The Demolitionist (1995): Cause and Effect

Matty looks back at FX legend Robert Kurtzman’s lively directorial debut. 

Ah, the rich yet hardly illustrious tradition of FX geniuses turned directors. After all, how many of these uber-talented make-up gurus, latex slingers, and CGI wizards have actually made the leap from their established discipline to on screen storytelling with any longevity?

Tom Savini struck oil with his feature debut, the awesome 1990 reimagining of Night of the Living Dead, but was so stressed by the experience that he’s largely avoided directing in the ensuing years, save for the odd portmanteau or TV episode. Stephen Norrington knocked it out of the park with Death Machine (1994) and Blade (1998), but committed career suicide thanks to his well-documented behaviour on the set of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003). And Kevin Yagher could’ve been a contender, but he walked from Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996) with an ‘Alan Smithee’ credit after much behind the scenes interference and hasn’t picked up a megaphone since. Broadly speaking, the only ones to have maintained directorial consistency are Gary Jones and William Mesa — but, in the eyes of the many, their resumes are, alas, significantly lower profile than those noted above. Which, in a roundabout way, brings us to Robert Kurtzman.

Earning kudos as the K in KNB, Kurtzman’s calling card as helmer remains his sophomore feature, Wishmaster (1997): a full-bodied horror romp packed to the gills with wit, vision, a sharp sense of pace, and, quelle surprise, brilliant FX work. Moreover, despite its stockpile of rubber, grue, and CGI augmentations, Wishmaster manages to completely sidestep a common problem that plagues the majority of films shepherded by FX personnel. It isn’t just a glorified showreel devoted to the kind of splattery mayhem and monstrous magic that Kurtzman and his boys can achieve, linked by a threadbare plot (cf. Bob Keen and Proteus (1996), Robert Hall and Laid to Rest (2009)). It’s a real movie. Kurtzman’s subsequent lesser-known epics, The Rage (2007), Buried Alive (2007), and Deadly Impact (2010), are as equally interesting if not quite as good — though the claret-laden The Rage is, perhaps, slightly guilty of being a tad demo-y. His debut, however, was this tidy robo-schlocker, THE DEMOLITIONIST (1995).

Originally conceived by Kurtzman and his wife/creative partner Anne as a ‘regular’ revenge thriller in the manner of Ms. 45 (1981), The Demolitionist came about in the wake of Kurtzman’s collaboration with producer Donald P. Borchers on Doppelganger (1993). Kurtzman had supervised the Drew Barrymore-starring shocker’s FX and had directed its second unit. Afterwards, Borchers approached Kurtzman and said that, if he ever wanted to direct a movie himself, he should get in touch and they could, potentially, do something together. Of course, Kurtzman did want to direct. In 1991, he’d hired a then unknown Quentin Tarantino to pen a vampire flick he was hoping to lens called From Dusk Till Dawn: a film that finally came to fruition under the stewardship of Robert Rodriguez in 1996, and a project that KNB went on to provide effects for the second The Demolitionist wrapped [1]. Kurtzman pitched Borchers The Demolitionist. Borchers liked it, and, following a consultation with various video companies, told Kurtzman that, if they gave his proposed script a sci-fi twist (the genre was still hot among renters), they’d get the go-ahead. Kurtzman agreed; Borchers recruited Brian DiMuccio and Dino Vindeni to retool the screenplay [2]; and The Demolitionist went in front of cameras for a twenty-four day shoot in Los Angeles.

Milking the film’s $1million budget, Kurtzman, production designer Charley Cabrera (Victim of Desire (1995), Menno’s Mind (1997)), and cinematographer Marcus Hahn make excellent use of their limited locations and craft a convincing, crime-addled world of the future with little more than a bit of warehouse space, the occasional back alley, and dumpster dive set dressing. A big-seeming comic book of a movie, The Demolitionist is a lively superhero caper in the same mode as Batman (1989) and The Crow (1994) and ranks among the best-looking programmers of its type. Serving as a kind of mid-ground between the tongue-in-cheek, anime-spiked hijinks of The Guyver (1991) and the grit n’ gristle of Steel and Lace (1991) and Prey of the Jaguar (1996), it’s a heavily stylised film cloaked in shadows, where nearly every roving, restless shot is perched on a Dutch angle. Showy and raucous, it’s the sort of aesthetically-driven experience that your inner twelve year-old would probably think is the coolest thing ever — a feeling that, patches of duff dialogue, clunky plotting, and blunt editing aside, is blissfully impossible to shake. Jocular in tone yet heartfelt in delivery, it’s a real entertainment, free of snark and irony, and the ideal accompaniment to your favourite lager and pizza.

A loud and proud riff on RoboCop (1987), the plot is basically a beat for beat facsimile with a splash of Demolition Man (1993) thrown in. Nicole Eggert toplines as the eponymous Demolitionist — a murdered maverick police officer, resurrected and transformed into a crime-fighting bionic babe by mad science — while Bruce Abbott, Richard Grieco, John Carpenter stalwart Peter Jason, and a snarling Susan Tyrell occupy the Miguel Ferrer, Kurtwood Smith, Ronny Cox, and Daniel O’Herlihy roles with a few extra wrinkles (Abbott’s Professor Crowley, for instance, has a hint of the Miyagis and a whiff of the Qs to him, and Tyrell is a power-drunk mayor rather than the chairman of a nightmarish conglomerate). The rest of Kurtzman’s casting adheres to his Wishmaster template and represents a veritable who’s who of cult talent. There’s David Lynch favourite Jack Nance as a chaplain; A Nightmare on Elm Street’s (1984) Heather Langenkamp as a newsreader; Evil Dead 2’s (1987) Danny Hicks as a mayoral aide; Phantasm’s (1979) Reggie Bannister as a prison warden; A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master’s (1988) Andras Jones as Eggert’s doomed partner; Superman’s (1978) Sarah Douglas as a doctor; and Tom Savini, Joseph Pilato, Nils Allen Stewart, Bruce Campbell, a pre-fame Derek Mears, and a boatload of KNB technicians as members of Grieco’s nasty biker gang.

Given the knockabout, cartoon-flavoured material, the bulk of their performances are a thigh slap short of pantomime. The sole exception is Eggert. The Baywatch vixen plays the straight (wo)man very well and provides The Demolitionist with an effective emotional throughline, attacking the existential quandary of her character with as much gusto as Kurtzman exhibits when he has her suit up (in KNB-designed clobber, naturally) and kick arse. 

[1] In addition to supplying the FX, Kurtzman receives a story credit on From Dusk Till Dawn. You can see his early promo trailer starring Joseph Pilato here.
[2] DiMuccio and Dino Vindeni also wrote Voodoo (1995) and Little Witches (1996) which, like The Demolitionist, Borchers set up at A-Pix with executive producer Robert E. Baruc. 

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