Advertisement

Maryland Film Festival: The horrors! The horrors! The horrors! The horrors!

Every festival entry I saw on Friday was a horror film in one way or another.

Two of them were triumphs: Danny Boyle's rendering of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" for London's National Theatre, and Chad Freidrich's documentary "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth," about the notorious St. Louis public-housing project.

Advertisement

Boyle's "Frankenstein" came in the middle of my day, but I must write about it first, because I can't get it out of my head.

On Friday, the MFF showed the version with Jonny Lee Miller as Dr. Victor Frankenstein and Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature. (The two stars alternate lead roles.) Cumberbatch is magnificent as the Creature. The opening passage, the Creature's "birth," is a rocketing flight of imagination: one performer acting out the evolution of man -- or, it turns out, a cracked mirror-image of man. Boyle's production maintains that intensity for almost two hours.

Center Stage's new artistic director, Kwame Kwei-Arma, also a National Theatre board member, introduced the screening and led a Q & A afterward. He said he admired Nick Dear's adaptation for assuming audience knowledge of the plot mechanics and aiming for emotion rather than mere suspense.

Cumberbatch's Creature is both terrifying in his fury and heartbreaking in his isolation; the performer makes the Creature's need for love and companionship achingly palpable. The production also goes after many of Shelley's ideas with a vengeance, including, to borrow phrases from critic Michael Dirda's keen analysis of the book, "the conflict between instinctive goodness and the societal creation of the criminal" and the echoes of "Satan's fall from angel to devil and of Adam from paradise" in the Creature's plight. In this production, more than any other, Dr. Frankenstein and his creation are, as Dirda writes, "father and son, sexual rivals, spiritual brothers" who "finally realize how much they are halves of a single whole, each giving life to the other."

Boyle creates indelible imagery -- as lyrical as birds soaring from a hay rick or as ominous as a great chugging beast of a locomotive, filled with goggled workers out of "City of Lost Children." This "Frankenstein" is about a modern universe of lost children.

The National Theatre modified the stage production for the video camera smartly and instinctively. Including the theater audience in the picture at the start helped the movie-theater audience enter a hybrid experience without hesitation. This format both respected the integrity of the stage concepts and introduced overhead angles and close-ups to translate their force for the camera.

My day started inauspiciously with "Green," an intimate depiction of a relationship poisoned by jealousy. The very first scene was my favorite: an over-caffeinated Brooklyn high-culture argument about Philip Roth vs. Proust. But as soon as the urbanites played by Lawrence Michael Levine and Kate Lyn Sheil transplanted themselves to rural Virginia so he could blog about living off the earth, the movie started to lose its balance. And it toppled completely when director Sophia Takal showed up as a neighbor banging on the door for her spare keys. It reminded me, not in a good way, of that hilarious Gary Larson cartoon of a daycare center next to a dingo farm, captioned, "Trouble brewing."

I'm glad I stayed for the Q&A. Takal explained that she used an unsettling horror-film- like score because without it some viewers might decide that the antiheroine's onset of jealousy came on too abruptly. Takal thought she made the country sounds and images seem crisp and inviting, then murky and threatening as the pivotal character grew unhinged. But that score overwhelmed her good intentions. Filmmakers could benefit from boxing: Some very intelligent directors don't know when they telegraph a punch.At 5:30 p.m. I caught an engulfing real-life urban horror story: 'The Pruitt-Igoe Myth," a devastating documentary about the St. Louis high-rise public housing development that went from Great Urban Hope to international notoriety. Chad Freidrich's movie is superb. With amazingly evocative archival footage and tenacious reportage, Freidrich builds a sweeping yet detailed vision of a postwar American city riven by "white flight" and a collapsing job base.

Has anyone before Friedrichs made it dark-crystal-clear that there was never enough public money allocated for the upkeep of public housing? Freidrichs has crafted more than an infuriating expose of hopelessly compromised urban planning and institutionalized racism. This production, like Boyle's, has elements of Paradise Lost. The images of the brand-new Pruitt-Igoe buildings -- and the memories of former tenants who viewed them as havens before they went horribly lost - sting with an electric poignancy.

At 7:30 I happily entered the Charles' big theater for John Waters' annual presentation, and he and Patrick Chiha, the director of his pick, "Domaine," were charming in their introductory remarks. But the heads in front of me blocked the subtitles, even after I moved twice.

So I zipped across to one of the Charles' smaller theaters to see "Without." It was an apt bookend for a day that started with "Green" -- another tale of a woman going crazy in a remote area, this time in an island off the coast of Washington state. This film's antiheroine takes a job minding a silent, wheelchair-bound, helpless old man while his family goes off on vacation. I found the island locations bracing, but the main character abrasive and the psychological suspense basic. Actually, can a movie have psychological suspense if the pivotal character's psychology is all on the surface? I left at the halfway mark, but I knew I wasn't giving it a fair shake. I was still ticked off at "Green."

Advertisement
Advertisement