I remember when DVD’s were a new thing, and the Director’s Commentary was what sold me. I converted all my old VHS tapes to the new format to hear words of wisdom from the creators of the film. It was a film class for those of us who weren’t going to spend ridiculous sums on grad school (hint: go to theater school, they pay YOU). I remember “Blackhawk Down” had three different commentary tracks. And of course “The Lord of the Rings” films had so much material on the deluxe versions you wondered if you would finish before the next year’s film made it out. Every once in a while you would stumble upon a commentary where the people didn’t really seem to be happy to be in the room together, or spent the whole time talking around an issue or actor leaving the listener to connect the dots for themselves. When I recorded the Director’s Commentary for my own feature (iCrime, buy it used!) with the lead actress and the only producer I still talked to at the time, it was hard to keep my own suppressed feeling of bitterness in check as we rambled on watching a film we had shot two years ago, full of hopes and dreams.
Which leads me to one of the smartest films I’ve seen this year, DIRECTOR’S COMMENTARY: THE TERROR OF FRANKENSTEIN which played Fantasia last week. The idea behind the film is that you are watching it with commentary turned on (it even opens with someone clicking through menus, looking at the ‘photo gallery,’ etc.) “The Terror of Frankenstein” is a very real movie. In fact, it’s arguably the best ever made of Mary Shelly’s book (and also probably the most true to the source material). However, the commentary that the audience is treated to for this screening is entirely fabricated. Director Tim Kirk and his co-writer Jay Kirk, along with Producer Rodney Ascher (Room 237, The Nightmare), have cast two voice actors to play the director and screenwriter of The Terror of Frankenstein, and these ‘filmmakers’ share on-set anecdotes as well as discuss the film’s legacy.
I cannot begin to explain how brilliant this set up is, because as the two discuss the film’s notoriety it becomes very clear that most people’s interest in the film stems not from what’s on screen, but from a series of gruesome murders and a lengthy public trial of one of the cast members. Bits of the story leak out as they watch the film together, as well as old grudges and hints of blame. But it all starts very subtly, which is why it works so well. The audience is left to try to piece together what happened as they are asked to follow the placement and heaviness of a certain piece of prop luggage, which we later learn had parts of a dead body shoved in it. We learn that even the minor characters were killed off as the killer went on his spree, all the while the director praising himself for the performances he got.
As the film develops, it becomes suggested that possibly the production team should have been a little more implicated in the tragic trajectory for their questionable ‘methods’ including leaving one actor in the wilderness for weeks at a time. Finally, the lead actor shows up to join in the commentary and it all unravels. Leon Vitali, who played Victor Frankenstein in the actual Terror of Frankenstein, lends his voice here as the actual Leon Vitali, who somehow survived the gruesome murders that seemed to take the lives of the rest of the cast. The fact that the Director’s Commentary team actually got the Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut actor to play along is a stroke of absolute brilliance and he adds a confusing air of sincerity that sends the meta-fiction into a bizarre brain melting spiral.
At the end of Director’s Commentary, I found myself struggling to unravel my feelings. It’s a hilarious ride, and fantastically delightful and smart. Clearly the producers had to get the rights to the original film to do this one, because it is entirely dependent on being heard with “The Terror of Frankenstein.” I’m guessing that wasn’t too hard, no one is aching to remake a film that was based on a work in the public domain anyway. When they got Leon Vitali in on the joke, it really lifted it to the level of art, rather than some sort of extended you tube video or Mystery Science 3000 episode. The voice talent admits right away that the actual listed writers and director of “The Terror of Frankenstein” are just pseudonyms, so that sort of distances them from Calvin and Yvonne Floyd, both of whom seem to be still alive – I wonder if they got paid? Much more disturbing is the case of Nicholas Clay, who played Lancelot in Excalibur, and who becomes the murderous villain of the story within the story of Director’s Commentary. Clay has been dead since 2000. I’m sure most of the world has not thought much about him since, but now he is a serial killer in the context of the film – Clay is, not the character he played in Terror of Frankenstein.
So by name, Nicholas Clay is blamed for a series of murders and dragged through the (albeit made-up) mud, all without a say in it. I wonder about that. My wife is a lawyer, so many of our conversations end up on that Venn diagram of art and legality. Did the filmmakers get the rights to invent alternate history for the actors of the film? Should they have? Realistically someone could walk in on this thing (on tv, on dvd) and think it’s all true. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I do know how I feel about the film itself, as a singular work of cinematic fiction. It is absolute genius and needs to be seen. See it at a festival if you can, just in case the lawyers clamp this one down.
Director’s Commentary: The Terror of Frankenstein just screened at Fantasia International Film Festival and premiered at the Stanley Film Festival (fittingly the location of The Shining, the subject of Ascher’s Room 237). If I was a betting man, I’d put good money on this coming next to Fantastic Fest in Austin.