Thursday, 6 October 2016


Director: Steve Franke
Writer: Steve Franke
Producer: Jason Kabolati
Cast: Derek Phillips, David H Hickey, Dennis O’Neill
Country: USA
Year of release: 2006
Reviewed from: screener

There aren’t enough mad scientists in films nowadays. Sure, there are plenty of monsters, some of them even caused by science gone awry, but the human villains are either violent psychos or blinkered, megalomaniac authority figures. When was the last time you saw a film with a lone researcher in a well-equipped lab working on something that could save the world but which actually ends up threatening his loved ones?

Step forward Steve Franke’s Serum, a generally entertaining, well-crafted slice of mad scientist hokum. Bravo.

David H Hickey (Sin City) is Dr Edward Kanopoulos (or somesuch spelling - he’s credited as ‘Dr K’), a former MD who resigned his hospital work to concentrate on research into finding a cure for - well, it’s not really specified. ‘Being disabled’ seems to be the closest.

Long before the film starts, Edward and his brother Richard (Dennis O’Neill, who does anime voices), who is also an MD, loved the same woman. She married Richard, got hurt in a car accident and Edward was determined to find a way to restore her, ah, lack of disability. But she died anyway.

Now Edward works alone in a large, well-funded place somewhere with a sole assistant, slightly creepy looking Marx (Kevin Squires: Shroud), but plenty of armed security guards whose sole concession to a uniform is to all wear tight-fitting black T-shirts. Being a Mad Scientist, Edward has discovered that injecting brain fluid from healthy people into the physically disabled can cure them. He just needs to get the finer details right.

Richard meanwhile has remarried, to a blonde lush named Norma (Shawn Kurz) who wants her stepson Eddie (Derek Phillips: Friday Night Lights) to call her ‘Mom’. Eddie is finishing at college and has been accepted into medical school. But he has temporarily broken up with the love of his life, Sarah (executive producer Lizabeth Cardenas). Sarah is off to law school but for the moment works in a late-night diner run by single mum Kara (Betheny Zolt: Camp Blood, Alien Arsenal) and is dating aggressive meathead Trey (David Ford: A Stranger Within). Eddie’s best pal is Walt (Bill Sebastian, writer/director of sci-fi short Robots are Blue among others), a likeable part animal who is jealous that Eddie has (a) a hot stepmum and (b) a neighbour who is a millionairess widow with huge fake breasts and a penchant for sunbathing topless (Leslie Caples).

When Eddie is badly injured in a car accident, Edward persuades Richard to let him take the young man out of hospital and off to his research lab where he might be able to save him. He calls in a prostitute to provide the brain fluid and sets to work. But the experiment goes wrong - quelle surprise - so that although Eddie regains the use of his limbs, he also turns into a monster.

Well, I say monster. A mixture of fixed prosthetics and bladder effects alter Eddie’s face to something slightly acromegalic and he escapes, although he later returns to normal when he looks sadly through the diner window at Sarah. The implication seems to be that he has a sort of uncontrollable on-off , Jekyll-and-Hyde thing going on.

Eddie kills his stepmother, bringing the police in. Meanwhile, Richard and Sarah realise that something is up because the former is convinced that Eddie is lying in a research lab, badly injured while the latter is sure she saw him at the diner. They investigate the lab, are accused of murder but then exonerated when another death is reported (it’s actually Kara, though no connection is made by the cops). Then they and the local Sheriff (Lawrence Varnado: The Prodigy, The Last Tomorrow) hightail it over to a student party where Eddie is on his way to presumably kill Trey, unaware that Sarah has already dumped the big gorilla.

There’s a really bad moment here where all the kids at the party run away screaming - before Eddie has done anything. He hasn’t attacked anyone, he hasn’t killed anyone, there’s not even any indication that he has been seen by anyone. In fact, I wondered whether the kids might be too young to be drinking and they’re all running away from the Sheriff. Although that seems unlikely, given how loud they’re screaming.

Anyway, Eddie gets shot and, ah, 24 hours later I can’t even recall how the film actually ends. Truth be told, it goes downhill once we get to the third act, with monster Eddie. The stuff with his dad and his girlfriend is okay and even the Sheriff has an actual character. It’s ironic that, because most of the film is pretty good, the formulaic monster stuff is the least interesting part of the film.

In fact, there’s a question of how monstrous Eddie actually is. He is mostly presented in these scenes as a wild, subhuman thing but when he attacks his stepmother he comes out with a sub-Freddie wisecrack, indicating that he knows precisely who he is and what he’s doing, even if Mr Hyde is currently in control. Interestingly, I found a mention of the film’s shoot, around Dallas in August 2005 when it was still called Young Eddie, which describes it as ‘a modern day twist on the famed story of Dr Jekyl (sic) and Mr Hyde.’ But the whole Jekyll/Hyde thing is lost because ‘young Eddie’ only turns bad near the end and that side of the story is basically crammed into a few shots inbetween the frankly more interesting story of Richard and Sarah.

Nevertheless, for combining old-fashioned Mad Scientist hoopla with decent production values and a good cast, for mixing interesting, sympathetic characters with a plot that develops and explores those characters without getting bogged down in soap opera - I have to give Serum props for that.

Although written and directed by Steve Franke, who seems to have subsequently disappeared, the motive force behind the film appears to have been producer Jason Kabolati whose other credits include Pendulum, Rain and The Fallen as well as some reality TV series. Cinematographer/editor Clay Liford also shot From the Dark and Blood on the Highway, as well as writing and directing the sci-fi feature Earthling. Production designer Eric Whitney worked on Hallow’s End, Suburban Nightmare and The Adventures of Young Van Helsing. Joshua Fread (Dead in Texas, After Sundown) provided the special effects make-up.

Released by Brain Damage at the start of 2007, Serum was one of six films chosen to kick off the UK branch of that label in September 2009. And check out the bitchin’ Thai sleeve!

MJS rating: B+
Review originally posted 10th September 2009

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