Lady Death: The Motion Picture Review
“There is no stopping what cannot be stopped” - Lucifer
In this case there is and believe me, I sure as hell came close to.
Lady Death has been enjoying success since 1994, when creator Brian Pulido and artist, Steven Hughes unleashed a new kind of female warrior upon the world. And what better way to celebrate ten years of our buxom warrior’s adventures than with an animated feature? What better way indeed…
I had never heard of Lady Death prior to this animated movie. I’ve often been ignorant as to the success of western comics books, not being a particularly avid reader so I won’t pretend to assume the ins and outs of this particular piece of work, suffice it to say that Lady Death is a terrible film.
Lady Death opens in Sweden - 1478, where Lord Matthias precedes over his army that is to embark on a crusade. Elsewhere his daughter, a young lady named Hope is madly in love with some guy called Niccolo who asks her to run away with him, but out of respect for her father she refuses, despite really wanting to of course. Little does she know at this point that her father is in fact Lucifer - The Lord of Lies, who has really been capturing souls and partying down in Hell. When he finds out about Hope’s love he takes Niccolo away from her, drafting him into his army and confining Hope within the walls of his castle. When Lucifer starts doing really naughty things like killing people and stuff, Father Orbec blames Hope and demands she be burned at the stake. With a death sentence looming over her head, Hope sits hopelessly in her cell, when soon a funny little jester called Pagan pays her a visit. He offers her a means to escape if she gives up her soul. As she burns, Hope agrees and she soon finds herself in Hell with a bunch of lesbians and discovers that Pagan’s plan was to lie and get her to see her father. When Lucifer approaches she refuses to acknowledge him so he throws her out of a window, where she falls to her death - or at least that is how it seems. She then gets up but her body has been taken over by a lady of vengeance - Lady Death. Soon a man passes by, his name is Cremator and he was once Hell’s master weapons forger - as he likes to keep reminding her. They team up and Lady Death vows to kill Lucifer and rid the world of his demon scumbags.
Dear oh dear. If I were Brian Pulido I’d be very ashamed indeed of ADV, who have somehow managed to get this past its conceptual point. This is their second animated feature, after producing the video game adaptation Sin, which by all accounts is supposed to be decent enough. This time around they take the brave approach to adapt a successful comic book, placed it in the hands of Korean animators and given it a budget of around $10 - the result is too bad for words, but I shall try.
First things first. Good lord, Carl Macek - what have you done? How can a guy who was singularly responsible for opening America’s eyes to the wonders of anime have driven so low as to come up with the most mundane of scripts? Sure, Robotech wasn’t without its cheesy dialogue and ropey translations but Lady Death is the epitome of poor writing from a seasoned veteran. I didn’t think it would ever be possible to fill a script with so much clichéd dialogue but Lady Death stands as evidence; just about every line is followed by another badly written one. It’s almost embarrassing, like he got his children to write it over a weekend or had just sat through an Uwe Boll marathon. This is the kind of storytelling that I’ve not seen since the days of old, by which I mean the 80’s and the dozens of children’s adventure cartoons levelled at ten year olds. When we look at Lady Death this is quite inexcusable because we’re now twenty years ahead and this is aimed at ages fifteen upward (17 in the U.S). So as a mature piece of work it shouldn’t come across as such a heavily pretentious, drivel inspired, non-happening film. I’d hoped for some spark of intelligence that would build upon the mythos of Lady Death. As introductions go it ploughs through them to give us very little character insight, in favour of mindless dialogue and bloody visuals, but when it does try to tell a little back story its all hampered by lousy direction, of which we‘ll get to later.
Visually speaking, Lady Death is quite a mess. If you can remember as far back as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (even the fortress design looks like Castle Greyskull) and even early 90's American television you’ll get a good idea of how dated its animated techniques are, although there‘s not much in the way of hunched over running like He-Man - but there is standing with hands on hips stuff here. Those shows were great back in the day but by today’s standards there’s little to excuse. Although traditional animation is combined with computer technology, Lady Death offers very little if nothing extra to the medium that we haven’t seen being bettered ten times over already. As a further example of what I mean the animation is often jilted, there’s little smoothness to each action onscreen and you can truly believe that frames were used sparingly.
Character designs are a very weak part of the process and in researching the comic books I took it upon myself to view scans of Pulido’s work and look at several cover designs. In contrast to these the film is a whole lot lazier. The basic character formation is there but all signs of detail and nuance are gone. Most of the characters resemble ridiculously out of proportion bodybuilders, or nigh on identical zombie creatures and uninspired human replications, all of which change size throughout. As for these humans, well they’re sorry fellows. Everyone in this feature has grey tongues and from this I can only imagine that Sweden was a really bad place to live in at the time. Lady Death herself is an interesting design but her removal from the comic world and placement in the animated one is misjudged. She retains her skimpy look even if she loses some of that fiery attitude and curiously one of her special powers is that her nipples become erect without warning. Maybe this was a budget issue as they disappear from time to time, except when she‘s fighting, so it could be a character turn on. Steven Hughes’ original concept designs for Pagan were much better than the finished result; that being when someone let Carl Macek get his hands on the character and give it crooked teeth and a stupid face, which despite what the director will tell you does not look sinister. Instead it serves as another example of trying to fix something that isn't broken. And with such poor character design comes some hilariously bad names, with classics like Cremator - because he used to work in Hell, get it?
Being an American production you can expect to find nothing but an English soundtrack, which would ordinarily be fine if it wasn’t so criminally bad. This is voice direction at its worst and if you ever needed any proof of the matter than you only need to look at the cast and know that in the past they’ve performed much better. When under what appears to be breakneck speeds how can you expect good results? To see the likes of Andy McAvin (Angelic Layer), Christine Auten (Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040), and Chris Patton (RahXephon) perform as if they’re hopelessly bored isn’t entirely surprising, I’d even imagine that they often were. Christine as Hope/Lady Death is far from dulcet. It isn’t until the Lady Death transformation (a whole other ball game I don’t want to even get into) that she seems to perk up a bit but given her lines there isn’t a whole lot to go along with. Emotionally her performance is flat and toward the end cringe worthy, which is too bad as she’s had better success in the past. Andy McAvin likewise is disappointing. As I’ve mentioned a couple of times in previous reviews he’s a personal ADV favourite of mine but this time around I just don’t sense any enthusiasm or stand out moments, certainly not after the fun performance of Icchan in Angelic Layer. Chris Patton is often hit and miss. I’ve found in the past that he can take a long time getting into the stride of his characters and here he definitely fails to produce anything worthwhile. The rest of our cast just roll with the punches but none of them come up with satisfactory performances, making this a very misguided piece of direction all round.
In the end Lady Death offers nothing, try as it might to get across some simple message of love and faith and the conflicts between good and evil. It’s all been done before, and better I might add with characters in situations that we actually care about. Lady Death might have worked better if those creating it actually had any true grasp of its origins and had executed it with passion. Even as someone who hasn’t read the series the fact that its kept going strong for ten years should be testament enough to know that it must have something going for it. If we’re to judge the franchise solely on the merits of the film then its one that anyone would gladly steer clear of. This feature will not convert those unversed with Lady Death and nor will it likely entertain even the most hardened animation fan. I can only imagine the disappointment that Brian Pulido must have felt when he first saw this on the big screen, though he seems to be putting up a brave front. It’s OK to be sad, Brian. We understand.
ADV bring us Lady Death on a single disc, housed in a standard amaray. The presentation is rather nice actually, exhibiting cover artwork with higher production values than the film itself. Inside is a sheet featuring the cover art, with chapter listings on the reverse.
The film is presented in an anamorphic aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and like most of ADV’s recent output the transfer holds up well under scrutiny. The image here is sharp, with superb colour levels and particularly strong blacks, given the relatively muted palette. There’s a lot of red here, which is something that is prone to bleeding but there is no trace of that and everything is well controlled and defined. There is a spot of edge enhancement which is kept to a bare minimum and there are naturally traces of digital banding but there’s very little here to separate it from some of ADV’s finest releases.
For sound we get a remarkable 5.1 English track which has been mixed very effectively. There’s a heavy amount of action scattered throughout the film, featuring plenty of sword clanging and head lopping and the rear surrounds carry much of an epic sense, along with Bill Brown‘s score. Bass levels are particularly thumping and dialogue is separated wonderfully. Everything here makes for excellent listening. It’s just a shame I have to speak so highly of the A/V side of things in light of everything else.
There are also optional English subtitles but I recommend just making up your own dialogue as you go along.
Accompanying director, Andrew Orjuela is Rod Peters (senior marketing manager) and Mark Williams (executive in charge of production). They start off by welcoming us to Hell and funnily enough I really did feel like I was there. From here there’s a little discussion about how authentic Sweden looks which gives it an apparent “epic” feel. Somehow the director thinks the actors involved sound like true thespians or something, even some actors with theatre backgrounds were involved. But as we know, directing theatre actors is a whole different ballgame and from what I’ve seen and heard they’re often prone to overdoing things, just like here, but then there are quite a few ADV voice artists who come from similar backgrounds, fact is their talents are wasted here. Orjuela carries the commentary with little input from Williams and Peters, who just seem to ask really odd questions throughout, though their best one is when they ask about Polito’s input. We learn that Polito re-wrote Lady Death’s origin for the adaptation and the rest was left in ADV’s hands. Come on guys, Macek did not write a “stunning, epic script”. These kinds of commentaries are hard to listen to, as if the speakers are deluded by their own product. At no point do they see what’s wrong with the film and even the terrible transition from Hope to Lady Death is praised, when in reality it’s a hopeless piece of animation that is actually meant to span seven years. I better stop there or else ADV won’t be sending me a Christmas card this year.
Visions of Hell
“Hellscape” (4:00) - This is a collection of conceptual art for the films’ backgrounds that comprises of multiple angles, played out to Bill Brown’s score.
“Minions” (4:02) - In a similar format we see character designs, starting with Lady Death who initially looked very different to the final product. This goes through several stages, from pencil sketches to colour painting. There are also designs for Cremator, Lucifer, Pagan and demon guards.
Animating Death (21:31)
I’m not sure why Executive Director, Young Hwan-sang and the rest of the Korean animators are dubbed here but they are...badly. Imagine you were talking to a foreigner who spoke hardly any English and that you had to speak slowly as if talking to a child. That’s how this comes across, it’s very tedious. But onto the content...The director talks about Lady Death’s spirituality and trying to capture that on screen. We then get a little information from the art producer before meeting Andrew Orjuela, who talks about trying to stay true to the comic but also maintaining some originality. We learn that Japanese animators designed some characters which ultimately weren’t used (as they didn’t look close enough to the comic version) but looked nice anyway. So we learn a bit about various characters before moving on to the location designs and how Hell itself would be animated. In the end we’re reminded how different an adapted animated film is to a comic book, yet one can’t help but feel these sentiments are covering up the fact that the film is bad. Orjuela finishes up by leaving us with the prospects of sequels or a television series. Nooooooooo!
Trailers for Neon Genesis Evangelion - Platinum, Mezzo (Finally!), Chrono Crusade and Hellsing.
As shockingly awful as this film is it‘s at least some consolation to know that ADV will get back to releasing some excellent series. Lady Death ends with the possibility of a sequel. Please don’t make any more, ADV.