It’s damn near impossible to make a film that can properly and exactly replicate what it’s like to watch a truly awful Z-grade cheesefest and make it entertaining. The good folks from Winnipeg Astron-6 have been trying for a while now, and finding a great bit of success. Manborg, the latest film from the VHS era aping production company (which played alongside fellow production and audience award winner Father’s Day at last year’s Toronto After Dark Film Festival) continues in that tradition with a cyborg based rip-off, with mostly amusing results.
Awakening after nearly being killed to death during a war against the humans and the armies of hell, a young man (Matthew Kennedy) awakens to find he has become a half-man, half-cyborg living in a futuristic dystopia that functions as hell on Earth. With a chosen band of imprisoned human vigilantes, Manborg fights for justice and revenge against the society that created him while making his way closer to Count Draculon, the ruler that also killed his beloved brother.
Instead of mimicking the feeling of an 80s Terminator rip-off, creator Steven Kostanski seems to be skewing closer to a mid-90s film that’s been gathering dust in obscurity before something like Found or Everything is Terrible decides to pick it up. This very clear labour of love, made for a budget in the low four figures definitely has a distinct “can do” attitude to it while dutifully replicating the direct-to-video edict that states a film didn’t have to be good, it just had to be completed.
But therein also lies the problem with the film overall. The film’s knowing and winking sense of ironic detachment from the time period it’s purported to be from leads to a tonal inconsistency it can’t fully overcome. For the first 20 minutes or so of an hour long film, Kostanski struggles with showing any degree of sincerity in his homage, with the bits that are written to be funny to the viewer working far better than the laboured attempts at trying to make the audience care about what’s going on. It’s only half the puzzle to making a film like this work overall. Kostanski has clearly watched plenty of these movies to understand their general structure, but he can’t quite find the tone.
For example, when the film stops with the overacting and one liners and tries to mount a fight scene, the motives of the material get called into question. Even by the low standards of bad movie fights, they look and feel somewhat laboured when there should be at least a tiny degree of sincerity to them. Sometimes it feels like Kostanski is also trying to make the film look even more cut rate than it already is, which again, feels like a forced choice and not something that would organically happen in such a production. It’s why going out and intentionally trying to make a bad film is such a risky proposition, since it might not end up as funny as you might have intended. It’s still fun, but in a different and more awkwardly integrated way. It feels removed from the rest of the film, coasting on the silliness of it all while occasionally forgetting that a tiny dash of playing things straight goes a long way in these types of films.
Still, a film that’s this funny and goofy is hard to really dislike, and the cast seems game for pretty much anything. Kostanski’s visuals and effects literally pop all over the place in creative and admirable ways considering that it looks like even the cheesier moments cost more than the budget of the film would allow. He also has a real knack for establishing his characters and giving them amusing things to do along the way. Kennedy does a great job as the borg of few words who doesn’t understand his powers and very awkwardly gives a thumbs up to people at times. Adam Brooks’ does such a great job with the film’s central villain that one wishes he was in the movie more than he is, and Jeremy Gillespie does the near impossible of giving a great comedic performance as a love sick prison guard from beneath an almost entirely immobile demon mask.
Manborg also does a fine job of recreating the kind of kitchen sink filmmaking that was evocative of the era despite still not knowing how to balance it all. There’s kung-fu, dancing Australians, a pair of women fighting each other with a shared past. There’s a lot to like here if you like cheese, and the film does come with the stellar Kostanski directed and created trailer for the non-existent film Bio-Cop which nails the tone of such a shitshow more perfectly in 10 minutes than this film can really pull off in 60. Maybe if Kostanski was just give about $20 more to add to this film it could have been even better.