Saturday 5 July 2014

The Prometheus Project (2010)

Director: Sean Tretta
Stars: Tiffany Shepis, Louis Mandylor, Scott Anthony Leet, Patti Tindall, Jonathan Northover, Sebastian Kunnappilly, Noah Todd, Joe Ricci, Zena Otsuka and Ed Lauter
I'm asking major filmmakers to pick two movies from their careers for me to review here at Apocalypse Later. Here's an index to the titles they chose.
My previous review at Apocalypse Later was of the first of the 52 Films in 52 Weeks that Travis Mills and Running Wild Films made during 2013. That was a major challenge that they both set and met and I felt I should follow in that spirit by reviewing them all over a similar period, starting this July: a 52 Films in 52 Weeks in 52 Reviews project. When I decided to do that, I strongly felt that I should accompany it with a similar project, to review 52 other films, all local Arizona features not made by Running Wild, within the same 52 week period. The Prometheus Project was the obvious choice to kick it off, because it comprises the second half of yet another project I'm kicking into high gear, the Make It a Double project to review pairs of films selected by major names in the industry from their respective filmographies. Tiffany Shepis was the first person I asked to participate, back at Phoenix FearCon V in 2012; I've already reviewed her first choice, The Hazing, but for some reason hadn't got round to following up with her second, this film.

What's more, I was very happy that she chose it because it's not only a Tiffany Shepis picture, it's also a Hal Astell picture. Well, sort of. I'm hardly a featured player, but if you pay close attention indeed (and to do so, you'll need to pause and frame advance carefully), you might just catch a glimpse of my left arm banging on the metal in an underground cage fight scene. No I wasn't fighting; this was my first film as an extra and seeing my name in the credits at the Phoenix Film Festival was a special moment indeed. At that time, the picture was known as The Prometheus Project, an appropriate title for various reasons, not least its roots in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus and the mythical Greek character of the title, a Titan who stole fire from the gods to benefit mankind. Fearing that nobody abroad would know who Prometheus was, the picture's distributor changed that title to The Frankenstein Syndrome, only to promptly change it back again after the prominent international release of Ridley Scott's Prometheus.

Beyond causing needless confusion, it's a shame that they fought the original title because it highlights a whole new level for Sean Tretta, who wrote, directed, produced and edited. Known for three prior pictures, this was a notable step forward on every front: the cast, the budget, the ambition. Yes, The Death Factory Bloodletting is a notable guilty pleasure of mine but, let's face it, it wasn't a great movie and it never had any delusions about that. This one aches to be a great movie and the stars aligned to make that possible. I'd have to say that it fails in its quest for greatness, but it's still a notable success. It's written well, with a host of telling homages to Mary Shelley's novel and a lot more complexity than is usual for a Frankenstein movie. It's talky but never slow and it builds steadily to a powerful finalé. There are negatives too, but I'll get to those soon enough. The point here is that the film aimed a great deal higher than anything Tretta had attempted previously and it achieved a good deal of what it aimed for.
Those homages arrive early, after a brief flashback to Shepis's character, dressed in scrubs and running around a hospital which appears mostly deserted except for blood, corpses and whoever is chasing her. She's Dr Elizabeth Barnes and she survives the night but, when the FBI come to interview her two years later, she's confined to a wheelchair and hiding her disfigured features behind a mask. Agents Godwin and Wollestonecraft want to know about her work for Dr Walton and all three names are clearly sourced from Frankenstein or its author, as is the concept of framing the story around her deposition, a modern equivalent to the letters that so often framed Gothic novels like Shelley's. Shane Dean's clipped speech works really well here as an FBI interrogator, light years away from the neo-Nazi he played in The Death Factory Bloodletting for Tretta a mere two years earlier. So, alongside the FBI, we begin to peel away the layers to find out where this story is going to take us.

It starts with Walton, a doctor with a special interest in his work because he's also suffering from cancer. He's set up a research effort called the Prometheus Project because he sees a parallel between the gift of fire and his attempts to develop a regenerative healing serum. He sees both as the power of God, surely a giveaway as to where it's inevitably going to go horribly wrong. Barnes, a stem cell researcher with a degree in molecular biology, is only one of the talented young things recruited to take part and Walton's ability to headhunt the best and brightest is mirrored by the fact that Walton is played by Ed Lauter, not a name from the level Tretta could hire from previously. Another giveaway that this is a horror/sci-fi movie rather than a straight drama is that the first people she meets are security and the first things she hears are rules to ensure the secrecy of the project. Don't ask any questions. Don't go into the basement. Don't leave the building. Talk about a horror movie checklist!

The other people locked in with the horrors which will come are a varied lot. The lead surgeon is William McKennin, played by Jonathan Northover, who I recognise from Jaz Garewal shorts like Present Tense. He's politely British and welcoming. Dr Neeraj Sahir is also welcoming, indeed enthusiastic about working with Barnes. Sebastian Kunnappilly was Shepis's client in the wonderful M is for Matchmaker, a finalist in the ABC's of Death 2 competition and the only film Tretta has directed since this. Ira Gordon is the late Noah Todd, playing a data systems expert with a jokey sense of humour that he couldn't use as the religious freak in The Death Factory Bloodletting. He died the same year this film was released and it's dedicated to him. That leaves Patti Tindall, the lead in Tretta's Death of a Ghost Hunter, as Dr Victoria Travelle, who interned with Walton out of college and is jealous of anyone else's potential. We know immediately that she and the newcomer are going to clash hard. 'Competition is the mother of invention,' explains Walton.
Backing them up are a couple of other names from out of state. Prolific Aussie actor Louis Mandylor plays Marcus Grone, Walton's right hand man and one of only two people with access to the basement; Travelle is the other, of course. With a string of credits as long as my arm, he's a lot more recognisable than Scott Anthony Leet to me, but many would know the latter from his previous career as a punter in the NFL, with stints at both the St Louis Rams and the Dallas Cowboys. He's David Doyle, the huge Irish security guard who was fighting in the cage that I got to rattle in my extra scene. He's a very believable tough guy, even when not acting. While I sat back and read a book while waiting for the next take in which I was needed, he kept doing apparently effortless pressups to keep a sweat on throughout. For at least four hours. Given how hard he worked to make this film, it's appropriate that he ends up dominating it, as you might expect from his patched up prominence on the posters.

That's not bad for someone who's shot dead with a head shot half an hour into the movie, but then every Frankenstein story needs its monster, right? Well, the Barnes vs Travelle rivalry has led to breakthroughs, although their first attempt at reanimating a recently deceased human being went violently wrong. Doyle becomes their second subject and things go a lot better. 'We need to be prepared for anything,' suggests Travelle, but she undestimates the case substantially and we have our story. Leet is a big guy at 6'2" but he seems even bigger as he enforces his presence during the second half of the film. He towers over the rest of the cast, not only through size (Shepis is only 5'3") but also through sheer force of will. It's odd at this point to ponder that Shepis is the lead in this film, even with Tindall as the Dr Frankenstein character and Leet as her monster. She's the narrator, outlining all this to the FBI interrogators, but she's also the film's conscience, meditating on the film's tagline, that 'the end justifies the means.'

What's most interesting about Shepis here is that she doesn't play the character we expect. She's playing the lead in a film directed by her husband but, beyond the discovery of a conscience, she doesn't grow as a character much at all. The opening scene shows her in the element in which we know her best, running away from something, as much as she doesn't scream the way we know she can. As it's a flashback, we'll see her back there, but she doesn't spend the majority of the film doing that and she's very strong in this uncharacteristic role. It shows how much she's an actor not just a scream queen. Tindall shines too, in the role of a bitch with hidden depths. Travelle is the most clinical character in the picture, the epitome of the dedicated scientist who walks over everyone and everything in her path in the name of saving them. Yet she's also the most overtly caring character, becoming a surrogate mother to the resurrected Doyle. The two women are constantly at odds, underpinned by the actors playing off each other wonderfully.

Compared to these two doctors and their subject, the rest of the cast struggle to make themselves seen. Each gets their moment in the spotlight, as does David C Hayes as a grinning weasel of a lawyer, but the moments don't last and each of them leaves the movie for long periods at a time. Lauter is used sparsely while Mandylor gets plenty of opportunity but is stuck with the most transparent character. Todd only gets one real scene of substance, as do Kunnappilly and Hayes. Northover is the only one given the chance to play with the leads but, while he does good work, he's overshadowed throughout. The story was always about Tindall and Leet, with Shepis playing most of the real roles around them: she's the hero and the victim, the human element but the first to really play God, the narrator and chronicler of events. Most of all, she's the conscience in a moral story heavily inspired by Shelley but well adapted to the modern day. Through Dr Elizabeth Barnes, she shows us that things really haven't changed that much since 1818.

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