Sunday, April 18, 2010


At the “Kant Institute for the Gifted”, a mad professor attempted to increase and enhance his students’ psychic powers by injecting them with a little concoction during something he liked to call “The Nietsche Experiment”. Unfortunately for his proposed grant, the serum did nothing but turn his students into mindless, murderous zombies under his complete mental control. But, of course, the cops arrived to save the day by gunning down everyone in sight. Ten or twenty years later, depending on which timeline you choose to follow, Professor Jones has returned with a new improved serum he’s using on the homeless. This New Nietsche Formula transforms his minions into mindless, murderous mutated zombies with a penchant for self-mutilation. And there’s no one to stop him but a burned out journalist and a brand new cast of interchangeable “gifted” psychic students at the school.

Hey, don’t look at me like that—sometimes you’re just in the mood for junk. Besides, Hellmaster stars John Saxon as the evil professor and Dawn of the Dead’s David Emge as his nemesis Robert. For you fans of punk, legendary rock guitarist Ron Ashton from Iggy and the Stooges plays a psychotic nun. And there are characters named “Razorface” and “Drake Destry” and “Little Girl”. Besides that, you know what we say over here: “It’s not the worst movie you’ve ever seen.” In fact, Hellmaster wasn’t even the worst movie I’d watched that day!
Which is not to say that Hellmaster is good. God, no, don’t get that impression. What it lacks in interesting characters or cohesive story it makes up for in unmotivated colored lighting and a scenery-chewing performance from Saxon. Emge, as well, holds up his end of the bargain by injecting an everyman cool into his sad slightly-incidental hero. In fact, he comes off like a manic-depressive Carl Kolchak in a way, determined to fight the monsters but lacking the mad passion for the job.

The script lacks any sense of, well, storytelling. It fires one scene after another at you without giving you much context for what’s happening. Any actor who isn’t Saxon or Emge is positively Saved by the Bell wretched, to put it preciously. Characters drop in and out of the narrative, they possess information they couldn’t possibly know but lack the facts that they should. We get flashbacks within flashbacks minus a point of view. Explanations are pitched into the air but never caught. Common sense was pitched out the window before the movie started and there’s no hope of working out any of the plot for yourself so don’t even bother. It’s advised that the heartiest among you just sit back and let the movie pummel you because it is gory and very pretty to look at. You came for the novelty of seeing the two leads together, so don’t try to make more out of it in self-defense. Hellmaster is goofy junk and you knew what you were getting into.
But at the same time, Hellmaster is oddly entertaining and very rarely boring. Granted, much of the entertainment value is found in trying to make sense of what you’re watching, but it boasts a creepy atmosphere and some very effective gory moments—particularly chilling are moments at the beginning set in a church basement and, later, when the mutant-driven “church bus” confronts a family in an auto graveyard. The make-up ranges from effective to slap-dash but when it works, it works.

Because it’s so narratively insane, it might be tempting to think that Hellmaster is actually smarter than it is, but don’t fall into that cleverly-disguised tiger trap. It’s an alpha-wave movie all the way. Hellmaster constantly reminded me of another similarly-confused movie called Kolobos. Like Kolobos, Hellmaster is less the sum of its parts than a large pile of disturbing moments. They’re both visually striking and involve potentially fascinating elements that never quite gel at the end, but stick around in the back of your mind to pop up unbidden in dreams several days later.

Fortunately for us all, there’s an “unrated director’s cut” available on DVD, so you can see Hellmaster exactly as director Douglas Schultze intended. Allegedly, it’s a vast improvement over the VHS which haunted me so many years ago, but my memory will not jog enough to attest to that. But that doesn’t mean I don’t plan to whip this weird little bastard out at parties!

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