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.

Review of Alex Cox’s ‘Bill, The Galactic Hero’.

This review originally appeared on Quietearth.us.

Bill posterIn light of the affection many fans have for Harry Harrison’s source novel – that playful, anti-war sci-fi satire of the 1960s – it is difficult to talk about Alex Cox’s crowd-funded, film adaptation of Bill, The Galactic Hero without feeling duty-bound to prepare viewers for what lies in store. This is because it is essentially a feature length student film, albeit one of considerable scale and ambition. It’s also a not-for-profit project, one which will be made available for free online. I must admit, during the first ten minutes of the film (which I had invited a friend unfamiliar with Cox’s work to watch with me) I was tempted to switch off and suggest something else, as I felt that awkward pang of embarrassment which occurs when one insists on playing a favourite song before realizing that nobody else in the room is going to enjoy it. Thankfully, after the initial shock of realizing just how lo-fi, rough and chaotic this little movie is, one slowly begins to appreciate everything which is going on within it: the imagination of the artists at work, the attention to detail, enthusiasm of the young actors on screen, and the appreciation of the book’s surreal and often black humour, which is largely maintained by Cox’s script.

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The film is not perfect by any means, and for many it’ll be a love-it-or-hate-it type situation, but one thing which is undeniable is the passion with which it has been crafted. Cox had been communicating for years with Harrison on the idea of adapting the book, and that he’s co-opted the talents of his own film students at the University of Colorado in finally putting it on screen seems like a fitting approach for this often radical and always unconventional film-maker.

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Introduced in a colourful animated segment, we watch as pizza delivery boy, Bill (James Miller), is coerced by a recruitment officer visiting his farming planet, into joining the intergalactic military to fight an alien lizard race known as the Chingers. The film then shifts to live-action monochrome, landing on our hero as we wakes up in his spacesuit and begins training under the ruthless tutelage of drill instructor Deathwish Drang (Devon Wycoff) aboard the flagship Fanny Hill. From here, we follow Bill as he navigates his way through a series of bizarre and often degrading encounters with his fellow troopers, before (literally) single-handedly destroying an enemy armada during a space battle and becoming the reluctant hero of the empire. Bill’s problems, however, have only just begun…

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It’s pretty clear from the get-go that this a micro-budget film, and its problems mainly revolve around the limited resources available to the filmmakers. While I took no issue with the black and white photography, which actually helps provide a distinctive sense of melancholy and dread, complementing the darkly satirical tone, some will find it an ill-fitting approach to adapting a book which is characterized by its colourful cover art and cartoonish tone – but low-budget films need to do their best to look good, and monochrome is a forgiving format, plus, I dug the nods to Eastern block era sci-fi, ICARUS XB1, which Cox cites as a major influence. (We also sense shades of Roger Corman lurking in the background.) What sticks out more though, is the decision to dress all key players in white spacesuits, with only minor details to distinguish them from one another (Bill always has his teddy bear, so at least we know who he is) which makes for difficulty both in figuring out who’s who, and who’s speaking which lines. I suppose this could be taken as commentary on the uniform individuality of the troopers, but it still means that we have trouble getting to know the characters. There are additional problems with sound clarity, exacerbated by the fact that everyone’s voice is muffled by a space helmet…

BillenderstroopersThe actors here are mainly students, all young and, we sense, relatively inexperienced. Unfortunately this does give the project an amateurish feel, as tough-as-nails drill sergeants and hard-bitten troopers are played by fresh faced kids who, ultimately, struggle to convince. It’s unfair to labour this point though, as it’s part and parcel of a student film experience, but too often it detracts from the storytelling – taking us out of the film – and we can’t help but imagine a better movie recast with professional actors more suited to their roles. As it is, Miller gives a fine, low-key performance as Bill, keeping his reactions minimal, but instilling the character with the requisite innocence and bewilderment befitting of a conscript, before transforming him into a cynical burn-out by the film’s end. Devon Wycoff and Hayden Winston as (respectively) Deathwish Drang and the ship’s Chaplain, also provide memorable turns, and Lily Grisafi does well in lending her voice to Eager Beager, Bill’s suspiciously upbeat and perky comrade.

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Where the film really shines, however, is in its visual design, where every penny of the budget is evident. Wonderfully imaginative scale model work on the spaceships, along with occasional CG animation and green screen effects, is well utilized during space battles and for establishing shots of the city-planet Helior, leaving us wanting more (in a good way). Live action segments are busy with amusing background details (the ubiquitous pro-war propaganda, sarcastic robots and sentient vending machines, several peculiar references to the film Ender’s Game), reminiscent of the kind seen in Cox’s own Repo-Man, which may reward second viewing. Many of the interior spaceship scenes were filmed in the concrete stairways and basements of campus buildings, but a third act taking place on a valley-encrusted desert planet and shot in Cathedral Gorge, Nevada, offers some genuinely startling shots of natural beauty, giving the film a chance to breathe, while also reminding us of Cox’s love of spaghetti westerns. For the scenes set on Helior, exterior shots are framed by stark, ultra-modernist buildings, while interiors are, again, a mixture of cramped basements and labyrinthine corridors: appropriately alienating and claustrophobic.

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The pace of the film is definitely one of its strongest points. Although split into three main chapters, its episodic nature dictates that for every scene or situation which doesn’t quite work, there’s always another ready to come along to try its luck. Standout moments include Bill’s recovery from losing his left arm in battle, during which he’s visited by unhelpful colleagues and well-wishers in hospital, before realizing that surgeons have fitted him with a second right arm by mistake. (“Now you can salute with both hands!”) While visiting Helior, Bill is forced to escape his old life and take a job in waste disposal, which mainly involves thinking of ways to get rid of a deluge of ‘unknown artefacts’ which constantly flood the garbage chute – forming a vast mountain of defunct and broken iPads (nice touch). Other visual gags work well, particularly a running joke concerning Bill’s friend, who has been so severely injured over time that he’s reduced to a life as a severed head, jutting out a little travel case, with a single flailing arm. Certain parts, though, feel less consistent, including a sub-plot involving a group of rebels with whom Bill becomes involved; a slightly overextended skit which ought to be funnier.

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It’s worth mentioning that, although the film is a micro-budget feature, with directing duties divided between Cox and his students, there are individual scenes exhibiting remarkable skill in composition. These are the moments where the film hits its stride, and we become excited about the potential of this approach to film-making. One of the joys in watching Bill… is being provided the opportunity to think, “Maybe I could do this!”, and while it’s obvious that, as quite a considerable endeavour (it took 75 people and over 8 months to complete the film), this is easier said than done, there is a sense of fun in considering the possibility of shooting your own low-budget, transgressive science-fiction comedy. Maybe I should finally finish that screenplay I started years ago?

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This film is rough, yes, and unapologetically so, but in acting as a counterweight to the appalling consumerist rubbish deposited into multiplex cinemas every week, it contains a genuine heartbeat, and that anarchic sense of ‘anything goes’ which so typifies the director’s oeuvre. Does this automatically make it good? No. There are weak moments, and it takes a while to find its feet. But stick with it, and you’ll be rewarded. Alex Cox has been making films for 35 years; I’ve seen all of them, and they all have something to offer. This one might have more in common with his own early student film, the apocalyptic, art-house short, Edge City, than with the work for which he’s best known. I see this as a sign that he’s still a kid at heart, and while he’s learned the hard way that Hollywood has no time for radicals or idealists, perhaps it’s better that way, because fuck Hollywood.

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Additional: No information at present on when exactly the film will be available for download, as the backers have first dibs, but I’ll keep you updated.

For more information on Bill, The Galactic Hero and other projects from Alex Cox, check out his blog right here.

Q&A with Alex Cox and Rudy Wurlitzer at Basilica Hudson.

WalkerWhile stumbling around Youtube I found this video of Alex Cox and Rudy Wurlitzer appearing for a Q&A session following a recent screening of Cox’s 1987 film, Walker. Written by Wurlitzer, a novelist and screenwriter most famous for his script work on Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), the film forms a distinctive hybrid of historical fiction and blackly comic political satire. Starring Ed Harris as the American filibuster William Walker, it’s a genuinely transgressive piece of film-making, and watching it now in the wake of recent wars, Cox’s scathing commentary on Reaganite America’s involvement in Nicaragua feels increasingly relevant and more prescient than ever. Shot with a huge budget, but saddled with an unenthusiastic marketing campaign from a confused Universal Studios, the film met with failure at the box-office, and cost Cox his career in Hollywood. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most daring and original films of the decade – and one well worth checking out. (Additionally, the soundtrack by Joe Strummer is excellent.)

Read more about my obsession with Alex Cox and his career (and his highly underrated film Three Businessmen) in my very first blog article, right here.

Cox is currently in post-production on his latest film Bill the Galactic Hero, an adaptation of the book by Harry Harrison. Find out more and follow his progress at: www.alexcoxfilms.wordpress.com

Thoughts on “Life After Beth” – From EIFF 2014

This review originally appeared on Quietearth.us as part of my coverage of the EIFF 2014.

Beth PosterJeff Baena’s first feature as director is a respectable zombie-comedy, unfortunately hampered by a sense of deja vu when it comes to the material. There are a few clever ideas here, but an over-reliance on the old familiar tropes, and the ubiquitous use of comedy character actors all vying for attention does make it a bit of a mixed bag. Having said that, the film is well crafted and easily passes the laugh test by proving itself consistently amusing and playfully irreverent. Don’t expect to be blown away, and you might find it a decent piece of entertainment and a fine way to spend an evening at the movies.

Dane DeHaan plays Zach, a college student grieving the death of his girlfriend Beth (Aubrey Plaza), who has recently passed away from a snake bite she received while hiking. Beth’s parents (played by John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) invite him for dinner and to help pack up Beth’s belongings, and they bond over memories of her life while smoking some pot. Visiting their house again the next day, Zach is wildly confused when he sees Beth through a window, and he demands to know what’s going on. Initially convinced that her parents are involved in some kind of insurance scam, he eventually comes to understand that Beth, along with several other members of the local community, has actually come back from the dead. She seems normal enough, although her obsession with the attic is new, and she’s suddenly become freakishly strong and bad tempered. Zach thinks she’s a zombie, her parents think it’s a miracle, and nobody seems sure of whether or not they should actually tell Beth that she’s technically dead…

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Technically necrophilia.

Life After Beth benefits from a likable supporting cast, including Cheryl Hines and Paul Reiser as Zach’s parents, and Matthew Gray Gubler as his overbearing, gun-happy brother. DeHaan himself doesn’t strike one as an obvious choice when it comes to playing comedy, but his performance in the lead role is suitably energetic, and for the most part he hits the right notes and delivers on laughs. As Beth, Plaza does a really good job. Her character’s slow escalation from confusion, to indignation, to eventual rage and outright hostility is handled very well. We get the sense that even when alive Beth may have had a few screws loose, but as a zombie she’s both unhinged and dangerous. Reilly and Shannon are also terrific as Beth’s distressed parents, showing signs of extreme denial as they try their best to keep their daughter in the dark over what’s happened, even as she starts to decompose…

"What do you mean, Camilla Long gave this movie a 1 star review?!"

“What do you mean, Camilla Long gave this movie a 1 star review?!”

There are some nice little touches to zombie mythology here too, as the living dead are not portrayed as outright flesh-eaters, but rather slightly lost and irritable souls who simply want to get back to their old lives. While the plot is vaguely reminiscent of films like Dead & Buried and Shatter Dead, its tone is resolutely comic, with a heavy dose of deadpan irony. I liked the fact that the zombies only relax when listening to smooth jazz and muzak, which is a nice idea, and a pleasing nod to the mall music from Dawn of the Dead. It’s also satisfying to see the gradual changes the zombie phenomenon has on the world the characters inhabit, from a brief shot of a background extra running for his life early in the story, to the eventual arrival of the military as things spiral completely out of control. Baena keeps the action limited to suburbia, thereby giving the story a more closed feeling and allowing Beth’s return to appear as something of a small-scale problem in an otherwise problem-free world. The characters are less worried about ‘zombies’ as they are about ‘the Beth situation’. It’s nothing which we haven’t seen before, but it’s well handled and provides the film with a little more atmosphere and suspense.

When erotic games turn deadly...

When erotic games turn deadly…

One of the problems is a general sense of familiarity to the story. Anyone who’s au fait with zom-coms and zombies in general may not find much new here to chew on. Couple this with an ending which seems very rushed and slightly too Pollyanna-ish, and the film feels distinctly by-the-numbers. Admittedly, for the most part, the movie is completely acceptable, zipping along with snappy one-liners and good sight gags, occasional gore and special effects, but it never quite seeming to become more than the sum of its parts. Despite being well constructed and with some strong performances (especially from Plaza and Reilly), the whole thing somehow manages to keep you at arms length.

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“We are emo!”

The issue facing any contemporary zombie film, comedy or otherwise, is a market which is now so stuffed with new additions to the genre that in order to get noticed you need to have something genuinely fresh and interesting to offer. Comparisons to Shaun of the Dead, which resuscitated the genre back in 2004, and Return of the Living Dead, which set the bar high as one of the first and very best zom-coms, are inevitable. Life After Beth is not in the same league as either of those films, although I felt that it had more soul and more interesting characters than 2009’s Zombieland, which struck me as a fairly cold and empty exercise in stylized violence, even if it was a superficially entertaining one.

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Zach takes a moment to contemplate how totally empty and mean spirited “Zombieland” was.

Beth doesn’t really offer us anything new then, instead ploughing a well furrowed path while covering for its lack of originality with reliable comedy actors and well timed jokes. If this doesn’t bother you, you’re likely to enjoy the film on its own terms (and it is perfectly enjoyable). However, if you’re looking for anything exceptional here, keep looking. No doubt there will be another zombie film coming along next week, and the week after that… and after that…

Just checking...

Just making sure.