The Terror Behind Terror of Frankenstein
Austin debut of mind-bending horror Director's Commentary
By Richard Whittaker,
12:15PM, Wed. Aug. 24, 2016
DVD commentary tracks on feature films are a contradiction: facts being talked over a fantasy. In Director's Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein, the commentary itself is a story, a head-spinning metafiction twisting another film. "It's new ground," said director/co-writer Tim Kirk, "and we're making it up as we're going along."
Kirk has his own favored commentary tracks. John Carpenter and Kurt Russell bonding over The Thing, for example: "They're getting drunk, and there's one scene where Wilford Brimley is trashing the radio, and the two of them are just laughing for three minutes straight." The polar opposite comes with The Limey, where the acid hatred between director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs drips from every exchange. Kirk said, "There was a moment where they had to reload tape, and the two stopped talking and sat in stony silence. Then they started rolling, and they start straight back into it again."
That's more like the experience of Director's Commentary. It's presented as a DVD commentary, starting with a flick between menu screens. Then director Gavin Merrill (Clu Gallager) and writer David Falks (Zach Norman) start talking about their horror film, Terror of Frankenstein. But there is tension, verging on hatred, as the two clash and collude over a monstrous and dark secret that hangs over the film.
The genesis of the project (which gets its Austin debut Thursday as part of Other World's Austin's year-round programming) came to Kirk when he was producing Room 237. That's Rodney Ascher's documentary about fan/conspiracy theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining. Kirk said, "Right around the same time I became a father, and for me that film became a lot more about fatherhood." He found himself drawn to "the theme of fatherhood in horror, and next to The Shining, Frankenstein is the number one film that explores that topic."
Just as Room 237 examines what people read into a movie, Director's Commentary explores a hidden fake story behind a very real movie. What was key was finding the right version of Frankenstein for his ends. He started watching every version of Mary Shelley's story that he could, but quickly found that few filmmakers tackled the creator/created story as a father/son relationship. He said, "I was kind of surprised that I wasn't seeing a lot of that. Maybe as subtext rather than text."
Luckily, he found the real Terror of Frankenstein, a 1977 adaptation starring British character actor Leon Vitali (Barry Lyndon) as the original mad scientist, and Swedish TV mainstay Per Oscarsson as his murderous spawn. Working with his cousin, true crime author Jay Kirk, they immersed themselves in the original movie. He said, "We would watch it together and alone, and just spitball ideas, and the one thing that we came back to is that there's an underlying horror. If you just boil it down to the basic story, it's about a man who makes a monster, who kills and has no idea how to deal with his murderous impulses, and the father is incapable of accepting the responsibility of what he has created. If you look at what we're telling in the meta-story, it's about these two guys grappling with the creation of this monster, and the toll it takes on their psyches."
Director's Commentary walks a fine line. After all, the meta-story is about creating a false narrative about real people. Merrill and Falks are just narrative constructs, because the actual director was Calvin Floyd, who wrote the script with his wife Yvonne. So far, so removed from the reality. But Falks and Merrill talk about the original cast in their commentary, and fit them into their malevolent backstory. Vitali even makes it in to the commentary booth, playing a fictionalized version of himself. Kirk said, "That brings the mindfuck to the next level, knowing that he had really been there."
Blending reality, fiction, and fantasy into such a multi-layered narrative structure confronted the creators with many conundrums: not least getting permission to use the footage of the real Terror of Frankenstein. Kirk admitted he disappeared down a rabbit hole trying to get the rights cleared, saying, "If I do this again and I might, I would go about it in a very different way, I would get a lot of films that I think I could get the rights to, and then see if it would fit in the story I wanted to tell."
Then there is the more troubling question of how to present these real/unreal characters. Kirk said, "One would be legally and one would be a moral decision." During production of Room 237, the conspiracy components meant a lot of discussions with lawyers: When he started writing Director's Commentary, out came their business cards again. "The first thing I did before I started writing was to meet with them and lay down guidelines on what I could and couldn't do with real people."
The moral side was a completely different question. After all, there are dark deeds being talked about on the set, so even if he was legally clear, that didn't mean everyone would be happy with their meta-portrayal. However, Kirk said that he has not heard anything negative from the surviving cast, and having Vitali on board was a kind of blessing to his genre-bending, especially when he attended the debut at the Stanley Film Festival. "It was interesting to watch the film sitting next to Leon, because he lived it, and it was a very different reality."
Then there was another level that revealed itself, after the recording had wrapped. Kirk discovered that many members of the original film's cast and crew had suffered weird early demises, like the actor that played the mayor. "That character actor went on to have some tax problems in Sweden, and he went in to the tax office and lit himself on fire. Per Oscarsson died in a house fire and they couldn't find his remains for a long time. There were a lot of things that went on with that film that I didn't know about while I was making this film."
Other Worlds Austin presents the Austin premiere of Director's Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein, Thursday, August 25, 8:55pm, at Flix Brewhouse, 2200 S. I-35, Round Rock. Tickets at www.flixbrewhouse.com.
Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival runs Dec. 1-4. Visit www.otherworldsaustin.com for more info.