Review–Manborg, a crazy fun throwback to 1970s/1980s sci-fi horror B-movies

Manborg banner

No matter what you study in college sometimes you can’t get work in the summer because no one wants to hire for jobs with decent pay on a temporary basis.  That’s how I ended up at Movies-to-Go, a pretty typical VHS chain rental store in the 1990s that went the way of the dodo bird when DVDs came along.  You learn a lot about people generally while working a video store, disturbing things like the fact that I Spit on Your Grave and Faces of Death outpaced new release sales time and time again.  At every store there were aisles of direct to video releases–some action, some sci-fi, some horror.  All of them had one thing in common–someone spent a lot of time creating covers that would get renters to actually rent the movie, despite the fact that most of these movies weren’t worth renting.  Some of these edge the others out, and as an employee I remember being able to rent free any film overnight that didn’t get checked out, which meant I learned to like a lot of films from John Carpenter, Jean Claude Van Damme and Bruce Lee movies. 

Manborg Edmiston Art Poster

Some of these B-movies weren’t really good enough to be called B-movies, and were nothing but grindhouse pictures that would be shown at the then dwindling drive-in theater’s weekend third late show.  Others, like Denise Crosby’s Eliminators, Dolph Lundgren’s I Come in Peace, Guyver 2: Dark Hero, Caroline Munro, Christopher Plummer and David Hasselhoff’s Starcrash, and Captain America (1990), prompted one ambitious young Canadian filmmaker named Steve Kostanski to spend three years in the 21st century creating one of these 1970s-1980s-type B-movies, with a name like a made-for TV Syfy Channel movie: Manborg.  The amazing thing is Manborg actually received acclaim as an official selection of not one but six international film festivals: Austin’s Fantastic Film Festival, Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival, Sweden’s Lund Film Festival, Switzerland’s Neuchatel Film Festival, Toronto’s After Dark Film Festival and the London Sci-Fi Festival.  And Manborg is being released on DVD on April 30, 2013.

Manborg website

Kostanski is not just a newbie filmmaker.  He’s a special effects make-up artist with plenty of film experience, including big-budget films Resident Evil: Retribution, Defiance (the new TV series), Pacific Rim, and Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.  And budget is key to a discussion of his cult status dystopian sci-fi B-movie, Manborg.  According to the Internet Movie Database, it was made on a budget of about $1,000.  According to Kostanski, “Manborg was made on an almost non-existent budget, thanks to a lot of generous individuals and the creative use of free stuff (in other words, digging through dumpsters).  Most of the costumes were made out of second-hand sports equipment, as well as dismantled model kits, and various dollar store paraphernalia.  The majority of the film was shot in a garage, and all the equipment was borrowed from the local high school film department.  The editing equipment was already in place.  My job at the time was editing wedding videos so I had the computer and the software.  All the actors worked for free, and a lot of the time brought their own food during the long shoots.  The miniature sets were made out of discarded boxes and random odds and ends.”  And Manborg has a ton of special effects make-up work despite the budget, as well as flying spaceships and hoverboards, green screen shots, floating robots, and Ray Harryhausen Clash of the Titans-quality stop-motion monsters.  Where there is computer-tech, it appears low-tech, like something put together on a Commodore 64–in a good way.

Manborg on the street

So in an industry with films like Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel, how can Manborg be any good?  On the one hand they just can’t be compared.  On the other, you can recognize that a movie like Manborg can be good in the same way as Quentin Tarentino’s catalog of throwback films is so popular.  Manborg is good is the same way as Flash Gordon, Evil Dead, Attack the Block, and Road Warrior.  It’s crazy fun and full of winks and nods to many classic sci-fi and action films.  It’s full of corny dialogue (“It’s never to late… to be a hero”) like you’d find in a 1970s teen horror flick, with a plot no less developed than that of The Fifth Element, with bits pulled from RoboCop, The Running Man, Tron, Mad Max, or The Last Starfighter or any of a thousand 1980s video games and 1970s martial arts flicks.

Justice Mina and Number One Man

Taking place in the distant future where Hell triumphs over good, the cyberpunk/technopunk world of Manborg follows a soldier, played by Matthew Kennedy, fighting for good in one of the war’s early battles, who is blown away by the ruling Count and brought back years later as a borg by a scientist in order to save humanity at humanity’s last stand.  At first Manborg is uncertain of his abilities with his Swiss Army-folding weaponry.  He is joined by three other warriors, a wacky, illiterate and cocky Australian named Justice (Conor Sweeney) who can’t read the word “Grenades” on the side of a box, Justice’s sister Mina (real-life sibling Meredith Sweeney) who seems to be 1970s judo-inspired wielder of sharp objects mixed with  live-action anime warrior, and an Asian martial arts master called Number One Man (Ludwig Lee) who clearly speaks his dialogue in English but is dubbed with an overtly stilted Euro-English accent as a throwback to old martial arts movies.  Each gets his/her own key fight scenes and clichéd but funny tough guy talk.

Count Draculon

The villains look like characters you’d find guarding the Hellmouth in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, like The Gentlemen or The Master.  Kostanski’s make-up work is intentionally over-done but fits the film well and you could see if he and his cast and crew had big-budget resources they could really compete with big-budget creators.  The most elaborate of the villain work is his complex prosthetics for Count Draculon (Adam Brooks), but one of the best developed characters in the film is the hilarious and hideous lovelorn prison guard The Baron (Jeremy Gillespie), who has so many good moments that you could see a cult-movie viewing audience a la Rocky Horror Picture Show cheering this guy along and throwing some kind of appropriate (or inappropriate) paraphernalia at the movie screen.  Other interesting villains include Doctor Scorpius, also played by Adam Brooks, and Shadow Mega (Andrea Karr) who floats seductively around the movie like the space vampire in the sci-fi classic Lifeforce.

Shadow Mega

Brian Wiacek’s score also fits the tone of the movie spot on.  Definitely some Tron and Tron: Legacy, John Carpenter and Terminator influences can be felt throughout the movie.  And the overall world of Manborg has a vibe similar to the dark cityscapes of Blade Runner.  The borg transformation sequence is nicely done, too, as good as that found in the opener to The Six Million Dollar Man TV series.  If you’re open minded track down or pre-order Manborg here and skip the preview.  But if you want to get an idea of what you’re in for, here’s the movie’s trailer:

Is Manborg for everyone?  Heck no.  But if you’re watching cable at 1 a.m. or sitting in front of the tube with some crazy friends who like to reminisce about the good ol’ days of VHS tapes, or if you’re like the movie’s creator Steve Kostanski, who said “My childhood was built on watching VHS movies. If there’s a heaven, for me it’ll be a grungy video store with endless racks full of sci-fi/horror/action movies with cool covers”–Manborg may be the next movie for you. 

C.J. Bunce

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