The Past Month on TV #58

The flipside of watching a tonne of films during lockdown is that I haven’t watched much TV — I’ve still not even finished Picard, ffs. But I did make time for Quiz (which, as a three-parter, was basically just a movie anyway), another animated Doctor Who, a season of Archer (“a season” sounds like a lot, but it’s only 13 easily-digestible 20-minute chunks), more of the worst of the original Twilight Zone, and a few other bits and bobs — including Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in Danny Boyle’s stage production of Frankenstein, which the National Theatre made available on YouTube last week (sorry if you didn’t know; it’s gone now).

Quiz
QuizAdapted by James Graham from his own West End play and directed by Stephen Frears almost as if it were a movie (note how only the first episode has a proper title sequence), Quiz is the story of Major Charles Ingram, who in 2001 went on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and — allegedly — cheated his way to winning the million-pound jackpot with the help of his wife and someone in the audience coughing to indicate correct answers. But Quiz takes its remit wider than this, showing how Millionaire was born and spawned a nationwide community of quiz enthusiasts determined to game the system and make it onto the programme — and once on there, cheat in their own ways.

Obviously I knew the basic story of ‘the coughing major’ from all the news coverage, but I had no idea about all the stuff with the networks of dedicated fans. Quiz only touches on it as a side element in the Ingrams’ story, but it’s a fascinating aspect. The Ingrams were only passingly involved with it, but it makes you wonder: did that organisation cheat more successfully? Were the Ingrams caught and prosecuted because the programme had been driven to be hyper-vigilant but, in fact, were not cheating? They protest their innocence to this day. And while Quiz doesn’t come down on one side or the other, it throws enough doubt on the accepted narrative that you wonder how they were ever convicted.

The enthusiasts’ network; the lengths people went to get on the show; the media storm around the Ingrams… it’s all a reminder of what a phenomenon Millionaire was at the time (at its height, it was watched by a third of the UK population). The best thing about the first episode is how it digs into that, with the backstory of the show itself, the pitches and its early success. This stuff could be seen as an aside to the main story — as padding to make Quiz a three-parter — but it really isn’t: it was that very uniqueness, the specialness of the programme, that led to the ‘cheating’. It also makes for a fun drama, pillorying the behind-the-scenes world of television. Respect to ITV for commissioning a programme that takes so many potshots at ITV itself.

Chris Sheen played by Michael Tarrant… wait…Indeed, even as there are serious events (watch out for the undeserved fate of the Ingrams’ pet dog), Quiz is consistently very funny. There’s a gag in the closing seconds of episode two (punctuated by a smash cut to black) that is golden. Michael Sheen’s uncannily spot-on impersonation of Chris Tarrant will also tickle anyone familiar with the man — i.e. UK viewers, but I guess it won’t translate internationally. Matthew Macfadyen is more understated but also excellent as Charles Ingram, while Helen McCrory burns up the screen as their barrister later on. Those are the obvious standout performances, but the whole cast are on form, in particular Mark Bonnar as one of Millionaire’s exec producers. He’s consistently superb in everything I’ve seen him in (if you haven’t, you should definitely watch Unforgotten series 2), and here adds a lot of nuance to what could’ve been an inessential bit part.

Ultimately, this is a pretty excoriating examination of what went on. Very few people come out if it well — certainly not ITV, the show’s producers, the media, the police, the general public, the jury, the British legal system… Maybe only the Ingrams. Did they do it? Possibly. But the evidence of their guilt is rather thin and, in some cases, ludicrously biased. Quiz itself doesn’t come down firmly on one side or the other, but it certainly seems to have convinced a lot of viewers of their innocence.

In the UK, Quiz is available on ITV Hub for another few days. In the US, it airs on AMC from Sunday May 31st.

Frankenstein
National Theatre Live: FrankensteinAs theatre goes, this is a blockbuster: directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, with the actors alternating who played Victor Frankenstein and his Creature for each performance. One of each was filmed for the National Theatre Live cinema screenings, and for the lockdown National Theatre at Home release they also made both available.
Cumberbatch-as-the-Creature came out first and consequently attracted the most YouTube views, but the consensus seems to be that Miller-as-the-Creature is the better version, so that was the one I watched (I’m curious to see both, but watching it twice in a week isn’t really my way).

Now, frankly, I’m not the biggest fan of Frankenstein. I like the concept a lot — it endures for a reason — but I found the novel an interminable slog, and faithful adaptations fare similarly. Fortunately, this one jumps right to the birth of the creature, thereby improving things considerably by getting to the meat of the issue. It also serves to almost completely refocus the narrative away from Frankenstein and onto his creation. After a brief appearance at the start, it’s another 45 minutes before Frankenstein enters the story properly. This feels like a very modern choice — siding with the downtrodden and oppressed, making him the protagonist rather than the genius inventor. Of course, the Creature is not without his crimes, and the production plays up the mirroring of creator and creation — as if the fact they’re played by the same actors alternating roles didn’t clue you in to that theme.

It’s an impressively theatrical production (a reason why, like One Man, Two Guvnors last week, I’m not counting it as a film), with some clever and effective staging, in particular a rotating multi-level centrepiece. That said, being able to view it from different angles via camerawork does add to the production at times, in particular with one or two moments that seem to have been staged for a bird’s eye view; but then, at others we’re clearly missing something of the atmosphere created in the physical space (for example, sometimes we get to see the massive lighting rig made of hundreds of individual bulbs, but some of its uses and effect is lost by not being in the room). Also, this YouTube release has been censored at one particular moment for the sake of a wider audience, which is a shame. It’s clear enough what’s happened, and some will be pleased not to see that depicted, but unfortunately the edit is wholly unsubtle and therefore completely jarring.

Whatever its other qualities, this production will remain best known for its role-switching gimmick. Some people do think it was just a gimmick — a way to show off and stand out, but not worth much else. I’m not sure that’s fair. If you only watch it once then obviously you’ll only see the actors one way round, even the mere existence of the alternative is somewhere in your mind, informing how you view the play, the notion that these two characters can be played by the same actor in the same production. It’s a neat way to underscore the connection between the two character, which, as much as they would both like to sever it, is seemingly unbreakable.

Doctor Who  The Faceless Ones
The Faceless OnesThe most recent missing story to be animated (see last month for the history of all that) has the Second Doctor, Ben, Polly, and Jamie arrive at Gatwick airport in 1967, where there are mysterious things going on around the offices of airline Chameleon Tours, including young people flying off on holiday but never coming back…

The Faceless Ones gets off to a strong start, with suspicious alien-connected murders, disbelieving authority figures, Polly seemingly mind-wiped, and the Doctor and Jamie playing at Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson — a bit of mystery, companions in peril, the TARDIS team on the back foot as they have to investigate while dodging the authorities. Unfortunately, this is a six-parter. There are many great Doctor Who six-parters, but there are at least as many (especially in the early days) where they seem to have commissioned six episodes by default and the writers didn’t really have enough story to fill them. The Faceless Ones is among the latter: as it heads into the second half, you can feel the plot begin to stretch itself out. There are some great cliffhangers to perk things up, at least.

Nowadays Who fans have a tendency to watch whole stories in one sitting, almost like a movie — most of them are about that length, after all. But someone once observed that a lot of overlong, awkwardly-paced serials suddenly make more sense if you watch them one episode at a time; that each part works as a 25-minute chunk of TV, and when you watch them in one go you don’t see the trees for the wood. The Faceless One is almost a case in point, because each of the earlier episodes are enjoyable in isolation, and the later ones have their moments; but, with hindsight, there is a lot of back-and-forthing, and I can well imagine that, watched all in one go, it feel long, slow, and spread thin.

The last two instalments are the worst culprits. The writing’s quality dive-bombs in the penultimate episode as other characters basically explain the plot to the Doctor and Jamie, while episode six offers a rather sedate finale, with a bit of drama early on giving way to a lot of protracted business to resolve the situation. It also features the most bored-sounding delivery of the line “you fools, how can you trust him” imaginable. To cap it off, this is Ben and Polly’s last episode, and they’re written out poorly. It’s nice that they decide it’s time to return to their own lives, rather than being forced to go or stuck with a thin romance or something (as other companions would be), but it’s terribly handled: they’ve not been in it for weeks, then suddenly realise it happens to be the same date they first joined the Doctor so, hey, why not leave now? And the Doctor’s goodbye speech: “Ben can catch his ship and become an admiral, and you, Polly… you can look after Ben.” Eesh.

As for this animated reconstruction, it looks a lot stiffer and flatter than Macra Terror, which feels like a disappointing step back. Some of the animation models are quite poor, suffering from Thunderbirds syndrome (i.e. too-big heads) or with odd posture, and sets are basic in places. I don’t know the behind-the-scenes details — maybe it was made on a reduced timescale or budget, or maybe it’s the strain of having to do 50% more episodes, or maybe they were trying to be more faithful to the live-action originals (two episodes of Faceless Ones survive, although they’ve been animated too, for consistency), or maybe it’s just that a ‘60s airport is visually duller than a far-future colony. Whatever, it does nothing to enliven the mediocre script. Still, I personally find these animated visuals better than nothing (others disagree), and I’ll happily buy every one they produce.

Archer  Season 6
Archer season 6When I watched Archer’s fifth season (aka Archer Vice), I was picking it back up after years away and was set to continue it. That was in 2018. Although I was quite positive in that initial review, I was less positive by the end, and that was my enduring memory of it. Well, I’m happy to report I found season six to be a return to form.

I observed of Archer Vice that the change of setting from spy agency to drug dealers was immaterial because it was the characters not the situation that mattered. That’s true to an extent, but I suspect not entirely, because here they’re back to being spies and it all seems to have sparked back to life. That’s kind of ironic because, as anyone who follows the show will know, they eventually moved on from spies to rotate through a different setting/genre every season, which was because they’d run out of spy stories to tell; and yet comedic spy stories are clearly what these guys do best. So, I’m wary of where it’s going to go in seasons I’ve not yet got to, but, for the time being, I’m enjoying it again. This time I don’t think it’ll be years before I watch the next season.

The Twilight Zone  ‘Worst Of’
The Mighty CaseyIn last month’s initial selection of The Twilight Zone’s worst episodes I found one or two that weren’t wholly terrible. I’m not sure this selection fares even that well…

Going from worst to ‘best’, the episode placed 155th (of 156) on my consensus ranking is The Mighty Casey. It’s a very silly story about a robot baseball player, which substitutes loopy sound effects and the incredulous expressions of onlookers for its lack of special effects, and I guess also to cover for its lack of adherence to the laws of physics. The only interesting aspect of the story is the reactions — or lack thereof — from characters when they learn Casey is a robot. It appears to be set in the then-present of 1960, but no one’s like, “holy shit, you built a lifelike robot who can pass for human and play baseball!” No, they’re only concerned with whether his roboticness needs to be reported or kept secret. That dilemma ultimately leads toCasey needing to be given a heart, but once he gets one he’s too compassionate to keep playing. So the ultimate message is… you need to be heartless to be a sportsman? I mean, I don’t care for sports much myself, but even I think that’s stretching it. Maybe baseball fans would get a kick out of this episode, but for the rest of us it’s just rubbish.

Equally as daft is Black Leather Jackets, in 154th. A trio of young bikers move in next door to a nice all-American family, but there’s more to the lads than meets the eye. The kindest thing I can say about this episode is that some of it is nicely lit. Unfortunately, the script is pretty crap, with the dialogue being particularly awful. “Do you know the word… love?” Seriously. It’s like a spoof of bad ’50s sci-fi, but it’s real and it was made in 1964. ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer says it’s “arguably the most dated of The Twilight Zone’s 156 episodes” and I think he might be right. And after 20 minutes of uncomfortable ludicrousness, it comes to an entirely unearned bleak ending. Twilight Zone may be most famous for its last-minute surprise reveals, but when they were bad, they were really bad.

The Whole TruthIn 153rd is The Whole Truth, which is about a car that’s been haunted since it came off the production line — although this one’s considerably less threatening than Christine. Instead of a murderous machine, this ‘haunted’ car merely compels its owner to be completely honest at all times. Unfortunately for used car salesman Harvey Hunnicut, he only learns this fact after he’s bought it. It’s an obvious idea — forcing a used car salesman, that most dishonest of individuals, to tell the truth — but it doesn’t go anywhere particularly interesting with it, other than a totally far-fetched and implausible finale. Yes, far-fetched and implausible even by Twilight Zone standards! Singer calls it “the dumbest twist in the history of The Twilight Zone” and, again, I’m inclined to agree.

In the episode titled The Chaser, the eponymous character is a young man in love with a woman who doesn’t reciprocate his affections, but through a coincidental contact he meets a fellow who sells him a guaranteed love potion. The scene where he purchases the potion is really quite good, but on the whole it’s painfully obvious that this is going down a “be careful what you wish for” pathway, and all we can do is wait for it to play out. They’re not even nice characters to spend time with — he’s a pathetic obsessive and she’s a bitch. And after he gets what he wished for and doesn’t like it, he considers a spot of murder. It’s a bit… much. And the morals of it all are a little foggy, to say the least — as many commenters observe, it’s dated into being uncomfortably sexist. There’s an angle that could make this storyline worked (critical of the guy trying to drug a woman into loving him), but that’s not what’s played here.

The Incredible World of Horace Ford is one of The Twilight Zone’s most interesting failures thanks to its production history: the script was previously performed as an episode of a different show in 1955, and by the sounds of things it was just restaged wholesale for TZ. That’s probably why it doesn’t feel like it quite fits in properly — it’s something broadly Twilight Zone-ish that’s been recycled rather than a bespoke episode. It’s about a 37-year-old manchild toy designer who constantly reminisces about stuff he did when he was 10… and yet somehow he’s managed to find himself a caring wife, friends, and hold down a job for 15 years. Maybe we’re supposed to think he wasn’t always so stuck in the past, but the way other characters indulge him makes it seem like he was, even if he’s getting worse as the episode begins.

The Incredible World of Horace FordThe lead actor is Pat Hingle, of Commissioner Gordon in Batman ’89 fame. He gives a convincing performance… if this was about a Big-style situation of a stroppy 10-year-old boy trapped in a 37-year-old’s body, but that isn’t what’s actually happening. There’s an equally misaligned performance from Nan Martin as his wife: it constantly feels like she knows more than she’s letting on about what’s really happening, like the twist might be she’s responsible for, or at least knows, what’s going on… but she isn’t and she doesn’t. Honestly, I don’t blame the actors for struggling with how to play their roles, because it’s not like the story makes it clear for them what’s meant to be going on. At first it seems like another of the series’ “you can’t go home again” episodes about a man in love with nostalgic memories of his childhood, but then it turns out it’s some kind of time-loop thing… or… not. The resolution is maddeningly, deliberately inexplicable. And, yeah, turns out it is just another version of “you can’t rely on your memory of good times”. To compound the problem, it’s a season four episode, so of course it takes its sweet time playing out a storyline over 50 minutes when it only needs the 25 minutes of other seasons; and the time loop factor makes it literally repetitive.

Finally for now, Four O’Clock, which is about a mentally deranged man who wears a far-too-tight waistcoat — and, more importantly, arbitrarily decides he’s going to eradicate all evil in the world at 4pm that afternoon… he just hasn’t worked out how yet. You see, he’s spent his days investigating bad people (i.e. those whose lifestyle choices he personally disagrees with) and trying to rat them out to their employers and the like, but he’s not really getting anywhere. Naturally, it comes to an appropriately ironic ending. Paste’s Oktay Ege Kozak reckons it’s “like lazy Twilight Zone fan fiction: it exploits every pattern the series had developed so far and executes it without much originality or flair”, which is a bit harsh, but also kinda fair. Aside from the predictability of the ending, the episode’s only real problem is that it’s like spending 25 minutes in the company of an internet troll. It might be an accurate portrait of a self-righteous busybody, but that doesn’t mean it’s pleasant to be around him.

Also watched…
  • The Big Night In — The UK’s two big charity telethons, Children in Need and Comic Relief, teamed up for the first time ever in aid of charities who help the most vulnerable at this difficult time. The three-hour event attracted a lot of unnecessary bile on social media. Okay, it wasn’t the greatest TV programme ever made, but it was alright (not significantly worse than these things normally are, I didn’t think), and had a few genuine highlights. The best bits were probably a new Blackadder-adjacent sketch guest starring Prince William, and Catherine Tate’s Lauren being homeschooled by her teacher, played by David Tennant (reprising the role from an old Comic Relief sketch) — “Are you or have you ever been a doctor? Are you a member of the WHO?”
  • Farewell, Sarah Jane — The tie-ins to Doctor Who Lockdown events have only become more elaborate since I wrote about them last month. This is probably the highlight, though: a new, final story for spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures, written by creator Russell T Davies and performed by a host of cameos, all to pay tribute to the late, great Elisabeth Sladen via her iconic character, Sarah Jane Smith. You can watch it on YouTube here.
  • Star Trek: Picard Season 1 Episode 7 — I only watched one more episode all month?! Oh dear. Three to go…

    Things to Catch Up On
    Killing Eve season 3This month, I have mostly been missing Killing Eve, the third season of which is currently airing between iPlayer and BBC One. For the first two seasons we had to wait until after it had finished in the US so they could put the whole lot up on iPlayer at once, which no one noticed during season one but drew a lot of criticism during season two (you can work out why, I’m sure). Consequently, I binged those first two seasons (indeed, I came to it late, so went straight through them both), so I wasn’t sure about watching it weekly now. Also, Devs, the latest work from Alex Garland, which frankly I wasn’t even aware existed until it popped up over here (when it had already almost finished in the US). I’ve seen very mixed reviews of it, but I still intend to watch it. But, as noted above, I still haven’t finished Picard, and I’m determined to get that done before I start anything else. Hopefully next month.

    Next month… hopefully I’ll finish Picard and get on to some of the stuff I’ve been missing. Also, I’ve got my eye on more classic Doctor Who, plus a third (and, I think, final) selection of the worst of The Twilight Zone.

  • The Monster Squad (1987)

    2017 #43
    Fred Dekker | 79 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG-13

    The Monster Squad

    When I rewatched The Nice Guys on Blu-ray, I also watched the (pathetic selection of) special features, in which Ryan Gosling mentions being a fan of Shane Black before he knew who Shane Black was because growing up he loved The Monster Squad. To cut to the obvious, that inspired me to watch the thing.

    It’s about a group of young kids who idolise classic monster movies, but basically find themselves in one when Dracula and friends come alive and set about finding an amulet that will allow them to control the world. The film wasn’t a success on its original release, but has gained a cult following since. It feels like that kind of movie, too.

    It’s also the kind of film I can imagine you’d love if you saw it at the right age, but the “right age” is not, it would seem, the one I am now. Really, it’s a kids’ movie, despite the BBFC’s 15 certificate. There’s more swearing and stuff than you’d typically expect from a kids’ movie, which I’m sure led to that classification, though as it’s not been submitted since 1990 perhaps they’d give it a 12 today. Nonetheless, the tone feels more aimed at, say, ten-year-olds — it stars kids who are 12 and under, and I bet they’re a moderately realistic version thereof, despite what ratings bodies would like.

    Frankie comes from Hollywood

    That’s not to say it’s without value for those of us coming to it late. There’s great make-up and creature effects, better than you might expect given the overall quality of the film, which is what you get when Stan Winston’s involved. It’s under 80 minutes long, which keeps things pleasantly fast — there’s very little titting about with bits of plot that we know where they’re going, it just gets there. There are some good lines too, as you’d expect from a Shane Black screenplay, although it’s surprisingly scrappily constructed. Perhaps that’s Fred Dekker’s limited skill as a director rather than Black’s screenplay? This was early in his career, mind, so maybe Black wasn’t up to scratch yet — it came out the same year as the film that made his name, Lethal Weapon… which I didn’t actually like much either, so…

    The Monster Squad wasn’t a huge success for me, then, but I imagine if you saw it at the right age it would become a nostalgic favourite.

    3 out of 5

    The Golem (1920)

    aka The Golem: How He Came into the World / Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam

    2015 #163
    Carl Boese & Paul Wegener | 85 mins | streaming | 4:3 | Germany / silent (English) | PG

    The word “prequel” was first coined in the ’50s, arguably entered the mainstream in the ’70s, and was firmly established as a term everyone knew and used in the ’90s by the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Works that can be defined as prequels predate their naming, however, and surely one of the earliest examples in the movies must be this silent German horror.

    Now lost, 1915’s Der Golem was set in the present day, when “an antiques dealer (Henrik Galeen) finds a golem (Paul Wegener), a clay statue brought to life by a rabbi four centuries earlier. The dealer resurrects the golem as a servant, but the golem falls in love with the dealer’s wife. As she does not return his love, the golem commits a series of murders.” The film was written and directed by both Galeen and Wegener, but the latter was reportedly unhappy with the film due to compromises he’d made during production. So, after a sequel (also lost), Wegener tried to more directly convey the legend as he’d first heard it — hence Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam, translated as The Golem: How He Came into the World, and commonly abbreviated to just The Golem, what with the original The Golem being lost. (Got it? Good.)

    Set in 16th Century Prague (not that there’s any way to know that from the film itself), The Golem 3 tells the story of that rabbi who brought the clay statue to life in the first place. When the Roman Emperor decrees that Jews must vacate their ghetto, a rabbi builds a monster out of clay then summons a spirit to bring it to life. Meanwhile, one of the Emperor’s knights has fallen in love with the rabbi’s daughter, who is also the object of the rabbi’s assistant’s affections, and this love triangle — combined with access to control of the Golem — will eventually spell “climax”.

    Regarded as one of the first horror films, The Golem is more of a moderately-dark fantasy, or a fairytale-type myth. There are clear similarities to Frankenstein, though I don’t know if either influenced the other. However, it does feature what I presume is one of first instances of that most daft of horror tropes: running upstairs to escape the monster. It goes as well here as it ever does, i.e. not very. Said monster looks a bit comical by today’s standards. Built by the rabbi to defend the Jewish people, he immediately uses the hulking chap to chop wood and run errands — he doesn’t want a defender, he wants a servant! A terrifying beast nonetheless, it’s ultimately defeated because it picks up a little girl for a cuddle and she casually removes its magic life-giving amulet.

    Golem aside, there are some good special effects, like the ring of fire that summons a smoke-breathing demon; composer Aljoscha Zimmerman’s score is largely atmospheric; and there are some nice shots, like when the rabbi walks up to camera, does something with his hands (in what is effectively now a close-up), then walks back to the Golem at the rear of the set. These are the exception, though: it’s mostly a mix of flat long and medium shots. Oddly, the credits on the version currently available note that it adds computer graphics and animation. Presumably this is the English text that’s been digitally pasted into the film on letters, decrees, books, and the like. It also means that the judder, grain, and print damage on the English intertitles is utterly fake. How silly.

    Revered for its place in film history, The Golem has elements to commend it still, but doesn’t hold up as well as other films of the era.

    3 out of 5

    Frankenweenie (2012)

    2014 #91
    Tim Burton | 83 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

    FrankenweenieInspired by two of Burton’s early-’80s shorts (which are most commonly found on Nightmare Before Christmas DVDs), Frankenweenie takes the black-and-white stop-motion visual style from Vincent and the storyline from the live-action Frankenweenie, and expands them out into a feature-length offering.

    The story is as simple as one you’d expect from a short: young Victor Frankenstein’s dog dies; for a school science project, he resurrects him. It works surprisingly well stretched to a feature running time, although it goes a little haywire at the climax (what’s the point of all the monsters, really?)

    Even if the narrative is no great shakes, there’s plenty of fun to be had along the way. The dog, Sparky (ho ho), is very well observed; indeed, all of the animation is naturally top-notch. It retains an indefinable but desirable stop-motion-ness, something I felt Burton’s previous animation, Corpse Bride, lacked — it was so smooth that while watching I began to wonder if I’d misremembered and it was actually CGI. Frankenweenie is attractively shot on the whole, with gorgeous lighting and classy black-and-white designs. Although US funded, I believe it was actually created in the UK, so hurrah us.

    There’s lots of fun references for classic horror aficionados… though, actually, they’re not that obscure: they’ll fly past inexperienced youngsters, but be identifiable to anyone who has a passing familiarity with Universal’s classic horror output. For the kiddies, there’s some good moral messages tossed in the mix, though the best — a brief subplot lambasting America’s attitude to science — should be heeded by all.

    Boy's best friendSome say it doesn’t have enough of an edge. Well, maybe; but I thought it was surprisingly dark in places. Not so considering it’s a Tim Burton film based on resurrecting the dead, but for a Disney-branded animation, yes. Those edgier bits are here and there rather than consistent, but still, I’m not sure what those critics were expecting from a PG-rated Disney animation. I guess there’s an argument that Burton should have pushed it further and aimed for an adult audience, but can you imagine an American studio agreeing to finance an animation primarily targeted at anyone who’s entered their teens? Because I can’t.

    Even if you have to make some allowances for the kid-friendly necessity of Disney animation, I think Burton and co have taken an idea which showed little promise to sustain a full-length feature, and produced a film that’s beautifully made and a lot of fun.

    4 out of 5

    Frankenstein (2004)

    aka Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein

    2010 #22
    Marcus Nispel | 84 mins | DVD | 18

    FrankensteinFirst, a little note on that aka: technically — and, I believe, legally — no such title is attached to this project. However, the initial idea was developed by Koontz and, after he left the project, adapted into his Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein series of novels. Despite the ‘creative disagreement’ (or whatever they chose to call it) that led him to walk away, the film retains significant similarities to the first book. More on these in a moment.

    So, this version of Frankenstein is a made-for-TV movie/series pilot (that’s taken six years to find its way to British TV, apparently — in case you didn’t know, the series wasn’t picked up). According to the blurb on my DVD, it’s a “contemporary retelling of Mary Shelley’s gothic horror classic”. I guess no one in the publicity department actually watched it. In actuality it’s more a sequel to Shelley’s novel: Dr Frankenstein has somehow survived to the modern day and emigrated to New Orleans, where he continues his experiments, while his original monster, now going by the name Deucalion, has tracked him down in the name of justice. Or something. Maybe they should’ve just started from scratch… then again, look how that worked out.

    Thanks to Koontz leaving the project midway through its conception, it’s difficult to accurately explain the relationship between the novel and the film. This isn’t an adaptation, certainly, but nor is the novel a mere novelization. Most of the official comment on the novel/film relationship is along the lines of this, taken from the current iteration of the book series’ Wikipedia entry: “Koontz withdrew from the project over creative differences with the network, and the production continued in a different direction with similar characters and a modified plot.” Perhaps this is what Koontz would like viewers/readers to believe: that the novels are his undiluted vision, while the film most certainly is not. Well, don’t believe him.

    Watching the film having read the book (a couple of years ago), this feels like a faithful adaptation. It comes with the usual caveats of condensing a c.400-page novel into a sub-90-minute film — certain elements are foreshortened, others tweaked, others abandoned — but in terms of the primary plot, the characters and their actions, it’s all incredibly close to the series’ first novel. I hesitate to say “exactly the same” when I’ve not read it for years, but it wouldn’t surprise me if whole scenes and dialogue exchanges match perfectly.

    What this also means is that the film suffers from some of the novel’s flaws, when taken as a standalone work. Dr Frankenstein — now Dr Helios, for what it’s worth — is introduced but remains a background figure, only peripherally connected to this episode’s serial killer plot. In this its intentions as a pilot couldn’t be clearer, and with an ending that’s part cliffhanger, part “the story continues”, it’s as clear as in the novel that this is far from over. Other than there not being a TV series or any sequels, that is. (Though if you want to know what happens, there are already two further novels — and three more planned — that continue the story.)

    The film itself isn’t badly produced. Marcus Nispel’s direction seems heavily influenced by Se7en, all dark and grainy and very, very brown. Even the title sequence, with its juddery extreme close-ups and pulsating grungy soundtrack, feels borrowed from Fincher’s masterpiece. The cast are fine: Michael Madsen and Adam Goldberg play the same parts they always play, Parkey Posey leads well enough, and as Deucalion, Vincent Perez is… adequate. Thomas Kretschmann’s Helios is the closest the film comes to an outstanding performance; knowing the events of books two and three, one almost longs for sequels to see Kretschmann’s cooly dominant Helios disintegrate as Everything Goes Wrong.

    All things considered, Frankenstein is probably best viewed as a compromised curiosity. It’s certainly not a wholly satisfying experience in itself, but those interested in Koontz’s series may find it a nice way to test the waters without having to plough through a whole novel, while those who have read the novel may find it interesting to see one part of the story committed to film. Or, of course, they may find it irritating that it’s not how they imagined. I fall into that middle category; those with no interest in the books or who hold them too dearly may wish to knock a star off this score.

    3 out of 5

    Five have the UK TV premiere of Frankenstein tonight at 11:25pm.

    Flesh for Frankenstein [3D] (1973)

    aka Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein

    2009 #75
    Paul Morrissey | 95 mins | TV | 18 / R

    Flesh for FrankensteinFlesh for Frankenstein is thoroughly daft. But it’s also in 3D, so let’s start there.

    The best thing about the extra dimension is that it provides some genuinely impressive visuals throughout, and not in the gimmicky, thrust-stuff-into-the-audience way — naturally there are some of those shots, but they seem to work quite poorly here. That could be the fault of Channel 4’s chosen 3D system, or perhaps of watching on a TV rather than a huge screen. Either way, there are also shots that demonstrate why 3D could be genuinely valuable, to visuals if not necessarily to storytelling. For example, early on the wife/sister (a discussion for another time) and her kids go for a picnic. It’s shot from a distance through branches in the foreground, which highlights that there’s a realistic sense of depth to every element of the frame that just isn’t present if you see the same shot in 2D — I know, I checked. For perhaps the first time, I got a sense of why some people harp on about 2D flattening composition.

    Unfortunately, while the 3D system used is sometimes flawlessly brilliant, at others it seems to have gone wrong. There’s an odd green ringing in some shots, while at others it appears they’ve used the wrong shade of blue for monochrome-depth because it shows up (in scenes that work, the blue is clearly visible if you take the glasses off, but invisible with them on). Such problems are intermittent in the stuff shown during 3D Week, leading one to suspect it’s as much a fault of the age of the film elements.

    I can also now see why people have been complaining so much about 3D — it feels like a constant struggle and strain to watch, like you’re always having to make it work. Perhaps that’s partly down to the technical flaws described above though, because I didn’t suffer as much during an hour of Derren Brown’s Magic Spectacular, whereas here I could feel the strain after just 15 minutes.

    As for the film itself… The plot doesn’t make any sense for about 20 minutes, then Udo Kier’s Frankenstein (I presume he’s Frankenstein, I don’t think he’s ever addressed as more than Baron) has a bit of a monologue to explain his Hitler-ish Cunning Plan — to someone who already knows it, naturally — and suddenly most of what’ll happen for the rest of the film is abundantly clear.

    The acting is uniformly atrocious. Despite that, it also provides the film’s best moments: the European cast are unable to pronounce “laboratory” — every time it’s uttered it comes out as “lavatory”. Childish I know, but it’s one of the film’s few enjoyable moments. “I had to work for two years before I could even stick my nose in the lavatory” is an instantly classic line. (As is “To know death, you have to fuck life in the gall bladder” — literally, apparently.) Continuing the accented madness, the good-guy serf sounds to be from Brooklyn. At least he can say “laboratory”.

    Gratuitous nudity and gore belie some critics’ apparent view that it’s only with the emergence of torture porn that operation-level gore has become a selling point of horror movies — it’s only become more realistic. Just as the gore’s silly, so the sex seems misguided — whoever cast the whores seems to have found believable rather than attractive ones. Oops. That said, whoever in the sound department thought the most realistic sound effects for various sex acts could be found by having someone suck on a balloon, loudly, was even more misguided.

    Apparently it’s all meant to be satirical or Pythonesquely humourous. Well, maybe, but it sails too close to the winds of genuine crapness to let such a defence fly — though, as noted, that certainly makes it laughable. Weak in just about every way imaginable, if you’re after a horror, gore, porn or 3D fix, look elsewhere. For “so bad it’s good” value, however, I’ve kindly given it an extra star.

    2 out of 5