Director: Tim Kirk
Writer: Jay Kirk, Tim Kirk
Producer: Rodney Ascher, Tim Kirk
Stars: Clu Gulager, Zack Norman, Leon Vitali
The director, writer, and star of “Terror of Frankenstein” detail the grisly behind-the-scenes crimes that claimed the lives of the film’s cast.
As director and producer respectively, Rodney Ascher and Tim Kirk have made noteworthy waves by blending reality with fantasy in the documentaries “Room 237” (review here) and “The Nightmare” (review here). Both projects identify the filmmakers’ fascination for applying fictional veneers to nonfiction narratives as a uniquely informative entertainment form. Swapping director and producer hats on their third feature collaboration, “Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein” finds Kirk and Ascher evolving their hybrid storytelling techniques into a fake audio track for a real movie, only to achieve an end result that isn’t as fulfilling as it could or should be.
“Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein” is such an obvious extension of the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” mindset that it is confounding this format is not already routinely employed. A key difference is that MST3K has the advantage of striking into already rich source material be mining hilarity inherent in the B-movies lampooned. While not a straight parody of the film being framed, “Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein” instead starts with a neutered nucleus that puts the kooky concept behind the eight ball from the first break.
“Terror of Frankenstein” (review here) is a faithful, yet mostly forgotten 1977 film adaptation of the Mary Shelley classic. Remarkable for being unremarkable, the movie doesn’t have the Styrofoam sets and C-list celebrities that might make mockery come easily. Without cleverly campy charm in its corner, the visuals here are more or less reduced to mere accompaniment for the dialogue. So “Director’s Commentary” goes for a different style of spoof that is not intended to be strictly comedic. Changing the names of the living while making fair game of the dead, the faux commentary track abandons the usual behind-the-scenes chatter to fabricate an exposé on the macabre murder spree that claimed the lives of the film’s core cast.
“Director’s Commentary” earns early snickers by opening on a DVD menu for the film’s oddly-commemorated 37th Anniversary Edition, complete with an unskippable FBI warning and a quickly aborted look at a slideshow extra. Clu Gulager voices director Gavin Merrill while Zack Norman plays writer David Falks, who explain that the movie’s actual credits of Calvin and Yvonne Floyd were a longstanding in-joke between the duo.
The story laid on top of “Terror of Frankenstein” is basically a backwards-unfolding mystery dropping breadcrumbs about how each actor died before confirming the killer’s identity and resolving the fallout from the revelation. On paper, the premise sounds promising. In actuality, the execution underwhelms.
The mild mystery element is conspicuously vague. It is mentioned at the outset that there was a recent trial and an execution, but the script goes out of its way to dance around details as Gavin and David cryptically reference various crimes in an unnatural manner. An equivalent would be discussing Sharon Tate’s murder without ever mentioning Charles Manson or his “family.” The final payoff to the frustration of waiting for the puzzle to piece together doesn’t pack the punch of a satisfying reward.
Clu Gulager sounds like he is eating up the role of a delusional director, reveling in being the mouthpiece for juicy gossip about underage prostitutes and grisly decapitations, all with an authentic air befitting a DVD commentary. Partnered with Zack Norman on the other hand, the pair’s interactions never gel due to the clearly rehearsed cadence. Norman’s radio voice sounds great tonally, save for an ear-piercingly annoying bout of forced weeping during the climax, but his melodramatic delivery is a dead giveaway that this is a script reading and not an organic conversation.
Of the screenings I attended at the 2015 Stanley Film Festival where it premiered, “Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein” was the only one where audience applause, even as a courtesy to the filmmakers in attendance, did not accompany the end credits. I don’t attribute that to dislike for the film necessarily. It felt owed more to confusion over how to react to the lukewarm weirdness just witnessed, which is quite possibly the most appropriate response.
“Director’s Commentary” is a concept worth supporting provided it has a better frame and secondary story to go along with it. As far as its application to “Terror of Frankenstein” goes, Tim Kirk and Rodney Ascher deserve points for fusing irreverent pastiche with an original horror story that theoretically should be fun for genre fans. But this particular experiment in creative entertainment is more failure than success.
Review Score: 55