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Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare (2006)
Director: John R. Hand
   [no star rating]
review by Paul Higson

Advanced descriptions of a film that was both abstract horror feature and a surreal psychodrama got me all excited. The search for something different answered. Then one realised that there are contradictions. How on earth can an abstract horror work? How can a film be abstract and surreal at the same time? Someone is telling fibs or is disastrously confused. Listening to director John R. Hand's commentary for his first film Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare the confusion continues to reign, for here is a filmmaker with some degree of intelligence and an ability to talk up his craft but who is also quite delusional about his capabilities and the quality of the film he sets before us.

Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare (the absent apostrophe is apparently a deliberate mistake) is so bad as to be un-watchable. It is designed to try one's patience. Photographed on Super 8 Vistachrome 70, Hand enthuses about the grainy peculiarity, the timelessness of the images, of how special are the results, whereas all the viewer sees is obfuscation, distraction, bad photography, unimpressive processing and less than startling Filmbook effects. Hand has a super-inflated impression of himself and his stunted work. His building blocks are all the wrong shape; he models himself on the inept and aims to become those that he feigns no knowledge of, because to do so would be to further flag up his failure.

He contravenes the abstract form by inserting a plot. Not much of a plot, trivial, tardy and unimportant. So ratty a tale is it that I barely feel the need to relay it to you with anything more than a commatic review. In short, the insane Victor Karlstein conducts experiments on terminal patients under his charge, creating a monster to take up some of the murderous chores on his behalf, in search of a cure for his beloved. There are problems galore. The image sometimes goes out of focus and all you can do is look away from the screen or feel an idiot for exploring the haze. Starring in his own film as Karlstein, Hand is frequently shot deliberately off centre, the awkwardness intended to discombulate the viewer. In the absence of anything else happening it can only report itself to be a movie. Sounds abstract but you swim with the abstract, with this film you are drowning while someone pelts you with rocks. Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare is not so much a malfeasant project and more a shot by shot consistent series of misconceptions. Lest you think I am coming down hard on Hand, I strongly suspect he is revelling in the attention.

Inspiration comes in the form of Andy Milligan, Ray Dennis Steckler and Jesus Franco, taking their chaos and cheap camera tricks as a starting point and protracting them with experimentation that he believes to have originated from and with him. He makes no mention of the master revolutionaries of celluloid. There's thermograph footage for the sake of it. Still shots are attacked with bleach, the chemical reaction caught on video. His proclaimed puritanical intentions of working with film are abandoned when light or equipment fails him, and he virtually pees himself over discoveries that are obvious, results that do not look that good. Stan Brakhage, Marie Menken and Robert Breer get no mention. Brakhage dabbled in anatomical horror famously. Hand plays ignorant or is ignorant of the history of the underground horror film and neither conclusion is good enough.

Cue a potted history. German expressionism and experimental media inspired activity in America in time for the talkie. Robert Florey (later the director of Doctor Renault's Secret) was one of the busiest of experimental film practitioners in the 1920s, though it was Dr James Sibley Watson who in 1928 delivered the 16mm, 12-minute long The Fall Of The House Of Usher, while in the same year Jean Epstein made a 55-minute La Chute de la Maison in 35mm and 16mm. Poe's story was oddly popular amongst the underground crowd and Curtis Harrington would tackle the same title in 8mm in his youth, perhaps inspired by the silent experiments. Ken Russell's The Fall Of The Louse Of Usher continues the trend in attacking the theme in anything but a direct manner.

When the underground approached classic monster themes it was common to do so in parody as was the case in Ron Burkhardt's Lurk (1964-5), shot on 16mm and running 38 minutes and featuring the misadventures of a Frankenstein monster, or in later fare Nick Zedd's Geek Maggot Bingo (1982), and Eric Brummer's 8mm Debbie Does Damnation (1999), both of them feature-length rude comic transgressions. You have to look to Lynch and more recent feature film examples and short films to see anything coming close to the serious and successfully frightening. The British may earlier have had an answer to this in stronger and sinister in the orgiastic, ritualistic latter films of amateur filmmakers Enrico Collozza (in 1959 short Bongo Erotica) and the St John Deanes College collective (on the 1969 Listen to Me When I'm Talking to You).

Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare evokes the cheap video tomfoolery of the 1980s though at least Giovanni Arduino and Andrea Lioy's My Lovely Burnt Brother And His Squashed Head (like Schnass' Violent Shit, closer to abstract as a plot-less catalogue of horrors) never had any pretensions and took the gore route, which appeased the teenage simpletons at the very least. Hand seems more interested in the transcendental horror of George Barry's Death Bed than the transgressive nightmares of Tetsuo - The Iron Man. Death Bed was an ignoble failure that never stood a chance of putting the frighteners on anybody, though it has developed a cult following among those who continue to try to both understand it and their original compulsion to sit through it to the end. Embarrassingly, Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare reminds you more of the pathetic objectives of Cronenberg's Crimes Of The Future, as far up its own arse with even less to show for it.

The film is impossible on its own, but the accompanying commentary from Hand shows the creator as someone of reasonable intelligence with a sound knowledge of filmmaking, if ignorant of the original auteurs. A Fangoria kid, he marvels at the infamy of the inept that churned out one rotten film after another. He possibly envies them their time and the retrospective attention they all receive now no matter what their failing, observing the fate of the next wave of video horror filmmakers that no-one gives a fuck about (Twisted Issues, anyone?). He contradicts himself frequently. He wanted to keep the opening title deliberately short though it's questionable how he could have had it run longer. If he really wanted to keep it scant he could have simply put up the title written, edited, art direction and musical soundtrack by John R. Hand, instead of adopting a roster of pseudonyms (Donald Drake, Pierre Huet, Flint Davist and The Greys take those respective credits, all of them are Hand).

Hand's only talent is an innate ability to make everyone else look good. He purports to go with this failure, "beyond the commercial and financial markets of film" and address himself through pure expression. Yet here it is immediately available on a DVD label (Unearthed Films). His favourite word is 'experiential', but the only feeling that one comes away with is boredom. He repeatedly expounds on the organic process. Manure, one is reminded, is organic, but alone remains manure. The commentary also includes excuse upon excuse for when the experimentation or simple shooting does not work.

The commentary does bump the disc up into at least something resembling a level of interest. View this film only with the commentary and only view this film if you have to, dear reader, you could be the director's mother, there's your reason. Have you 12 more minutes to use up? Then go to the making of featurette, which includes Filmbook tests. Unearthed Films also throw in a block of trailers for other releases on the label. The titles hint of the angle adopted by the label, generally a noble intention to bring to wider public attention independent modern horror film with an experimental bent. None of the wham bang anything will do of the Shriek Collection or Scream House. There is no shortage of films. Budgets are tiny so if you cannot afford something big then at least try something different. It's a striking trailer reel but my introduction to the label has to be with their worst current release.

One trailer in particular stands out, a film that does appear to use new technology to truly nightmarish effect. Music, sound effects, and images that are imaginative, bold, horrific, unfathomably strange and disturbing is what we want and what the Russian filmmaker Andrey Iskanov has given people with his second feature Visions Of Suffering. Iskanov's film occupies the other worlds of Dreyer's Vampyr, and Lynch's Eraserhead, given a frightening and extreme new outlook. Visions Of Suffering is the kind of film we are lacking today. The trailer is beguiling. Mr Hand, on the other hand, don't call us, we'll call someone else.
Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare

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