Welcome to The Prime Sublime, a weekly column dedicated to the underseen and underloved films buried beneath page after page of far more popular fare on Amazon’s Prime Video collection. We’re not just cherry-picking obscure titles, though, as these are movies that we find beautiful in their own, often unique ways. You might even say we think they’re sublime…
“Sublime /səˈblīm/: of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe”
The Astron-6 collective might not be mainstream, but the independent Canadian studio is still a force to be reckoned with. Founded in 2007 by Adam Brooks, Jeremy Gillespie, Matt Kennedy, Conor Sweeney, and Steven Kostanski — who write, direct, produce, and star in their own movies — the studio has released three features and a slew of shorts, all of which hilariously pay homage to the exploitation movies and genre fare they grew up loving.
However, unlike many movies that poke fun at B movie traditions, Astron-6’s films boast nothing but sheer affection for their myriad of wacky influences. You can tell that all of the filmmakers involved grew up on a steady diet of low-budget action, horror, sci-fi, and weird movies, as their nerdy passion is tangible for each of these genres in every frame of their own films. As such, their movies tend to attract like-minded fans.
But what’s even more impressive is the fact that all of their movies were produced for next to nothing. We’re talking a few thousand bucks and not a penny more. Yet, despite their lack of budgets, each film is ambitious, impressive, and charmingly demented. While I highly recommend checking out Father’s Day, The Editor, and their shorts as well, this piece will focus on Manborg, which is the funniest and most inventive of the bunch, in my humble opinion.
What’s it about?
Set in a post-apocalyptic future where the tyrannical vampire Count Draculon (Brooks) and the forces of Hell rule over the earth with an iron fist, the film follows the titular half-man/half-cyborg soldier (Kennedy), who must team up with a band of rebel fighters to defeat an army of Nazi demons, robots, and other creatures. As Gizmodo rightfully notes, this world is like a fusion of Satan and Skynet.
Manborg’s allies also happen to be action movie caricatures. They include English voice-dubbed kung-fu fighter (Ludwig Lee), a tough no-nonsense Australian (Sweeney), and a badass chick who knows how to use a knife (Meredith Sweeney). The blade-wielding beauty also catches the affections of The Baron (Gillespie), a Nazi demon who’s pretty romantic in his own bizarre way.
What ensues is an action-packed adventure through a world that’s reminiscent of SEGA video games and VHS genre movies. Think Streets of Rage mixed with a RoboCop knockoff and some Hellraiser thrown in for good measure. Manborg is a smorgasbord of influences that works spectacularly, and if you’re a fan of any of these things and like to laugh, you’ll have a lot of fun with this movie.
Why it’s sublime
Made for $1000, Manborg is a movie that exceeds its budgetary restrictions thanks to heart, imagination, and plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. That said, the movie is also impressive from a technical standpoint. While the film looks extremely low-budget (that’s also the point), there’s no denying the incredible artistry on display. For a start, the prosthetic creature FX are as good as any that you’ll see in any monster movie, which is unsurprising considering that they were handled by Kostanski. His other credits in the monster make-up department include Crimson Peak and Star Trek: Discovery in addition to several horror flicks that boast some terrific creatures.
While Manborg features a mish-mash of creatures — from practical to stop motion — Count Draculon and The Baron are completely old-school in their design, and visually reminiscent of Hellraiser’s Cenobites. Fans of practical monsters will have a ball with these grotesque delights, and they’re a reminder that the best creatures will always be human beings in cool costumes.
At the same time, the visibly cheaper digital effects also add to the film’s charm. The goal here was to create an homage of the straight-to-video fare of a bygone era — Eliminators, The New Barbarians, Guyver: Dark Hero, Trancers, and Robot Jox were notable influences — and it recreates their lo-fi stylings with aplomb. If Manborg didn’t have the nostalgic comedy elements that make it seem somewhat modern, it could easily pass as a relic from that glorious period of low-budget genre cinema.
Still, it’s the characters who bring some heart and humor to the madness. The film’s heroes deliver their lines completely straight-faced, which is great considering that they’re given ridiculous material to work with. Furthermore, Kennedy manages to bring some pathos to his half-man, half-machine character, which makes him a sympathetic and easy hero to root for.
The monsters, meanwhile, are delightfully camp. The subplot about The Baron crushing over a hero is comedy gold, and the rejection he receives makes it even better. I love that there’s a campy demon character whose existence is rooted in heartache and longing, as opposed to just making him a creature that only wants to kill people and drink their blood. The Baron is very well-spoken and entertaining, and there’s so much more to him than pure evil wickedness.
Even though Manborg isn’t exactly family-friendly due to all the demons and bloodletting, it’s also a film that boasts a real sense of innocence. If this were made in the 80s or 90s, then it’d be handled by a studio like Empire Pictures/Full Moon Features, as it’s a movie for adults that contains childlike sensibilities. Charles Band’s companies used to specialize in movies like this as they wanted to attract impressionable younger viewers. That’s how many of us became horror fans in the first place.
For me, Manborg’s innocence is the film’s strongest characteristic. It’s a movie that’s designed to make people feel good at the end of the day, and if it serves as a gateway to the world of B movies for kids then that’s an added bonus.
And in conclusion…
Manborg’s nerdy charms make it reasonably accessible for general viewers and cult movie fans alike. Those who share the movie’s passion for niche pop culture will certainly gain a lot from the experience, but the comedy will strike a chord with anyone who appreciates off-kilter humor. It’s also a prime example of how some of the best and most ambitious movies out there are DIY, no-budget oddities. Give me Manborg over the RoboCop remake any day of the week.