Friday, 10 May 2013

The Frankenstein Experiment

Director: Sean Tretta
Writer: Sean Tretta
Producers: Sean Tretta, Tiffany Shepis, Dustin Lowry, Noah Todd
Cast: Tiffany Shepis, Scott Leet, Ed Lauter
Country: USA
Year of release: 2011
Reviewed from: screener (4Digital)

Sometimes B-movies claim a descent from a classical source that they really don’t deserve. For example, the dire Vampires vs Zombies claims to be based on J Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’ but actually has nowt in common with it except a couple of character names and the (scarcely unusual) concept of a lesbian vampire.

Or consider Bikini Frankenstein. I haven’t actually seen this Fred Olen Ray movie (though I am in the credits as ‘unit publicist’, for reasons which are unlikely to become clear again at the moment). The IMDB lists Mary Shelley as writer of the source material but I think it’s fair to say that the chasm between her 1818 novel and Fred’s 2010 film is about as wide as you could hope to see.

But here’s something a bit different. The Frankenstein Syndrome, which has been retitled The Frankenstein Experiment for its UK release, can legitimately claim to be based on Mary Shelley’s book. Not because it uses a few character names (though it does) and not because it features a stitched-together monster (which it doesn’t, although an unused stitch-face make-up features prominently on the sleeve). What this film takes from Shelley is what most Frankenstein films - good, bad or indifferent - omit. And that’s the heart of the novel.

I’m a bit of a Frankenstein buff. I first read the book when I was twelve because I had seen something saying it was the first ever science fiction novel (an argument originally proposed by Brian Aldiss in his history of the genre Billion Year Spree). I was already a hardened SF reader - Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Simak, Van Vogt, Lem - although it would be many years before my interest in Frankentales burgeoned into a serious love of horror. If anything, the most direct and immediate influence of that precociously pre-teen reading was a love of 19th century literature and to this day I very rarely read any fiction written after about 1930 at the latest.

Many years later I did my degree dissertation on Frankenstein films. Incredible to think that, even though that was as recent as the mid 1990s, I couldn’t just look stuff up on the web. There was no IMDB. All my research had to be done by ploughing through reference books looking for odd, unusual and undocumented examples of the subgenre.

One thing I discovered was that most Frankenfilms fall into one of two categories. There are the adaptations, which try to tell the story of Mary Shelley’s novel; sometimes as a historical, sometimes more contemporary. And there are the monster movies where the main point is that there’s a big, scary monster. Just occasionally along comes something like The Frankenstein Syndrome, a film as thought-provoking and thoughtful as it is violent and bloody. Powerful and disturbing, gory yet intelligent, this could be my ideal Frankenfilm.

Because it’s not about monsters. It’s not about mad scientists (though there are some scientists in it and at least one of them is a bit obsessive). This is a film made by people who have not only read but understood the novel. This is a film about parental responsibility.

That’s what Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus is about. It is about parental responsibility and filial relationships and the fact that a life created from arrogance and hubris is not the same as a life created from love. It is about the idea that, outside of procreation, the only one who can, should and did create life was the Lord God Almighty.

That’s what Frankenstein is about, not a flat-headed monster with electrodes on his neck. And it is so, so refreshing to watch a film that actually gets it.

It’s also great to watch a film where Tiffany Shepis is given a chance to really show off her acting talents. Tiff, who was also a producer, has made a lot of films in the past 15 years and, with the best will in the world, you can tell just from the titles that most of them ain’t that great. Occasionally along comes something intelligent and well-made, like NyMpha, but most of the pictures on her CV aren’t up to the level of Ivan Zuccon’s film. Heck, most of them aren’t even Chainsaw Cheerleaders.

But in this picture, Shepis really pulls off a fantastic, powerful performance. Why does an actress this good keep doing movies with titles like Kiss Your Ass Goodbye and Hoodoo for Voodoo and Zombthology? Or even - good grief - Embrace the Darkness 3 (eagerly awaited follow-up to this bunch of tat)? Anyone could be in movies like that, but a script as good as this demands a performer as good as this. And, to be fair, the whole cast here is very good indeed. There’s not a weak performance in the entire film.

Shepis is molecular biologist Elizabeth Barnes who tells the story in flashback to Special Agent Wollstonecraft (Shane Dean: Deadfall Trail, Vampegeddon) and Special Agent Godwin (Esther Ellsworth, who was a ‘vampire mother’ in something called The Lucky Guy). They are investigating her involvement with ‘the Prometheus Project’ - which was the film’s original title. So plenty of Shelley-derived names there. Barnes is in a wheelchair and wears a featureless white mask over her face and we will find out why at the end of the movie, although it probably has to do with the terrified chase through red-lit corridors which we were given as a splash-panel prologue.

Ed Lauter (whose career goes right back to The Magnificent Seven Ride and takes in the 1976 King Kong, French Connection 2, Revenge of the Nerds 2 and Starship Troopers 2) is shady billionaire Dr Walton, who is almost the last Shelley reference we’ll meet. He has financed the Prometheus Project, an illegal lab researching stem cells with the aim of developing a serum that could regenerate any organ. The spartan staff includes project leader Victoria - female form of Victor! - Travelle (Patti Tindall: The Graves, Death of a Ghost Hunter) who takes an instant dislike to Barnes and is actually described in dialogue as having a stick up her ass. Much more friendly are Travelle’s assistant Neeraj (Sebastian Kunnappilly, who played a character called Tika Masalla in a 2004 TV movie!), well-spoken surgeon William (Jonathan Northover doing a spot-on impression of Richard E Grant) and long-haired, bearded data analyst Ira (Noah Todd, also a producer).

Overseeing the project is Marcus Grone (Australian Louis Mandylor, who was a regular on the Sammo Hung TV series Martial Law) and there are various guards posted around the large, mostly empty building where the research takes place. Among these is David Doyle (Scott Leet: Dark Reel, Freeway Killer), a hulking, Irish part-time cage fighter who has formed an emotional attachment with Kima (Zena Otsuka), one of a group of young runaways kept in the basement and artificially inseminated to provide a ready supply of embryonic stem-cells.

Barnes has no idea that this is the sort of set-up she’s getting involved in. She knows it’s illegal - the end justifies the means is her argument - but she has no idea of how unethical it all is... to the point of murder. And though she may convince herself she’s working for the good of mankind, she’s also working because Walton has an emotional grip over her, having treated her late mother for cancer. The other scientists are similarly in debt.

Just as Barnes’ radical ideas come to potential fruition (discussed, I must say, in some very believable-sounding technobabble), an experimental subject suddenly becomes available. It’s Doyle, who was shot at point blank range when he discovered what had happened to Kima. But just because you can bring someone back from the dead, should you? Don’t push too far, your dreams are china in your hand. Don’t wish too hard because they may come true and you can’t help them.You don’t know what you might have set upon yourself.

Initially a vegetable, the revived Doyle learns and develops at an extraordinary rate: a lovely segue goes from the patient picking his way through a Janet and John book to confidently reading aloud a very familiar text indeed. Victoria takes an almost maternal interest in Doyle while the others agonise and worry, knotted bundles of confusion, paranoia and fear, kept in place and working by the knowledge that Grone shot Doyle in cold blood and he could do the same to them.

And then they realise that Doyle is more than just reanimated or revived, he is reborn. In playing God, they have created more than a man, they have created a being as powerful as the Son of God. As every parent realises, when their body wizzens in their children’s prime, that which has been created is no longer in thrall to the creator. Only it all normally takes a bit longer to happen than a week.

It would have been incredibly easy to turn Doyle into a stock monster, even if he still looked human. But he is something more than that. Of all the Frankenstein creations on film, the one he reminds me of most is Freddie Jones in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, another film which treated the creation as a person, not a monster. But Doyle eschews the pathos of Jones’ Dr Brandt. Instead, he gradually, inexorably develops his mental, physical and supra-physical abilities while the terrified scientists find themselves trapped in a situation much worse than they could ever have imagined. Things get violent and very bloody but not gratuitously so. If Doyle was more obviously scary he wouldn’t be so terrifying. Leet gives a magnificently restrained performance that makes his character far more Frankensteinian than any number of shuffling, stitched-together cadaver-collections.

And it all leads inevitably towards that prologue and then to the framing story and the wheelchair and the mask.

This is terrific stuff. The Frankenstein Experiment/Syndrome is one of the best indie horror films I’ve seen for quite a while, to the extent that I actually watched it again before writing this review - and I don’t do that often. If it was just a frightening horror film, it would be pretty good. If it was just an exploration of the underlying themes of Shelley’s novel, the ones that most people don’t realise are there, it would be interesting. But by managing to hit both targets, this film stakes a claim as something a bit special.

Shepis, Leet and the others are terrific but the main driving force here is writer-director Sean Tretta, who has made four or five films, depending on how you count them. He started in 2003 with The Greatest American Snuff Film, then progressed to Death of a Ghost Hunter (which I have on disc somewhere and now really want to watch). Next came The Death Factory: Bloodletting and most recently, for some reason, a remake of The Greatest American Snuff Film.

Tretta and Shepis (who also gets a curious ‘Kima stunt double’ credit) share a four-way producer role with Noah Todd (who died in 2010; the film is dedicated to his memory) and Dustin Lowry. Joe Ricci (who turns up late on as Walton’s enforcer Cyrus) and Eric Weston were executive producers. Weston and Tretta together take credit for some very fine editing indeed, complementing Eve Cohen’s excellent cinematography (using the Red camera) which makes full use of coloured gels once all hell breaks loose. Many shots in the dialogue scenes trim the tops of actors’ heads: medium-tight close-ups that emphasise the claustrophobia of this enclosed world.

The supporting cast includes Josh Bingenheimer (Feral Instinct) as Barnes’ brother, Kristina Wayborn (Octopussy) as their mother, David C Hayes (Blood Orgy of the Damned, Vampire Slayers, Ron Ford’s Deadly Scavengers) as a lawyer and Michael Tassoni (The Realm) as a priest. Quin Davis (Necromentia) provided make-up effects. According to the IMDB, Darrin Ramage from Brain Damage Films is credited as ‘medical technical advisor’!

Interestingly, the UK release of The Frankenstein Experiment (through 4Digital) predates the US release of The Frankenstein Syndrome (through MTI) by two months - which will probably bug anyone obsessed with what the ‘correct’ title is. Even more pointlessly trivial is that Larry Fessenden’s 1991 picture No Telling was apparently called The Frankenstein Syndrome (or a translation thereof) in European territories.

And while we’re dealing with meaningless trivia, Tiffany Shepis actually made two Frankenstein films in 2010, the other being The Frankenstein Brothers - which, from the synopses I’ve read, seems to have nothing to do with Mary Shelley at all and isn’t even a horror movie. Her other 2010 credits include crime thriller Cyrus (with Danielle Harris and Lance Henriksen), She Wolf Rising (with Debbie Rochon), Beg (with Rochon, Tony Todd and Michael Berryman), Sickle (with Kane Hodder), The Black Box (with - wow, here’s a pairing I never thought I’d see - Sid Haig and Jim Tavaré!) and heavy rock horror flick Neowolf (with no-one you’ve ever heard of). She's a busy, busy lady and, at time of typing, is preparing to return to Italy to work with Ivan Zuccon (and Debbie Rochon) on Wrath of the Crows.

Wholeheartedly recommended for those who like their horror movies with brains behind them as well as splattered everywhere within them - and featuring quite possibly Tiffany Shepis’ finest performance to date - The Frankenstein Whatever is everything that an indie horror film should be.

MJS rating: A
review originally posted 25th May 2011

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