BR: Hardcore (1979)

August 29, 2017 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  August 16, 2016

Genre:  Drama

Synopsis: A religious father travels to California in search of his daughter who may have become involved with a porn outfit.

Special Features: Audio Commentary #1: writer-director Paul Schrader / Audio Commentary #2: film historians Eddy Friedland, Lee Pfeiffer, and Paul Scrabo / Isolated Mono Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




After making his screenwriting debut with The Yakuza (1974), Paul Schrader crafted a trio of cult classics – Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Brian De Palma’s Obsession (1976), and John Flynn’s Rolling Thunder) – and soon branched out into directing with the drama Blue Collar (1978).

Over the subsequent decades, Schrader’s continued to pen scripts and sometimes directed works by other screenwriters, but as he states in his excellent commentary on Twilight Time’s Blu-ray edition, some of his projects contain autobiographical elements, and as implausible as it may seem, Hardcore, his riff on John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) set in the world of porn, is filled with them.

The screenplay was also inspired by a story in which a girl traveled to California from her staunch Dutch Calvinist community in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and got lost in the sleazy world of hardcore porn. This undoubtedly fascinated Schrader, not only because it involved someone from his home town and similar religious upbringing, but the collisions of moral and cultural extremes.

Schrader describes his story as pious man (a character patterned after his own father) forced to take the journey into Dante’s Inferno to rescue his daughter, losing himself in the process, and becoming terminally scarred with the horrors he’s touched, smelled, and fended off. To find clues to his daughter’s appearance, the father must become a pretender, embrace the sleaze of a San Diego’s porn hub tailored to visiting sailors, and posture like a loaded amateur producer to gain contacts and eventually penetrate an intimate inner circle of scumbags involved in the worst type of porn.

Jake VanDorn (George C. Scott) is a decent yet flawed man glued to his faith, blind to the teenage turmoil within daughter Kristen (Ilah Davis), but he’s also a successful businessman in his community, and an emerging elder of the VanDorn clan. His brother-in-law Wes DeJong (underrated Dick Sargent) manages a celery farm, and the community as a whole shuns TV, non-religious music, and no movies – elements also mined from Schrader’s youth in which he didn’t see a movie until his twenties.

When a call from California alerts Jake that his daughter’s disappeared, he travels with Wes to the west coast and hires a sleazy private detective after the police essentially shrug their shoulders and point to a cork board bearing myriad photos of lost daughters. P.I. Andy Mast (instant scene-stealer Peter Boyle) is blunt and profane, but the two men from Grand Rapids realize he may be their best resource to finding and rescuing Kristen (or conversely, the best con artist around).

Mast’s legwork quickly yields a roll of film which he screens for Jake in a local porn cinema, injecting the first vial of poison into the Calvinist’s system, as father watches daughter perform fleshy atrocities. Jake’s breakdown formed a key moment in the film’s trailer and was later repurposed in hysterical memes, so it’s initially tough to watch the scene straight, but Scott’s very potent breakdown is believable as a man self-forced to witness evil so that he knows the full extent of depravity that’s torn into his insulated world.

Jake’s morality is so tight that he soon fires Mast and takes on the search for Kristin solo, perhaps driven by the logic that if he can run a furniture company manned by a substantive staff, finding his own daughter has to be possible, but several attempts to show Kristin’s picture to pimps and prostitutes just gets him beat up. Too proud to take Wes’s aide – and maybe too humiliated to reveal to him the environs he’s crawled into and the porn makers he’s approached – Jake sends him off, and chooses to improvise.

He becomes an auto parts manufacturer flush with cash wanting an easy return from porn, and eventually his meetings bring him up close to a performer, spunky Niki, who splits her time and services between film shoots and peep shows. A cash offer launches an unlikely pairing between a desperate father and a young woman who seems to have sympathy for Jake, and in Schrader’s subtext, wants a parental figure to ease her away from a crappy life.

What could’ve been maudlin and melodramatic unravels in a peculiar series of discussions between a man governed by a peculiar theology, and a woman who questions and critiques, but without anger or ridicule from either party. The Schrader of today may regard the exchanges as didactic and the work of a sophomoric writer, but they’re rather beautiful character moments that contextualize without music montages, sordid backstories or sudden misadventures; it’s respectful disagreement between two distinct generations and cultures, and also shows Jake’s awareness that the TULIP credo he describes sounds a little nutty, but bears the dogma he can’t abandon.

Both Yakuza and Taxi Driver deal initially with the rescue of a young girl enveloped by dangerous elements within different cultures – the Japanese mafia, and a sleazy pimp, respectively – and contain rescue sequences where the girls survive. Hardcore retains Schrader’s fascination for culture clashes, but adds a once deeply moral man losing control of his cherished rules. In the finale, Jake literally tears through the walls of a factory of amoral behaviour to rescue his daughter, and pours pent-up rage onto the pimp and murderer who ensnared Kristin.




The studio-imposed rescue almost works – Jake’s rapprochement with Kristin in a storage locker is quick & easy, and there’s a sense both characters aren’t as scarred as Schrader had originally wanted. Equally unsatisfactory is Mast’s cartoonish firing his revolver across a busy street to kill the pimp – a moment of movie nonsense that almost defies Schrader’s attempt at slight docu-drama by filming in actual porn establishments.

Schrader’s original ending was deemed too bleak by the studio: instead of finding and rescuing Kristin, he discovers she died in a car crash; and after returning home to Grand Rapids, the first wave of tormenting nightmares begin, making it clear he’s irreparably damaged his moral centre albeit emerging physically intact from Dante’s pornographic, snuff-infested inferno.

The original ending would’ve been an interesting alternative, but vestiges of the material remain in Jake’s bedtime nightmare (a sliver of footage appears early in the film, after Kristin’s left for California), and Schrader’s deliberate echo to Robert Towne’s script for Chinatown (1974), in which Mast delivers a line similar to ‘Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.’




Scott was nominated for a Razzie Award and his performance and character are easy to satirize, and one can be amused at Jake’s wading into the world of porn production (cosmetic as it is), but it’s the film’s opening scenes in Grand Rapids that ground the film: visually and sonically the movie shifts from warm and benevolent to garish neon colours and street grime.

The change is most evident in the soundtrack: a pristine choral piece changes from ethereal to a bizarre, demented version that accompanies Jake’s literal arrival in San Diego. Jack Nitzsche used water glasses to distort the choral’s harmonics, added synths and other surreal effects to infer Jake’s hellish journey; instead of distorted visuals from the heat of Dante’s inferno, it’s all in the warping audio.

Schrader originally wanted Diana Scarwid to play Niki but Columbia wanted someone prettier, and in spite of his misgivings, Hubley is quite good in a role that could’ve been played tarty and been less resonant, especially with the heavy nudity in early scenes. Warren Beatty expressed interest in the project, but reportedly dithered too long, ultimately feeling he was too young to play a role best suited for an actor like Scott.

TV actor Gary Graham (Alien Nation) is excellent as a cautious, sleazy, indifferent purveyor of kiddie porn and snuff reels, and there’s small but memorable appearances by Bibi Besch as Jake’s promotional campaign designer, Hal Williams as peeved porn star Big Dick Blaque, prolific comedic character actor Tracey Walter as a creepy porn store clerk, plus bit parts for Reb Brown (Flash Gordon) as a bouncer and Ed Begley Jr. as a porn actor.

Schrader also explains his decision to casting Ilah Davis as Kristin, a softcore actress who was comfortable doing nude scenes, and bears a slight resemblance to Scott. Davis ‘vanished’ from film, perhaps choosing to take what must have been a decent paycheck and start a new life wholly away from the camera lens. Her dramatic scenes are brief, and Schrader’s coaching in the rescue / rapprochement between Jake and Kristin mostly works in spite of being part of the studio-mandated reshoots with cliched dialogue.

Hardcore wasn’t a big success for a director who already regarded himself as an independent filmmaker working within the studio system, so for his next pictures he chose “money movies”: the blockbuster American Gigolo (1982), and the cult horror film Cat People (1982) before delving into his passion project, Mishima (1985), co-written with brother / Yakuza co-writer Leonard Schrader.

Schrader’s work is filled with controversial topics – violence, provocative sexuality, and a bit of nihilism – but unlike colleague / executive producer John Milius (The Wind and the Lion), he continues to work as a screenwriter for hire and director-auteur; even The Canyons (2013) has a unique visual aesthetic, and is once again packed in provocative casting and graphic imagery which no studio would comfortably release.


The Extras: Twilight Time vs. Indicator

Hardcore is available on Blu-ray in two very different special editions, and I’ll sort through the merits of each with some brevity.

TT’s 2016 disc sports the Schrader commentary that’s fairly specific on the film’s production, and filled with the self-reflection of an older, wiser, more critical filmmaker who rarely looks back on prior work and thinks only of what’s next. There’s much candor on casting, especially on Scott, who had major drinking issues that sometimes put production on pause, but delivered the dramatic goods with conviction. The two didn’t get along during filming, but there was enough compelling material in the character of Jake and the changes which affect his moral innards that Scott could be precise and compelling in spite of the on-set frictions.

The secondary commentary track by film historians Eddy Friedland, Lee Pfeiffer, and Paul Scrabo contextualize the film and its maker, and the kind of productions being made by the studios when there were still producers rather than agents and lawyers at the helm. There’s surprisingly less repetition, perhaps because the second track is an ongoing discussion rather than personal recollections.

Nitzsche’s score is isolated in a mono music & effects track, since the score is very minimal and atypical, with the aforementioned choral mutations also working as sound design. Although Nitzsche died in 2000, the composer, orchestrator, producer, and music whiz is profiled in a 22 mins. excerpt (branded “Hardcore Nitzsche”) that appears on the Indicator disc from an upcoming feature-length documentary currently called Stringman by Kristian St. Clair (This is Gary McFarland).

Eccentric, composer, sound designer, music producer and to some a virtuoso, Nitzsche worked his way up from session musician to orchestrator and arranger, eventually specializing in gathering bands and songs for rock-scored films before doing some composition using highly unusual sound sources, including a bowed saw for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and bees and wine glasses for The Exorcist (1973).

Ry Cooder was one of the session musicians on Hardcore, and the extract offers a compressed series of interviews with musicians, directors, and editors who worked with Nitzsche, including John Byrum (Inserts), who worked with the composer on Heart Beat (1980) and later the large scale The Razor’s Edge (1984). Also appearing in the extracts is Buffy Sainte-Marie who was Nitzsche’s muse and later co-wrote the Oscar-winning song for An Officer and a Gentleman (1982).

Indicator’s May 22, 2017 dual BR-DVD release uses the same 4K Sony transfer and ports over TT’s isolated music & effects track, but in place of the commentary adds a great conversation with Schrader, circa 1993, for the BFI.

Moderated by The Guardian’s Derek Malcolm at the National Film Theatre, it’s a lively, funny, and frank 90 min. discussion in which the filmmaker talks about his perpetual status as an indie, working outside of the changed studio system, and some projects that fell through or were put on hold, like Affliction, which was eventually made with Nick Nolte, and is among Schrader’s best films.

Also unique to the Indicator release is a 9 mins. interview with Michael Chapman from the website where the veteran cinematographer recalls the handful of lingering memories of filming, and the revolting miasma of steeped sex that quickly turned a lurid, teasing gig for the crew into a malodorous ordeal from which they ‘did everything to avoid being on set’ unless it was necessary.

The last extras are a 23 image stills gallery, and a fat 32-page colour booklet sporting an essay by film historian Brad Stevens, and an August 1979 interview with Schrader from Focus on Film that’s interpolated with shots showing a merry director surrounded by sometimes half naked actors and pornstar Serena, who appears in the opening porn film-within-a-drama film sequence with Hubley. TT’s set sports an essay by resident film historian Julie Kirgo.

Choosing between these releases (both are limited to 3000 copies) is a tough call, as they’re fairly distinct, much in the way Arrow and Synapse often share some extras but produced additional material for their respective Region B and A markets.



The lure of studio-sanctioned tales in the furry world of smut and erotica did attract several of Hardcore’s personnel back to the genre. Composer Nitzsche scored William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) and Adrian Lyne’s box office hit 91/2 Weeks (1986).

Season Hubley co-starred in Gary Sherman’s grotty cult sexploitation film Vice Squad (1982), and although Diana Scarwid wasn’t cast as Niki, she had a small role in Louis Malle’s controversial Pretty Baby (1978) and co-starred in Anthony Perkins’ oversexed Psycho III (1986).

If Hardcore feels a bit familiar to contemporary audiences, it might be due to the Joel Schumacher suspense-drama 8mm (1999), in which Nicholas Cage plays a P.I. hired to unearth the origins of a supposedly real snuff film.

Andrew Kevin Walker’s script was reportedly overhauled by the director, but there’s a similar through-line in which the lead character plunges himself into the hellish world of forbidden porn, but with preposterous results. Two years prior, Johnny Depp directed a film version of Gregory McDonald’s novel The Brave in which a Native American offers his life to a snuff film producer (Marlon Brando) in exchange for funds that will save his community from greedy developers.

As for John Ford’s The Searchers, the story (based on a novel by Alan Le May) has inspired several variations over the decades, including the TV movie The Quest (1976), Grayeagle (1977), and supposedly The Missing (2003) and the French production Les Cowboys (2015).

Ford’s Two Rode Together (1961) is also an extrapolation of culture clashes, and a film in which he questions the concept of a rescue when the supposed kidnapped have adapted and embraced a vilified indigenous culture.

Perhaps inspired by both Ford films, James Michener’s 1963 novel Caravans was filmed in 1978, in which an American diplomat treks across Iran to find & rescue a missing daughter living with a fierce Bedouin chief (Anthony Quinn).



© 2017 Mark R. Hasan



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