By G. Michael Dobbs
A homage to an era in filmmaking is featured in this week's film review column.
"Manborg" is a movie that works only if you understand it is a loving parody and you are familiar with the movies at which it pokes fun.
That is actually a pretty tall order, as "Manborg" is a satire of a very specific type of film: the low-budget direct-to-video science fiction action films of the 1980s.
Yes, that's quite a niche.
Director and co-writer Steven Kostanski is a full-time make-up and special effects guy who has worked a variety of projects including "Silent Hill Revelation 3-D," Resident Evil: Retribution" and the up-coming "Pacific Rim." He is also part of a filmmaking group called Astron 6 that has produced two films, "Manborg," and an exploitation film titled "Father's Day."
In the "making of" feature, Kostanski revealed that he and a friend were watching direct-to-video film from 1986 called "Eliminators" when they came up with the name "Manborg." Kostanski was urged to make a film with that name.
Using his garage, Kostanski hung a green screen on one wall and made his science fiction epic with a small cast and not a single real location or set. The entire film is fabricated on a computer. The result is a disorienting effect, at least on me. I actually craved to see the characters in an actual place.
Kostanski and his co-writer Jeremy Gillespie obviously know their low-budget director to video material well. "Manborg" follows a soldier who is fighting a war with the denizens of Hell yes, literally and is reassembled as a part robot-fighting machine. He emerges years later when demons now live on the earth and force humans to attempt to beat them in an arena of death.
Our hero is introduced to three survivors and teams with them to take on the thousands of demonic soldiers to reclaim the planet for the few humans who are left.
The result is an amusing satire for those of us who once scoured the new release wall of video stores looking for the latest oddball direct-to-video release. This film would probably make little sense to anyone who hadn't spent part of the 1980s and '90s watching this kind of picture.
Kostanski is careful about the details. His Asian character speaks with a dubbed voice, he has included moments of stop action animation and his make-up reflects the period as well.
Although this film is certainly not for a wide audience, it is an accomplished piece of work in capturing the look and feel of the forgotten movies from 25 years ago.
Although many films are still designed to go directly to home video, the 1980s and '90s were the golden age for this type of film.
Producers essentially used the B-film economic model. Theater owners rented B-movies with a simple one-time fee, rather than a percentage of the box office receipt, the system used by larger budgeted films. Producers estimate the rentals of their films, fixing a budget so they could make a profit on each film.
The direct-to-video producers soon learned they too could anticipate the sales of a film and adjust their budget accordingly.
The best producers and directors learned how to make economic films that had elements in them the home video audiences wanted: action, horror and sex.
That's not to say there wasn't a lot of invention in these films as there were. I have a number of direct-to-video films on VHS in my collection because they've not yet been released on DVD or Blu-Ray and perhaps never will.
There was also a real underground feeling to many of them, a maverick quality I admired. Filmmakers such Fred Olen Ray, Jim Wynorksi and Charles Band actually produced some credible work and some of these folks are still active making films for SyFy and other cable channels.