Welcome to the column "Streaming and Screaming," in which Matt Konopka explores lesser known streaming films that are sometimes gems, sometimes monstrosities, but always a curiosity worth laying your eyes on...
...“God is dead.”
That ultimate narcissistic quote from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche opens first time director Douglas Schulze’s Hellmaster, pretty much defining the entire theme of the movie. God is dead, and any maniac can lay claim to that title. In the case of Hellmaster, that maniac just happens to be the late, great, and highly entertaining John Saxon (A Nightmare on Elm Street), who is having the time of his life as a mutant-making villain in this piece of schlocky, wannabe philosophical entertainment.
In Hellmaster, aka Them, aka Carnage on Campus during the writing process, Robert (Dawn of the Dead’s David Emge, pulled out of acting retirement just to do this film), uncovers the horrible secret that the Kant Institute School for the Gifted covered up the use of students as experiments by Professor Jones (Saxon), who was injecting kids with a substance which, more or less, turned them into the poor man’s version of Hellraiser’s cenobites, minus the slick BDSM getups. Now, Jones has returned to Kant to finish what he started, and it’s up to Robert to go full on Rambo and stop him. No, really. It’s Emge carrying around a crossbow loaded with glowing syringes a la Re-animator, and it’s amazing.
What does all of that have to do with Hell? Not much. The distributor just wanted to capitalize on the success of Hellraiser, which, good call. Better that than being confused with the giant ant movie.
How Schulze managed to rope both Saxon and Emge into this film, I’ll never know, but I owe him a beer if I ever meet him for pulling off that miracle and making Hellmaster the curious bit of oddball horror it is today.
With just twenty-four days to shoot the thing and made on a budget of only $300,000, Hellmaster’s Kant Institute was shot at an asylum doubling as a school emitting a constant red glow—you know, because Hell—with padded rooms transformed into production offices. A fitting detail for a film that is itself, mad. Forget the fact that at least half of that budget had to have gone to Saxon and Emge so they could afford whatever overdue boat payments they had, but Hellmaster is overloaded with ideas philosophical in nature and absurd in execution.
On the commentary for the Hellmaster disc released from Vinegar Syndrome, Schulze calls the film a “glorified student film” and says it’s best watched in an “altered state.” That’s putting it lightly. In order to fully enjoy Hellmaster, I recommend you go down to your local dispensary and buy the finest weed you can buy guaranteed to transport you to a 6th dimension of world-melting pleasure, pair it with a bottle of Johnnie Walker (Saxon’s drink of choice on set), and let this bizarre horror flick take you for a ride through Willy Wonka’s House of Pain.
You think I’m exaggerating, but if anything, I’m not doing justice to just how strange this movie is.
One of Schulze’s greatest regrets with the film is that they didn’t have an experienced editor at the time, and it shows. Two minutes into Hellmaster, and we’ve got Robert facing flashbacks of discovering naked, pale and bloody bodies in a basement, then back to sitting at his desk and Saxon aka Jones’ face invading his mind while a bunch of catatonic mutants invade Robert’s office. Cut to the next morning, and he’s off to save the school.
The editing in Hellmaster, just like the script, is all over the place. Some editors like to use jump cuts to give a sudden jolt to the audience, but Hellmaster employs all sorts of whacky cuts that make you feel like you’re being spun around on an out of control Teacup ride, the worst ride at Disneyland. And then there’s the imagery. Like deformed bats out of hell, images of school buses sporting giant crosses over the grill, Saxon standing in front of a giant hypnotic spiral, zombies chasing students in rolling coffins and mutants carrying scythe batons all rise up screeching for attention in this cluttered curiosity. Schulze admits that the film is oversaturated with ideas, and while that’s true, the central thesis does come through.
Saxon gleefully plays a madman who’s neck deep in the belief of Nietzsche’s “superman” concept, which essentially describes beings that are higher on the totem pole than your average dope. Hitler believed in much the same with all of his Aryan race bullshit. Jones more or less sees power and authority as the answer to all of the world’s problems. He believes the weak are meant to be controlled, and the powerful are meant to do the controlling. “Control, or be controlled,” he says. The mutants who serve him aren’t doing so because they believe in some higher purpose. They’re doing Jones’ bidding for the reward of more of his serum.
All of this is why Shelly (Amy Raasch) makes the perfect hero to fight Jones. All of our potential victims are introduced during a lecture where they’re being asked to discuss the issue with the homeless. Shelly believes in helping people and seethes at the idea of using violence, whereas school dickhead Jesse (Jeff Rector) says “they should get a job,” seeing the poor as a cancer in the country that need to be cut out by any means necessary. Hellmaster is so in your face about its messaging, that Jesse even carries around a goddamn whip for no reason. How’s that for an authoritarian metaphor? And we haven’t even touched on the fact that Saxon looks vaguely like a Nazi commander in his long, black leather coat.
All throughout the film, Saxon’s Jones does his best Freddy Krueger impression, tormenting the kids using their fears and anxieties. Handi-capable Joey (Neil Savedes), desperate to get the girl but thinking he’s a loser because he’s crippled, is manipulated by Jones into thinking he’ll have the power to walk if he serves him. Barb (Lisa Sheldon) is tortured with a forced pregnancy that appears out of nowhere. Shelly herself is plagued by visions of her deceased father, a cop who was maybe probably killed in the line of duty. Hellmaster is so sliced and diced that these stories never amount to much, but the idea of power through manipulation with Jones using some kind of telepathy is there. And what really matters is that Saxon savors every word of dialogue, delivering each syllable with a hissing tone that mocks his victims. He’s more or less feeding on their soul and practically getting off on it, by the looks of things. It’s a thrill to watch, and the type of role we so rarely got to see Saxon in.
Saxon’s best line? “If God created this world in six days and I can make Hell of it in one night, then God must be dead!” Hellmaster is a mess, but his relishing in the ego of that statement makes it worth a watch for any Saxon fan.
We lost a great one in Saxon. Hellmaster is far from perfect, but like a stampede of bulls running through the center of town, there’s something about the chaos that makes it impossible to take your eyes away, especially when Saxon is on screen, giving it his all. Because that was the kind of actor he was. He wasn’t above any role, and in Hellmaster, he plays a villain I would’ve loved to have seen more of.
Though I’m sure the Johnnie Walker probably helped.
(Never seen ‘Hellmaster’? The film is currently streaming on Tubi)
By Matt Konopka