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Death Machine: Director’s Cut – film review

February 18, 2016

DEATH MACHINE

Blade helmer’s feature debut gleefully crazed.

death machine warbeast brad dourif

Written and directed by Stephen Norrington. Starring: Brad Dourif, Ely Pouget, William Hootkins, John Sharian, Martin McDougall, Andreas Wisniewski and Richard Brake. Year of release: 1994. Running time: 111 mins

A bunch of heavily-armed social justice warriors are relentlessly pursued through the corridors of a futuristic high-rise by a rampaging mechanical T-Rex under the tenuous control of a crazed genius who just wants to have fun.

Prior to writing and directing Death Machine at the age of 29, British filmmaker Stephen Norrington was a gifted special effects artist working in the field of animatronics; responsible for The Gump in Return to Oz, the Turkey dinner which comes to life in Young Sherlock Holmes and the chestburster in Aliens. He was also, funnily enough, credited on Richard Stanley’s Hardware (1990) – a film which was clearly an inspiration for Norrington’s own feature helming debut.

By the late 1980s, Norrington had become increasingly unfulfilled merely devising effects for others and had begun seriously thinking about developing, and ultimately helming, his own feature projects. It was during the production of Split Second in 1992 (the Rutger Hauer-starring buddie cop alien serial killer movie for which Norrington designed and built the creature suit) when Norrington presented that film’s producer Laura Gregory with a number of scripts he had penned during the previous two years. They worked together further developing a screenplay of his entitled Speeder, but were unable to secure interest from the stuffy genre-indifferent British financial establishment and it floundered. Norrington next connected with producer Dominic Anciano (The Krays, The Reflecting Skin) and the two hit it off straight away; with Anciano choosing to develop Death Machine – the third screenplay Norrington had written. A production deal was struck with Japanese company JVC Victor and a British distributor and a budget set somewhere south of $15 million, with an eight week shoot at Pinewood Studios, followed by two weeks of miniature photography and an additional two week shoot for pick-ups in Los Angeles.

Norrington was hailed as something of a cross-between Sam Raimi and James Cameron following the release of Death Machine; a comparison which Norrington revelled in at the time (as both these filmmakers were hugely inspirational for him; Cameron in terms of the stylish look of his films and Raimi in terms of the crazed energy and physical comedy most notable in his earlier works). Interesingly, Norrington even named one of his characters after the Evil Dead director; the     leader of the anti-corporate activists, played by John Sharian (“We’re a humane and caring attack squad!”) who breaks into the CHAANK high-rise. Indeed, several of Norrington’s characters here are named after various genre directors: John Carpenter, Ridley Scott (here inverted as Scott Ridley) and two characters named Weyland and Yutani (a reference to the company first mentioned by name in Alien 3).

Narratively speaking, Death Machine is essentially a sly commentary on the all-pervasive military industrial complex; where diabolical weapons manufacturer; the monolithic CHAANK Armaments Corporation is under fire from an irate public after one of their cybernetically-enhanced paramilitary units goes postal in a diner, killing dozens of innocent people including children. In response to this, the newly-appointed CEO Hayden Cale (Ely Pouget) demands the sacking of chief weapons designer Jack Dante (Brad Dourif) and the immediate suspension of the failed Hardman Project (‘Hard tech for a hard world.’).

brad dourif as jack dante death machine

Dourif has clearly been given free reign in the creation of Dante here, making him a truly bizarre, almost cartoonish character – a genius with the mentality of a thirteen-year-old (Dourif reportedly based the look and gleeful enthusiasm of his character on Norrington himself). And genre fave Bill Hootkins (best remembered as Porkins in Star Wars) almost steals the show as sleazy executive John Carpenter. His frustrated response to Dante quizzing Cale and prying into her private life and her failed relationship “What the hell is this? Fucken Oprah Winfrey?!” is perhaps the funniest line in the film. The only female in the cast (not including a brief appearance by a young Rachel Weisz in her big screen debut) – Ely Pouget plays Cale as Ellen Ripley in Aliens – a woman dealing with the overwhelming guilt of having lost a child (also named Amy). In the case of Cale, her baby was killed in a terrible accident involving a kitchen sink disposal unit while she was distracted – a tragic event which continues to haunt her dreams. To make matters worse, she is also accused of being a child killer when confronted by demonstrators over the failed Hardman Project. It is her interactions with Dante (who knows her secret having seen her file) which finally allows her to come to terms with her loss and find her inner strength to take on Dante’s rampaging monster.

The Warbeast itself is, for the most part, barely glimpsed. Described by Dante as “The meanest fucking front-line morale destroyer ever.” – it is comically clumsy and bufoon-like, but nonethelss terrifyingly lethal. Its apparent borderline lack of control and erratic behavior (the way it spins its head seemingly for no other reason other than to confuse and terrify its victims just prior to attacking) – appears entirely intentional and by design. And indeed, it is, as the machine tracks its prey via first creating – and then sensing – fear in the victim thanks to ‘Enhanced Pheromone Tracing’. The more frightened the prey – the less chance of escape.

death machine warbeast miniature

The actual Warbeast miniature.

On the surface Death Machine may seem like just another shallow derivation of classic killer-robot-on-the-loose fare such as The Terminator and Hardware, but there is enough going on here to give it its own personality and reason for being. The idea of the Hardman Project for one and how this is used as a foil against the Warbeast’s ability to track its prey is a clever concept nicely utilized. Injured war vets listed as missing in action, cryogenically frozen, have their minds erased; reprogrammed as souless killing machines harboring “No mercy. No pity. No fear.” With his personality successfully uploaded and saved to flashdrive (which Cale then places in her bra for safe keeping) – Raimi becomes an unfeeling, fearless warrior hell-bent on the Warbeast’s destruction; his lack of fear now effectively making him invisible to the machine (amusingly despite the fact he constantly yells orders at the top of his lungs to no-one in particular).

Technically, the film appears far more expensive than it actually was; testament to Norrington’s mantra ‘Low Budget. High Quality.’ (as evidenced reportedly by a sign     on the production office wall proclaiming just that). The anamorphic wide-screen cinematography by John De Boorman does much to add a classy sheen. While the practical effects – from the miniatures depicting the high-rise to the Warbeast itself – are expertly staged thanks to Norrington’s FX background (again drawing comparison to James Cameron).

death machine yutani & cale big guns

Norrington’s punk rock sensibility and playful disdain for authority very much recalls the work of Alex Cox (Repo Man) – especially with his portrayal of the activists as stoners. And there is a certain ‘knowing cheekiness’ to the tone of the film which makes it highly entertaining. The hyperactive scene featuring the Warbeast’s robo-vision POV; clomping through corridors in pursuit of Richard Brake’s character; with its allusions to videogames (arrows providing directions, Game Over graphics) is so deliberately over the top – its hilarious. Equally as tongue in cheek is the scene involving Yutani and Cale firing at the Warbeast in a ridiculously unending hail of gunfire (recalling a similar over-the-top sequence involving ED 209 in Paul Verhoeven’s uncut version of Robocop).

As mentioned, the film was co-financed by Japan’s JVC Victor company and according to Norrington’s commentary track on his third feature The Last Minute – he was treated like a rock star when promoting Death Machine in Japan. The film also gained favor with Hollywood actor Wesley Snipes, whose unbridled enthusiasm for the film appears to have been instrumental in the signing of Norrington to helm the star’s all-important and, as it turned out, hugely popular Blade vehicle. Following the surprise success of Blade, it is unclear what prompted Norrington to return to the UK to write and direct the deliriously surreal, semi-autobiograhical The Last Minute – as he was most likely inundated with helming offers in Hollywood. Perhaps the answer is suggested in the character arc of the protagonist in The Last Minute – that Norrington may well have experienced some kind of personal crisis post-Blade. Whatever may have happened, there’s no denying Norrington is a true visionary and something of an eccentric. At the premier screening of his fourth (and so far final) film; the troubled League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – star Sean Connery was quizzed about the whereabouts of his director (whom he had had a rather spectacular falling out with) who was conspicuously absent, “I don’t know.” Connery replied, “Have you checked the local Ashylum?”

Death Machine is an impressively assured debut from Norrington. And with only     four features to his credit (although he has been subsequently attached to several projects, including the unfilmed Nick Cave-penned remake of The Crow), it would be great to see him be given the opportunity to direct again.

3.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

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