J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Way Off-Broadway: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead

From zombies in Pride and Prejudice to vampires in Little Women, the success of literary monster mash-ups have publishing houses scrambling to crank-out their copycat titles. The craze has not spared the Shakespearean canon either, with decidedly mixed results. Sure, mixing the morose Hamlet with brooding vampires has obvious potential. However, it is the hip irony brought to bear on the sub-genre, essentially mashing-up the mash-ups, that distinguishes Jordan Galland’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Julian Marsh is in a bit of a Byronic funk. Dumped by his hot girlfriend Anna, he puts the moves on every attractive woman he sees. Frankly, he has remarkably good luck for an unemployed theater director living in the backroom of his father’s medical office. Dad is understandably losing patience though. To get his deadbeat son out of his office or at least paying rent, Dr. Marsh arranges an interview for him to direct a rather unconventional production of Hamlet.

In this mash-up version, Hamlet and Horatio were vampires, but the Sweet Prince has regained his soul by drinking from the Holy Grail. And then it really gets strange and complicated, not that Marsh really cares. He is still preoccupied with Anna, whom Theo, the sinister company manager, eventually casts in their Hamlet because she “smells like the real Ophelia.” This makes no sense to Marsh either.

Galland may very well have made up Undead’s elaborate backstory details as he went along, but many elements are cleverer than they needed to be. In fact, they might even support a more serious treatment, if focused and moderated. However, what really makes the film work is Jake Hoffman’s perfect deadpan delivery as Marsh. His wry reactions to the whacked-out version of Hamlet unfolding in their rehearsals effectively mirror that of viewers, thereby maintaining audience credibility.

Undead might not be the most ambitious film ever, but it is legitimately quite funny. The deliberately cheesy effects and eccentric graphics should please cult film connoisseurs, while more mainstream audiences will certainly be intrigued by its cast (including an uncredited cameo by Bijou Phillips). Hoffman (yes, the son of Dustin) has solid comedic timing and nice screen chemistry with the ethereally beautiful Devon Aoki as Anna or Ophelia. Looking like a full-fledged adult, the former Karate Kid Ralph Macchio shows a flair for the over-the-top comedy required from his character, Booby Bianchi, Anna’s new intimidating boyfriend. Appropriately for the genre, John Ventimiglia (of Sopranos fame) chews the scenery like a vampire from a Hammer Horror film as Theo/Horatio. However, perhaps the most likable supporting turn comes from Chip Zien as the good Dr. Marsh.

Employing the shotgun approach, Galland scatters out a lot of material, from ancient Dan Brown-style conspiracies to gentle mockery of the New York theater scene. Happily, it works more often than not. Though it loses steam down the stretch, resorting to rather conventional genre plot turns, Undead is surprisingly inventive for a horror movie spoof. Definitely recommended for genre lovers, Undead opens this Friday (6/4) in New York at the Village East.

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