Making the Monster

A Nightmare Wakes

by Hope Madden

It’s hard not to be fascinated by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who, at 18, wrote arguably the most iconic piece of Gothic horror or science fiction—or both in one—ever to be penned.

Writer/director Nora Unkel takes us back to that rainy summer night when young Mary, her lover Percy Shelley (Guillian Yao Gioiello) and his friend Lord Byron (Philippe Bowgen, over the top) participated in a challenge to write a ghost story.

We all remember what Mary came up with, right?

Alix Wilton Regan plays the young scribe. It’s an adequate performance in a fairly lifeless film that suggests writing and madness go hand in hand but plays it safe when it comes to what really haunts Mary.

As Mary Shelley suffers through indignities at the hands of a lover she believed to be a better man than he is, she escapes through writing. Aside from one particularly difficult scene, though, Percy’s behavior is largely sanitized or quarantined to offscreen antics we can only guess at.

Wilton Regan offers a needy heroine more likely to lash out at her sister (who may or may not deserve it, Unkel never really clarifies) than to stand up for herself. The performance might have delivered an intriguing central figure—unlikeable and almost impossible to root for.

It seems like a conscious creative decision between Unkel and Wilton Regan, given some of Mary’s behaviors. Creating an unlikeable female to anchor a film is an endlessly intriguing, brave and chancy decision, but the film you hang around her has to turn her performance into something worthy of the attention. Unkel can’t manage it.

Still, Mary descends into a kind of madness and soon enough, her creation takes on a life of its own.

Unkel is not the first filmmaker to conflate the writer’s life with the writer’s product. Just a few years back, Haiffa Al-Mansour’s biopic Mary Shelley convincingly drew Frankenstein as a near autobiography. That film didn’t quite deliver on its promise, either.

In Al-Mansour’s case, hero worship led to a superficial character (played soundly by Elle Fanning) with few faults and a lot of frowning. Unkel’s version is close to the opposite, but both filmmakers set out to depict what it was Mary Shelley was really trying to say when she wrote Frankenstein.

It’s a laudable goal. The problem may just be that Mary Shelley said it so much better.

Fright Club: Best Black and White Horror

Finally! We’ve been kicking this one around for a long time, but this week – with the help of Vince and Grant of the podcast In the Record Store – we finally tackle the best black and white films in horror.

What a list! We had no choice but to employ fuzzy math for this one, and even so we had to leave off so many greats – including some that Grant and Vince would have included.

6. Night of the Living Dead (1968)

From the brightly lit opening cemetery sequence to the paranoid power struggle in the house to the devastating closing montage, Night of the Living Dead teems with the racial, sexual and political tensions of its time. An unsettlingly relevant George A. Romero knew how to push societal panic buttons.

As the first film of its kind, the lasting impact of this picture on horror cinema is hard to overstate. Romero’s inventive imagination created the genre and the monster from the ground up.

They’re dead.

They’re back.

They’re hungry for human flesh.

Their bite infects the bitten.

The bitten will eventually bite.

Aim for the head.

Romero served as cinematographer for this project, likely choosing black and white as a cost saver, but we’d later learn that this format is 1) highly forgiving of zombie makeup, and 2) spookier. The color palette turns the Waltons-esque setting of the farm house into something isolated and sinister.

The shrill sense of confinement, the danger of one survivor turning on another, and the unthinkable transformation going on in the cellar build to a startling climax – one that utterly upends expectations – followed by the kind of absolutely genius ending that guarantees the film’s eternal position in the annals of horror cinema.

5. Eraserhead (1977)

There truly is no film quite like David Lynch’s first feature, eh?

Eraserhead defies simple summarization. Easily the most surreal of all Lynch’s films – which is a huge statement – the film follows sad-sack Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) dealing poorly with fatherhood.

The film becomes a nightmare of paternal angst and existential crisis – indeed, it may be impossible to name a film or filmmaker more able to bring a nightmare to life.

It’s also among the finest examples of corporeal horror you will find. The shadowy, grimy b/w photography – partially handled by Lynch’s longtime cinematographer Frederick Elmes – amplifies the dismal stagnation facing Henry.

At the same time, it gives a weird, nostalgic camp factor to the Lady in the Radiator and adds a particularly lurid element to that whole bleeding “chicken” thing.

Plus, the baby. Yikes. Alive with the most disturbing imagery, Eraserhead is impossible to forget.

4. Psycho (1960)

Among the four Oscar nominations the film garnered was one for John L Russell and his gorgeous black and white cinematography.

By 1960, most folks had abandoned black and white – including Hitchcock. But with his truest foray into horror, the master returned to the high contrast imagery for a number of reasons.

Sure, one of those was that it freed him up with the blood. Had all that stuff in the shower been red, he’d never have gotten away with it. Mrs. Bates wouldn’t have looked quite right, either.

Russell’s visuals also gave the film its lonesome American Gothic quality. Norman seemed more innocent, Marion Crane seemed more mysterious, and the old Bates house seemed spookier.

Of course, was there ever a question Hitch knew what he was doing?

3. Frankenstein (1931)

James Whale’s genius was in finding the monster fascinating, rather than the doctor. Nearly every other Frankenstein made before or since has been preoccupied with the doctor, but Whale understood that it was this unique beast, baby and man, evil and innocent, that should compel our interest. Who cares about one more doctor with a god complex?

Luckily for Whale, he had Boris Karloff. Karloff’s gift was in seeing the monster as a neglected child. His monster is sweet and tragic, characterized by the terrible freedom of a loosed child full of fear, unbridled excitement and shame. Karloff nails this childlike energy and ignorance married to a grown man’s strength in a way that no other actor truly has.

Obviously, in 1931 Whale had no choice but to film in black and white, but how fascinating that a movie without color created a green monster. What a testament to the film’s vidid imagery – created with the help of make-up guru Jack Pierce. A nightmare of greying flesh, black stitches and mechanical pieces, this image of the monster speaks of death, mad science and bad intentions.

2. Nosferatu (1922)

Not the seductive, European aristocrat, cloaked and mysterious, oh no. With Count Orlock, filmmaker F. W. Murnau explores something more repellant, casting an actor who resembles an albino naked mole rat.

Given that Murnau equates the film’s vampire-related deaths with the plague, this vermin-like image fits well. But more than that, thanks to a peculiarly perfect performance by Max Schreck, Murnau mines the carnality of the vampire myth for revulsion and fear rather than eroticism.

Murnau’s gift was not solely in casting. The shadows danced, the dead rose and Europe writhed with the dead and dying. His skill with the camera was unparalleled. Between his casting and his camera, he made the most authentic vampire movie – perhaps ever.

Sure, the silent film style of acting appears nothing short of quaint today, and the Dracula tale has been told too, too often at this point. But Max Schreck is a freak, and in his bony, clawlike hands, Count Orlock remains the greatest vampire ever undone by a sinless maiden.

1. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

James Whale and Boris Karloff – with tag along make-up man Jack Pierce – returned to Castle Frankenstein for an altogether superior tale of horror. What makes this one a stronger picture is the dark humor and subversive attitude, mostly animated by Frankenstein’s colleague Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger).

Thesiger’s mad doctor makes for a suitable counterpart to the earnest and contrite Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive, again), and a sly vehicle for Whale. This fey and peculiar monster-maker handles the most brilliant dialogue the film has to offer, including the iconic toast, “To gods and monsters.”

The sequel casts off the earnestness of the original, presenting a darker film that’s far funnier, often outrageous for its time, with a fuller story. Karloff again combines tenderness and menace, and Elsa Lanchester becomes the greatest goth goddess of all film history as his Bride.

Fright Club: Best Medical Horror

Where are you most vulnerable, if not in the hands of doctors? You don’t know what they’re doing. It’s likely to hurt. There are needles, saws maybe. Suturs. Staples. Blood. Is there more fertile, gory ground for horror? We say no, and today we celebrate the very best there is in medical horror.

5. American Mary (2012)

Twin sisters, Canadians and badasses Jen and Sylvia Soska have written and directed a smart, twisted tale of cosmetic surgery – both elective and involuntary.

Katharine Isabelle (Ginger Snaps) stars as med student Mary Mason, a bright and eerily dedicated future surgeon who’s having some trouble paying the bills. She falls in with an unusual crowd, develops some skills, and becomes a person you want to keep on your good side.

Were it not for all those amputations and mutilations, this wouldn’t be a horror film at all. It’s a bit like a noir turned inside out, where we share the point of view of the raven haired dame who’s nothin’ but trouble. It’s a unique and refreshing approach that pays off.

4. Re-Animator (1986)

Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator reinvigorated the Frankenstein storyline in a decade glutted with vampire films. Based, as so many fantasy/horror films are, on the work of H. P. Lovecraft, Re-Animator boasts a good mix of comedy and horror, some highly subversive ideas, and one really outstanding villain.

Jeffrey Combs, with his intense gaze and pout, his ability to mix comic timing with epic self righteousness without turning to caricature, carries the film beginning to end. His Dr. Herbert West has developed a day-glo serum that reanimates dead tissue, but a minor foul up with his experimentations – some might call it murder – sees him taking his studies to the New England medical school Miskatonic University. There he rents a room and basement laboratory from handsome med student Dan Caine (Bruce Abbott).

They’re not just evil scientists. They’re also really bad doctors.

Re-Animator is fresh. It’s funny and shocking, and though most performances are flat at best, those that are strong more than make up for it. First-time director Gordon’s effort is superb. He glories in the macabre fun of his scenes, pushing envelopes and dumping gallons of blood and gore. He balances anxiety with comedy, mines scenes for all they have to give, and takes you places you haven’t been.

3. Dead Ringers (1988)

This film is about separation anxiety, with the effortlessly melancholy Jeremy Irons playing a set of gynecologist twins on a downward spiral. Writer/director David Cronenberg doesn’t consider this a horror film at all. Truth is, because the twin brothers facing emotional and mental collapse are gynecologists, Cronenberg is wrong.

Take, for instance, the scene with the middle aged woman in stirrups, camera on her face, which is distorted with discomfort. Irons’s back is to the screen, her bare foot to his left side. Clicking noises distract you as the doctor works away. We pan right to a tray displaying the now-clearly-unstable doctor’s set of hand-fashioned medical instruments. Yikes.

Irons is brilliant, bringing such flair and, eventually, childlike charm to the performances you feel almost grateful. The film’s pace is slow and its horror subtle, but the uncomfortable moments are peculiarly, artfully Cronenberg.

2. The Skin I Live In (2011)

In 2011, the great Pedro Almodovar created something like a cross between Eyes Without a Face and Lucky McGee’s The Woman, with all the breathtaking visual imagery and homosexual overtones you can expect from an Almodovar project.

The film begs for the least amount of summarization because every slow reveal is placed so perfectly within the film, and to share it in advance is to rob you of the joy of watching. Antonio Banderas gives a lovely, restrained performance as Dr. Robert Ledgard, and Elena Anaya and Marisa Paredes are spectacular.

Not a frame is wasted, not a single visual is placed unconsciously. Dripping with symbolism, the film takes a pulpy and ridiculous story line and twists it into something marvelous to behold. Don’t dismiss this as a medical horror film. Pay attention – not just to catch the clues as the story unfolds, but more importantly, to catch the bigger picture Almodovar is creating.

1. Frankenstein (1931)

Obviously, any exploration of medicine in horror cinema – no matter how amateurish that exploration – must begin with Frankenstein.

James Whale’s genius was in finding the monster fascinating, rather than the doctor. Nearly every other Frankenstein made before or since has been preoccupied with the doctor, but Whale understood that it was this unique beast, baby and man, evil and innocent, that should compel our interest. Who cares about one more doctor with a god complex?

Luckily for Whale, he had Boris Karloff. Karloff’s gift was in seeing the monster as a neglected child. His monster is sweet and tragic, characterized by the terrible freedom of a loosed child full of fear, unbridled excitement, and shame. Karloff nails this childlike energy and ignorance married to a grown man’s strength in a way that no other actor truly has.

Join the full conversation on the FRIGHT CLUB podcast.

Lazy Lazarus

The Lazarus Effect

by Hope Madden

Four years ago filmmaker David Gelb directed the lovely, layered, joyous documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. This weekend we see his newest effort, The Lazarus Effect. What the hell happened?

Gelb abandons novelty and nuance for a by-the-numbers Frankenstein horror. Medical researchers work on a cure for death. Big Pharm is looking to steal their ideas for nefarious gain. Think Splice.

The scientists test their process on animal subjects, but make the leap to human trials a tad prematurely when one of the team-Zoe (Olivia Wilde) – is electrocuted. Things do not go well. Think Pet Sematary.

The serum super-powers Zoe’s brain. Think Lucy.

But Zoe may have been brought back from hell, and may have brought some of hell back with her. Think Event Horizon. Or Flatliners.

It appears screenwriters Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater have seen enough movies to be able to cobble together plenty of stale ideas to fill 83 minutes, although you will swear the film runs two full hours.

Part of the problem is the blandness of the set. For most of the running time we’re trapped in the hospital’s sub-basement with the doomed scientists. This should create anxiety, develop claustrophobic dread, but the dull set and uninspired direction do little but breed tedium.

Gelb can generate tension now and again, but he doesn’t know how to deliver the payoff. The film is so paint-by-numbers – from the greedy chemical company to the dream sequence, from the dog to the unrequited love to the twist ending – there’s nary a surprise to be found.

Wilde and cast (Mark Duplass, Evan Peters, Sarah Bolger and Donald Glover) can’t bring depth to their characters, though Wilde does give it a shot. There’s more to Zoe than what’s on the page, but not nearly enough to keep the film interesting.

There are plenty of awful horror movies, and The Lazarus Effect is not one of them. It’s succinct, tidy, offers a jolt or two, and it’s held together workmanlike-fashion with enough logic and borrowed ideas to remain lucid for as long as it needs to. But horror also has some great films to offer, and this is certainly not one of those. It’s a disposable February flick and a genuine disappointment from Gelb.