Eyres’ Exorcism: Project Shadowchaser (1992)

Matty looks back at John Eyres’ iconic robo-sploiter and explores its significance within the helmer’s fimography.

Despite co-founding EGM Films in 1987, it took director and producer John Eyres a few years to think himself legit.

A former delivery van driver, during the VHS boom of the ‘80s, the Manchester-born Eyres shifted his attentions to operating a series of video stores, ABC Video, in and around Cardiff, which, in turn, inspired Eyres and his business partners, Geoff Griffiths and Zafar Malick (who’d go on to be the G and the M of EGM, respectively), to enter the world of film production. Without question, it was a case of “hey, we could do that!”: noticing the sort of flicks his customers were renting — genre, mainly, specifically horror, action, and sci-fi — Eyres wanted a piece of the made-for-video pie. 

Homebrew creeper Lucifer (1987) came first. Shot on 16mm in Cardiff for a budget of £80,000, with a single day’s shooting in London grabbed guerilla-style, EGM’s maiden voyage and Eyres’ directorial debut was a religious-tinged carve-‘em-up/police procedural that, a genuinely shocking opening and some brooding atmospherics aside, isn’t something you could conventionally describe as ‘good’. Interesting for its place in U.K. grassroots horror history, yes, but a classically entertaining movie? Not so much. Also known as ‘Goodnight God Bless’, Lucifer’s plodding pace is exacerbated by Eyres’ inexperience. It’s a picture that is what it is: someone learning how to make a film and subjecting us to every second of their education, warts and all. However, per Eyres’ hope, Lucifer sold OK on VHS and enabled EGM to go bigger with their sophomore offering, a 35mm crime thriller called Slow Burn (1989)

Unfortunately, Slow Burn proved to be an apt moniker. Though a smidge better on a technical level, and managing to feature a couple of name cast members (William Smith and Anthony James, as opposed to friends and local, erm, ‘talent’), this hackneyed cops n’ gangsters snoozer was even more sluggish than Lucifer and suffered from a similar DIY vibe. Still, in terms of career progression, Slow Burn did cement EGM’s union with Canadian producers Lloyd Simandl and John Curtis, and the by-this-point Malick-less Eyres and Griffiths’ next two productions with these equally enterprising Canucks, Xtro II (1990) and Simandl’s own Ultimate Desires (1991), may have yielded middling results as far as enjoyment goes, but they looked, felt, and played like proper movies. Again, ‘bigger’ and ‘better’ were the operative words, and both Xtro II and Ultimate Desires did well on tape. 

And yet, as the mini mogul would suggest in a 1997 interview with the BBC [1], Eyres was stricken with imposter syndrome until his third stint wielding the megaphone. Irrespective of his modest financial success in the video arena, as an artist, privately, Eyres seemed to feel uncomfortable and unworthy of his filmmaker status until PROJECT SHADOWCHASER (1992) — which is kind of fitting, really, considering the dramatic arc that underpins the film’s robo-schlock narrative…

Project Shadowchaser (1992) (2)

Among the most recognisable titles of the ‘90s VHS era, Project Shadowchaser was released on U.S. video through Prism on 2nd July 1992 and landed on U.K. cassette six-and-a-half months later, on 20th January 1993, via First Independent [2]. And while the bumf on the back of First Independent’s sleeve incorrectly credits Karate Kid (1984) meanie Martin Kove as Project Shadowchaser’s villainous android, it did get one thing right: Eyres’ tasty sci-fi/action medley is exactly what you’d get if you slapped Die Hard (1988) and The Terminator (1984) together. I’m paraphrasing a little, admittedly. But, along with bits and pieces cribbed from Escape From New York (1981) and, surprisingly, Sleeper (1973), Die Hard and The Terminator’s influence on Project Shadowchaser is undeniable — but it should be noted that Stephen Lister’s initial draft of the film’s script wasn’t entirely that way to begin with. 

Having already penned Slow Burn and Xtro II, Eyres regular Lister’s original draft was a straighter Die Hard clone. In it, terrorists were going to take over a high-rise and the building’s janitor was the fella leading the fight back. Wanting to capitalise on the home video market’s increasing demand for science fiction, it was Eyres who requested that Lister add a futuristic twist. To that end, the high-rise locale and basic rudimentaries of the ‘they’ve taken the president’s daughter hostage!’ plot were retained, but the lead terrorist was reworked from a Rickman riff to a Schwarzenegger-type cyborg, and the janitor character — Project Shadowchaser’s hero — was turned into Kove’s actual role of DaSilva: a pro-footballer-cum-felon who’s mistakenly thawed out of cryogenic suspension due to an administrative error. A nice and wickedly prescient touch for sure; after all, as Terry Gilliam so rightly predicted with Brazil (1985), what is the future — the future that is now our present, at least — if not a tangle of incompetently led bureaucracy designed to exploit those who can’t afford to keep up with the cash-hungry bastards in power? 

Perched under Albert Pyun’s quintessential two-punch of Cyborg (1989) and Nemesis (1992), Project Shadowchaser is a cracking second-rung droid-sploiter and is achingly close to sublimity. Eyres relates Lister’s fat-free story at a dizzying clip, with nary a minute going by without a wisecrack, gunfight, explosion or brawl. It’s all quality, nicely choreographed stuff too, and it’s tackled with greater polish and authority than either Lucifer or Slow Burn. True, Project Shadowchaser isn’t as aesthetically bombastic as Eyres’ subsequent epics From Beyond the Grave (1996) and Ripper (2001), but it does demonstrate a slick visual acumen that ensures the film is as pleasing to look at as it is consistently engaging and exciting.

Particularly impressive is Eyres’ use of the film’s central location. The keen-eyed will no doubt recognise Project Shadowchaser’s cryo-chamber as a redressed Pinewood set left over from the making of Alien 3 (1991), but the bulk of Eyres’ A-grade B-flick unfolds at Laughton House, a then recently built office block in Denham, London that was sitting empty. Whether it convinces as a supposed hospital depends on how forgiving you are (other than doctor and nurses extras, some gurneys, and some signs saying “X-RAY” etc., there’s a distinct absence of anything overtly medical in this unshakably corporate building), but as the minutiae of where Project Shadowchaser occurs doesn’t factor into the plot it’s easy to ignore. Besides, what Eyres slaps across the screen as Kove and president’s daughter Meg Foster duck, dive, and lay waste to bad guys in Laughton House’s blackened offices and labyrinthine corridors is effective in the extreme, and the energy with which his camera spins around the place is intoxicating. There’s suspense. There’s atmosphere. There’s vitality — all of which is multiplied ten-fold whenever Project Shadowchaser’s dastardly tin-man, Romulus, rocks up.

Introduced in a marvellous, Frankenstein-nodding cold open as he bursts to life in an underground lab, Eyres’ fetishistically shooting his hulking physique as if the epochal modern prometheus were posing for a Muscle & Fitness spread, Romulus slaughters the scientists noodling on him and escapes as the techno-gothic stomp of Gary Pinder’s pounding theme swirls on the soundtrack. A platinum blonde, flat-topped hybrid of steel-enforced bogeyman and deranged super-soldier — “a billion dollar killing machine” — Romulus was a star-making performance for Frank Zagarino. Ostensibly a cut-price Dolph Lundgren, The Zag — as he shall henceforth be known — had previously appeared as Lundgren’s training partner in the lantern jawed Swede’s exercise vid, Maximum Potential (1987), and had chalked up spots in such enjoyable bottom-shelf fodder as Barbarian Queen (1985), The Revenger (1990), and Gianetto De Rossi’s Cy-Warrior (1989) (where, fittingly, he was a cyborg). A charismatic and physically striking actor, The Zag, alas, never achieved the mainstream recognition of Lundgren but he did become quite the draw in video circles post Project Shadowchaser, going on to headline several projects for Avi Lerner’s Nu Image, including three unconnected Shadowchaser sequels (two of which, Project Shadowchaser: Night Siege (1994) and Project Shadowchaser 3000 (1995), were directed by Eyres [3]).     

Imbuing Romulus with a devilish glint, The Zag is at once imposing and mischievous, and amazingly manages to steal Project Shadowchaser’s antagonist honours from a scene-chewing Joss Acklund (who essays the film’s arch baddie, Kinderman: Romulus’ pompous creator who, in another chillingly accurate prediction, wants to “make America great again”!). Zag is fabulous — but, in an utterly maddening decision, Eyres refuses to give him a cyborg ‘moment’. The Blade Runner (1982)-soaked existentialism to the unexpectedly snarky Romulus’ dialogue is delicious, but Eyres denies The Zag a rousing, FX-driven pop a la Arnie’s metallic skull pulsing from beneath his battle-damaged face in The Terminator, or Tim Thomerson’s stop-motion endoskeleton running riot at the end of Nemesis. Indeed, had Eyres shown us something as visually arresting during Project Shadowchaser’s final stretch as what those two robo-schlock benchmarks did — instead of just giving The Zag yellow contact lenses, and adding a bunch of whirring noises as he walks — this compulsive adrenaline blast of a picture would be an unknockable five-star masterpiece of the subgenre. Thing is, a sequence was certainly filmed: its lensing was detailed in Starlog issue 178 (May 1992), replete with the tantalising photograph below. So why Eyres elected to snip it is anyone’s guess.

Project Shadowchaser (1992) - Brian Smithies Robo Head
Romulus’ animatronic robot head — an effect overseen by FX supervisor Brian Smithies that was cut from the final film. 

But, to be honest, it doesn’t matter. Romulus is obviously and convincingly pitched as cybernetic without the FX-y bells and whistles. Moreover, as  a narrative device, he fits among the disarmingly personal metaphors that Eyres inadvertently laces Project Shadowchaser with. Scratching the surface, it’s tempting to rule the film as an exorcism: Project Shadowchaser is Eyres addressing and working through his fears of being seen as a phoney. The clues are in The Zag and Kove’s characters. Romulus, for instance, is the embodiment of Eyres’ apprehensions; he’s an externalised, man-made threat that you could, perhaps, read as an affront for the helmer’s own unease with his creativity. In interviews, Eyres has repeatedly stated that he makes movies for a living. He shirks mention of art and craft; Eyres isn’t a fan of sci-fi and he does what he does to pay his bills. And as a defence tactic, it’s easier for him to say that than admit that he’s also intrigued by concepts, stories, and images. You’ll notice this with the majority of the contemporary B-movie auteurs. For Eyres — and for other filmmakers like David DeCoteau, Fred Olen Ray, and Jim Wynorski — it’s cooler to claim that they’re pursuing the almighty dollar, rather than art. That way, negative criticism isn’t as painful and can be glibly deflected. But Eyres wouldn’t have forged a nineteen-year long director and producer career if he wasn’t a commercially-minded businessman and an artist — and in regards to the latter, Eyres can no less flee from his artistic impulses as Kove and Foster can from the mighty Zag. Money can motivate, but it’s nowhere near as giddy as the high caused by realising a creative idea. 

DaSilva, meanwhile, is a thinly-veiled cipher for Eyres. Erroneously identified as the hospital’s architect, DaSilva bumbles and bluffs until he has no choice but to confess that he isn’t who Paul Koslo’s blunt fed believes him to be. But by then, he’s in too deep; DaSilva is already up to his neck in the brown stuff, and the only chance he has to survive is by fighting and proving his worth. He’s a chancer and a pretender who quickly eschews reluctance in favour of grabbing the bull by the horns, emerging as a triumphant and celebrated gladiator at Project Shadowchaser’s explosive climax. Tellingly, in the same Starlog mentioned above, screenwriter Lister stressed that it was Eyres who insisted that DaSilva’s development be the heart of Project Shadowchaser. And with knowledge of Eyres’ robust and insanely assured output in the wake of Project Shadowchaser — stupendous fare like Monolith (1993), Octopus (2000), and the already namechecked From Beyond the Grave, Ripper, and Shadowchaser sequels, which are all infinitely superior to his humble, trial-by-error beginnings — the parallels and reasons it resonated with him are crystal clear. 

Project Shadowchaser (1992) poster
Project Shadowchaser‘s German one-sheet

[1] BBC doc L.A. Story, which was broadcast as part of BBC Wales’ arts program The Slate on 3rd July 1997.
[2] Of course, Project Shadowchaser played in theatres internationally as well, unspooling in South Korean and German cinemas in the weeks either side of its stateside bow.
[3] Eyres was given a producer/presenter credit on the fourth film, Shadowchaser: The Gates of Time (1996) — but that’s another tale for another day…

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