J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Fantasia ’15: Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein

It is past time the Library of Congress added Plan 9 from Outer Space to the National Film Registry—not due to artistic merit, but because it is culturally significant. Arguably, no film is more responsible for the Midnight Movie phenomenon. Indirectly, the Rifftrax/MST3K guys probably owe their careers to Ed Wood. While they probably remain the gold standard of sarcastic talking back to the screen, Tim Kirk raises the stakes for ironic genre commentary by creating a wild meta-fictional backstory for a very real film. Director Gavin Merrill and his estranged screenwriter will reveal the whole sordid truth behind the production of their ill-fated Marry Shelly adaptation in Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein (trailer here), which screens tonight during the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.

Merrill’s Swedish-Irish co-production Terror of Frankenstein is an actual film—and its not terrible. For years, it had a bit of cache as the Frankenstein film most faithful to the original Shelly, but according to Merrill’s newly recorded DVD commentary track we will be listening to, it has recently become quite infamous due to a related criminal case. After years of legal wrangling, a prominent cast-member has finally been executed, so Merrill is scrambling to cash-in.

If that sounds somewhat crass, screenwriter David Falks agrees. In case you are looking at its imdb page, Merrill and Falks supposedly used their “Calvin & Yvonne Floyd” pseudonym, dating back to their experimental theater days. In any event, Falks is only participating in order to correct certain misconceptions propagated by the tabloid media.

The way Kirk constructs a strangely disturbing narrative out of their bickering and bitter reminiscences is quite a feat of storytelling. He doles out revelations slowly, sometimes almost casually, but we quickly get a sense that there was a higher body count behind-the-scenes than on the screen.

Frankly, it is almost shocking that Commentary has not generated any angry protests, because in several instances it creates less than flattering alternate histories for prominent cast-members, most notably including Nicholas Clay (Patrick Redfern in Evil Under the Sun) and Per Oscarsson (seen in the Swedish Lisbeth Salander trilogy). However, Leon Vitali (best known as a Kubrick crony and co-star of Barry Lyndon) is quite the good sport playing himself.

Sometimes Commentary is blackly comical, but it is aiming more for uncomfortable insights into human nature than big belly laughs. In some ways, it is an experience not unlike listening to Orson Welles lose his cool while recording that notorious frozen peas radio commercial. Having produced Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 and The Nightmare, Kirk has keen handle on directing faceless voices for the big screen. (In a bit of a role reversal, Ascher takes on the producing and editing duties this time around.) They also get some first class voice acting from Clu Gulager (no stranger to genre fans) and Zack Norman (Danny Devito’s cousin in Romancing the Stone), as Merrill and Falks, respectively.

Believe it or not, Commentary makes you want to watch Terror of Frankenstein again, straight, sans voice-overs. Yet, it will never be the same innocent film once you have seen Kirk’s hyper-meta fabulization. (FYI, its on Fandor.) Wonderfully subversive yet chocked full of cultist genre love, Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein is very highly recommended when it screens tonight (7/19) as part of this year’s Fantasia.

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