Review of Scooter McCrae’s ‘Saint Frankenstein’.

81041_310x459This review originally appeared on QuietEarth.us.

I don’t think I’ve ever reviewed a short before, but this one is worthy of special attention.

Back in 1994, filmmaker Scooter McCrae wrote and directed Shatter Dead, an allegorical, micro-budget zombie film in which the living dead are presented as essentially confused and disenfranchised wanderers, as opposed to flesh-hungry monsters. It’s a rough little film, shot on video, full of ideas and arresting imagery (it won a Best Independent Film award at the 1995 Fantafestival), it’s undone only in part by an extremely limited budget and some amateurish acting, yet for me it stands as a highly creative and influential work in the world of underground video and horror.

In 1999, McCrae started on his follow-up, the sleazy, violent and downright bizarre cyberpunk thriller Sixteen Tongues. With this work, McCrae would explore the effects of overstimulation in a highly sexualised, technocratic culture; one drenched in pornographic imagery and on the brink of social collapse. Sixteen Tongues is a very difficult watch; it’s full of creative concepts and interesting characters, but casts such a grim worldview and is populated by characters so unpleasant and disaffected that it’s simply exhausting to sit down and take it all in.

McCrae’s films seem characterised by an otherworldly, uncompromisingly transgressive quality which for many is an instant turn-off (there are also the low budgets) but for me they are something special; these are raw and absolutely original films – representative of what underground cinema is all about. Once one emerges from McCrae’s world, things don’t quite look the same.

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Melanie Gaydos as the titular Saint Frankenstein.

Naturally then, it was with some excitement that I read last year that McCrae was putting together a segment for an anthology film called Betamax, and that his addition would be called Saint Frankenstein. Unfortunately that project has not yet come together as planned, but having finished his film, McCrae has decided to present it as a standalone short, and it’s genuinely very good. So, history lesson over – let’s talk about Saint Frankenstein.

Saint Frankenstein is a 17 minute two-hander starring Melanie Gaydos and Tina Krause. It takes place in a dingy hotel room where a confident and flirtatious prostitute named Carla (Krause) visits an unusual client (Gaydos), receiving far more than she bargained for in the process. What starts off as a curious conversation piece featuring a hypnotic monologue from Gaydos – playing a brutally scarred and surgically disfigured Frankenstein’s monster – shifts part way through into an almost comic book-style romp. In blending literary references with fantasy, historical fiction, pseudo-erotic body-horror, and religious imagery, this is a film that is difficult to categorise, but suffice it to say, it’s very unusual, and a lot of fun.

In terms of quality of craftsmanship it’s important to note straight away that Saint Frankenstein is a big step forward from McCrae’s previous work. The film looks terrific, the work of a real professional. The way in which it is shot, the creative design elements and the performances all come together very well here, and yet, crucially, it contains the personal touch inherent in all of McCrae’s work.

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Tina Krause as Carla.

The design and effects work by Dan Ouellette, Brian Spears and Pete Gerner is genuinely startling. Gaydos is a model and actress born with ectodermal dysplasia, a genetic condition which gives her an unusual, rather striking appearance, and in playing the character of ‘Shelley’ (an appropriate pseudonym if ever there was one) she is required to wear layers of prosthetic scars, including an autopsy scar down the middle of her chest, and stapled laceration running across the middle of her head – it’s really pretty savage. Gaydos’s performance is magnetic and downright eerie. Her character is presented initially as somewhat shy and withdrawn, but once introductions are made Shelley offers a remarkable soliloquy describing the events following the original Frankenstein story, and it’s at once compelling, chilling, and oddly heartbreaking. Although her voice is dubbed, Gaydos’s slow, deliberate movements express the pain and melancholy of her character rather beautifully. Shelley’s voice is provided by Archana Rajan, whose steady, controlled even tones manage to project a benign, almost playful quality, while at the same time feeling vaguely sinister and menacing. The film is worth seeing simply for this fantastic scene alone.

If shorts can contain a second act, then Saint Frankenstein‘s unexpected shift in tone at around the halfway mark would certainly qualify. I won’t say much for fear of spoiling the story, but following Shelley’s strange confession, a reveal – quite literal – spurs things into action, and we’re faced with a confrontation which leads to a skillfully choreographed scene of violent action. Although no stranger to shooting action, it is again apparent that McCrae has pulled out the stops here, and in terms of nuts-and-bolts direction, the denouement of Saint Frankenstein is well ahead of the rough-and-ready style of his previous films.

The film features an original score, and this warrants mention as it’s composed by the legendary Italian maestro Fabio Frizzi (Zombie Flesh Eaters, City of the Living Dead). Frizzi’s haunting synth melody perfectly captures the mood of the film, and it’s hard to imagine these images having the same impact without his atmospheric, dreamy score.

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The most satisfying element of the film for me is that it retains the hallmarks of a Scooter McCrae film (tension, unease, violence, strange and unpleasant sexual imagery, unapologetic and rampant weirdness) while building on his previous work, offering something altogether more sophisticated. If there were any complaint I could level at this work, it might be that it doesn’t approach the same social issues which so concern McCrae’s feature work. Shatter Dead, it can been argued, reflects the divide between rich and poor, quick fix cultism, and the desire for eternal youth and beauty which preoccupies western culture. Sixteen Tongues remains relevant today, prescient in its depiction of a world in which characters must use their credit cards to switch off ubiquitous screens projecting an endless loop of pornography, violence and religious propaganda, a concept well ahead of its time and one that’s been borrowed in years since by other sci-fi dystopia, including Charlie Brooker’s Black MirrorSaint Frankenstein, to its credit, is a simpler film, a brief glimpse of an alternative vision of a classic story, or as McCrae puts it, “The first chapter in an ongoing project dedicated to a modern rethink of the entire Frankenstein mythos.

If a sequel or feature adaptation is in the works – and here’s hoping that it is – we can be sure McCrae will infuse it with his typically heavyweight ideas, and if he commits to the same level of skill and care in direction as evident in Saint Frankenstein then we’re in for a real treat.

I’ve had the pleasure of trading emails with McCrae over the last few weeks, and he has generously agreed to an interview for this site, to discuss both Saint Frankenstein and his previous films. A superbly erudite and imaginative guy, it’s sure to be a fascinating read, so keep your eyes open.

Saint Frankenstein is now available to rent or buy and it is well worth the price of admission.

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Interview with Alex Cox on ‘Bill, The Galactic Hero’. (Plus, link to download full movie!)

This interview originally appeared on Quietearth.us.

Alex CoxHaving recently completed post-production on his new feature, Bill, The Galactic Hero, Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid & Nancy, Walker) is ready to release the film for free online. Adapted from Harry Harrison’s novel of the same name, and funded through Kickstarter, the project has been a collaboration between Cox and students at the University of Colorado, where Cox currently teaches production and screenwriting. Blending science-fiction with satire, it’s a micro-budget feature, shot in black and white, and incorporating Cox’s own brand of dark comedy, and politically conscious, counter-culture attitude. Having taken almost 30 years to get the film into production (studios considered it “too anti-war”) it’s fantastic that he has finally been able make the film on his own terms and without compromise, as it should be. You can read my review right here. You can also DOWNLOAD the ENTIRE FILM for FREE here.

I had the chance to talk to Alex about the film, the process of getting the book onto screen, comparisons to other sci-fi movies, working again with Iggy Pop, and little about what to expect next from this renegade director…

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Now that Bill is completed, how did you find the experience overall, and would you consider making another film in this way?

Exhausting. I can’t teach school and make a feature simultaneously again! So I will have to go back to making features and paying people.

You’re credited as writer and director on the film, but there are additional directors listed in the end credits. Given the collaborative, low-budget approach taken with Bill, would you say that you were the main creative force behind the film, or was this very much a group effort?

Harry Harrison was the main creative force behind the film! I directed most of the first act and all the third; act two and parts of act one were directed by students and recent graduates of CU. All films are group efforts; this one was no exception though the shared direction is unusual.

How did you find the experience of letting others take over direction for sections of the film? Were you quite comfortable and confident in their abilities?

It was a pleasure. We’d established a working style and pace and since they hadn’t done features before they didn’t know how fast we were going.

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University of Colorado students, filming scenes of a desert planet, at Cathedral Gorge, Nevada.

It sounds like you’ve been eager to adapt the book for quite a while. What inspired you to undertake the project now, and in this way?

Because this was an opportunity to make it. Probably the last one, since Harry died during the writing of the screenplay and I don’t think he would have given us an option thereafter!

What do you think Harrison would have made of your film now that it’s finished? Did he have ideas about how best to put it on screen?

He read two thirds of the script and gave notes, all of which were included. The return of the ‘drinky drinky’ robots was his idea. I think he would have liked the cast a lot – especially their ages. Take a look at the casualty figures for US troops in Afghanistan. Late teens to early thirties. That’s who gets to die for a meagre wage. Our cast is exactly the median age of the poor youth who get dragged into combat – 21-28 yrs old. Conventional hollywood movies cast actors who are way too old for the roles: Eastwood as a 70 year old policeman, Harrison Ford (looking really decrepit and bloated) as the captain of the space mission in Ender’s Game. If you were in the military Deathwish Drang wouldn’t look like Ernest Borgnine – she’d look live Devon Wykoff.

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On the set of ‘Bill, The Galactic Hero’.

Many fans of the source material would envisage a film adaptation as a colourful, big-budget affair. What struck me about your film was, in part, its sombre tone. Although the humour of the book, and its basic plot structure, are very much retained, was it your intention to focus on the darker elements of the story, the character’s desperation, and its caustic view of human nature? (Or am I just projecting?)

That’s it. Black and white can be funny too – DR STRANGELOVE and parts of ICARUS are hilarious. But it’s a great medium for telling a story without unnecessary things like colours getting in the way.

This is the first film you’ve made in black and white since Edge City (aka, Sleep Is For Sissies) in the late ’70s – did you find working with your students on a DIY project like this one reminded you of that experience?

All films are DIY, one way or another. And I managed to include some Black and White in Death & The Compass, too. It’s interesting how the hostility of the broadcasters to black and white was never matched by the commercial and rock video makers, who continue to use the form.

Enjoy the view. Bill approaches the city-planet Helior.

Enjoy the view. Bill approaches the city-planet, Helior.

The film makes reference to two other famous movie franchises, Starship Troopers and Ender’s Game. Was this a little nod to these films with similar themes, or a way to distinguish your film from the blockbuster treatment they received? (Or just a bit of fun?)

The original book is a riposte to Starship Troopers. Heinlein was quite offended by it. And Ender’s Game is the heir to Heinlein’s militarist fantasy – though it has a more complex attitude to the aliens, and in that way it resembles Harry’s work a little. The ending of the book Ender’s Game was good, I thought, though they struggled with it in the film: not through any lack of money but rather a lack of imagination.

What did you think of the changes Verhoeven and Neumeier made to the novel Starship Troopers for their film version? It’s generally recognised now as a satire on fascism and militarism itself, while also indulging in certain aspects of that fetishistic, militarist fantasy.

It just isn’t a very good film. A bunch of good looking kids shooting at giant ants? That isn’t what Starship Troopers was about. For all the money they spent they didn’t pull much off, especially compared to what they achieved – in irony and humor and visual genius – with the original RoboCop.

James Miller’s take on the character of Bill was interesting. I enjoyed his minimal style, as the character could easily have been overplayed by the wrong actor. Did you hold auditions for the role, and what won James the part?

We auditioned about 150 actors. Lily Grisafi, who played Eager, was the casting director. James wandered in by chance. He didn’t know there were auditions that day and was on his way to take a test. He is a very strong actor: what’s great about a feature is that the main actor gets to go through a character’s trajectory and to change, whereas when you act in a short (which most student films are) you are able to create a character, but not to develop it.

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Actor James Miller, in a rare moment without his space-helmet on.

Iggy Pop contributed a song to the soundtrack. How did he get involved, and was it good to work with him again?

I rang him up and asked him. My wife and I were talking about licensing a song from the new Bowie album but we don’t know him or how to enquire. Tod said, why not ask Iggy? You can just call him… so I did. He downloaded the book to his e-reader, saw a rough cut of the film (same process as Repo Man, minus the e-reader) and away he went! It was great to work with him again. He is unchanged.

How do you feel about the fact that many of your earlier films, some of which were not successful at the time, have recently been re-discovered and are finding a new audience on DVD? Walker, for instance, was badly handled by Universal and was not well received by critics, but has since become something of a cult classic.

I’m glad that Walker finally got some recognition, thanks to the Criterion DVD. Unfortunately it is still relevant and needs to be seen.

Have you had any further thoughts about making the Rudy Wurlitzer puppets-riding-dogs western? Or indeed, do you have any other films you’d like to make or are planning on making?

I talked to Rudy yesterday about Zebulon and another project I’d like him to write — it’s called Gunfighter Nation (no relation to the wonderful book by Richard Slotkin). The maestro says he has one more cartridge in his chamber. So we’ll see…

Alex, thank you for your time. All the best in your future projects and endeavors. To the Skies Avaunt!