If your taste runs to sci-fi horror, but the clever kind made on the cheap to lampoon the dumb kind made on a fat budget, then Manborg is definitely your cup of camp. Actually, make that a demitasse, since the whole thing clocks in at a breezy 60 minutes – the perfect length, as it happens. Any less and the artistry might go unappreciated. Any more and ... well, you can see for yourself when Hollywood does the inevitable, ripping off the conceit and inflating it into a windy blockbuster twice the size yet half the fun.
The funmeister is Winnipeg director Steven Kostanksi, who is out to prove what less than two grand and a lot of imagination can put up on the screen – in this case, a baroque pastiche of stop-motion critters, nifty graphics, cunning makeup, rapid-fire edits, wicked close-ups and a VHS retro-ness, all wedded to a script whose wobbles are a point of pride. Often, it’s deliberately silly, but sometimes it’s surprisingly smart, and that mix keeps twirling the dial on the irony meter – low camp one moment, high camp the next.
The plot is decidedly low, way down where hell does battle with humankind. Seems that hell is winning. On the field of combat, two brothers stand side by side. One falls, prompting a hungry hellion to close in for the kill and a spot of lunch, chomping down on his prey before cutting loose with this lip-smacking gem: “They taste so much better when they still have hope.” Up shoots the meter – that’s some high-camp dialogue.
As for the other sibling, after some re-engineering by Doctor Scorpius – a.k.a. a glum dude given to white turtlenecks accessorized with dark glasses – the bro is fitted out for the title role. Now, religiously speaking, the Manborg – half guy, half cyborg – probably belongs in limbo, but we find him here in a circle of hell undelineated by Dante. That would be the dungeon, where he (Matthew Kennedy) is joined by a trio of captured humans: #1 Man, a kickboxing Asian who speaks only in badly dubbed English (Ludwig Lee); Justice, a semi-literate Aussie with a cute blond do (Conor Sweeney); and his sister Mina, a punky gal with an even cuter blue tank top (Meredith Sweeney).
The hellions, who look like zombies, dress like Nazis and behave like ancient Romans, toss the band into the coliseum to fight for their lives and our entertainment. That’s not to suggest that the baddies don’t have a human side. One of their number, a klutz named the Baron, is both heartsick and lung-sick, combining as he does an unrequited crush on Mina with a hellish cigarette addiction – the poor schnook can’t kick either habit.
Naturally, the incarcerated group escapes, the prelude to some kick-ass action, although don’t take my word for it. Take Manborg’s: “We go in there and we kick some ass,” a notion that elicits a #1 retort from #1 Man: “That’s quite the proposition you have there.”
And this is quite the little movie – cheap and cheesy, no doubt, but with some real tang and, occasionally, a strong bite. Like when the ghost of his brother descends into the bowels of hell, offering Manborg a smile of encouragement yet a word of warning too. The smile vanishes, and so does he, but not before this delicious parting shot: “Uh, there’s no heaven.” Damn, all that fire and not a speck of insurance.