Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Creep Creepersin's Frankenstein

Director: Creep Creepersin
Writer: Creep Creepersin
Producers: Creep Creepersin, Nikki Wall
Cast: James Porter, Nicole Nemeth, Kelly Kingsbury
Country: USA
Year of release: 2009
Reviewed from: VOD (HorrorInc)

When perusing obscure indie horror films, there are a couple of danger signs to watch out for. One is a possessory credit. In marketing terms, it means something if this particular New Nightmare belongs to Wes Craven, or if John Carpenter is prepared to accept personal responsibility for these Ghosts of Mars. But a film you’ve never heard of that was made by a person you’ve never heard of? Who cares? That’s just vanity.

The other warning signal is an obvious, quirky but not actually funny, horror-related pseudonym; an, if you will, ‘spookonym‘. What’s wrong with the name your parents gave you? And if your parents were Mr and Mrs Carpenter and named you Johnny and you want to avoid confusion (if only to make it clear that you are not to blame for Ghosts of Mars), well there are plenty of distinctive but sensible sounding names to choose from.

These two elements don’t always indicate that what you are about to watch is a piece of ultra-low-budget, me-and-my-mates, self-indulgent crap. But they are red flags of which you should beware.

Which brings us to Creep Creepersin’s Frankenstein.

I first became aware of Mr Creepersin last year when I was writing my review of Ivan Zuccon's Wrath of the Crows and I noted that Domiziano Arcangeli had appeared in a number of films by this director (albeit not this one). Given that Creepersin’s 40+ credits include such cheap-jack exploitative title as Orgy of the Damned, The Brides of Sodom, Awesome Girl Gang Street Fighter, Alien Babes in Heat, Caged Lesbos A-Go-Go and, ahem, Vaginal Holocaust, I really was expecting this film to be unashamed, unadulterated, unapologetic - and quite possibly unwatchable - trash. But I’m a sucker for Frankenstein movies and it’s available on VOD on HorrorInc for 75p, and I had 55 minutes to spare, so what the heck?

Let me clarify that first point. I love Frankenstein movies. Larry love ‘em. They fascinate me. I’ll never knowingly turn down a chance to watch a new Frankenstein film. Some people love slasher movies, some are obsessive zombie fans. For some folks it’s vampire or werewolves or kaiju or whatever. For me, it’s Frankie and his pals.

And one of the interesting things about Frankenstein films is that they are very, very difficult to do. Sure, you can go the gothic historical route if you have the budget. Or you can laugh it up and spoof the whole idea in some way. But a serious, modern-day Frankenstein story is a very difficult thing indeed to pull off. Pretty much the only good one I’ve seen in recent years was Sean Tretta’s The Frankenstein Experiment/Syndrome. That one worked but, with the best will in the world, John R Hand’s Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare is incomprehensible and that 2007 BBC version from Jed Mercurio was all over the shop.

The inherent problem is that the Frankenstein story is both a science fiction tale and a gothic romance. There’s room in the world for medical science fiction, of course. And gothic romances can still work if they rely on magic and mystery, which is why vampires and werewolves don’t go away. But it’s 200 years since cutting edge science was in a sufficiently rudimentary state that it could effectively meld with the gothic romance genre. Modern medical experiments are neither gothic nor romantic and trying to squeeze the two genres together, especially within the limitations of a well-established story, is a very, very difficult thing to do. Lean too far either way and you’re no longer a Frankenstein film in anything but name.

All of which preamble does indeed lead me to discussion of the motion picture entitled Creep Creepersin’s Frankenstein and to the revelation that this is, in fact, a very good film. Despite all the warning signs, despite the inherent difficulties of this particular subgenre, despite my own low expectations, I was captivated by this and I’m not ashamed to say that it is one of the best Frankenstein films I have watched for a long time. Let me clarify that: not one of the best films about Frankenstein - clearly there are many better (though also some worse) - but one of the best uses of Frankenstein ideas and tropes in a film.

So I loved this for its originality and the brilliant way it did something radical and new with the Frankenstein subgenre. I also loved it because it is grim, bleak and wrist-slashingly depressing - and that’s the sort of horror movie I enjoy. Don’t come here looking for gore and splatter. Certainly don’t come here looking for lurching monsters. But if your idea of a good time is an hour-long study in mental illness interspersed with clips from classic horror films, brother you’ve come to the right place.

James Porter stars as Victor, a lonely, middle-aged guy without apparent friends or family, or job. He lives in a small apartment on a farm in Hicksville somewhere, his only companion a white rat named Frankenstein. Victor has what we might term learning difficulties, and we are left to decide for ourselves whether his awkwardness and stilted mannerisms have contributed to his social isolation or have resulted from it in some way. In what is apparently his only screen role, Porter is absolutely terrific, bringing real sympathy to the pathos of Victor’s sad existence.

The one human being with whom he has any contact is a neighbour, Shelly (Nicole Nemeth), who is actually his landlord (I didn’t pick up on that but there is a clue). In one of several innovative and effective directorial decisions, all of Shelly’s dialogue is played backwards on the soundtrack. Victor hears and understands her and the two converse normally, but the garbled pseudo-speech we hear underlines Victor’s alienation from even his single point of contact with the rest of the world.

Every day in Victor’s life is the same. He rises, cleans his teeth, subsists on a diet of scrambled eggs, talks to Frankenstein and watches old horror movies. We see this two or three times. In fact one of the first scenes in the film, after a five-minute title sequence, is a single locked-off shot of Victor cleaning his teeth for more than a minute (when we all know you should scrub for at least two...). At first sight this seems like padding, the work of an incompetent director who doesn’t even understand how to edit a scene together. As I waited for the camera to cut away, I pondered how other film-makers could show a person’s entire morning routine with a handful of one-second shots: alarm, shave, breakfast, teeth, dressed, out the door. Sorted,.

But Creepersin doesn’t want to be conservative or succinct with his storytelling. The whole point of sticking with the mundane scene of dental hygiene is to let us witness the mundanity of Victor’s life. And the reason it’s repeated later is to emphasise the repetitiveness of Victor’s life. We see him clean his teeth, we see him feed his rat, we see him eat his scrambled eggs, we see him watch his old movies - because that is all he does. That is his life. And he’s not really aware enough to try and break out of this. But he is lonely. And haunted too.

Not literally, but by visions of his mother (seen only from the back, played by the director’s spookonymous wife, Mrs Creep), an overweight sack of hate who hurls homophobic abuse at Victor because he let his father sexually abuse him.

Victor’s only relief from all this is a succession of flickering images: scratchy prints of old horror films on his TV, all of them public domain for obvious reasons. We see clips from Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, White Zombie, Night of the Living Dead, the silent Phantom of the Opera, the silent Hunchback of Notre Dame and Carnival of Souls. The actual Frankenstein mythos is represented by two early 1950s telecasts. One is Tales of Tomorrow, in which we see John Newland as Victor Frankenstein in the creation scene but not Lon Chaney Jr as the monster (this show was the infamous incident when Chaney was so drunk he thought the live broadcast was a rehearsal and was careful not to smash any of the break-away props). The other clip is Chaney in full Universal get-up dancing with Lou Costello in The Colgate Comedy Hour.

From watching these clips, which are cleverly selected to intercut with and reflect Victor’s own actions and feelings, and from a voice in his head (played by the director) which he believes to be his rat speaking, Victor gets the idea to create a bride for himself. Next thing we know, he has the bloodied corpse of a young woman laid out on his couch. Her name is Mary, so our three named (human) characters are Mary, Shelly and Victor. Which reminds me that another danger sign inappropriate in this case is in-joke character names.

We don’t actually see how Victor came by Mary until later, in a scarlet-tinted flashback (yet another unconventional but thoroughly sound directorial choice). What we do see is Victor denying to Shelly that he has seen the missing young woman, and then setting about re-animating her. For reference he uses a copy of Gray’s Anatomy (which he owns, somewhat improbably) and a hardback copy of The Annotated Frankenstein. I didn’t get a great look at this but I think it was the 1977 edition published by Clarkson N Potter, edited by Leonard Wolf.

Here’s where the film really gets clever. Of course he doesn’t reanimate Mary. He can’t do that, he’s just a socially awkward loner in a grubby, untidy apartment whose only companions are a pet rat and a hallucination of his abusive mother. Plus, reanimating dead people is impossible.

But a significant part of this film takes place inside Victor’s broken mind. So instead of sewing Mary together, he draws the stitches onto her skin with a magic marker. This is a startling and audacious move by Creepersin but it bloody works. It tells us exactly what is happening in Victor’s head and shifts the already compelling film up a gear as we wonder what will happen next.

What happens next is that Mary is living once again, drawn-on stitches and all, but because Victor only understands love through his crackly old PD films, especially the silents like Hunchback and Phantom, Mary herself appears in a scratchy sepia world, communicating through intertitles. This is a conceit which in anyone else’s hands would have been a gag. God knows a silent pastiche like this has been used for comedy plenty of times, but here it’s just another facet of Victor’s increasingly disturbed reality. There is even one superb shot where Mary’s sepia, silent existence and Victor’s physical world share the screen.

But there is a problem. Mary is not the loving girlfriend Victor desires, not the kind companion, not his Esmerelda but his Christine, immediately negative in her attitude towards him. Victor has no concept, outside of those flickering frames on TV, of what a real woman is like. Shelly is alien to him so that his only notion of womanhood is his mother and before too long Mary and Mother are laughing together at his expense, driving Victor further and further away from reality and deeper into a black hatred.

What I particularly love here is that this is a perfect retelling of the essence of the Frankenstein story: the creator rejected by his creation. Just like his namesake, Victor has hubristically sought to create a human but has not thought ahead to what would happen once that human has freedom. He has assumed loyalty towards himself but finds rejection from one who did not ask to be made. That’s the essence of the story. The whole original novel is encapsulated in the quote from Paradise Lost which appears on the frontispiece: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay. To mould me Man, did I solicit thee. From darkness to promote me?” That’s Mary Shelley’s novel right there in 21 words. And that’s Creepersin’s film story too.

In fact this is doubly apposite because in creating a female companion for himself, Victor is also reflecting the later part of the story when Shelley’s hero, hidden away from the world on a remote Scottish isle, sets to making a female companion for his first brute creation who is pathetically lonely and seeks only a mate. This aspect of the film has just dawned on my as I write. Honestly, with every paragraph, my admiration for this little film grows.

One more thing that impressed me was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it close-up, after we have seen Mary drinking coffee and smoking, of an untouched coffee cup and cigarette on Victor’s table. That’s the cold harsh reality of Victor’s physical world right there, but it is barely touched on because we see this story through Victor’s mind and he is almost entirely detached from cold hard reality. He does not acknowledge the unfilled cup, the unsmoked cigarette, yet he has provided them explicitly for his imaginary companion, like a little girl playing tea party with her dolls. What makes this absolutely perfect is that Victor tells Mary he himself doesn’t smoke. Has he found a cigarette somewhere, specially for her? Has he made it himself by rolling up a piece of paper? It doesn’t really matter, what matters is the storytelling and the characters and what we see happening inside and outside of Victor’s head at the same time.

This is masterful storytelling, and the fact that it’s being told in a film which gives every impression to the casual viewer of being a tuppeny-ha’penny piece of crap, of having been made for next to nothing in, according to Creepersin, only a day and a half, just makes it all the more impressive.

Creep Creepersin’s Frankenstein is a bleak, thankless hour spent in the bleak, thankless world of Victor as his misguided attempt to create a semblance of a normal life falls apart under the weight of his own paranoia. I loved it! There’s no happy ending, but nor is there a tragic one, it’s just more bleakness and thanklessness and it completes the story (inasmuch as it will ever be complete). This is one of those films where, after the closing credits, one has to sit still for a while and consider what one has seen. It put me in mind of another obscure on-line marvel, Joe Wheeler’s extraordinary The Rise of Jengo, not least through the magnificent performance of James Porter who is entirely without reservation in his sometime very physical portrayal of a descent from madness, a descent from a glimmer of optimism and self-content, into a deeper madness riddled with angst and anger, fear and loathing.

The credits are pretty much limited to Creepersin, Mrs Creep and their associate AL Smith who appears briefly on screen as Mary’s companion. Creepersin self-released the film on DVD in May 2009 and it is now available on various VOD sites including Amazon and Daily Motion.

According to his Wikipedia page (which needs updating), Creepersin is a Californian musician who formed a sort of garage-goth-punk band - called Creepersin, naturally - in 2004, since when they have released a couple of albums and some other stuff. He has also recorded some solo stuff and, with Mrs Creep, one album as The Sci-Fi Originals. From what I can gather, most of his songs are related to or inspired by old horror movies. After a number of short films and music videos, Frankenstein was his first long-form movie (it’s not quite a feature).

I really don’t know whether Creepersin set out to make the brilliant film he has ended up with. I don’t even know whether he realises what he has created, but that doesn’t matter. It would be the final superb irony if what many people (to judge by IMDB/Amazon comments) consider to be a hideous monster of a film actually took on a life of its own, beyond what its creator envisaged.

Perhaps this was all intentional. Perhaps if I were to explore Creepersin’s filmography further I would find that Caged Lesbos A-Go-Go is a sensitive tale of a gay woman’s sexual awakening, that Awesome Girl Gang Street Fighter is a harrowing exposé of inner city teenage violence, that Alien Babes in Heat is... no, I’m really not sure what Alien Babes in Heat could be if it’s not a trashy exploitation picture about sex-mad space-women. Frankly, even if everything else that Creep Creepersin has ever made is utter shit, that doesn’t detract from the achievement that is Creep Creepersin’s Frankenstein; if anything, it makes this film all the more remarkable.

Maybe he peaked early in his cinematic endeavours, but in any case Creepersin continues to bang out films at a prodigious rate, several each year. Recent productions have included Zombie Dollz, Satanicus, a remake of White Zombie with Creepersin himself as Murder Legendre, and Frankenstein’s Bride. This last appears to have no connection with the film under review but does feature some actors who have been in real episodes of real TV series and even in some films I have heard of (not seen, but at least heard of). Creepersin seems to be building up quite the rep company around himself.

So: Creep Creepersin’s Frankenstein. I am fully aware that this film is not everybody’s cup of tea. But if you have an open mind, if you seek something different from standard video fare, different even from the oft-times formulaic crap which believes itself to be different, if you want to be both amazed and depressed for 55 minutes, if you want to get some idea of the tortures which can go on inside the mind of a lonely soul, if you want to see a Frankenstein film which is thematically closer to what Mary Shelley wrote than a dozen lurching monsters - then seek out a copy today.

Please note: this review is not a spoof. I really, genuinely do think that this is an awesome film. It is the discovery of hidden gems like this which makes wading through all the shit worthwhile.

MJS rating: A

1 comment:

  1. ARcangeli also appeared in Norwegiansploitation The Norwegian http://www.imdb.com/search/title?&title=norwegian&title_type=feature,video