Review of Scooter McCrae’s ‘Saint Frankenstein’.

81041_310x459This review originally appeared on

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.


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.


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.


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.


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

This interview originally appeared on

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…

Bill poster

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.


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.


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.


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!

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

This review originally appeared on

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.


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.


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…


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.



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.




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.

Bill Ambassadors Day


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?



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.

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.

Thoughts on Nick Johnstone’s “Abel Ferrara: King of New York”.

I love reading film biographies, and have recently read Cronenberg on Cronenberg and Lynch on Lynch (both edited by Chris Rodley, both excellent) as well as Woody Allen on Woody Allen (edited by Stig Bjorkman, also great). I’m gearing up to check out Fassbinder: The Life and Work of a Provocative Genuis by Christian Braad Thomsen, but frankly it looks rather daunting. I was pretty tickled to see that there was a book written about the American film-maker Abel Ferrara, still most famous for his controversial and seminal thriller Bad Lieutenant. The film was recently remade by Werner Herzog in a rather curious move, one which prompted Ferrara to damn him to hell, although Herzog’s response to this was better than any film could have been when he simply stated, “Wonderful, yes! Let him fight… I have no idea who Abel Ferrara is!”


Abel Ferrara.

Ferrara is a director who I’d often pictured as an incoherent and barely functioning drunk, terrorizing his cast and crew while openly weeping at icons of the Virgin Mary and smoking crack, and yet, after recently purchasing a whole stack of his old films, I found myself getting really into his whole style and wanting to know more about him. When I found a copy of Nick Johnstone’s book, The King of New York – named for Ferrara’s first high-profile film, starring Christopher Walken as a savvy New York gangster – I immediately bought it and excitedly settled down to learn whether my bizarre impressions of this very private and complicated director were in any way founded… I am unfortunately still none the wiser. In a nutshell, the text simply explains, in stultifying detail, each plot-point of all of his films. In my review of the book below I go into more detail about how not to write a film biography. This originally started as an Amazon review, but quickly turned into a blog entry because I had so much to say on the subject…

Here are my thoughts on Johnstone’s book:


£0.01 from Amazon. (P&P £2.99)

Abel Ferrara (b1951) is a film-maker whose work is undeniably controversial, always toeing the line between art and exploitation. Some of his films are more successful than others (to put it mildly), but they all contain a certain unique blend of outrageous imagery, a slightly sleazy and shambolic quality, a dark, often absurd sense of humour, and a thinly veiled, deeply artistic sensibility. The care and craft brought to his films is exemplified by the intelligent scripts written by his long-time collaborator Nicholas St. John, and the effective performances by actors like Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe. Ferrara remains a very strange character in the landscape of cinema however, building a career out of low-budget pornos, before moving on to art-house shockers like Driller Killer (1979) and Ms. 45 (1981), and finally finding a certain recognition and taking on bigger budget, glossier (some might argue way overblown and unsubtle) projects like Fear City (1984) and King of New York (1990). The zenith of his career is undoubtedly Bad Lieutenant (1992) – still one of the most agonizing and emotionally distressing depictions of addiction and Catholic guilt (his twin obsessions over the years) ever committed to film. After the critical success of Lieutenant he directed the big-budget sci-fi horror Body Snatchers (1993) and, following its relative failure at the box-office, has since remained steadfastly on the fringe, making occasional low-budget movies which seem somehow more experimental (The Addiction – 1995, The Blackout – 1997) and less focused and immediate (New Rose Hotel – 1998).


“Video Nasty.”

 Above: Original poster for ‘The Driller Killer’ (1979). The cover for the video cassette drew so many complaints that it is often considered single-handedly responsible for the UK Video Recordings Act of 1984. The film was banned in the UK until 1999.


“Emotionally distressing.”

Above: Harvey Keitel is the ‘Bad Lieutenant’ (1992).

Nick Johnstone’s book, Abel Ferrara: The King of New York, therefore, had a lot to cover in charting the career of this underrated and often misunderstood director, yet somehow he seems to completely fail in ‘getting to’ Ferrara. It’s obvious that he’s a fan, this is demonstratively clear from the praise he heaps on Ferrara in his opening chapter. Johnstone quickly establishes the key influences on Ferrara’s work as R.W. Fassbinder, Pasolini, Polanski, Godard and Scorsese. He discusses the themes in Ferrara’s overall body of work to very nice effect and sets the book up in an agreeably conversational, slightly gushing manner. The style of Johnstone’s prose is, unfortunately, a little pedestrian, and as he repeats his assertions about artistic influences, reoccurring themes and visual motifs over and again, we begin to get the impression that he’s actually run out of material. I must admit that I had not connected the work of Ferrara with that of Fassbinder, and thought it was very astute of Johnstone to point out the overlapping themes in their work, but after it’s been mentioned around ten times in the opening chapter one can’t help but feel hammered down by what was otherwise a fine observation. Similarly, Godard and Pasolini are brought into the conversation so often that it begins to read like an exercise in ‘spot the reference’.

The main bulk of the book is remarkably slim on material, comprising almost entirely of scene-by-scene synopses of each film in chronological order. Here is where Johnstone genuinely runs out of inspiration and reveals himself unable to go beyond the most basic observations of the language of cinema. After reiterating his earlier points on style and form – although valid and, initially, quite interesting – he suddenly gets bogged down by his reverence for the subject. It’s certainly worth pointing out a visual trick, such as the use of colour schemes to chart a character’s journey (red for a ‘descent into hell’, white for ‘salvation’ or blue for ‘authority and sterility’), but this is hardly unique to Ferrara’s work, nor is the use of mirrors and reflections to show a character questioning their sense of self and their motivations, yet these techniques are discussed with a sense of awe and wonder. Johnstone goes so far as to point out the intertextual references in every film, which becomes very tiring (yes, film-makers like to acknowledge their influences, we get it) and he seems to delight in highlighting the trademark ‘nipple-shots’ (!) which Ferrara includes during scenes of sex and nudity in his work, which has the unintentional effect of making the book seem slightly grubby and adolescent. Further to this, the (literally) narrative approach taken in explaining the material is extremely frustrating, as anybody who isn’t completely familiar with Ferrara’s entire body of work will find spoilers littering the text. I’ve seen most of the films covered, but found myself skipping the chapter on Snake Eyes to avoid this. (The TV episodes of Miami Vice and Crime Story which Ferrara directed are also covered in great detail.) Each moment of each film is recounted and explained in terms a child would understand, and far from writing from the perspective of an academic or even a ‘film buff’, Johnstone comes across more like a clever teenager who’s discovered a selection of 18-Rated movies and is trying to relate them to his friends in as much detail as possible – bragging about the apparent subtleties he’s picked-up on…

Fear City Poster

“No subtleties here.”

 Above: Poster for ‘Fear City’ (1984).

Ms. 45 Poster

“Very sexy.”

 Above: Poster for ‘Ms. 45’ (1981) – Still Ferrara’s strongest, most satisfying and stylish film.

For what it’s worth, the chapter on Ms. 45 (my favourite of Ferrara’s films) is actually pretty good, and the section on Bad Lieutenant is suitably comprehensive, featuring a sourced interview with the script-writer, Zoë Tamerlis-Lund (who also plays Keitel’s drug dealer in the film), which is surprisingly insightful. Lund, an actress, writer and musician, is probably most famous for her role in Ms. 45, in which she plays the central character, Thana, to brilliant effect (the character is mute throughout the film), and in the interview she comes across as very intelligent and articulate – she died in 1999. Johnstone also briefly hits his stride with his analysis of The Addiction, probably Ferrara’s strangest and most misunderstood film (a vampire story about morality, guilt and, yes, addiction – which like Cronenberg’s The Fly is often misinterpreted as an allegory about the AIDS crisis) which he seems to take more time and thought over. I was actually quite startled at how profound the writing was in this chapter, as Johnstone seems to dissect the strange mindset of the addict in an almost eerie way; indeed, it turns out that he is himself a recovering alcoholic.


“Got a light?”

 Above: Zoë Lund and Harvey Keitel in ‘Bad Lieutenant’.


“Holy shit!”

Above: Zoë Lund in ‘Ms. 45’. The alternative title was ‘Angel of Death’.

Addiction Poster


Above: Poster for ‘The Addiction’.

Film critic Peter Bradshaw placed ‘The Addiction’ at the top of his list of the best films ever made for Sight & Sound in 2002, right above ‘Annie Hall’.

Addiction Street Trash

“Don’t mind me…”

Above: Philosophy student and vampire: Kathleen (Lili Taylor) approaches her first victim, a homeless junkie, in ‘The Addition’.

There is an unfortunate sense of imbalance, however, when it comes to discussing Ferrara’s remake (or reimagining) of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (simply titled Body Snatchers). The Ferrara version has close links to both the original 1956 Don Siegel film and the 1978 remake directed by Philip Kaufman. However, Johnstone dismisses the ’78 version completely in his analysis here (because Ferrara doesn’t mention it in press interviews) and instead makes blithe comparisons to the original film. It’s clear he strongly dislikes the Ferrara version and considers it a complete waste of time and money, but then he barely gives it due consideration, and rather petulantly sums it up as ‘crap’. Sure, it’s not a great movie, but for a writer who seems to genuinely enjoy a film as openly derivative and trashy as Fear City, it feels as though he lets his emotions get the better of him (somewhat ironically) in dedicating only three pages of the entire book to Ferrara’s most expensive and high-profile film to date – one to which Roger Ebert gave a glowing review. (Ebert famously hated the Kaufman version.)



 Main image: Carol (Meg Tilly) alerts the other pod-people with a mechanical scream in ‘Body Snatchers’ (1993). 

Insert: Brooke Adams performs a similar move in the 1978 adaptation. Ferrara and St. John drew inspiration from several plot elements of the Kaufman version (including the creeping tentacles of the pods) but add to the paranoid atmosphere by setting the film on an American military base.

Having struggled through the book (minus the Snake Eyes chapter), what struck me most was the lack of input from Ferrara himself. Each chapter begins with a sourced quote from Ferrara about the film being discussed, along with additions from St. John and occasional press soundbites, yet he remains a curiously absent presence throughout the book (there is virtually no biographical information), and as a result of this, Johnstone’s pontificating on form and subtext seems less convincing and more like hearsay. Perhaps if Ferrara were a less private individual and more apt to give interviews and explanations of his work, Johnstone would have found himself on firmer ground and had more to work with. It’s possible that Johnstone approached Ferrara for an interview and was turned down, which would explain his reliance on sourced quotes, speculation and endless repetition. When reading a book dedicated to the work of a single director, the most interesting thing to hear about is their working process. Film-makers often have a unique and distinctive approach to collaborating with their cast, their writer, DP and crew, and with a genuine firebrand auteur like Ferrara you can bet there are a million great stories… of which we hear none. When you watch a film like Bad Lieutenant and witness the extent to which Keitel commits himself to the role, it leaves you wondering how the director managed to convince him to take on the part, and the nature of their relationship during the shoot. Zoë Lund is an actress and writer who had a troubled life (there is vague talk of ‘drugs’ from, of all people, John Cale) and collaborated with Ferrara on his two most successful films, and yet we’re privy only to one short interview with her, and we don’t even hear about how they met. The best anecdote in the book has Ferrara meeting a group of press in a hotel room and mischievously climbing into a wardrobe to give his interviews through a makeshift confessional box. It’s amusing, but it hardly tells us anything about Ferrara other than the fact that he’s eccentric.

Ms. 45 Image

“I’d give it a minute if I were you, Abel’s giving a press conference inside…”

 Above: Zoë Lund as the mute seamstress Thana, in ‘Ms. 45’.

Mentally and physically abused by the ‘MEN’ in her life, she takes to the streets with .45 magnum…


“A transformation.”

Trauma and emotional scarring lead Thana to become an angel of retribution.

Something about the book which bugged me – something which goes beyond the blandness of commentary and analysis – is the fact that Johnstone keeps making mistakes about which actors play which roles. In King of New York, Laurence Fishburne (over)plays a sassy gang leader named Jimmy Jump, and Wesley Snipes is a tough rookie cop called Flanigan. Their characters are pretty distinctive (Fishburne chews the scenery so much he actually has to be seen to be believed!), but Johnstone manages to get them confused several times, discussing the wrong actor’s performance in a role, and then actually switching them around again, talking about the same actor playing another character. I had to re-read these parts to make sure (and any editor worth their salt should have noticed), but it’s clear that he couldn’t remember who played whom, and didn’t bother to go back and check out the credits to make sure. The book was written shortly after both Blade and The Matrix were released, so it’s not like we’re talking about Bud Cort here. He also manages to confuse a startled extra at the beginning of Body Snatchers with a character played by Forest Whitaker, who appears as a major character later on in the film, thereby questioning the logic of having Whitaker ‘forget’ that he’s already met the lead character before. The extra was a black guy too. I’m not saying that Nick Johnstone is racist, by the way, just easily confused and perhaps slightly lazy. There are also various grammatical mistakes along the lines of: “In this film… blah blah, which happens in this film.” and “In his review of… blah blah, which he wrote in his review.” This is ultimately the concern of the editor though, since nobody can write an entire book without making a few mistakes.

Fishburne Career Highlight

“Needs to be seen to be believed.”

 Above: Laurence Fishburne gets fresh in ‘King of New York’.

Fishburne Gangsta Elite

“Been spendin’ most my life living in a gangsta’s paradise.”

Above: Laurence Fishburne during the explosive drug-deal scene in ‘King of New York’.

Wesley Snipes 2

“Could this be non-vintage Bollinger?”

Wesley Snipes plays it cool in ‘King of New York’.

King of New York Poster

The poster makes it pretty damn clear!

In better understanding how this book came to be written, and why the author seems so lost, I had a look at his other credits, which include an unofficial biography of the actor Johnny Depp, and a book about the late Amy Winehouse. (I shudder to think what these books must be like!) The fact that Johnstone seems to specialize in this kind of celebrity filler stuff suggests that Abel Ferrara: The King of the New York was an attempt to write something of substance about a film-maker whom he admired. However, to quote from his chapter on Body Snatchers: “It’s poorly thought out, empty and mind-numbingly dull.

Abel 1

Above: Abel Ferrara with his entourage.

For a great interview with Zoë Lund about Bad Lieutenant and her script writing process:

For more info on Ferrara and his future projects:

Driller Artwork

Above: Artwork from the film ‘Driller Killer’.