Perhaps the biggest problem with “Project: Metalbeast” is that there is no earthly way any movie could live up to that title. If the filmmakers could have titled the movie with an airbrushed Boris Vallejo painting of a metallic werewolf, I feel like they would have. The title is a screaming electric guitar solo with full pyrotechnic accompaniment, and it ranks among the all-time-great, one-of-a-kind B-movie titles like “Hell Comes to Frogtown” or “Surf Nazis Must Die.” If the majority of movie titles serve as a polite introduction to the audience, “Project: Metalbeast” is a high-five from a complete stranger doing a backflip on an ATV over your head.
The movie opens in 1974, where a crack team of special-ops commandoes are storming a castle straight out of a Universal monster movie. Before long, the team’s photographer is jumped by a massive werewolf, who tears him to shreds before a soldier named Butler plugs it with silver bullets. The mission, it turns out, was to collect samples of werewolf blood for a shadowy government project headed by the unctuous bureaucrat Miller, played by Barry Bostwick in his down time between “Rocky Horror” and “Spin City.” Butler is a man of action, and he’s frustrated that the blood he collected has been mostly used up on experiments with no results. He’s been dying to become a werewolf for 20 years and man, I hear ya, buddy. Rather than wait for those clowns in Congress to approve another line-item for more werewolf blood, Butler goes right to the source and mainlines what’s left of the sample in the bathroom like he’s in “Trainspotting.”
Miller confronts Butler about the missing blood, and Butler boasts about how being a werewolf will make him a better breed of soldier, with all the instincts of a beast and all the cunning of a man. That sounds like a good deal, but werewolves are also known for turning anyone they attack into another werewolf, which would defeat the purpose of creating your own werewolf army. Mr. President, we cannot allow a werewolf gap!
Butler transforms and goes on a spree through the military base, but Miller stops him with a few silver bullets of his own. Miller decides to put Butler’s corpse on ice in the basement, and now we flash forward 20 years. The facility is now home to a project devoted to creating replacement skin, which is headed by a scientist named Anne. You can tell she’s a free-thinker because she has a “Monica” haircut at a time when everyone else got the “Rachel.” Dr. Anne and her colleagues have hit a wall in their research because they can make synthetic skin, but can’t stop it from becoming as hard as steel. I’m not a scientist, but it could be because the secret ingredient in their fake skin is metal. Again, not a scientist, but skin has a lot of qualities that metal is not known for having.
The new director of the skin project is Miller, who shows up having washed all the dye out of his hair. He offers the researchers something they desperately need – human test subjects in the form of frozen cadavers. Faced with the choice of using anonymous dead bodies provided by a smirking government stooge or losing their funding, the team reluctantly agrees to Miller’s proposal.
The experiments continue with Butler as the guinea pig, but Dr. Anna is troubled by the ethical implications of what they’re doing and starts digging into who exactly they have on that slab. Things take a turn for the worse when they find and remove the silver bullets lodged in Butler’s chest and Butler returns to life. Dr. Anne’s ethical concerns become much stronger after that, and she refuses to continue on the project even though Butler’s skin has been almost entirely replaced by what is essentially armor plating. Like it or not, Dr. Anne’s project has produced its metalbeast.
Faced with a mutiny and a congressional investigation for misappropriating dead werewolves, Miller decides to cut his losses and have the entire project team killed by unleashing Butler. Fully a werewolf again after 20 years on ice and now with steel-hard skin, Butler runs rampant through the facility. Dr. Anne and her surviving friends swipe a bazooka and try to escape, but Miller and Butler converge on them in the cryogenics lab. Somehow, Miller believes he can talk Butler out of killing him, but reminding the man you killed and tortured for 20 years “It’s me!” isn’t the way to do that. Butler chucks Miller into a rolling steel door upside down, Miller lands on his head, and then Butler just punches straight through Miller’s gut with his gnarled metal werewolf claw.
Eventually, Dr. Anne and the survivors are chased into a corner, where they manage to fire their last bazooka shell directly into the Metalbeast’s chest, blasting him to ooey-gooey werewolf chunks. Everyone can finally relax, tend to the rebar that pierced their ankles, and enjoy the full moon. But wait, is that werewolf chunk BREATHING?
About 90 percent of “Project: Metalbeast” takes place in the same building, so we know this is a very cheap movie. The Metalbeast itself (played by Kane Hodder, the Sean Connery of the “Friday the 13th” series) looks like a Three Stooges-grade gorilla suit coated in rubber cement and garnished with porcupine quills. At one point Butler is trapped between man and werewolf and there’s some okay makeup effects to that effect. Kane Hodder is a good name to get horror fans interested in the movie, but the puffy nature of the costume blunts Hodder’s physicality, and he’s limited to jumping or swiping at his victims.
The MVP of “Project: Metalbeast,” surprisingly, turns out to be Bostwick, who dives into his role as a smarmy, amoral, and arrogant prick with gusto. He’s not always giving it 100 percent – there’s probably no good way to deliver a line as bad as, “Why are you all so glum? You’re scientists!” but Bostwick doesn’t even try to give it a natural-sounding read – but his complete confidence throughout the movie makes for some memorable moments. Not only does Bostwick spend most of the movie talking shit to a man he knows hates him and is also a werewolf, but he takes a moment to smooth back his hair just before the Metalbeast delivers the killing blow.
I’ve always believed that remakes shouldn’t be wasted on rehashing good movies – they should be saved for movies that failed to live up to their promise. “Project: Metalbeast” is one of those movies that is crying out for a competent team of filmmakers to dig into it. At the very least, “armor-plated werewolf” is a sub-genre that deserves more than one entry.