Wednesday 18 January 2017

The Baron Against the Demons (2006)

Director: Ricardo Ribelles
Writer: Ricardo Ribelles
Stars: Juan Carlos Romeu, Helena Lecumberri, Alejandro Ribelles, Xavier Bertran, Irene Belza, Gerardo Arenas, Eva Barceló, Susana Palma and Paulina Gálvez

Index: Weird Wednesdays.

Much of the joy of my Weird Wednesdays project is in finding movies, watching them and trying to figure out who the filmmakers thought their audiences might be. I really have no idea about this one, because it mixes a few very deliberate approaches that I’m pretty sure I never expected to coincide in a movie. For instance, as the usual English language title, The Baron Against the Demons, suggests, this feels like a tokusatsu picture at heart, with foam latex suits, imaginative monsters and bizarre tale about a futuristic organisation dedicated to fighting evil. That it was made with Spaniards rather than the Japanese is one reason why that doesn’t quite ring true, but there’s also the BDSM comic book aesthetic and the gratuitous gore effects, which suggest that this was never meant for kids, and the most important aspect is the overriding Catholic dogma which drives the whole thing so fundamentally that this can only be a Christian metaphor dressed up for sexual deviants who like the Power Rangers. You know, that sort of film!

Oddly, for a movie so overtly about good and evil, we’re never quite sold on the good and evil bit. Sure, the villain is Satan himself, visiting from the Ninth Planet to witness the birth of the Antichrist, which here means a man in a rubber suit, conceived from seed stolen from a chained hero by a leather clad dominatrix with gigantic knockers, who’s birthed by a hermaphroditic stick monster. We may be relatively safe in assuming that they’re the bad guys! But who represents the side of good? Initially, we might presume that it’s Exorcio Deus Machine, a late 21st century band of Spanish Inquisition commandos sharing their steampunk space satellite with an alien race of muppets, from which lair they combat evil. After all, that’s who our hero, the titular Baron, works for. Yet, if he’s clearly on their side, they’re not quite so clearly on his, as the man in charge, Coronel Doménico, dreams of dropping an atom bomb on his head. What’s wrong with the usual Triumph of the Will inspired awards ceremony for heroes? No, atom bomb it is.

So, are we to see the Baron as our hero or just some rebellious heretic? I have no idea. He certainly appears to be a hero, not least because he saves the day almost single-handedly, the useful contributions of Exorcio Deus Machine comprised of one woman who succeeds in rescuing him from the deviant underworld of Scotland, even though she was only sent because the Coronel wants her vaporised by the same atom bomb as the Baron. However, unlike most sci-fi action films, the phrasing forces us to read it from the standpoint of Catholic theology too and it’s hardly a stretch to see the Baron as a Christ figure, most obviously because he actually describes the quest this picture is for him as his Via Crucis. For those who don’t expect their genre flicks to periodically drift into Latin, that refers to the Stations of the Cross, those fourteen iconic moments which Jesus endured from death sentence to burial. You know, the procession of brutality from The Passion of the Christ. This is just like that but with more biomechanical parasites.

So, if the Baron is really a post-apocalyptic Jesus, what does that make the organisation he thinks he works for but which secretly aims to see him extinguished? Are they true defenders of God’s Word, the New Crusader Legion commanded by the Inquisitorial Committee? Or are they just a sorry bunch of religious fanatics? Frankly, is there even a difference between those options? Well, there lies a dilemma, surrounded by all the invisible detail that writer/director Ricardo Ribelles carefully omitted just to keep us confused. He’s willing and able to craft dynamic dialogue, but he doesn’t appear to grasp that ‘dynamic’ doesn’t have come at the expense of meaning. For instance, when Coronel Doménico tasks Lt. Ira Bowman with rescuing the Baron, we wonder who she is. Well, she’s a human with no special powers, but she has a score of 77 in the Danger Room! Wait a second! What’s a Danger Room and is 77 a good score or a bad one? Is that 77 out of 80 or 77 out of a million? It’s dynamic but it’s also meaningless.
The entire script is so dynamic but so meaningless that I wanted to transcribe every other line of dialogue but couldn’t figure out what was going on for about an hour. I could blame poor subtitles, given that I don’t speak Spanish, but they seem to make sense, as far as the script lets them. I just don’t know where to start. For instance: ‘Justice was the one who had the fetus in her entrails’ should be the title of a black metal album. Justice here may be one of the wildly endowed bondage mutants we find and massacre, but we’re never really introduced. ‘A curious funeral rite for satanic androids’ is enticing. I’m still not sure how androids can find religion but it happens here, just too quickly, so the Baron massacres all his followers before he realises they’re following him. He isn’t too bright, but he’s flamboyant with soliloquy: ‘Blind, Black Faith!’ he shouts at the sky. ‘The faith that moves those who died without washing their souls that resurrects the eyeless dead!’ No, I have no idea what that means either and I watched this movie.

Occasionally, there’s a sliver of explanation. For instance, we first meet the Baron and his sidekick, Lt. Alexander, as they battle an onslaught of Chattering Laughers in northern France, but he vanishes, mysteriously showing back up again in the evil clutches of Doña Pervertvm in her evil lair called Pandemonium, which to space Catholics is apparently located in the Perfidia Caverns below Inverness. Now, I’ve only travelled through Inverness but it seemed to be a nice place, devoid of any ‘sub-world with necromantic roots created under the command of a two-headed leader.’ I’m also very sure I’d have noticed anyone wearing an outfit like Doña Pervertvm’s, given that it appears to be a leather bikini so narrow that it had to have been glued to her labia, with skimpy straps and a massive brass bra that looks like it was crafted from a couple of missiles. Jane Russell, eat your heart out! Then again, Jane Russell wasn’t tough enough to tie her hair back with scavenged intestines. That would have improved The Outlaw considerably!
Doña Pervertvm likes the sound of her own voice just as much as the Baron likes his, so we start to discover some of the details we need to understand the movie here in Pandemonium. She’s keen on extracting the Baron’s blessed sperm so she can use it to make the Ragnarok-Beast pregnant. And time is short; as Sgt. Burkina Fasso explains to the Coronel up on the space satellite, ‘Ragnarok’s still in heat. If this infernal beast doesn’t perpetuate his species before the Winter Angelus, he’ll eat himself as punishment.’ I may not have grasped the point of this, partly because I have no idea what the Winter Angelus is, but it seems like the space inquisition only need to stamp out bestiality underneath Inverness and they’ll be golden. Shame the Baron gets himself captured, huh? Doña Pervertvm interrogates him, rapes him (without actually undressing him first, which is a neat trick), then stabs him in the crotch with a carved dildo so that he can spurt all over her face in a bloody shower. ‘This is my blood,’ I guess, ‘which is given for you.’

Clearly Doña Pervertvm is the mistress and slave of Ragnarok, nesting with him under the Sign of Pluto, and clearly she has a plan. I just wish I understood everything else going on here. For a start, why does she have an army of cackling midget android clowns? Why have they already started to convert to the Baron’s unspoken ideology before he even gets there? Why do they believe that blessing themselves, confining themselves to coffins and throwing those coffins into the ocean is a good way to demonstrate their devotion? It’s no better up on the satellite. For example, why has Dr. Michas, a muppet alien from the utterly unexplained planet of Belfídia and the head of the Revolutionary Prototype Dept., replaced Lt. Alexander’s clown-bitten arm with a prosthetic that is useless except to threaten the satellite? Why do they even have this department? And why does every woman in the film have to dress in a bondage leotard, whether they’re in combat or the lab? Suddenly. chainmail bikinis seem wildly realistic.
Frankly, I gave up trying to figure out the plot. There’s a war, for Pete’s sake, complete with bagpipes and wicked masks and some little general whose body appears to have been removed from the nipples down, which is why he zooms around in an invisible jet pack. And, even if the script is lunacy on acid, these visuals are actually pretty cool, both in how they’re imagined and how they’re animated. That’s especially true, given the date. The Baron Against the Demons was released in 2006 and it incorporated a short film by the same writer/director, Exorcio Deus Machine: La misión, made a full decade earlier. Yet, the majority of the gadgetry, weapons and even spacecraft are notably steampunk in nature, making this aesthetic, surely taken from Jules Verne’s submarines, notably ahead of the curve. I adored the modelwork, which is intricate and ingenious, though some of the other effects work is ridiculous in the extreme, especially the gore effects, which are as wildly enthusiastic as they are utterly inept.

So, is this the story of Jesus? Maybe it’s just one of the Gospels of the New New Testament, to be discovered between now and the end of the century, when this is set. If Ribelles made another three movies, telling the same story from different angles, I’d watch every one of them. Maybe by then it might make sense. This feels like an incomplete tale with much more to tell; there’s so much action that he could double the length of the film without it feeling slow, but there are so many gaps that he’d have to double the length of the film just to fit in all the explanations he needs. In reality, it’s a short film that grew to feature length, but it plays like a twelve episode serial shrunk to a quarter of its size. As far as I’m aware, the international versions are the same movie, just with new, more misleading, titles. Its latest is Star Troopers, which fails to describe this adequately at all. In France, it’s Battleship Pirates, which is even worse. The Baron Against the Demons works best because, never mind just the title, that’s the perfect synopsis too!
And so I wonder what Ricardo Ribelles was trying to do here. What audience was he trying to reach? I can’t help but feel that the logical audiences for its component parts wouldn’t be happy with the others. Tokusatsu fans may love the wild aliens and blissful miniatures, but would probably throw their hands up in despair at all the pontificating on theology while being stabbed. Catholic action fans (is that a genre?) may dig the fact that it has no problem with staging a new crusade a century into the future but I’m not convinced it makes any liturgical sense whatsoever and it suggests that Jesus is cool and all but his church has lost the plot. I have no doubt that the outrageous leather bikinis will appeal to readers of European fetish comics but they only like religion if it means that monks can do unspeakable things to nuns or demons can, well, do unspeakable things to nuns. There aren’t any nuns to be found here, so I have no idea what they’d think of the scenes that don’t feature leather bikinis and/or the Ragnarok-Beast.

I’d argue that there’s certainly an audience for this sort of insanity, but it’s mostly people like me who are looking for this sort of insanity. It’s full of bizarre and engaging imagery but I honestly think I’d have got as much out of it if I’d turned the subtitles off and attempted to figure out the foreign language dialogue. Perhaps that would have been my better option, because I’d have had to conjure up my own story to explain what I saw and that can’t have made any less sense than the one Ribelles actually wrote. I would have failed to rustle up the levels of Catholic guilt and inevitability of self-sacrifice that Ribelles seems to bathe in, but I’d have imagined the Baron as a wild escapee from a live action anime, an old school knight who wants everyone and everything to fight him. I don’t think the rules of journalism would allow me to review the movie that would have played in my head had I had the foresight to switch the subtitles off, but, by Doña Pervertvm’s brass bazongas, I was greatly tempted to do so.


Skalthja said...

How did you find this movie? It's a pretty rare one and I'd like to watch it.

Hal C. F. Astell said...

I believe I found out that it existed by accident searching IMDb for steampunk films. I tracked down a copy on the grey market.

It's an absolute trip. It's not a great movie by any means, but it's endlessly fascinating. People might love it, hate it, laugh at it, be inspired by it, whatever. I can see a lot of different reactions to it but nobody's ever going to get bored watching it.