Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has inspired scores – if not grosses – of adaptations. Stage, film, music, art – nearly every expressive genre has used Shelley’s work as an inspiration. Boris Karloff to Christopher Lee to David Prowse to De Niro have played the creature, and the story has inspired folks from Mel Brooks to Kenneth Branagh to Richard O’Brien to John Hughes.
And why not? She hit on a very tender nerve in the mind of the modern man – man who, by use of machine and industry and ingenuity have ceased merely utilizing what is in nature, but lashing the raw potential of nature into a higher-processed plane. Do we, as a society, go too far? Have we created ourselves as God, sitting above our station in nature and lashing it unjustly to our wills? Do we have the right?
Technology has marched on, and our fears over our own powers have evolved. In Shelley’s day, electric experiments were all the rage, and a frightful new frontier. These days, we wear novelty hats on holidays with LEDs obnoxiously blinking in fellow party-goer faces. So what do we fear now? Genetics. GMO foods and stem cell research are actual hot-button issues in our days, and so our horror tropes follow.
Closer To God is a film that follows in Shelley’s long tradition of man’s scientific hubris, the struggle between creator and creature, and reactionary populism against the march of civilization. Dr. Victor Frankenstein Reed (Jeremy Childs) is a genetic researcher whose life’s work is finally coming to fruition: Human Cloning. With the birth of Baby Elizabeth – built largely from his own DNA – humanity enters a new era, where genetic design is a viable alternative to the randomness of mating.
Dr. Reed’s efforts do not reach universal approval. Leaked information on the cloning project draws out protestors far and wide, citing everything from biblical law to ethical philosophy for reasoning why his project was miguided at best, blatantly evil at worst. Legal questions regarding if his research was criminal begin to put pressure on his team. Even his home life is harried by the stress of the public pressure and Dr. Reed’s obsessive work ethic in keeping control of his project.
Not all, however, is as simple as a struggle of Man vs. Society. A creeping terror reveals itself in the question of the nature of a cloned human being; are they even human? Do they lack for a soul? Does something fundamentally change in a created being versus a natural one? Something is off with the clone, and the terror of its true nature reveals with time.
As a film, Closer To God faces an uphill battle. With the nearly-endless list of previous Frankenstein inspired-works, and the gloriously endless supply of low-budget horror movies being produced every year, standing out in this niche is difficult. For me though, it did. For one, writer and director Billy Senese avoided the temptation to appear in the film, a common staple of budget horror. In doing so, there was not a single unnecessary narcissistic shirtless scene featuring the director.
Beyond this, however, it stands out for its overall restraint. Modern horror has all-too-often taken the cheapest route to a cheap base fight-or-flight scare. A few moments of tense silence or long-held string note, STRINGS, something pops up, jump scare! An easy scare, but unfulfilling. Jump scares are offering mints as an entree. On the other side of the spectrum, sweet sweet gore makes up for writing. Festoon the walls with entrails, flood the halls with blood, scatter the eyeballs like God’s own set of jacks – reactions may be of discomfort, but not true terror.
Closer To God takes an older route – and, daresay, a nobler one. The pace is slow, admittedly. Fully the first half of the film seems to be the setup. Flashbacks intersperse the well-placed tension in Dr. Reed’s home, as his family grows distant, and his friends anxious. Tension rises organically, as the viewer is able to intuit the growing tension through the cinematography, acting, and pacing.
The composition of the film is quite well-done. Mise-en-scene and shot positions are original and nuanced, forgoing entirely the familiar flat-angles that even the biggest blockbusters in Hollywood seem to forget these days. Lighting is gloomy, but naturalistic, never appearing dark despite being often so.
The third act brings the horror to bear, and does it well. The boiling tension snaps, and quickly things escalate faster than one might expect. The film isn’t afraid to misdirect, and the twists that come do so with a natural feel, free of contrivance. Nonetheless, it pulls no punches, and the horror sets up camp in your gut. The first two-thirds of the film are justified for delaying this gratification well. The pace is fast, and things go down fast and hard, but it feels earned after feeling bit after bit of unease growing.
And that’s where I have to give this film credit. Lesser movies would go cheap, blow their budget on gore and effects, and blow their time on cheap thrills. Closer To God understands how to make its audience wait and fill with anticipation until the anxiety is nearly unbearable, and release the torrential flow of its horror only when the audience is most wanting. Once primed, the audience gets everything it wants. Low-key, restrained, and most importantly, respectful of its audience.
Ultimately, does Closer to God break new ground? Does it shatter convention and redefine the Man vs. God vs. Man’s Creation struggle? Not really. Does it succeed in reconstructing the tired story of Frankenstein in an interesting way, leaving its viewers fulfilled? Absolutely. I was quite pleasantly surprised to find something so nicely done in the sea of abysmal fast-cutting effects-heavy schlock that infests nearly every cinema house on the globe today, and particularly one in a genre as venerable and, well, done as this one. Closer To God made the story relevant to the modern dialogue on scientific ethics, and did so in an intense, exciting, and enjoyable manner. For that I commend it, and recommend it.