'Director's Commentary: Terror Of Frankenstein' is the ultimate film nerd joke
While I am not lucky enough this summer to be in Montreal at the always-delightful Fantasia Film Festival, they've been kind enough to reach out to share some of their programming with me, and the first thing I watched once again reaffirms my faith in just how great they are at picking and supporting worthwhile and challenging and entertaining movies.
Case in point: "Director's Commentary: Terror Of Frankenstein."
There are certain titles that are provocative or that paint a picture or that hit you as particularly poetic or clever, but I'm especially fond of titles that sneak up on you. When I saw "Short Term 12" at SXSW, it was towards the end of the festival, and it was because it won a major narrative award. Before that, I thought it was a shorts program, and since I rarely review shorts out of festivals (simply because of the workload, not out of any philosophical stance), I had checked out on that film completely. Likewise, when I first saw festival listings for this film, I didn't get it. I didn't realize what it was. And now that I've seen it, I want to make sure no one else makes the mistake of missing it if they have an opportunity to see it.
Rodney Ascher and Tim Kirk poked a particular strain of movie nerd right in the pleasure center with "Room 237," their documentary about fan theories regarding Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining." I like that film, and I think one of the things that's most fun about it is that I don't agree with any of the theories in the film at all. You don't have to. That's not the point. As with Ascher's "The S From Hell," these films tap into something deeper about the way we ingest culture and the way things stick in our heads and why. With "Director's Commentary: Terror Of Frankenstein," they've taken one piece of art and repurposed it into something brand new and wholly different, and it is one of the strangest but most clever jokes I've ever seen someone sustain for an entire film.
There is a real "Terror Of Frankenstein" from 1977, directed by Calvin Floyd and written by Calvin Floyd and Yvonne Floyd, and in it, Leon Vitali played Victor Frankenstein, with Per Oscarsson as The Monster. As this film begins, it looks like you're putting in a DVD of that film, then selecting the director's commentary from the main menu, and then simply watching the entire thing. You watch the actual 1977 movie, but from the very start, what you're listening to is entirely fictional. Director Gavin Merrill and screenwriter David Falks reunite for the first time since the 1977 shoot to talk about the film, with actor Leon Vitali due to arrive at some point during the recording. That's already a really weird and complicated joke, with Clu Gulager playing Merrill and Zack Norman playing Falks. Neither of those people exist, and very quickly, it's clear that there is a larger game being played as well, a sort of counter-narrative that evolves as the two of them reminisce. There's nothing fond about the reunion, and there seems to be some real anguish simmering for some reason.
There are some big laughs in the film, but it's as dry as dry gets. There's nothing about the movie that telegraphs the truth about what you're watching, and I had to go do the research to determine for myself whether there was even a 1977 film in the first place. It was so weird to me to hear Leon Vitali's name that I thought it was another level of joke, since I know him primarily as Stanley Kubrick's producer and, since his passing, one of his artistic defenders. Not only is this a real 1977 performance by him, but when Leon Vitali does show up on the commentary, it's really Leon Vitali, even though when he jumps into the conversation, it's with two totally fabricated filmmakers. Both Gulager and Norman are really sharp in the way they gradually reveal the thing that tore these two apart, and Gulager's final moments are equally hilarious and haunting thanks to the way he plays it.
I don't want to see tons of terrible imitations of this, because I can imagine so many ways this would be awful, but "Director's Commentary: Terror Of Frankenstein" is a very special film nerd curio that I imagine hardcore film fanatics will hold dear if they get a chance to check it out.
"Director's Commentary: Terror Of Frankenstein" made its debut July 19th at the Fantasia International Film Festival.