Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016)

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three star

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The convenience of films with titles like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is that you pretty much know ahead of time whether or not you’ll be on board with what they’re selling. Do you enjoy costume dramas? Are you not yet completely exhausted by the staggering amount of zombie media out there? Surely there are enough people who sit comfortably in both categories. Just take a random polling of attendees and any Tori Amos or Rasputina concert & you’re bound to find a few.  And you can count me among them. I can enjoy a good, middling costume drama any day of the week & I’m more or less in the same camp when it comes to mediocre zombie mayhem (although that genre tests my patience more every coming year). I never bothered reading the print version of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (which the film’s opening credits claims is a “Quirk Book series classic”) because it seemed kind of mindless & arbitrary, but luckily mindless & arbitrary are two attributes of genre cinema I can usually get behind. Basically what I’m saying is I knew approximately how I was going to feel about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies before I even got to the theater and I suspect most people are in the same boat. The film itself did little to exceed or subvert expectation, but honestly I was fine with that.

As you might expect with a literary adaptation where zombies are air-dropped into a classical work, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies somehow keeps its Jane Austen plot & its zombie mayhem somewhat separate. Early scenes show young maidens cleaning guns instead of sewing (or something similarly ladylike) & including knives in their garters & corsets dress-up montages, but for the most part its polite society parlor drama & the zombie killing rampages mix about as well as oil & water. The film has fun with genre-bending lines like “Zombies or no zombies, all women must think of marriage, Lizzie” & “I don’t know which I admire more: your strength as a warrior or your resolve as a woman,” but its two plot lines rarely bleed together in a satisfying way. On one hand you have a small gang of unmarried sisters trying to land wealthy beaus while staying true to themselves. Happening almost entirely somewhere else: the zombie apocalypse & an alternate history of England as a country. The film’s line of horror comedy is mostly an occasional interjection that disrupts these dueling plot lines. For a film with such a winking joke of a premise Pride and Prejudice and Zombies takes both ends of its titular mashup surprisingly seriously.

There is exactly one thing that stuck surprisingly  astute with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies as a Jane Austen adaptation. One thing the film does very well is to bring attention to the way Austen’s characters are viciously combative in their hushed, “polite” conversation. During scenes that might’ve played as subtle verbal sparring on the page are accompanied here by not-subtle-at-all literal sparring. For each verbal jab someone throws at their societal opponent a corresponding jab is thrown with a fist. A perpetually slumming-it Charles Dance (who now has a history of working in this realm thanks to Victor Frankenstein & Dracula Untold) plays the girls’ paterfamilias & describes his progeny as “our warrior daughters”. It’s true that the girls were already warriors in the zombieless Jane Austen source material, but their modes of violence & agency were a little less easily detectable. God help any desperate high school student who tries to pass an exam on Pride and Prejudice by watching this film, but the thematically obtuse might get a better understanding of the novel’s modes of societal combat by watching it play out visually on the screen.

That small insight aside, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is mostly a silly endeavor, never entirely serious about engaging with its source material in any sincere way. It’s also not all that committed to the zombie end of its premise. The monster make-up is solidly on point, but the film shies away from the gore end of the genre that made folks like George Romero & Peter Jackson masters of the form. Hardcore Pride and Prejudice fans and hardcore zombie movie fans are both likely to find plenty to gripe about here, since the film splits its time between both halves without  ever fully committing to either. The ideal audience, then? I’d say folks easily impressed by costume dramas who wouldn’t mind a little zombie mayhem peppering the genre for superfluous flavor are most likely to enjoy themselves. Pride and Prejudice fans are likely to be annoyed by how the novel’s feminist themes are cheapened by being boiled down to sexy women playing with weapons in complicated underwear. Zombie creature feature nerds are likely to be bummed by how the genre’s go-for-broke gore has been mostly supplanted by bodice-heaving romance. Personally, I took perverse pleasure in both of those aspects (especially the part about the complicated underwear; can’t help myself). For me, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ worst crimes are being a little overlong & having the gall to flash back to earlier scenes from within its own film in an especially-lazy letter-reading scene. For a film that sets the bar so low & expectations so specific in its very title & premise, those are two faults I’m more than willing to forgive.

Side note: I love how insular casting in the costume drama/fantasy cinema world can be. Besides Game of Thrones‘ Charles Dance & Lena Headey, there’s Lily James of Downton Abbey & Cinderella, Maleficent‘s Sam Riley, Noah‘s Douglas Booth, and (my personal favorite) Boardwalk Empire‘s Jack Huston. I guess you could include Doctor Who‘s Matt Smith in there as well, given that series’ time-jumping aspects. I’m sure for the actors this kind of typecasting can be an annoyance, but as an audience I find it oddly fascinating.

-Brandon Ledet

Victor Frankenstein (2015)

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fourstar

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“You know their story . . .”

In the press/apology tour for Victor Frankenstein (critics have not been kind), director Paul McGuigan has been quoted as saying that Mary Shelly’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus is “dull as dishwater“, not a surprising sentiment in light of how his film approaches its source material. Victor Frankenstein has the same reverence for Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein that Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters has for its Brothers Grimm origins. It’s so distanced from the novel, in fact, that I didn’t spot a single mention given to Mary Shelly in the final credits. Not even a “characters by” shout-out. Oddly enough, I think it’s that exact flippant approach to the now classic horror tale that makes the film an enjoyable (and mostly intentional) camp fest. Well, that & over-the-top performances from James McAvoy as the mad scientist Frankenstein, Daniel Radcliffe as the groveling Igor, and Andrew Scott as a soft spoken police inspector on a mission from God.

At first, it seems as though Victor Frankenstein doesn’t bring any new ideas to the table for a property that’s been already adapted for the screen roughly 50,000 times (including last year’s dismal I, Frankenstein). McAvoy’s feverish, spit-flinging performance is inspired in terms of camp value, but the movie’s early declarations like, “Life is temporary, so why should death be any different?” and “The world remembers the monster, but not the man . . , But sometimes the monster is the man,” aren’t particularly fresh, but rather a stitched-together homunculus made of old leftover movie parts. Eventually, however, a clear narrative appears. As the God-fearing police investigator starts butting heads with Frankenstein, it becomes clear that the film is a campy battle between Atheism vs. Christianity, Science vs. Faith. The policeman is incensed that the mad scientist is on a mission “to create life in direct, violent action against God,” claiming that he’s “in allegiance with Satan.” Frankenstein snaps back, “There is no Satan, no God, no me.” This aspect of the film is obsessively explored to the point that is plays as 100% sincere, but ultimately feels just as ridiculous as any of its outright horror comedy gags.

Half-cooked philosophy aside, there’s plenty of goofy charms that make the film surprisingly enjoyable as a camp fest. An early origin story for Igor that features Harry Potter crouched over in heavy clown make-up works as literal bread & circuses. Moving the narrative from a remote castle to the inner city gives it a distinct Tim Burton tone, particularly the movie Sweeney Todd. The film’s costume design is gorgeous (especially in the love interest & Downton Abbey vet Jessica Brown Findlay’s dresses & McAvoy’s vests), but the rest of the imagery is absurdly nasty. Grotesque practical effects surrounding bodily horror like eyes & other organs suspended in jars, steam punk medical tools, abscess fluid, and an early Frankenstein monster prototype (a chimp-esque “meat sculpture” homunculus made of dead animal parts) are all pitch perfect in their absurdity. The actual Frankenstein monster almost feels like a last-minute afterthought, but is ultimately satisfying in its design, looking like a mutant pro wrestler or Goro, the big boss character from Mortal Kombat, except with extra internal organs instead of extra limbs. Ultimately, though, it’s the over-the-top acting of its three heads that sell the movie as an absurdist slice of mindless entertainment.

It’s difficult to say if this was an intentional element to the movie’s  Max Landis screenplay, but the film also has an interesting level of homosexual subtext in the relationship between Igor & his master, which manifests both in subtle moments of body language & romantic jealousy as well as more obvious moments like when Frankenstein shouts about sperm in the only scene where he’s shown conversing with women. Again, it’s difficult to tell if this was Landis’ screenplay or McAvoy & Radcliffe’s performances in action, but it’s just another element in play to a surprisingly enjoyable film with an already-negative reputation due to its indifference for its source material & flights of ugly frivolity. Victor Frankenstein‘s latent homosexuality (which really does stretch just beyond the bounds of bromance), laughable atheism, and grotesque body humor all play like they were written in a late-night, whiskey-fuelled stupor, the same way the film’s monster was constructed by the titular mad scientist drunk & his perpetually terrified consort.  I know I’m alone here, but my only complaint about this film is that it could’ve pushed its more  ridiculous territory even further from Mary Shelly’s original vision, with Victor planting wet kisses on Igor’s cheeks & Rocky Horror‘s “In just seven days, I can make you a man . . .” blaring on the soundtrack.

-Brandon Ledet