By THEO PRASIDIS
A boorish Han Solo-type captain tails a bare-naked female ghost through space. Deep in the vibrant nebulous horizon, a wormhole takes shape and opens up like a vaginal introitus. As the heavenly body enters the interdimensional tunnel, with bursts of glaring light springing from her vulva and that huge inverted cross on her abdomen, the captain gets increasingly obsessed with her — he’s hellbent on following her to the edge of the universe. What sounds like a scene straight out of an adult, late-1970s Heavy Metal Magazine comic strip, is actually the title sequence from 2020’s sci-fi extravaganza BLOOD MACHINES. A film that, like most adult, late-1970s Heavy Metal Magazine comic strips, is better seen than described. But more on that in a minute. Let’s take things from the beginning and go back to where it all started. Namely, the 1980s.
There’s such a thing in pop culture as the 20 Year Rule, a concept suggesting that what’s popular now, will be popular again in 20 years, give or take. This isn’t some obscure enigmatic paradox, but a perfectly logical phenomenon: it is creative adults wanting to bring back the things they love from the decade they grew up in into their current work. 1970s kids brought back classic rock, disco, and Tarantinoverse’s K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the 1970s into the 1990s. 1990s kids brought back Castlevania and those totally unnecessary live-action Disney remakes into the 2010s. But here’s the thing about the 1980s — it had such a huge impact in pop culture in general that not only its revival didn’t stop after the 2000s, but it grew substantially and went mainstream in the 2010s. It essentially became a genre. A genre with its own distinctive style, which is deeply rooted in cyberpunk visions of the future, fever dreams of 8-bit video games, and glimmers of B-horror movies as well as Spielbergian blockbusters, but its own unique sound as well: synthwave. Also known as the most nostalgia-triggering form of music known to man.
Now, for the better part of the 2000s, synthwave was mostly an internet thing, shared like a hidden knowledge among the true cultists and patrons of Myspace and the like. But with the huge success of films like Drive and series like Stranger Things, it really went through the roof in the 2010s. Dozens of bands leapt out of this rise (there’s even a documentary trending right now, called Rise of the Synths), but few stood out like French artist Franck Hueso, aka Carpenter Brut. Equally drawing from electronic music forefathers like Jean Michel Jarre and Vangelis, heavy metal bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, slasher horror film aesthetics and, of course, John Carpenter soundtracks, Carpenter Brut’s music is fully-fledged 1980s wonderland, riddled with horny geeks, sexy cheerleaders, serial killers, satanic rituals, neon lights, and bad television. There’s a sense of cinematic narrative behind each of his songs, a fun story to be told. And it was only a matter of time before he got involved in actual cinema too.
Enter Raphaël Hernandez and Savitri Joly Gonfard, two French garage filmmaking experts going by the alias Seth Ickerman, sharing a number of Carpenter Brut’s obsessions, including, but not limited to, creating a veil of mystery around their true identity. The duo was already doing exciting things with their low-budget sci-fi shorts, and when they approached Carpenter Brut to ask permission to use his music in a project they were then helming, they instantly clicked. Before they knew it, they were moving forward to a full-on collaboration, to create a music video for the track Turbo Killer. The synthwave artist gave them carte blanche to do whatever the hell they wanted with it and his first reaction after seeing what they came up with is classic: “I felt like a kid opening his Christmas presents! And I couldn’t stop thinking ‘how the fuck did they do that’?”. Seth Ickerman clothed Carpenter Brut’s intense, badass melodies with an equally intense, badass visual spectacle. And they didn’t just make a music video — they created an entire cinematic universe.
Turbo Killer became an instant hit on the internet and the message from the fans was loud and clear: we want more of this. The message was naturally received and with Turbo Killer as the perfect proof of concept for their insane ideas, the creators decided to go bigger. Reversing the creative process of Turbo Killer, with Carpenter Brut writing music based on their images this time, they aspired to make a hybrid film with both a regular narrative and big music parts, in the vein of those 1980s Michael Jackson flicks like Thriller, Moonwalker, and Captain EO. A homemade, indie sci-fi with the ambition of a Hollywood blockbuster. They put their DIY, guerilla filmmaking skills to good use, and even enlisted garage film idol and Kung Fury writer/director/actor David Sandberg as an executive producer. However, the current industry model would never support such a venture, so crowdfunding became a one-way road. In December 2016 they launched the first successful Kickstarter campaign, marketing a psychedelic 30-minute space opera, which was followed by a second campaign that raised the film’s duration to 50 minutes. The planets aligned, some nerds’ bizarre intergalactic fantasy became reality, et voilà, the final product ended up streaming in Shudder last month.
BLOOD MACHINES kicks off as a pretty straightforward sci-fi adventure. Mima, an A.I. machine that went rogue, is overruled by a warship and forced to crash on an unexplored planet. The warship is crewed by Vascan, a vulgar, rapey, sumbitch captain, and good old-timer co-pilot Lago. As they land to terminate the fugitive, they get surrounded by a group of female shamans, bound to defend the fallen machine with their lives. Quite predictably, the men use violence and some big-ass guns to impose themselves, but then witness an extraordinary event: the head shaman performs an eerie, Native American-esque ceremony to release Mima’s soul. A naked female ghost emerges from the ship’s wreckage and ascends. The men follow the floating body into outer space and lead themselves into a fateful cosmic confrontation.
Granted, the theme of man versus machine is arguably science fiction’s most common trope, and BLOOD MACHINES doesn’t care to hide its influences. The A.I. hunting in the film is so reminiscent of Blade Runner, you could imagine this being placed in the same universe. The shamans look like a much cooler version of Tatooine’s Tusken Raiders and the psychedelic imagery towards the end bears strong flavors of both 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Matrix. So, where does BLOOD MACHINES lie in the sci-fi spectrum? How does it stand out and be its own thing?
To begin with, BLOOD MACHINES speaks a staggering visual language. It is the cinematic equivalent of an interstellar Jack Kirby comic splash page, a mind-bending explosion of over-saturated pinks and greens and reds and yellows that will leave you flabbergasted for days. Carpenter Brut’s sensational score melds perfectly with Seth Ickerman’s kaleidoscopic images, making the film a feast for both eyes and ears. Its stunning production values would be envied by even the most expensive Hollywood blockbusters. Following a similar design approach to Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, the directors accomplished to create a believable world that looks old and used. This is not your shiny sci-fi. Here, everything is worn out. The sets are real, you can almost smell the rust. And despite the necessary use of cutting-edge CG technology, practical effects are applied as often as possible.
Plot is kept to the minimum. The cryptic opening message suggests an A.I. uprising as a historical backdrop, but not much more. The story feels like a small, insignificant event in a wide abstract world, but the directors know how to use this abstraction to their advantage. Providing shards of codes and symbols and traditions, they avoid exposition and create a sense of History, leaving viewers to connect the dots on their own. The acting wavers between stylized lyricism and intentional badness (remember, this is a 1980s throwback). The male lead Vascan, viciously yet entertainingly portrayed by Anders Heinrichsen, is a cynic misogynist with no respect for women and machines alike, who likes going about cursing and making rape jokes. Christian Erickson’s Lago is the kind-hearted sidekick, an elder of certain beliefs who has a close relationship with their ship’s A.I. Tracy, and knows better than to disregard the machines as mere devices. And then there’s Corey, the head shaman kidnapped by Vascan after Mima’s soul-freeing ritual. Brought to life with a wonderful physical performance by French actress Elisa Lasowski, Corey drives the plot and essentially carries the film’s entire weight.
Which brings us to the most important aspect of BLOOD MACHINES, the thing that really makes it shine: its manifest feminist approach. It is a universe that places women in its very center, in an almost religious way. The title refers to the film’s A.I. machines — living, breathing female entities who bleed and cry when mistreated. The chapter titles (from the film’s somewhat unnecessary segmentation into three episodes by Shudder) are the names of the film’s main female characters: Mima, the fallen machine-turned-ghost, Corey the shaman, and Tracy, the warship’s A.I. Even post mortem, Mima will keep being pursued by her male oppressors, but it’s only a matter of time until the prey becomes the predator. Corey is the instigator of their uprising, the one will lead them to their emancipation. Tracy is an amalgamation of Alien’s Space Jockey and Metropolis’ gynoid Maschinenmensch, but instead of H.R. Giger’s phallic biomechanical physiology, she looks pregnant, bringing ancient depictions of mother goddess to mind. There’s a pagan reverence surrounding their presence, a folkloric sanctification that echoes back to prehistoric matriarchy.
The film weighs in. It doesn’t just bring out the issue of patriarchy, it takes a stand and fights it. The female blood machines revolt against their male tyrants. The inverted cross that triumphantly appears on the naked body of each liberated machine, isn’t just there to look cool – it’s a sign of protest against Christianity, which has been cultivating patriarchy and sexual oppression for millennia. The use of symbols like the gas mask and the hoodie on Corey, enforce the film’s anarchic, disobedient nature. There’s a scene towards the end where a huge warship attempts to suppress the rebellion with a huge penis-like harpoon, a most blatant expression of phallic intrusiveness. Corey gathers her ghost-warrioresses and orchestrates a ceremonial counter-attack, a violent modern dance that needs to be seen to be believed, before burying patriarchy inside the fathomless depths of the female heart. Forever.
Part slow-burning acid trip, part bombastic actioner, BLOOD MACHINES is a surprisingly poetic love-letter to 1980s movies and music that jumps on toxic masculinity and celebrates female empowerment while pushing the medium to new aesthetic heights. A pioneering film with revolutionary ideas, created by pioneering artists who approach their art in revolutionary ways. And yes, the message remains loud and clear: we want more of this.
Theo Prasidis is an avid consumer of both visual and auditory expressions of fantasy, folklore, mythology, occultism, escapism, weirdness, pulpness, nostalgia, and psychedelia. He has lived several lifetimes over, working as an indie label owner, a music festival curator, a cultural event coordinator, a film critic and columnist, a social media manager, a graphic designer, a commercial photographer, a bartender, a DJ, and a house cleaner. But he somehow ended up writing comics. His book The Doomster’s Monolithic Pocket Alphabet is out on Image Comics, and he has a new horror series coming out next year by TKO Studios.