Two spacemen in the distant future get more than they bargained for while chasing a rogue AI to a far-off planet in Blood Machines, which debuts tomorrow in North America, Ireland, and the UK on the Shudder streaming service.
The movie is a collaboration between synthwave musician Carpenter Brut and French directors Raphaël Hernandez and Savitri Joly-Gonfard (who work together under the pseudonym “Seth Ickerman”). Carpenter Brut and Seth Ickerman had joined forces before on the music video for Brut’s 2016 song “Turbo Killer,” which can be best described as two competing ritual sacrifices involving bad men and captive hotties. In the video, one ritual ritualizes in a delightfully artificial graveyard while the other does its thing aboard—get ready—a spaceship shaped like an inverted crucifix.
Cool. Car chases ensue, synthesizers blare, and everything is awash in the kind of threatening neon that befits an ’80s homage.
The filmmakers attempt to bring the same gonzo energy to their 50-minute followup, Blood Machines, and for the most part they succeed. Sure, some of the dialogue bits can be clunky, and what can be enjoyed as “archetypal” at four minutes sometimes just becomes “unsubtle” when stretched too long. But these leaks don’t sink the ship.
The filmmakers describe Blood Machines as a sequel to “Turbo Killer,” which makes about as much sense as anything else in “Turbo Killer.” After the music video’s success, Ickerman (the Ickermen?) raised €117,539 through Kickstarter, which Google says is currently $128,284.42. Now is when I remind you that Avengers: Endgame cost $356 million dollars, or roughly 3,000 times as much.
For that princely sum, Brut and the Ickermen get an interplanetary space-chase of bone-crunching sound effects and sexy-gross spaceships. Our two spacemen (Anders Heinrichsen and Christian Erickson) follow a rogue, AI-powered spaceship to the surface of a desolate world. While trying to destroy or recover the rogue ship (Blood Machines is either vague or I don’t pay attention real good), they cross paths with a band of scavenger-witches, leading them on a pursuit of cosmic proportions.
Themes and imagery return from “Turbo Killer,” but the palette has become engorged. The setting is entirely extraterrestrial; the spacemen’s AI computer looks like a golden fertility statue that Indiana Jones has no chance of carrying; an angular spacewarp leads to a psychedelic nebula; and the cavernous interiors call to mind a neon-lit Notre Dame. Blood Machines does not lack for ambition.
Wait… did you say it’s 50 minutes long?
Fifty minutes is an odd runtime for a modern film. It’s hard to work up the energy to drive to the movies when you know an hour later you’ll be back home with your miserable thoughts again. Conversely, 50 minutes is a huge ask if you’re at a short-film festival. You could watch somewhere between five and 10 movies in the same time. And think of how snooty you could be to your film-snob bros who squandered that hour at just one screening. “Lame!” you’d exhort. “Lame!”
But with so many of us stuck at home, maybe now is the perfect time for Blood Machines to debut on Shudder. Here’s the scene: you’re pinned to the sofa under a snoring housecat. A combination of spilled Dr Pepper Ten and Doritos dust has welded your hand to the TV remote, but you don’t have the mental energy to start a two-hour feature. Maybe you should start another episode of whatever binge-able cable series was cooked up in a lab to hook your brain chemicals. But you decide against it—the show is starting to make your frontal lobe feel as punished as your liver. Now’s the ideal time for a 50-minute one-and-done.
Glorified music video
Do people still use “glorified music video” as a way to criticize a movie? That’s a stupid thing to say. The Crow is a glorified music video, and it’s the raddest thing ever.
The best parts of Blood Machines are the music-video parts: the synths, the chases, the inexplicable imagery. You know, the general WTF-edness. The non-music parts are the weakest. Clunky dialogue simultaneously explains too much while not explaining enough, and the initial standoff between the spacemen and the cryptic machine-defenders goes on too long for the allegory Blood Machines clearly is. Fairy tales move quick—there’s no break in the Three Little Pigs to wonder, “The pigs have created an infrastructure that allows for the creation of bricks, and they can talk?”
One of the great things about silent horror films like Nosferatu and The Fall of the House of Usher is that the characters can’t weasel out of their problems by talking. Once the nightmare begins, conversation goes the way of the dodo. That tradition persisted, to varying degrees, in the badly dubbed European horror films of the postwar era. Think of Euro-cheap trashterpieces like Suspiria or even Night of the Demons in which minimalist spurts of English-language dialogue are portioned out sparingly among actors who probably learned two or three English words phonetically just before a director yelled “Action!” in Italian. Blood Machines could have benefitted from that.
Story or resume?
To quote my colleague Nathan Matisse, short(-ish) films are often made by filmmakers who are early in their careers to “act as proof-of-concepts, [and] they play at festivals because people who might be able to collaborate on or finance a larger project tend to attend.” The goal, he adds, “might be a future deal more than audience distribution.” In other words, the goal of many short films is both to tell an original idea but also to prove to the Men in Suits Who Have All the Money that you know where to put a camera, when to cut a scene, and how to come in under budget. (Watch the terrific behind-the-scenes video that accompanies “Turbo Killer” to see just how small an operation the Ickermen were running. And you get to see a gasmask-wearing space demon check his smartphone between takes.)
So is Blood Machines 50 minutes long because it needs to be 50 minutes, or because the Ickermen had 50 minutes of special effects they wanted to show off to get funding for their next, even bigger project? Is it the Ickermen’s way of telling the The Suits, “Look at all we did for 124 grand! Imagine what we could do with twice that much!” Maaaaaybe.
But when The Suits see it, I hope they throw fistfuls of cash at the Ickermen and everyone celebrates with a few lines of coke, which I understand is the primary love language of Men in Suits. I am eager to see what the Ickermen do with their in-development first feature film, which is titled—I poop you not—Ickerman.
The hubris! I can’t wait.