I've always been somewhat annoyed that we all focus so much on Japanese animation when there must be plenty of decent animation coming out of the west. Certainly there's some fantastic stuff for kids and primetime comedy coming from the US and Europe produces lots of awesome art house stuff, but we're always lacking that broad appeal. So I was very happy to see the upcoming Lady Death DVD land on my desk. If only I had been able to stay happy.
Normally I split these reviews into three parts: Story, Artistry, Translation and DVD. I'll be dropping the translation because this was made in English but, frankly, I could easily have gotten away with keeping it in.
So Lady Death started out as part of a comic book series. She was a reasonably loved character from an indy print and she was just the sort of character that would fit into the dark and gritty background of 90s comics that gave us the likes of Spawn. The problem is that Spawn was finished as an on-screen venture in 1999 and this came out in 2004. It had already missed the boat and, even if it hadn't, it would never have been allowed on the boat in the first place because there was a height restriction. It does not live up to its comic book origins or to its dark and gritty pretence.
While I was watching this I was wondering why the story felt so uninteresting and started looking through the wikipedia page for the film whilst trying not to spoil myself. Then I spotted the script writer and it all made sense. This film was written by Carl Macek, so we can rest assured that any sins of this were not necessarily sins of its original creators.
Now skip to Artistry before I spoil the hell out of this.
Firstly, this starts in media res and I've watched enough Battlestar Galactica to develop a healthy loathing of in media res. But let's skip over that and get to the actual story. Hope is the daughter of a knight of some sort in 15th century Sweden. She has a lovely boyfriend named Niccolo and an idyllic life in the countryside. Turns out her dad is Lucifer, the townsfolk burn her at the stake for it and she cuts a deal to serve her dad in exchange for, you know, not burning to death. She reneges on that deal and instead decides to wage war against her dad by giving herself a daft name, levelling up, finding an army and knocking on the door (and then not using her army).
More spoiler warning.
She kills Lucifer but as he dies he curses her to be forever trapped in Hell until he has no more allies in Hell, so she ends up wide open for a sequel or even an ongoing animated series.
On the face of it, there's nothing wrong with this story, other than leaving hooks open to subject us to more of it. The problem is that there's nothing worthwhile in it either. The love story is tacked on to say the least and we never get any real sense of any back story going on. It plays like the bad kind of computer game where you land somewhere and suddenly discover that you have magic powers and people start helping you to fight an enemy who you don't really know but at least the game's railroading you to the final boss so you don't need to.
The story doesn't even really manage to be provocative in any way. In what's meant to be something for an adult audience it should be able to do something more than just have somebody on a quest to beat the bad guy. Indeed, in the comics her dad wasn't Lucifer but just made a deal with him (in some versions ended up waging war against him for supremacy), she was given the title of Lady Death by the guy that helps her and she's cursed to kill everybody on Earth, not just in Hell. Now that would make for a far more interesting story (unless you go for the original, original version of the story in which she's some kid's wet dream).
That being said, this is a dark and gritty super violent type film so, though we'd ideally like to see ridiculous wangst going on, we can forgive a lack of story as long as the action and the imagery are all there.
Guess what isn't there.
One look at the box and you know what this film came here to do. We need to see a hot lady with big boobs getting into big, gory battles. Also it's set in hell so we get to see an awesome hellscape, right?
Tell you what. The hellscape's alright. It's dark, it's bleak, it's illuminated by lava, the rocks and mountains are formed into agonised faces and furniture has souls trapped in it. Is it awesome? Not at all. Even the ridiculous throne of hell with its toweringness and said trapped shouls manages to be a bit meh. Maybe I was just jaded by the rest of the film.
The rest of the animation, however, was pretty tragic. It reminded me of Batman: The Animated Series or Gargoyles (which I later discovered was because it was made by the same studio as both of those), which are both great shows for two reasons: 1) They aired alongside cartoons that were very much for kids but were dark and serious, 2) They had fantastic stories with the voice actors to carry them off. The animation was always pretty ropey on it, mostly because it was made in the early 90s and it was hard to animate back then. This, however, was released in 2004 when the technology was much better and, more importantly, was released by itself as an adult animation (not a serious animation for kids), and a feature film. The bar is set much, much higher and Lady Death doesn't even hit the original bar.
The action is completely unconvincing, with set pieces like running through slicing up bad guys looking like somebody running round a maypole while bad guys fall apart of their own volition. Lady Death's flying hell horse looked about as likely as SuperBoy flying did in the 80s TV show.
The character designs themselves were ridiculously simplistic, which is fine if you're churning out an episode a week (and even then there are limits), but isn't really on when you're making a feature film. Honestly, the closest comparison would be decent quality animated porn. I would give a less ridiculous comparison but no other medium would ever allow their product to be this shabby.
There isn't even any cinematography going on and I really have to wonder how much directing Andy Orjuela even did. The making of on the DVD has no evidence of him doing any directing and shows an Executive Director, which I didn't know was even a thing.
I think the best example of the lack of direction in this is when poor, pathetic Hope has to learn to become Lady Death in a short amount of time and without slowing down the film. They need a montage and that's what they did, or tried to do. There's not much to a montage:
1) Show lots of things happening at once. Nope, just the one thing, her fighting and picking weapons. What does this mean? That there's no other story going on and no characters we could possibly care about, let alone want to see dead. Though it does include the world's worst bit of bullet time.
2) With every shot show a little improvement. There's just the one shot and instead of showing improvement –because apparently our animators have no idea what good as opposed to bad fighting would look like– they show her costume just switching through a series of skimpier costume. This is something you can claim is being played for laughs until you hear the director say, "You can see that she's implementing some of the more warrior type outfits that eventually evolve into her costume." Apparently bikinis are warrior elements.
And that's it, it can't even manage a two step formula.
I'm going to move onto the script and the acting now but on the way there I'm going to mention the gates of hell. The gates of hell here have "abandon hope all you who enter" written on them in Latin. For the uninitiated, this is meant to be written in Italian. Somebody decided that they would translate the writing from Italian into terrible Latin. Maybe they were thinking that this story, set long after Dante's Inferno was published, predates Italian somehow. They really didn't want to try being clever because they can't do it.
Which brings us onto the script and acting.
You know how I'm one of those haters who dislikes dubs? Actually, there are good reasons to have dubs and there are also good reasons why dubs go bad. For instance, when you have stunted dialogue you'll often find that it's because the actors are having to fit their speech to the original language. Her the speech was just as stunted as any of the worst dubs, but English was the original language. I don't know how much of it was down to the horrible script and how much was down to the voice actors but it is properly unforgivable. That and there's no soundtrack to speak of to distract you.
Put it this way, if you must watch this film, set the audio to German and put on the English subs.
Speaking of German…
I've gotten very far without mentioning this, but this is the place for it. All the DVD menus are in German. Honest to goodness German, like what they speak in Austria. The DVD actually starts with a German anti-piracy advert. I have no idea how anybody manages something so fundamentally useless as not putting the DVD menu in the primary language of the film but there we are.
Outside of that, the DVD has some bonus material including artwork reels where you get to see them taking awesome character designs and simplifying them down until they lose all impact. You get a little documentary which is neither behind the scenes nor making of, it's just a few interviews with people who talk about how great it is to be breaking animation through to an adult audience despite the fact that they must have known what they were making. And that's it.
It's odd, the whole point of bonus material on animated films is getting to see the story evolve, seeing rooms full of storyboards and concepts and things like that. This just gives us the animators talking about how very hard they're going to try (by the sounds of the translation the animators were interviewed before they started work and possibly before they realised exactly what they were making) and the director talking about all the opinions of people he asked for and apparently didn't take into consideration at all. In fact, by the sounds of it his job was entirely to go around cons and ask people what they thought of the character designs.
The really telling bit of the special features, however, was the trailer reel for other ADV properties. Leaving aside the fact that there was no menu for it so you just had to watch all the trailers at once, every single show in the trailer reel managed to have fantastic, compelling action sequences in a week by week show that was made in the previous decade to this film. In fact, I think that may be the one saving grace of this film, that it might get you to go out and watch Mezzo DSA, Full Metal Panic, Final Fantasy Unlimited or Neon Genesis Evangelion (and I hate NGE), though all those trailers are in German (with all the titles in English).
On the interviews with the animators one of them says "I hope that it will lead to the development of adult animation as an established genre." It's a noble sentiment but a misplaced one. This is puerile to the extreme, with no story and no artistic vision. instead of being groundbreaking it's just falls into the same useless traps as any terrible film you'd expect to see on the SyFy with its low budget everything and its outright misogyny without the kitschy charm that would allow any of that to be alright. The only reason to buy this is to support British alternative animation distributors, but there has to be a better way.
because I'm all too aware that, actually, it could have been worse so I'll save no stars for something really special.
I'm gonna go scrub my eyeballs and then see what else is on.