Thursday, June 20, 2013

Errors of the Human Body

Well, I would have liked to talk about this one earlier, but as you can see from the last couple of posts, Saturday was a pretty crazy smallish-movie-watching day (and that's not even including the Superman movie). This was the very tail end of it, at midnight at the Somerville, leaving me ready to drop because it got out after the Red Line stopped running my direction.

Still, it was a nifty way to begin the Cinema Slumber Party series at the Somerville Theatre, which looks like it's going to be a fun one. Chris Hallock, one of the guys behind the "All Things Horror Presents" series, has lined up what looks like it could be an interesting line-up in that it started off with something new and unusual and will have everything from Day of the Dead to Pitch Perfect over the course of the summer (note that the schedules on the Cinema Slumber Party and Somerville Theatre websites are slightly different). This coming Saturday should be a different kind of fun with a 35mm print of Ray Harryhausen's The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.

It was a somewhat quiet first week, but to be fair, they did have the rotten luck to open up against the Bruins playing overtime in the Stanley Cup finals. I'm guessing that won't throttle this series in its crib the way I'll always (somewhat irrationally) feel the Red Sox' 2004 championship run did for the Boston Fantastic Film Festival.

Speaking of... Well, let's save spoilers for after the review!

Errors of the Human Body

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 June 2013 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Cinema Slumber Party, digital)

There's a pattern to movies like Errors of the Human Body - scientist arrives at secretive new lab, discovers his research being used for secret programs, confronts the results of the perverted and monstrous use it is being put to, maybe stops it, maybe doesn't, delivers a speech about how men shouldn't be playing God, etc., etc. And while there's a lot of that in this movie, writer/director Eron Sheean inverts and twists enough of it to make things interesting. Not always exciting or scary, but interesting.

In this case the scientist is Geoffrey Burton (Michael Eklund), who has been forced out of his position at the University of Massachusetts for the fringy research he has been conducting into genetic screening ever since his newborn son died from a rare and horrible condition. He's hired by a laboratory in Dresden, with his supervisor Samuel Mead (Rik Mayall) suggesting he work with his former student Rebekka Fielder (Karoline Herfurth) on her cellular regeneration project. He also attracts the attention of Jarek Novak (Tomas Lemarquis), a suspicious-looking guy who runs the "mouse house" and seems to be hijacking Rebekka's work.

For all that there are mutated genes, retroviruses, and other science-fictional devices in the story, Sheean and co-writer Shane Danielsen opt to keep much of the focus on the office politics and other interpersonal drama. It proves to be a rich vein of tension even next to the horror elements, in part because of the particular dynamics of a research laboratory - the competitive publish-or-perish atmosphere, the graduation from mentor-student relationships, the eccentric people that the field attracts, the knowledge that one is working on something that could potentially change the world but will more likely leave one in unappreciated anonymity. On top of that, these characters' backstories may occasionally be kind of familiar (of course Geoff and Rebekka were more than teacher and student!), but even if their interconnections aren't complicated, they're enhanced by the characters' intense feelings about their work.

Full review on EFC


As much as I have a few issues with the movie, I do kind of have a twisted love for how things play out in the end. Whenever the subject of assisted suicide or "death with dignity" comes up in real life, I always say that I want none of that, because the day after I take my own life would be the day that scientists announce that they've made a really awesome discovery involving stem cells, and it was kind of gratifying to see Eron Sheean more or less play that scenario out, albeit in the most horrifying and heartbreaking way possible. The trope of scientists being called out for "playing god" for trying to discover and apply knowledge - as opposed to, say, "having faith" - is one that annoys me much more than it really should, and I found the idea that Dr. Burton ending his baby's suffering winds up as the worst thing he could do, rather than somewhat noble if painful, was a very welcome twist.

And that's not the only way that the last scene turns conventional horror movie storytelling on its head, either - I love that when the audience sees Geoff awake, strapped to a hospital bed, our first impression is that we're getting the almost-expected dark ending, where the evil pharma company is harvesting the Easter Genes his system is producing for their own nefarious purposes, but, no - friend/lover/student/peer Rebekka is just worried about him and trying to help. Then she hits him with the bombshell that his son would have lived... And as she says it, she figures out what he did herself. And then that last shot is kind of beautiful, with us looking through a window to get an even more exaggerated widescreen framing, so that we're even more aware of the horizontal spacing between Geoff and Rebekka, just pointing out how the course of his life from here forward is going to be determined by whether she walks toward or away from him. Is he forgiven, loved, treated as a valued member of the scientific community, or is he a damned outcast?

Sheean winds up holding the shot and fading to black; it's the audience's decision to make. But the length he holds it for emphasizes the difficulty of it, and that's a much more effective way of getting the point across than all the movies that wring their hands over the moral complexities involved.


I kind of love that, but I wonder how it plays to others. I suspect it will help make Errors of the Human Body even more of a niche picture than it already is. I'm glad I fall in its niche, though.


Anonymous said...

Well written. I was completely captivated by the ending.

Ryan said...

The ending of this film had a slow dawning effect that many films avoid, preferring the gut wrenching quick twist of the knife. Instead, the slow turn at the end was effective in making my skin crawl, the chills finalizing as I realized the mistake our presumably dead protagonist had made. The final scene really made the movie quite honestly, as this author said I was waiting for this scene the entire movie and fully expected the trite "you've been used for your skills/knowledge/abilities/etc." ending that ends up letting us down as an audience in many sci-fi/horror/thriller films these days. I look forward to whatever this director holds next in store for his audience. Excellent review and synopsis here, thank you.

pokemonique said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
pokemonique said...

Just one thing... I acknowledge Rebekka saying the son would have survived... But just because Geoff had the miraculous immunity doesn't mean the gene was autosomal dominant. If it was a recessive gene the kid wouldnt have had immunity, so the ending didn't automatically click for me . Haha.