Vibrations is the most batshit crazy rave movie you’ve never seen

No one could blame you if you hadn’t heard of Vibrations. This low-budget 1996 melodrama with sci-fi elements set on New York’s rave scene went straight to video, and has hardly been heard from since. For good reason: it’s… bad.

And, sadly, not a camp classic, an over-the-top feast of the awesomely awful (like, say, Showgirls), but just lame and amazingly inept. Only its status as a strange artefact of ’90s electronic music culture keeps its memory alive, whispered from one person to the next: “Uhhh, have you seen this??”

Is it worth watching? Depends on how entertained you are by films this daggy and poorly done. Its awkwardness is almost charming. And there’s no question it’s definitely one of the best films about a homeless techno producer with cybernetic hands ever made.

“It’s definitely one of the best films about a homeless techno producer with cybernetic hands ever made”

Though it was made in and is set in the mid-’90s, the experience of watching Vibrations actually reminds me of the ’80s so much I can almost feel my hair forming into a mullet. It’s exactly the sort of excruciatingly bad fare you ended up watching on downmarket cable channels late on a Friday night when you were bored out of your adolescent mind and there was literally nothing else to do.

It probably already felt jarringly dated when it was released, thanks to shockingly low production quality. The characters all look, talk and dress like they’re in an ’80s TV show that was cancelled before it aired, with a cheap synth score to match.

It’s impossible to recap the plot of Vibrations with a straight face. T.J. Cray (that’s seriously his name) is an all-American kid from a sleepy town in Pennsylvania who has a loving dad and a sweet girlfriend and is on the verge of hitting it big with his comically bad rock band. One night while driving to a gig in Philly he’s chased and assaulted by a gang of toughs and suffers a horrific fate: his hands are severed by an excavator. (Yep.)

“It’s impossible to recap the plot of Vibrations with a straight face”

Devastated by no longer being able to play music, he flees to New York, where he ends up homeless and alcoholic, barely able to pick up the change he panhandles with his prosthetic hands.

He ends up stumbling into a rave in a warehouse, where he meets an artist named Anamika. She takes him home to her cool artist’s loft and introduces him to a motley crew of cyber hippies, artists and genius computer programmers. They encourage T.J. to kick the booze, teach him to rave on and, in a sci-fi twist, fashion a pair of cybernetic metal hands that allow him to play and compose music. (It turns out they’re also good for making milkshakes and, uh, lovemaking.)

Soon (in one week that is) T.J. is transformed into… wait for it… Cyberstorm! With his new secret identity, he performs techno in a metal mask and suit, like a cross between Iron Man and M.F. DOOM, and becomes a huge star on the rave scene nationwide, getting top billing over the likes of the Utah Saints and Sven Väth. (It should be noted this film was released well ahead of Daft Punk’s first use of their robot masks, so props for that.)

Vibrations stars two well-known TV actors of the era: Twin Peaks heartthrob James Marshall as T.J. and Christina Applegate as Anamika. Marshall’s performance is so wooden and unintentionally funny it’s hard to recall what made him seem so cool in Twin Peaks. Applegate, on the other hand, is great as ever. She lends a weightiness and a restraint to the material it hardly deserves. When she’s onscreen the film almost works, even when it requires her to look pensive while caressing a prosthetic hand or recite dialogue like, “I’d rather explore the space inside my brain.”

“If you’re thinking, holy crap I gotta see this! you might be disappointed”

If you’re thinking, holy crap I gotta see this! you might be disappointed. Despite the batshit plot and cyberpunk elements that have you hoping it’s going to be some take on RoboCop set at a rave, it’s weird how painfully earnest and flat it is.

With its clumsy romance and sentimentality and goofy efforts to depict Gen-X cool, it’s like it’s trying to be a cyber Reality Bites when it should be going for a Buffy the Vampire Slayer level of intentional camp and OTT fun. It just doesn’t go far enough with anything. You want T.J.’s cyber hands to turn him into a superhero or mad villain – you want maniacal laughter, explosions, delicious weirdness, but T.J. mixing a milkshake is about as wild as it gets. The sex scene is absurdly tender when it should be hilarious and kinky.

There are bizarre gaps in the story that make it seem like they just ran out of money to film all the scenes. Some scenes are filmed so badly you can’t figure out what’s going on, like when T.J. inexplicably collapses under the weight of a pile of T-shirts on a dancefloor. The FX are so low-grade you can sometimes see Marshall holding up his fake hands with his sleeves, like a kid playing a prank. Anamika’s clownish loftmates are like a failed Friends audition.

Despite all this, they somehow get the clubbing scenes right. Well, sort of.

The weekly party that Anamika works at and where Cyberstorm becomes a star seems to be patterned on NASA, New York’s seminal techno and rave weekly that closed in 1993. I lived and partied in New York throughout that era, and while the happy hardcore that plays over the soundtrack is cheesy and generic and there’s some pretty embarrassing commentary by the characters, it’s otherwise kind of accurate if you blur your eyes, especially because the extras are recognisably real ravers. Among the real artists who appear in the film are Dutch-American techno group Fierce Ruling Diva. But these scenes are limited compared to the lame comedy and romance and it’s all too fleeting.

Cyberstorm’s music, on the other hand, is awful, beyond generic, like techno made to play over the credits of a football broadcast, but not as catchy. Like so much else about Vibrations, it’s frustrating how bad it is and at the same time how it isn’t bad enough.

Jim Poe is a writer, DJ, and editor based in Sydney. He tweets from @fivegrand1.