seen it by now.
Richard Stanley’s unique cult classic is a wonderfully gonzo fusion of elements. There’s Te Terminator laced with cyberpunk and placed in a post-apocalyptic Mad Max-esque world. It’s grungy and grimy. An ex-military Cyborg head left for junk is accidentally reactivated, at which point it rebuilds itself and terrorises the girlfriend of the Marine who bought it.
Stanley shows his strengths as a low-budget auteur, with a film that has hints at a wider, grander world, but sensibly keeps core elements of action in the survival horror confides of Jill’s (Stacy Travis) apartment. You’ve not seen many flicks like Hardware, that’s for sure.
Terrorists do the whole Die Hard thing, but they’ve got an ace up their sleeve. They have a near indestructible Cyborg (Frank Zagarino). Director John Eyres was a video shelf genre specialist, able to elevate low-budget productions and provide some added scale to many of the productions. Project Shadowchaser became a franchise (the second is arguably better), but certainly, the OG definitely benefits from a supporting cast of Martin Cove, Meg Foster and Joss Ackland.
The video cover art always caught my eye back in the day, with Frank Zagarino’s bleach blond cyborg front and centre on most of the cover designs (throughout the four film run). This was his most major calling card as the android for three films (and then an alien in the not entirely officially canon fourth). Shadowchaser aside, Zagarino’s career, predominantly action, never quite hit the level he deserved, and his career petered out somewhat.
Class of 1999
This classic from Vestron Pictures saw Mark L. Lester make a sequel to his iconic Class of 1984. How to take things up a notch? Thrown in Cyborg teachers that malfunction and go on a rampage within a troubled school. In movie sequel history it’s a shift left of field that few others (original to sequel) have ever made, but it’s what makes the film stand out.
A Class of 1999 sequel also followed later, minus the calibre Lester brings. Still, Class of 1999 is B movie gold, with some cool practical effects and some great set pieces which one came to expect from Lester. The film is certainly of its time too, a mid-late 80s fascination with sci-fi action continued into the early 90s.
One of the best from Olivier Gruner. It wasn’t the first time we saw him in a film pitting man against machine, with his biggest break coming in 1992’s classic Nemesis (from Albert Pyun). I’ve covered Nemesis enough times, but Automatic is one that doesn’t have the same cult fan base. However, it’s very well made by John Murlawski.
Gruner plays a service droid at a high-tech company specialising in Androids. He defies programming to save a female worker, killing the exec who tries to rape her. The big wigs, headed by John Glover, seek to cover it up by offing the Automatic (Gruner) and Nora (Daphne Ashbrook). It’s all largely confined to one building, the action is great and inevitably more androids and a few twists come into play. In this battle of man versus machine though, it’s the machine on the side of good here.
Universal Soldier: Regeneration
Terrorists take over a building and kidnap a politician’s daughter. How? They’ve got a rogue android. No, it’s not Shadowchaser again, it’s Universal Soldier: Regeneration. John Hyams, aided by dad Peter (Timecop), who takes on cinematography duties, brings a dormant franchise back to life, grounding the action with grit and intensely brilliant set pieces. From an opening car chase that’s as good as any committed to celluloid in the past 15 years, to the MMA-infused Unisol brawls (not least a Van Damme versus Lundgren rematch), Hyams just nails the action. We get clear visuals, wides, long takes and visceral and violent choreography.
The film has a weight to it that few modern smash-em-ups have. The ever-dwindling Terminator franchise for example, over-reliant on CGI has never captured the weight, power and physicality of two cyborgs having a rumble. It always looks weightless. Not so with Hyams who very effectively showcases their power and abilities. Van Damme provides an interesting take on Frankenstein’s Monster, whilst Dolph Lundgren once again steals the movie in his brief but memorable return as Andrew Scott. Jean-Claude’s fans didn’t really take to the direction the character was taken, and even more so in the follow-up, Day of Reckoning, but in terms of directorial craft, both should be held in much higher regard.
Nemesis 2: Nebula
It wouldn’t be right to have so many cyborg films and not include the late Mr Albert Pyun, the undisputed king of cyborg cinema. The Nemesis franchise is certainly an odd one, veering wildly away from the first film right from the start of the second. Gone is Olivier Gruner, replaced with female bodybuilder, Sue Price. Pyun’s almost fetishistic lens seems to adore female muscle, never more exemplified by the utterly bizarre arthouse gonzo fest that is Part 4 (Cry of Angels).
That fourth and final (of the Pyun-helmed films at least) is as intriguing in places as it is awful in others. The second film however did remember its roots somewhat. Which means plenty of action, some big stunts and explosions. Price gallops around, beats up enemies and carries massive guns. What she lacks in emotional range she makes up for in physical prowess. Then as a further nugget of interest, this film features John Wick helmer Chad Stahelski as the film’s primary villain Nebula (though he’s suited in a costume throughout).
From Full Moon Features, the notorious B movie peddlers headed up by Charles Band, comes Mandroid. Why watch it? IT’S CALLED MANDROID! No other reason is needed. Despite some goofy designs and slightly shoddy costumes and robot outfits, that look like Red Dwarf or 70s-era Doctor Who cast-offs, Mandroid is a lot of fun.
Whilst it looks ungainly and cheap in places, it has some good production values in others and some good action sequences. The cheesy elements certainly add to the overall sense of fun here. Plus…it’s called Mandroid!! The avatar nature of the main plot device, where a user can psychically control the Mandroid puts it squarely in that slew of similarly themed VR films of the era.
A cop fights a corrupt plot from the surface-dwelling elites, and gangs, both on the brink of civil war. Then to top it off his reanimated former partner is thrown up against him. Cue lots of fighting, ‘splosions and gun battles and most importantly: gratuitous Bolo Yeung.
TC 2000 is a compendium of early 9os video icons in this one with Bolo doing his thing, teaming up with leading man Billy Blanks (now more famous as Mr Tae Bo), perennial (and always hulkingly reliable) villain Matthius Hues and Bobbie Phillips who always impressed as an action actress but never got the chance to do it regularly enough. It’s an enjoyable slice of B movie hokum and a perfectly served example of unassuming straight-to-video action silliness done well. The box art always stood out in video stores, always willing me to give it a rent. I did.
This oddity is another entry into post-apocalyptic cinema. Humans stay largely underground to avoid the nuclear fallout and a new designer drug, narcotic chips that can be plugged into the brain, has become popular. An android and a female bodyguard steal a case of the chips and head out into the wasteland chased by Plughead (Vernon Wells). It’s gonzo cinema, with some shades of Tetsuo and really did preempt a slew of films which had similar elements through the 90s like Hardware and Johnny Mnemonic.
It’s strange that Circuitry Man isn’t more widely regarded, even though it did well enough to warrant a sequel. There are some good ideas in play, it’s creatively odd and has some decent visuals. Wells is over the top as Plughead, enjoyably so, and certainly makes for an eye-catching villain who maybe had more franchise legs in him than just two films.
What’s your favourite Man vs Machine B-Movie? Let us know on our social channels @FlickeringMyth or reach out to me on Instagram here.